By Robert Sherman
People around every corner
Seem to smile and say,
“We don’t care what your name is, boy,
We’ll never turn you away.”
So I’ll continue to say,
“Here I always will stay.
So ferry, cross the Mersey,
‘Cause this land’s the place I love,
And here I’ll stay.”
Ferry, Cross the Mersey – Gerard Marsden
July 4, Every Year:
When the nice lady with the guest list checks off my name and hands me my hot pink wristband, my ensemble feels complete. I am now officially invited onto “The Queens’ Boat” to document the hundreds of drag queens —and some drag kings, too— on their epic journey from Cherry Grove to Fire Island Pines for the annual “Invasion of The Pines.” This is my favorite photo assignment of the year.
The elite group of participants embarks annually on this rite of passage, originally inspired by the historic and ongoing struggle for LGBTQ equal rights in all our daily lives. I am mesmerized by the complete transformations realized in their elaborate outfits and makeup. They embody a heroic freedom of expression so totally and so exquisitely as to catch me up in the adventure. It’s as if by the filters of their costumes they themselves become unfiltered in an infinitely admirable, and even enviable celebration of self. And I am swept up in it all with my hot pink wristband, a little mascara, and some fire engine red nail polish on my camera hand. On this day they are following the blazed trails of their forefathers and foremothers from Stonewall toward their own independence, and I feel privileged to go along for the ride.
The events of the day move fluidly from the wild preparations and pre-party in Cherry Grove to the voguing sneak-peek parade from the Ice Palace down to the jam-packed ferry dock. There, we board The Queens’ Boat that brings us to the neighboring township of The Pines where a grand entrance will be made for the glorious main event that follows.
The Red Carpet Fashion Gala and its thousands of spectators is an exuberant festival the likes of which could only happen here and on this day. This is where the body of my photographic work is to take place.
The Invasion of The Pines caps off June’s Gay Pride Month. Here, on The Fourth of July, it has been celebrated every year since 1976. As ‘pomp and circumstance’ at its technicolor best, this event continues to grow; in size, importance, and impact. It’s all made possible by the hard work and true dedication of Panzi (aka Thom Hansen), the Mistress of Ceremony, who continues tirelessly to organize these larger-than-life festivities year after year.
On deck everyone is abuzz. The Homecoming Queen, the annually elected, sits at the bow of the ferry surrounded by her devoted courtiers. The chattering groups of friends in their intoxicating enthrallment of unfettered freedom fill the rest of the boat to capacity. My head spins with the high-keyed sunlight bouncing off all the colors of the rainbow.
Meanwhile, below deck is all about simmering down. Some wigs are taken off and makeup is repaired. Quiet moments of meditation and reflection are indulged as the performers catch their breath in the cool shade of the cabin. I feel the restrained nervousness and excitement as we prepare for the explosive exit when we get to The Pines. I’m running up and down the stairs in my attempt to photograph the full spectrum of this uniquely redefined day of independence.
I have to step off the boat first to claim my vantage point and ready my camera for the show. The immense crowd of drag queens clears a path for me through the frenzy as they take their own positions for the exit-order down the ramp and onto center stage.
Panzi herself is the emcee for the show, heralding in each performer with her elegance, wit, and charm. The entire event is backed by an incredible sound system with an absolutely fabulous song list. My camera and I are simply having a blast. As one lesbian reveler on the morning water taxi over to The Grove said to me with uncontrollable glee, “It’s like Gay Christmas in July!”
But I must concentrate extra hard in order to capture each and every drag queen in full performance mode as they exit one at a time to make their own personal statements of glory, pride, and beauty.
After the performers have all dissolved into the crowd and the gala comes to a close, the parties continue deep into the night… or so I hear.
As for me, I take a water taxi back to my Seaview home to start editing the photos for the paper’s deadline. The exhilaration of the performers shines through all the red carpet photos. But as it turns out, the images that move me the most are the more intimate ones I found below deck. For all the big noise and utter joy of festivity above, it is the individuals in their gentler, more introspective, more personal moments that completely melt my heart and my lens.
I keep my hot pink wristband on for as long as possible, knowing that once I take it off all that magic will vanish until next year.
And so the day marks a ritual of great fun, and even greater importance. It is, after all, and for everyone, Independence Day.
Share this Article