Americans across the country have many traditions when it comes to celebrating Independence Day. But it’s possible that none are as distinctive as Cherry Grove’s. Every year on July 4, residents and visitors from the Fire Island hamlet and historically LGBTQ beach town commemorate the holiday by dressing up in drag and catching a ferry over to the neighboring hamlet, Fire Island Pines, which they “invade,” taking over the harbor to the delight of the crowds and nabbing some free cocktails along the way.

Downtown Cherry Grove during the Invasion, 1987 (Photographer: Susan Kravitz, CGAC, Gift of the photographer)

Cherry Grove is the subject of New-York Historical’s current outdoor exhibition Safe/Haven, a look back at gay life during the 1950s through evocative photographs from the Cherry Grove Archives Collection of the people who summered on this narrow barrier island off the south shore of Long Island during the years before the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. A small part of the exhibition is devoted to the subsequent years, including the bicentennial summer of 1976, when a group of drag queens from Cherry Grove rented a water taxi, motored over to the Pines, and unwittingly launched one of Fire Island’s favorite annual parties, the Invasion of the Pines.

Queen Juanita at the Invasion, 1980s (Cherry Grove Archives Collection)

If that all sounds like campy fun—well, it is. But there was actually a serious protest at the heart of this pomp. As the story goes, one night in the late spring of 1976, a Cherry Grove resident named Teri Warren went over to the Blue Whale, a restaurant in the Pines—an upscale, conservative community with a mixed gay and straight population—and was refused service because Teri was dressed in drag. Word spread of the offensive treatment Teri received and led to a growing anger on the part of some Grove residents. When the 4th of July rolled around, they decided to strike back—somewhat playfully—with a drag invasion led by Panzi (a.k.a. Thom Hansen) a local celebrity who’d been named Homecoming Queen of Cherry Grove that summer. When their water taxi entered the Pines’ harbor, the captain sounded his horn and the gathering crowd roared. After some initial confusion, the Grove queens disembarked and accepted some complementary libations while Panzi blessed the harbor from the balcony of the nearby hotel before they headed back to the Grove. A new annual tradition was born.

These days, the Cherry Grove invaders use the Sayeville Ferry to accommodate their numbers, which have been known to swell to over 400 people cross-dressed for the occasion. In 2016, Hansen gave a video interview to an LGBTQ archive recounting the very first Invasion on that hot, boozy summer day. And while he described it as a day of celebration, he made sure to remind people what really inspired them to don their wigs and tiaras. “It was discrimination against the transgender community in 1976,” he said. “It existed and it was horrible, and that’s what started the Invasion. So we remember where we come from, we remember where we are, and we celebrate who we are. The Invasion is just a day of celebration and joy now.”

Check out New-York Historical’s exhibition Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove now. And pick up a copy of curator Susan Kravitz’s photography book documenting 30 years of the Invasion, Mascara, Mirth, and Mayhem: Independence Day on Fire Island, from the NYHistory Store. Also: watch curator Parker Sargent’s documentary about the event called The Panzi Invasion.

Top image: Cherry Grove drag queens invading the Pines in 2001 (Photo: Jon Morrow, director of Invasion of the Pines)

Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor