Last updated: 03:30 PM ET, Mon July 27 2015

The Fascinating History of Gay Resort Towns

Features & Advice | Jay Deratany | July 27, 2015

The Fascinating History of Gay Resort Towns

PHOTO: Fire Island, New York, has long been recognized as one of the most popular gay vacation spots in the world. (Courtesy of Thinkstock)

These days there seems to be gay everything – gay cruises, gay television channels, gay magazines, gay festivals, and the list goes on.

But, as you well know, it wasn’t always this way… not by a long shot.

For the vast majority of recorded history, being gay was, at best, something to be hidden. At worst, it was grounds for being abused, fired and even arrested. So anyone who identified as anything other than heterosexual had to tap into secret underground communities just to have a brief opportunity to let their guard down and embrace who they really were.

This slowly changed over time and, little by little, gay culture was able to come out of the dark closets and basements it was hidden away in for so many years. And it’s still an ongoing process today.

Although the last couple of decades have been instrumental for gay culture and civil rights, there was another period in history that was unique for the LGBT community.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a quiet movement was born. Several towns all over the country began attracting gay vacationers who sought not only a respite from workaday life, but from the pressures of pretending. Of course these towns didn’t publicly label themselves as such, but the word got out and it was known that there were certain places you could go to enjoy social acceptance along with a little fun in the sun.

Fire Island, New York

Now known as one of the most popular gay vacation spots in the world, Fire Island is considered by many to be a very special place. It was one of the first and most well-known sanctuaries from a society that was hostile to homosexuals. And while society might not be quite as hostile as it was when the gay resort communities of Fire Island were founded more than 60 years ago, it still serves as a cultural and recreational epicenter for the LGBT community.

Starting as early as the late 1940s, the barrier island just 60 miles from Manhattan started attracting influential gay artists and businessmen. Though it was conveniently close to NYC, it was isolated enough that the police tended to look the other way a lot more often than they would on the mainland. In addition to its isolation, the financial struggle of rental property owners helped make Fire Island what it is today – the combination of The Great Depression, WWII and a major hurricane made landlords more lenient about accepting paying tenants, regardless of their sexuality.

What resulted was a thriving haven that served as the only safe place for many gay men. In an interview with The Blaze, 80-year-old Jack Dowling, who lives on the island and started visiting when he was just a teenager in the 50s, talked about the metamorphosis that would occur on the ferry ride over: “…personalities changed. The uptightness just began to fall off. You would see men start to chat with each other and laugh and smile.” The same is true today as the island is still a popular destination because of its rich history, natural beauty and happening party scene.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Now, officially, the gayest city in America (due to the number of registered same-sex couples), this charming town on the very tip of Cape Code was not always a rainbow-covered haven of acceptance. One of the first things the town was known for was its sizeable artist population. As artist communities have always been among the first to openly accept “alternative lifestyles,” it’s no surprise that the creative community in P-Town welcomed gay visitors here with open arms.

The artist colony and theatre scene flourished and gave rise to drag queen shows as early as the 40s. And even before that, the town had its very own gay bar – the Atlantic House is thought to be the oldest gay bar in America. It was established in 1798 and became openly gay-friendly in the 50s, but was known to be a safe haven as far back as the early 1900s.

These days, P-Town is a popular vacation destination for all, but it continues to stay very true to its roots as one of the first gay resort towns in the country. One interesting thing to note is that Provincetown is where the pilgrims on the Mayflower first landed, which makes the fact that it’s now a beacon of acceptance and freedom even more emblematic.

Saugatuck-Douglas, Michigan

As with most progressive changes in the country, the East Coast was slightly ahead of the more conservative Midwest when it came to providing places of refuge for gay vacationers. But there were just as many closeted gay people hungry for opportunities to be themselves in Middle America as there were in New York and Boston. So although we may not think of small town Michigan as an open-minded mecca, one small town became just that for Midwesterners.

The sister villages of Saugatuck and Douglas in Southwest Michigan have a similar history as Provincetown. When a couple of artists from the Art Institute of Chicago opened an artists’ colony here in 1910, the area took a decidedly liberal turn and began attracting an eccentric crowd that made gay visitors feel welcome. By the 1920s, several prominent gay artists had started spending summers here.

In the 1960s and 70s, Saugatuck was home to Blue Tempo House of Music, a bar that was unique for the fact that it served openly gay patrons, which was a violation of state liquor laws of the time. Saugatuck-Douglas is still as gay-friendly and artistic as it was then, only now businesses are proud to post rainbow flags and boast the fact that they are owned, operated and frequented by people who are gay, lesbian, queer, trans and everything in between.  

This was an in-depth look into three of the most prominent and interesting historically gay resort towns in America. What is perhaps most fascinating is that there are many more, all with similar histories.

While the country, in general, was not kind to anyone who openly identified as gay, there were at least some places where people could go to relax and have fun without keeping up the tiresome façade of heterosexuality. These places provided, for many, the occasional chance to be authentic before returning to a society that had yet to catch up with reality. 

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