Every summer weekend, a contingent of New York’s gay society escapes to Fire Island Pines, the small vacation community perched off the coast of Sayville, Long Island. The Pines has long held a special place in the American gay imagination—a resort where pretty and rich gay men go to relax, party, and get it on amid beautiful houses and pristine sand dunes. The community, and its more woman-friendly neighbor, Cherry Grove, have survived the AIDS epidemic, recessions, and, most recently, a fire that destroyed the Pines’ legendary nightclub. But now residents are worrying about a new menace, one that announces itself with a distinctive electronic chime.
“Grindr has changed everything,” says Keith Shore, a buff 38-year-old hairdresser and long-term Pines summer resident. He does not mean for the better, and he’s far from the only one to make the complaint. Critics say the popularity of the gay hookup app is ruining the island’s unique and delicate social ecology.
Log in to Grindr on Fire Island, as you would anywhere else, and you’ll see a grid of 100 smiling faces and headless muscled torsos, a catalogue of men accessible from the comfort of your summer share’s living room. (Although cell-phone service on the island can be spotty, most houses are equipped with Wi-Fi.) The app has been called a “virtual bathhouse” and been pegged by some as a reason for the decline of the gay bar, but in a place like Fire Island, it may be especially destructive. Aside from the beach, a large part of the attraction of the Pines scene is the opportunity to rub shoulders, and maybe sleep, with attractive and powerful gay men. “Not long ago, you’d walk around here and everybody would be cruising each other, not anonymously, but face to face,” said Sal Occhipinti, a tanned 43-year-old, at a recent afternoon “high tea” dance party in the Pines harbor. A few feet away, on the largely empty patio of the Blue Whale, a group of three men were busily typing on their devices next to the bar. According to Occhipinti, even the Meat Rack, the notoriously cruisy wooded area between the Pines and Cherry Grove, has been taken over by glowing iPhone screens.
As Occhipinti and others see it, Grindr is an intrusion of digital artifice into what was once an analog gay Utopia—a place free from traffic, straight people, and, to a large extent, technology, where you could meet other men with a freedom and spontaneity that were impossible almost anywhere else. Grindr, with its easy-to-use interface, robs that experience of its risk, but also much of its thrill. For Javier Muñiz, a first-time visitor from Florida, it makes him wonder whether the Pines may one day become irrelevant. “What’s the point?” he asked, before wandering off to check out the Blue Whale, “if everybody is on Grindr?” This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.