Looking up as if he’d half heard the only interesting part of the conversation I was having with his friend, a handsome—and barely dressed—twentysomething interjected with a slight slur: “Ted Cruz? Wasn’t he in Mission Impossible?”
No, that was Tom Cruise.
The Ted Cruz I was referring to is the U.S. senator from Texas who is hoping to snag a 2016 GOP presidential nomination. He’s also anti-gay, which is why I had brought him up in the first place.
I was spending my Memorial Day weekend like many of my fellow gay brethren, basking in the sun and sipping cocktails in the Pines on Fire Island. It’s been an ocean-side mecca for the LGBT community for decades.
And this year, there were rumors that its businesses, primarily bars, would be boycotted because of their proprietor's recent controversial hosting of Cruz, which has already led him to abjectly apologize to his predominantly gay clientele.
Located on a barrier island some 90 minutes from Manhattan, boatloads (literally, you have to take a ferry as there are no cars allowed) of buff, perfectly groomed gay men spend their summer weekends there.
But—with the threat of the boycott—would this Memorial Day weekend, the official start of “the season,” be different? Would there be pickets outside the bars? Would the muscle-boys find activism trumped vodka tonics?
The controversy began on April 20, when Cruz was hosted for a dinner and “fireside chat” at the Central Park South home of two of Manhattan’s most prominent gay hoteliers—Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass.
According to The New York Times, it was intended to be a night of discussing foreign policy, “including a discussion of gay rights in Israel versus the rest of the Middle East, and opposition to President Obama.”
Still, there was an immediate backlash within the LGBT community.
Reisner and Weiderpass’ names were slammed across almost every media outlet save Fox News. And a boycott was called against the duo’s properties—The Out, one of Manhattan’s largest LGBT hotels, and an adjacent mega-nightclub and restaurant.
“I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days,” Reisner said in a statement posted to Facebook. “I've spent the past 24 hours reviewing videos of Cruz’ statements on gay marriage and I am shocked and angry. I sincerely apologize for hurting the gay community and so many of our friends, family, allies, customers and employees. I will try my best to make up for my poor judgment.”
There was also a call to boycott Reisner’s recently acquired Fire Island property.
Just weeks before the holiday weekend, a Facebook group calling to “Boycott Fire Island Pines Establishments & Out NYC Hotel” had gathered over 11,000 likes.
Reisner’s property—a hotel, restaurants, retail space, and multiple nightclubs—which he co-owns with P.J. McAteer, makes up some 80% of the area’s commercial district. (Despite many attempts by this reporter, Reisner could not be reached for comment.)
The boycott holds a precarious position: While many in New York City were eager to jump to action after the Cruz news broke, the Pines area that Reisner holds a financial stronghold in is the only place for the thousands of gay men who own or rent properties to dine out, shop and socialize during the summer vacation to the Pines.
There is nowhere else to drink and party in. How would the boycott work? Would the boycott work? No one knew what would actually happen.
“We’ve had meeting after meeting on what to expect and how their actions are going to affect the small businesses on the island,” one member of the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association (FIPPOA) who asked to remain anonymous told The Daily Beast. “But the truth is, by boycotting the Pines you’re hurting more than the source. There are people who rent out commercial space in that area and that’s income for a lot of people.”
And, this Memorial Day weekend, by the look of the Pines during peak social hours—what is referred to as “Tea” at various establishments under Reisner’s investment umbrella: The Blue Whale (Low Tea), Pavillion Night Club (Middle Tea) and Sip ‘n’ Twirl (High Tea)—mostly no one seemed to care, or even know, about the boycott.
“It’s been business as usual,” McAteer told The Daily Beast. “Our hands have been full opening up all the venues and, as you’ve seen, cleaning up and reprograming; trying to do things a little different and better than they’ve done in previous years,” adding that they will be opening a gym and spa in the coming month.
Other business owners in the area agreed.
“We were curious, but we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Eric Chrader, the co-owner of Pines Pantry, the area’s only food market, told The Daily Beast. His building sits adjacent to Reisner and McAteer’s. It was “just another Memorial Day weekend.”
No external groups have pulled events from the venues, as Broadway Cares, one of the nation’s leading HIV/AIDS fundraising organizations, did earlier this year at the OUT Hotel.
But there are some who are willing to take a stance.
“I think the boycott is a good idea because the gay community, although it has seen a lot of recent advances in the support of marriage equality, is still under attack by right-wingers and people who spew hatred and bigotry to promote anti-gay laws,” Cory Epstein, a 24-year-old professional in New York City, told The Daily Beast. “And by a successful and powerful gay man hosting someone like Ted Cruz, who falls within those categories, it’s a symbolic statement for gay people that these issues no longer exist.”
Epstein, who spent his Memorial Day weekend visiting the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx and exploring new areas of the city, stands firm that Reisner’s decision to host Cruz will deter him from visiting the Pines in the future.
On Fire Island, Aiden, who works in human resources, told The Daily Beast, “Normally, this place would be packed to the point that no one could move—especially on a holiday weekend. But I have noticed gaps where there normally aren’t. And the businesses seem to be less crowded than I remember from previous trips.”
Whether or not this could be blamed on a boycott, or temperatures that hovered in the 50s, is unknown.
Whatever, Reisner has promised to donate $20,000 to the FIPPOA and all of profits from his Pines investment to various LGBTI charities.
This weekend, I saw no protests, placards, or pamphlets. For now it seems the Fire Island boycott has decidedly fizzled—whether it emerges as the summer continues remains to be seen.
Stephen, the 28-year-old advertising guy who mistook Ted Cruz for Tom Cruise, told The Daily Beast, “It’s easy to say you’re going to boycott the Pines because of what they did, but these are the only options we have here and this is where we all gather at the end of the day to socialize. Sure, if there were other places to go maybe it would be different, but that’s just not the case.”