In the autumn of 1968, close to two dozen gay men were acquitted of consensual sodomy charges in a series of criminal trials on Long Island. The trials and acquittals marked a pivotal moment in what eventually became the gay rights movement. They demonstrated to the larger gay community — then mainly closeted — that gay people could band together to resist police harassment.
The trials took place the year before what came to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion — violent clashes between New York activists and the police in the summer of 1969. Stonewall is often seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
Cherry Grove is and was an important gay community on Fire Island, which lies off the southern shore of New York’s Long Island. It was an annual summer ritual for police from Suffolk County, Long Island, to stage raids in Cherry Grove, rounding up gay men engaging in public sex.
“Every year there was this tradition of raiding the gay communities of Fire Island and arresting 25, 30, up to 40 fellas, and charging them with sodomy and other crimes,” said Karl Grossman, who took a job at a daily newspaper called the Long Island Press in 1964.
“They came in police boats and stormed the beach with their flashlights in the middle of the night. They took the shackled suspects back to the boats and transported them to the mainland [Long Island],” Grossman remembered.
Although the police raids on Fire Island started in 1953, they intensified in 1964, the same year Fire Island was designated a National Seashore. At the time, Grossman covered crime and the courts. He’d get a call from the cops every summer and said the police were eager to feed him personal details about the gay men they had arrested in Cherry Grove.
“Not only was I given the names and the addresses, but also where they worked,” recalled Grossman, now a journalism professor at the State University of New York, Old Westbury. “The cops very much wanted me to mention that one of them worked at this bank or one of them worked at this library. I mean, clearly, the cops were after the jobs of these men.”
It may be hard to fathom today but, back in the 1960s, being outed could cost gay men and lesbians their jobs.
A double life
“This is what we lived with back then. There was this commandment: You Have to Hide. And gay people lived a double life,” said Esther Newton, a retired anthropology professor who wrote a history of Cherry Grove. She also wrote a memoir titled My Butch Career which detailed her early academic years when she felt it was imperative to remain closeted.
Newton is one of the few anthropologists who have focused exclusively on gender and gay culture. Her book, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town, chronicles Cherry Grove’s growth from the 1920s on. It includes coverage in Long Island newspapers that referred to the half-mile wooded area where men congregated to have sex outdoors as a ‘nocturnal hell-hole’ and a ‘sex cesspool.’
“There was a lot of newspaper coverage about how they were taking over and bitterness towards straight landlords who were renting to ‘those pansies,’” said Newtown.
The wooded area where gay men had sex was known colloquially as ‘the Meatrack.’ Some men referred to it simply as ‘the Rack.’
“You weren’t allowed to bring any lights,” Newton said. “This was a strictly anonymous kind of thing and similar to what was going on in the gay baths. It kept growing, it was really popular. There were hundreds and maybe even thousands of men who went there. People described it to me as a very, very positive experience. They loved it.”
Lesbians, Newton said, were under the distinct impression that they were not welcome in the area after dark. She said the most controversial aspect of the outdoor sex was that it sometimes took place on the boardwalks, outside people’s houses.
“A lot of the old-timers and a lot of the lesbians really didn’t like that,” said Newton. “I remember when I was there in the 1980s I didn’t like that.”
NPR was unable to locate any of the men arrested and put on trial a half-century ago. Suffolk County courts were not able to locate the files for their cases due to the county’s document retention policies. NPR contacted William Underwood, a retired judge who presided over prosecutions of gay men arrested on Fire Island, and Howard Berler, a retired Suffolk County prosecutor who tried some of those cases, but both men said they didn’t remember the trials.
Author Esther Newton recorded an interview with one gay man who was arrested in the Meatrack for her book on Cherry Grove. That man, Nat Fowler, is now deceased.
“After the bars would close, everybody was just going into the bushes,” Fowler told Newton. “In spite of the fact that we might be caught, we would still go down to ‘the rack.’ We were scared but we still would go.”
In the recent documentary, Cherry Grove Stories, a retired lawyer named George Cabell recounted how he managed to avoid getting caught during a police raid of the Meatrack.
“I was out in the rack and all of a sudden headlights just went on,” Cabell told the film’s director, Michael Fisher. “I knew it was a raid. And I could just see my career going up in smoke if I got caught. So I headed for the bay, sat down in the muck and mud of the bay until the sun came up. I did not get arrested!”
The Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, played a key role in organizing efforts to stop the police raids on Cherry Grove. The late Dick Leitsch, who served as president of the organization, told Esther Newton that some Cherry Grove regulars rebuffed him and other Mattachine volunteers who distributed flyers advising gay men not to plead guilty if they got arrested in the Meatrack.
“We went out there with thousands of flyers and handed them out on the walks and the queens got so hostile,” Leitsch recalled. “‘What are you doing? Don’t you dare do this, you’re creating waves. Don’t cause trouble.'”
But others were eager to help counter the raids and aid the men who were arrested. The Pokorny family, which operated one of the ferry services that shuttled visitors from Long Island to Fire Island, provided cash for bail.
“They were very generous,” said Bob Levine, a long-time Cherry Grove summer resident. “They bailed out a lot of people. They were the people who had the money right at the moment. If you needed a thousand dollars right away, you could call them and they would bail people out.”
Michael Fisher, director of the Cherry Grove Stories documentary, said the owner of the Belvedere Hotel in Cherry Grove installed a special light, “and when he heard that the cops were coming, he flicked this light on so all the guys in the Meatrack would know the Meatrack was about to be raided.”
Arrests, trials and verdicts
In late August, 1968, police arrested 27 men in Cherry Grove. A few pleaded guilty to consensual sodomy and payed a fine of $250. But 22 men fought the charges in court.
Benedict Vuturo, a prominent Long Island criminal defense lawyer, was retained by the Mattachine Society. In the fall of 1968 Benny Vuturo, as he was known, demanded jury trials for all of the gay men he was defending.
“Benny said there’s terrible crimes on the mainland of Long Island, murders and rapes, and here the cops go and they beat the bushes and try to find these gay fellas who are not harming anyone,” said reporter Karl Grossman, who covered some of the trials for the Long Island Press.
“The juries, one after another, concurred, and they found the defendants not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. And that was the end of the police raids on Fire Island. To me, it really was a testament to the common sense of eastern Long Island residents who served on those juries, and to the jury system.”
Vuturo was hoping to lose one of the trials so he could challenge New York’s sodomy law but he won every case.
The state’s sodomy law was overturned in 1980, 12 years after the Fire Island trials. Vuturo went on to become a judge in Suffolk County and died in 1991.