Friday, June 25, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Riis Park, a.k.a, “Screech Beach.”

Perry Brass and his sister Nancy at Riis Park, early 70s. 

My first summer in my new apartment in the East Village, 1967, I learned how to get to Riis Park, the gay beach in New York, known affectionately as “Screech Beach.” At that point, there were three places to go by the water in New York and be queer: Fire Island, difficult to get to; the Hampton, extremely snot-nosy and not yet invaded by share-houses; and "Screech." Riis was a small slice of the Rockaways, bordered by Belle Harbor, Queens. You got there using the subway and a bus, so it was utterly democratic. Much of Riis at that time was still very old-school Queens-Jewish, until you got to Bay One and Bay Two, two sections divided by jetties that had somehow been colonized by queer factions. Even these had designations: one part was very black and tough working-class lesbian, the other was for white guys, with a section for the lesbian allies of white guys.

Named for Jacob Riis, a pioneering photojournalist from the first decades of the twentieth century who captured tenement life in New York in a famous study called “How the Other Half Lives,” Riis was designed by Robert Moses as “the people’s beach,” and has a landmark Art Deco bathhouse, similar to its larger cousin at Jones Beach on Long Island, another Robert Moses gift to New York. Riis at the time of its building had the largest parking lot in the world, hard to believe but true. The park was designed to give working class New Yorkers a seaside playland of their own, since they couldn’t swim on the largely private beaches of Long Island and New Jersey.

What made Riis interesting was that it was extremely friendly. You could easily talk to 20 or 30 guys on the beach. Just being there was an act of defiance, and the cops regularly patrolled the boardwalk and sand to make sure no hanky-panky was going on. Zeroed in were guys who wore bathing suits that showed the cracks of their butts; you could be arrested for this, and hauled off in a paddy wagon. I actually saw this happen several times, and made sure that my suits covered this backside cleavage. Usually the guilty parties were either black or Latino, and their arrest by the cops would also be accompanied by the drama of their friends hissing and screaming at the police.

The cops would order back: “Shut up, or I’ll bring you in too.” But I don’t remember anyone else offering him or herself up for arrest.

Another interesting ritual was that in this era when all information was difficult to come by, at precisely 4 o’ clock on weekends, hundreds of men would get up from their towels and blankets, and start parading at the water line, looking each other over and planning how the evening was going to be spent. Parties would be announced in whispers and passed on to suitable gents, or the name of a new bar, or a restaurant where people might gather with each other. Sometimes the hundreds easily became a thousand or more. It was like a large flock of water birds, chattering and preening each other. This would go on for an hour or so, then everyone would settle down again until it was time to leave, hit the showers, and prepare for what was going to go on later.

Since I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, on the coast, I became a total Riis beach bunny. I can say that the happiest times I’ve had in my life have been on beaches, especially gay ones, and even more so on nude ones. So, a few years into my first foray at Riis Park, I started going in, swimming up to a safe sand bar several dozen yards from the shore, and there taking my Speedo off and hanging it around my neck. I was the first guy to do this (I swear, no lie!) and soon many other gents did the same. 

It became a ritual of going to Riis. You were safe doing it, and by the year 1970, the cops were no longer arresting guys for showing their butt cracks (they had too many other things to worry about, what with the unrest from the Viet Nam War, and the fact that Stonewall had given gays and lesbians a new sense of their own empowerment).

One hot afternoon in early August of 1972, I was doing said thing when a tall, long-haired blond, very good looking man about 15 years older than I, swam over to me and started groping me. I was a bit startled (being at heart a slightly reserved Virgo who’ll do anything once he loses that reserve), but didn’t exactly turn away. He was soon kissing me in a very friendly manner, when suddenly three kids came up to him.

“Daddy, isn’t it time to come in?” a little girl asked.

I was taken aback, but he agreed and asked me to return with him to his beach blanket. I did, and saw that he was exceedingly attractive, and had three children with him. They were his, and this was their first trip to Riis Park. We lay down on his blanket and he started making out with me, interrupting what was going on only to answer questions from his kids who seemed totally unfazed that their daddy was kissing a guy who was actually closer to their age than his. I asked his name.


He was Bruce Voeller, who later became president of the Gay Activists Alliance, then a founder of the National Gay Task Force, later renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

He asked me to have dinner with him and his kids. I enjoyed his kids a lot, especially the two younger ones, and we started playing little word games and jokes together. In the car back from Riis, his youngest son Christopher who was seven suggested that since the next day they were going on a family vacation to Cape Cod they should take me along with them; like I was a puppy Christopher had just found and wanted to keep. Rebecca, Bruce’s daughter and middle child, also chimed in that I should go with them.

Bruce turned to me, and said, “That’s not a bad idea, Perry. Would you like to do that?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure. Why not?”

I think it could only be described as part of the ethos of those times that after knowing Bruce Voeller only a few hours I could spend the next month with him and his three kids in a beautiful, seaside house in Truro, next to Provincetown. But at that point in my life I was used to such improvised, unplanned things. I was living in a rent-controlled walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen, and had a roommate, a young woman who was a friend of my sister Nancy’s. So my apartment would be taken care of while I was away. I had just started going back to college at NYU, having scored a scholarship on a government program that stopped completely in the 1980s, and being from the South I took the idea that good-looking men might be charmed with me fairly in stride.

The truth was, though, that Bruce had only been divorced from his wife of twelve years for a few months when Christopher asked him to take me to Cape Cod. And Christopher at 7 must have felt fairly ungrounded and was delighted that one of Daddy’s new friends was paying attention to him, too. On our first evening at the Cape, he asked me to sleep with him. I told him no.

“I’m going to sleep with your daddy instead.”

He shrugged and went back to his bedroom.

I can’t say that the month was all bliss. I mean I hardly knew Bruce, and he seemed very autocratic at me; he was already a famous biologist at Rockefeller University, and before he had come out had personally known David Rockefeller, was a gold-medal equestrian athlete, and had been married to a successful surgeon, one of the first women in pediatric neurosurgery in the US. He had given up all of that to come out, once he joined GAA.

It was a strange, interesting, and difficult story. His oldest son, Jan, who was 11, and had been very adversely effected by the divorce took an intense, jealous dislike to me, and tried to drown me a couple of times. Since I was only 12 years older than he, he saw me as a terrible threat, but I couldn’t see that. The whole thing was a kind of magical situation, and I was happy to be with Bruce and his beautiful blond, bright kids, and it all started at Riis Park.

(Bruce Voeller died in 1994, at the age of 59, of an HIV related illness. He had moved to Southern California ten years earlier, and was doing research on AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases through the Mariposa Foundation, which he also founded.)

A few years later, by 1975 or 76, the pretense of taking off your swim suit and hanging it over your neck in the water had changed to just no suit at all: Riis, at least the gay part, became nude. For a while. The only problem was that as gay women and the straight female friends of gay men started taking everything off, roving gangs of straight men started stalking them. The situation became tense and ugly. And so the sweet innocence of Screech Beach lost its appeal. By the end of the 1970s, a large part of its gay colony of water birds began to abandon it. We all went out to Jones Beach on Long Island, or Fire Island, or other places. The time of hundreds of guys at Riis Park leaving their beach blankets at 4 pm to talk, schmooze, and cruise, was over.

Finally, Riis Park became part of the National Seashore, and all nudity was forbidden.

You can learn more about Perry Brass at his website, You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle. You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords, the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon. The Manly Art of Seduction was recently named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. It is also a finalist for a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award. He will be signing copies of The Manly Art of Seduction at Harlem Pride on Saturday, June 26, the day before Gay Pride Sunday in New York. For more information, please go to . You can reach him at .


  1. Thank you for telling the stories Perry! And much love to you!

  2. Perry,
    This article was absolutely wonderful. I was in NYC from '69 to '73 and never knew about this beach. In fact, I rarely went out of Manhattan when I was there. My consciousness raising group once went to the beach though and the photos that we had made there from a photo machine found their way into Steven Dansky's photo exhibit at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in NYC last year. This article had such a nostalgic appeal that I'm sharing it with some of my friends.

  3. Great story. Being a G.A.A. member I of course knew Bruce. But I never met his kids.

  4. Perry,

    I also used to go to the gay beach at Riis Park in the early 70s. That subway and bus ride took a long time there and back from Manhattan, but the great thing was that it was all within reach of city transportation. Riis Park beach was a very gay place and yes, the gay and lesbian bathers had staked out a very definite section--as always, down a little bit from the (straight) parts you'd reach when you first arrived. It was a noisy, fun place with a very sociable, diverse group of people from all over the city. I always wondered if there was still any kind of gay scene out there today, but it sounds like that era is all gone. I saw Tim Elliott mentioned above some photo booth shots 6 or 8 of us from GLF took one time on an outing. But in fact, they were taken at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey--a fun, old amusement park that used to sit on the cliffs above the Hudson just across from Manhattan. We'd all heard that it was closing at the end of the 1971 summer season and wanted to get there to ride the roller coaster before it was gone forever. Lots of fun. I've still got the original little b&w photos.

  5. Yes, Bay 1 & 2 are still gay, but not like what they were in the 70s. Also, the Park is pretty run down: the Feds have not kept it up well at all.

    I got this wonderful comment by email from Jack Fritscher:

    "Baby oil mixed with iodine was as essential to the 1960s manly art of seduction as were Speedos because a tan and tight trunks were talking points for a pickup: "Hey, nice tan. Nice tent"

    He's referring to the "tent" in your Speedos.

  6. Loved your piece on Riis! Aside from what you mentioned, I recall busts in the men's room near Bays 1 and 2 from time to time--accusations of lewd behavior, etc.


  7. I lived in Manhattan from October 1969 to February 1976 when I came to live in Paris, France. I discovered Riis by pure coincidence in the summer of 1970. Since that moment on, excepto with a few excursions to Jones Beach ant to Fire Island, I went every week end to Riis, where I had a wonderful time. I used to live at 55th Street, so I took the subway at Bloomingdales and if I remember well I used to change somewhere in South Manhattan and proceed to Rockaway. Then it was bus time and fun time till we reached Riis. What a wonderful souvenirs mon Dieu!! I would give my soul to the Devil to go back to those hapy days

  8. It was known as the biggest open air gay concentration in the world

  9. Thanks, Anonymous, for your great comments. I think a lot of us would do some bargain with the Devil to get back to those times, or at least the good parts of them, and at least for a short while. Going to Riis was such a part of my youth in New York; I had many summers when I went 3 or 4 times a week. People were incredibly friendly, unhung up, and the whole aura of the place was very, very sexy, but in a wonderfully nice way. It did not have that heavy, "certified professional fag" atmosphere that much of Fire Island had, where I often felt that I had to have some kind of club card to the Gay World to breathe there. At Riis Park, you didn't need the card, just a smile. I liked that.

  10. A breathtaking memory - now these 40 years later, I understand why my pursuit of Perry came to naught lol!
    Sharing this with several longtime friends, many of whom shared the early 1970s wonder of Riis Park.