This spring, following a particularly brutal winter, residents and business owners in the Fire Island Pines were jolted into a deep panic as, by Memorial Day weekend, a Facebook page calling for a boycott of 80% of the businesses there swelled to nearly 12,000 “likes.”
“I love what I do, and I was scared shitless,” said Erin Black, a new mother who’s been a part of the Pines community for 20 years and owns a flower shop, Beachscapes, in the harbor commercial district.
“In that one dinner, he could have ruined what this community has overcome in the last five years. It made me sick to my stomach,” she said.
Business has been sluggish in the Pines for some time. In 2011, just after the tourist season ended, a massive — some say suspicious — blaze took down much of the commercial district, starting at the Pavilion nightclub. The fire also consumed Black’s flower shop. A year later, superstorm Sandy pummeled the tiny barrier island, and since then visitors, unsure of the precarious situation regarding housing and amenities, have been wary of making the journey to the gay oasis.
Then, on April 23, The New York Times ran a story about millionaire gay real estate scions Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass hosting a dinner for anti-gay Texas senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz in the Manhattan penthouse they co-own. In January, in partnership with longtime Pines businessman P.J. McAteer, Reisner purchased the newly rebuilt Pavilion, which includes a hotel, two bars, and two restaurants — it comprises 80 percent of all the commercial real estate in the Pines — at a distress sale for $10.1 million, $7 million below what the previous owner paid. He was the only bidder.
After news of the dinner with Cruz broke, the outrage from LGBT activists was thunderous and steady. Protests were organized outside The Out NYC hotel and XL nightclub in Hell’s Kitchen owned by the men. Broadway Cares, an AIDS charity, announced it would cancel an annual fundraiser at 42West, a property they own. And just three days after the Times story broke, a Facebook page titled “Boycott Fire Island Pines Establishments & Out Hotel NYC” had already garnered some 8,200 “likes.”
Reisner issued a mea culpa on Facebook. “I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings, and phone calls of the past few days. I made a terrible mistake,” it read. “I’ve spent the past 24 hours reviewing videos of Cruz’s 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.”
The apology was rebuked. Comments like “Yeah right, douchebag,” and “TRAITOR” flooded Reisner’s wall. Weiderpass reiterated his business partner’s apology on his own Facebook page, “I share in Ian’s remorse. I, too, lay humbled with what has happened in the last week.”
The men cited Cruz’s unwavering support for Israel as the reason for meeting the senator. Cruz, who supports turn-away-the-gays bills and is staunchly against gay marriage — that is to say, in public, anyway — has a virulently conservative grassroots fan base. Yet while at the intimate, 18-person dinner and “fireside chat” at the palatial Central Park South penthouse co-owned by Reisner and Weiderpass (they used to be a couple), Cruz softened his rhetoric, telling attendees he thinks gay marriage is a states’ rights issue and that if his daughter were gay he would love her nonetheless.
The controversy might have died until Reisner, in an interview with New York magazine, called gays “cheap” and “entitled,” and Weiderpass wrote a column in the New York Observer labeling the boycotters “gay extremists” and identifying himself as a “longtime leader of my community.” And while the two maintained that the event was not a fundraiser, news broke that Reisner donated $2,700 — the maximum amount allowed for pre-nomination candidates — to Cruz’s campaign immediately following the dinner.
Jay Pagano, president of the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association, convened an emergency damage-control meeting on May 2 where 300 residents showed up to discuss the boycott.
“The general view was that while [residents] were offended by Ian hosting Senator Cruz, they were aware of the adverse impact the boycott would have on innocent people and other merchants in the harbor,” Pagano told me while sitting on the patio of his sleek, airy, oceanside second home on the Sunday before Memorial Day. “There was no way to conduct a boycott without that collateral damage, and that was too unacceptable.”
But plenty of homeowners were fuming, though wary — due to the nature of small-town politics — to identify themselves as boycotters. “I was at a dinner party last night and people were livid,” said a man from Manhattan who asked to be identified as P.F. “A friend of mine usually gives about $25,000 to the health center but chose not to this year.”
The Facebook page, like the rest of the Internet, is an echo chamber that has a kind of Occupy Gay Street mood, perhaps fueled by a more general disgust for the homosexual one percent. Some with knowledge of business affairs in the Pines speculate that the Facebook page — run by anonymous moderators — is actually a plot by a competing real estate mogul who saw an opportunity to squeeze Reisner out.
Still, earlier that Sunday morning, business was booming at the Canteen, a counter-service restaurant now owned by Reisner. The 19-room hotel next door, called the Hotel, and also owned by Reisner, had been sold out for weeks. A flock of meticulously worked-out men, crawling out from hangovers with Gatorade and Red Bull in hand, remarked how the food at the Canteen is better this year, and the service friendlier. “No comment,” one of them said, when asked about the boycott.
Vito Fun, a New York–based DJ, has a summer residency at the Pavilion. “So many people on Facebook were like, ‘Don’t go there,’ ” he said. “But that’s not the be-all end-all of Fire Island. It’s such a community. We like to cook dinners in our home, sit down, grab a protein shake,” he said. “This is my home.”
“I say, let’s bring in all of the Republican candidates, give them a nice dinner with a bunch of gays and maybe they’ll evolve,” said Jacob Ellwanger on the deck at the Sip ’n’ Twirl Sunday afternoon, visiting for the week from Washington, D.C., and a gay Republican himself. “Even if we were able to put the owners out of business, which we wouldn’t be able to, then what? There’s nothing to be gained from this boycott,” he said.
I sat down with McAteer, Reisner’s business partner in the Pines, in his office below the Sip ’n’ Twirl nightclub, which he owns. It’s his first business venture with Reisner, though they have known each other for almost a decade.
“The Hotel has not looked this good in 50 years. The Pavilion opened last night, and we had a packed crowd at 8 p.m. Low Tea has been packed every day. The Canteen is doing an amazing business. Those are the only four pieces of that business we have opened so far,” he told me.
At the Blue Whale, now owned by Reisner and McAteer and which hosts the Pines-staple event Low Tea, a stream of gay men began waddling in at 5 p.m. and the house was packed an hour later.
I approached a group of friends in town for the weekend about the boycott.
“No comment,” said one of them, wearing oversize sunglasses and a black leather baseball hat, with the nose-up bravado of a diva breezing through paparazzi.
“I’m not getting involved,” his friend said. “No comment.” They walked away.
At Low Tea I spotted Mo Rocca, the CBS news correspondent and former Daily Show personality, huddled with a group of friends. “I’m not surprised that the boycott hasn’t taken hold,” he told me. “Most of the younger gay guys think Ted Cruz is a DJ. To be fair, it is a really good DJ name.”