BEHIND THE SCENES with Myke Dodge Weiskopf


What knowledge did you have about Fire Island before interviewing its long-time community members? Did any of your preconceptions of Fire Island or gay culture change while making this piece?

I was born at the tail end of Generation X, and came of age in the last years before the omnipresence of the Internet. Back then, there were actual brick-and-mortar gay bookstores, and I spent my early college years filling my head with biographies, novels, essays, and other works that illuminated the experiences of my gay American forebears. So much of my own identity as a gay man was filled in by those books, and Fire Island was a constant presence in the mythology of 20th-century gay life. When the time came to craft my own story about Fire Island, I already had a pretty strong emotional memory to draw upon.

That being said, I've never actually set foot on Fire Island because I was quite bookish and introverted as a young man, and the whole place seemed out of my league. How I wish the 20-year-old me had met some of my interviewees back then - just to get a sense that there was more to Fire Island than just chiseled bodies and the idle rich! It turns out that so much of my knowledge of Fire Island was based on the Fire Island Pines (one of the two predominantly gay-identified areas), and not on Cherry Grove, which was apparently a much more funky, diverse, and bohemian community of people. It was fascinating to hear this "alternative history" of a place which had been so fixed in my mind for the past two decades.

Have the Fire Island community members been interviewed often... or was this a rare opportunity for them to talk about how AIDS impacted their lives/culture?

Nobody I interviewed had been asked about this particular aspect of Fire Island before. Some of them - like architect Christopher Rawlins and historian Esther Newton - have published in-depth works on Fire Island, and are quite active in cultural preservation on the island. Of the "ordinary" Fire Islanders I interviewed, most have moved on to other places; some of them think back on Fire Island's halcyon days with fondness, while others have opted not to think about it at all. I consider myself blessed that they were all so willing to share the intimate details of their lives.

Why did you feel it was important to tell this story right now? How does your piece add to the richer discussion surrounding the history of HIV/AIDS?

When I first struck upon the idea of doing this piece, I went back to all the literature I could find on AIDS, New York, and Fire Island, and found that nobody had written about Fire Island's role in the early days of the AIDS crisis. It's really impossible to separate New York and Fire Island because the majority of renters and weekenders on the Island were coming from the City. But while the two places operated in parallel, there was nonetheless something unique about Fire Island as a protected space for lesbian and gay people that only added more depth to the impact of the HIV/AIDS outbreak.

In New York City, one can recall the marginalization of lesbian and gay subculture during the Koch administration, the "othering" of gay people by their fellow New Yorkers, and the bitter irony of living as outcasts in a city which had stood for so long as a bastion of pluralism (and, to an extent, these are all common historical experiences of minority groups in majority cultures.) But Fire Island was consciously designed as an escape from that oppression, as a sort of release valve from the destructive cultural and political forces at work on the mainland. As such, I think it's entirely unique as a place where HIV and AIDS really destroyed the idyllic dream of what life could be like for gay and lesbian people in the wake of the sexual revolution and the Stonewall riots.

Looking at the AIDS epidemic through the filter of Fire Island really sharpens the impact it had on that generation of men; it really was like the razing of Eden to many people. As to the question of "why now," it was really something of an accident, but there's quite a generational debate going on between younger and older gay men about the rise of unprotected sex among younger people, the historical memory of the AIDS crisis, current trending infection rates for HIV, etc. There are countless other pieces which could be produced out of that discussion, but this is really just one producer's little contribution.

The sound design of your piece incorporates sonic elements from Fire Island itself. Did you uncover archival recordings, or did you capture these sounds yourself?

I spent many hours meticulously researching the sound design of the piece, such as using the sounds of specific birds which are found on the island and tracking down actual DJ sets recorded in Fire Island clubs in the late '70s. I am a music producer by training (and former profession), so it was a priority to get all the details right. I wanted the sonic environment to be as authentic as possible.

Did you leave any tape on the cutting room floor because you thought it would be too controversial?

Oh, so much tape! There are two hilarious segments in particular which would never make it to air, but curious people can listen to these segments, and a handful of others, on my microsite for the piece.