“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young woman explores a cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as the syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
It’s been a big year for the LGBTQ community. We’re only in July, and we’ve already celebrated the 50th anniversary of the famed Stonewall riots; welcomed WorldPride to the United States for the first time in history; and successfully co-opted Megan Thee Stallion’s genius “Hot Girl Summer” mantra from the Straights™.
As a new resident of Brooklyn, I’ve spent the majority of my free days this year exploring queer-friendly spots in the Big Apple. So this past weekend, in the interest of living my best Hot Girl Summer life, I headed to sunny, sandy Jacob Riis Park, a century-old beach in Queens. Before my visit, I was aware of its LGBTQ-friendly reputation, but while I’d visited briefly one time before, no short shoreside sojourn could properly prepare me for the sheer breadth of overt queerness I was about to experience, nor for the epic sunburn I’d soon acquire after spontaneously deciding I absolutely had to have my tits out.
Jacob Riis Park—or “Riis,” as it’s known colloquially—is located on the eastern end of Queens’ Rockaway Park Beach, and it’s largely considered NYC’s most popular queer beach. According to the NYC Historic Sites Project, Riis has been a well-known haven and gay cruising spot since the 1940s, after the park and its eponymous bathhouse were remodeled by then-NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Historically, Riis has attracted mostly gay and bisexual men, although lesbians and queer women have carved out their own spaces on its shores since the ’50s. It’s also regarded as a friendly space for queer and trans people of color, attracting a large number of black and Latinx LGBTQ New Yorkers each year.
Slipping off your sandals and sinking your toes into the hot sand at Riis just feels right, familiar in a way that defies logic. That peace of mind is only bolstered by the crowd, which, if my sweaty Saturday afternoon in the sun was any indication, is loudly, proudly, and visibly queer.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my eight months living in NYC, it’s that true New Yorkers abide by an unspoken social code of mutual disregard for one another (read: minding one’s own fucking business). In any other city, watching someone weep openly on public transportation is a cause for concern; here, it’s a Tuesday. But that tacit nonchalance totally went out the window at Riis, and for once in my queer life, I wasn’t upset about socializing with strangers. It felt easy—natural, even. Perhaps it was the Shocktop I’d quickly downed or the prolonged exposure to those UV rays, but between journaling, bopping to King Princess, and devouring Staceyanne Chin’s forthcoming poetry collection, I struck up conversations with multiple friendly folks. From comparing and contrasting tattoos to mulling over our shared experiences as queer women (coming out sucks, y’all, and the funny part about it is that the process never really stops), we tackled it all, chatting until the rising tides forced us to retreat further inland.
Another thing I noticed upon settling down on the beach was that nearly everyone—of every gender identity and body type, breasts or no breasts—was topless. It’s actually perfectly legal for people with breasts to be topless in public in NYC, and I’ve seen my fair share of boobs, so that wasn’t shocking or strange to me. What was shocking was the sudden urge I felt to join the party, my lifetime’s worth of body image hang-ups be damned. So I did. Sorry, Mom. It’s my Hot Girl Summer, after all, and I’ll strip down to my bikini bottoms if I want to.
Of course, that’s not to say summer days at Riis have always been all racks and revelry. Throughout the years, the beach’s unofficial designation as a gay hangout and cruising mecca did not go unnoticed by NYPD officers, who routinely arrested queer people, specifically gay men, for “performing sodomy” in public. As recently as 2016, Mic reported NYPD officers arresting a naked gay sunbather at Riis who was apparently carried away on his towel as he screamed for help. And it’s pretty damn difficult to miss the abandoned hospital (pictured above, in the background) that unofficially demarcates “The People’s Beach,” as the queer section of Riis is lovingly nicknamed. (Contrary to local lore, the dilapidated building wasn’t a mental institution; in the early 20th century, it actually served as a tuberculous clinic, and later a nursing home for elderly patients.)
Post-Stonewall, however, Riis became a hub for LGBTQ-specific community events and gatherings. The Gay Activists Alliance, one of the first queer activist groups to assemble after the fateful 1969 riots, hosted a voter registration drive at Riis in 1971. Though GAA is less of a household name than most contemporary queer advocacy groups, its tactics went on to inspire the likes of ACT UP in the ’80s, providing a framework for effective community organizing and civil disobedience. In 1981, Riis’ well-documented history of queer inclusion and community organizing even earned the beach a listing on the United States’ National Register of Historic Places.
That tradition has endured, too. Last October, queer New Yorkers gathered on the beach to honor the life and legacy of the late Ms. Colombia, a pioneering drag queen, gender-bending performer, and frequent flier at Riis. More recently, activists who regularly descend upon the beach have partnered with groups like the NYC Anti-Violence Project to host free “Know Your Rights” seminars about interacting with police conducted by civil rights attorneys working pro bono.
As a queer woman who sports clear signifiers of my queerness—short hair, more “masculine” beach attire, arms and legs full of tattoos—the beach isn’t exactly the easiest or most carefree environment for me. But places like Riis—where bodies like mine are neither ogled nor mocked, but rather welcomed with open arms, supportive smiles, and cans of Black Cherry White Claw—stand to change that.
Fall, look out. Summer might just be my new favorite season.
Jacob Riis Park Beach is open to the public each year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.