Fifty years ago what had been an outrageous annual tradition on New York's Long Island--a police raid on gay communities on Fire Island--came to an end. The communities hit--the hamlets of Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove--have long been havens for gay men from nearby New York City.
It took gay men taking their chances with juries of residents of eastern Long Island's Suffolk County--as proposed by a prominent, feisty, rough-and-tumble Suffolk attorney, Benedict P. Vuturo.
The juries, one after another in the fall of 1968, found the gay men rounded up in the summer 1968 raid on Fire Island, innocent. And that did it--the Suffolk County Police Department finally stopped the raids.
There have been enormous societal changes in the last several decades in regard to gay men--as well as lesbian women and others as others with a non-traditional sex identity. Indeed, there's the big movement acronymed LGBTQ--for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. And, but three years ago, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in all 50 states.
What happened for many years to gays on Fire Island seems like a nightmare of another time--and it was.
These raids on Fire Island every summer were a tradition began by the Brookhaven Town Police Department. Half of 35-mile long Fire Island, including Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, are in Brookhaven Town, which is part of Suffolk County. With the end of the Brookhaven department and its joining with many other town and village departments in Suffolk into a Suffolk County Police Department in 1960, the perverse tradition was continued by the new county police force.
I first became aware of the raids when hired in 1964 by the daily Long Island Press as a police-and-courts reporter covering Suffolk. It was like pulling teeth sometimes to get information from the Suffolk cops. But after their annual raid on Fire Island, the cops wanted the media to know all about it--pitching to us not only the names and addresses of those arrested but their occupations and where they worked. The police effort was clearly meant to damage those arrested, to perhaps get them fired for being gay and being arrested in a raid on Fire Island.
The raids were made by boatloads of cops storming the beach. Prisoners were dragged off in handcuffs and brought to the mainland.
Year after year, the 25 to 40 or so defendants, most of them from New York City and frightened about casting their lot with Suffolk County locals, would plead guilty to various "morals" charges. Then one judge began sentencing some arrestees to jail, getting himself plenty of publicity. T he Fire Island gay community had had it.
The colorful Vuturo, former president of the Suffolk Criminal Bar Association, was retained by the Mattachine Society of New York to represent the arrestees in the next raid. That raid happened on August 24, 1968.
The Mattachine Society prepared the Fire Island gay communities for the legal fights ahead by distributing a pamphlet in 1967 advising against "shortsighted" pleas of guilty and declaring: "Intolerable police state tactics continue because of our cooperation." The pamphlet further said if one was arrested not to provide any more than name and address. "Never carry identification that contains the name of your employer," it counseled.
Vuturo demanded jury trials for each of the 27 arrested in the 1968 raid. He told me he believed a jury of adults would never convict. He was correct. He won every trial.
I covered the situation. When the defendants of that summer were arraigned in Suffolk County District Court, Vuturo declared: "Outrageous... These men will be cleared of these notorious allegations.'" He said the men didn't represent a public nuisance, weren't annoying anyone. "The police actually sought these men out."
The trials were some scenes. Vuturo toughly cross-examined arresting officers demanding they tell in detail what they saw and did.
The cop would identify the defendant and typically say: "I took my flashlight out and I shone it on the defendant."
"And where did you point the flashlight?" Vuturo pressed on.