How an unlikely ally fought homophobic police raids a year before Stonewall

A ferry returns to Fire Island circa 1960s.
Fire Island Ferry, circa 1960s. Photo by Max Heine/Newsday RM via Getty Images. Photo: Newsday via Getty Images

In the mid-20th century, sections of Fire Island had become havens for the queer community, a place to escape the repressive society that sanctioned discrimination of anyone who dared to be openly LGBTQ+. Visitors could socialize, relax, and, well, rendezvous with one another in peace.

Most of the time, at least. 

Usually, once a summer, police from Long Island’s mainland would head to Fire Island to make mass arrests. Their targets: the men who were engaged in sexual acts in the Meat Rack, a sandy wooded area that connects the queer sanctuary towns of Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines. The Meat Rack is (and was) known as a cruising spot, a secluded location where queer people could have intimate moments and encounters. 

During the raids, police would come over by boat in the cover of darkness. They would then surround the men from all sides, eventually closing in on them in a way that left no paths for escape. With their flashlights glaring brightly, the police gathered the men (in various states of undress) and then brought them to sit by the main dock, where they would often have to wait until morning. Karl Grossman, who was a reporter at the time for the Long Island Daily Press, told LGBTQ Nation that some police even went undercover wearing flowery shirts to make arrests

New York City’s Stonewall Uprising in 1969 are well known as a pinnacle moment in catalyzing the modern gay rights movement in the United States when queer people — fed up with constant police raids of gay bars specifically and exhausted by enduring broad discrimination generally — stood their ground physically and joined together in revolutionary resistance. 

But, on Fire Island, just one year before, another act of organized defiance had also challenged the status quo raids of queer nightlife. Barely 60 miles east of the Stonewall Inn, the Mattachine Society of New York — a local chapter of the early national gay rights organization — joined forces with a strong-willed, colorful, and heterosexual local Suffolk County defense attorney, Benedict “Benny” Vuturo, to fight for these queer people who were regularly arrested for sodomy and other “moral charges” in the Meat Rack raids. 

At first glance, the gruff Vuturo agreeing to represent queer people arrested while cruising on Fire Island may have seemed counterintuitive, but to the people who knew Vuturo best, it was not out of character. After Vuturo died in 1991, a fellow Long Island criminal defense attorney wrote of him in a Newsday obituary, “He was a very unorthodox person who saw right to the heart of whatever was involved. You never doubted where he stood. He hated hypocrites.” 

This well-organized and oft-overlooked moment of queer rights history was fought in a totally different venue than the streets of the West Village. It was fought in a court of law. These cases are now called the Fire Island trials.

‘An annual tradition’ pegged to LGBTQ+ discrimination

The dock at Fire Island at sunset
Photo: NilsPix/Flickr.

The Mattachine Society and Vuturo’s strategy was unique. Together, they wanted to disempower the oppressive Suffolk County Police Department by derailing their ability to enforce these so-called morality laws through jury nullification; they aimed to get the everyday people of Long Island called to become jurors to conclude that these laws were not worth prosecuting. 

While the Mattachine Society of New York’s then-president Richard Leitsch and Benny Vuturo are no longer alive, Grossman, who covered the Suffolk County police and courts, is passionate about keeping the story alive. 

Grossman sets the scene for his firsthand experience with the Fire Island trials by making clear how covering the criminal justice system in Suffolk County was known as a difficult beat, because getting information from the police was often like “pulling teeth.”

But when it came to one particular event, he experienced a totally different reaction.

“I got calls from the Suffolk County Police Department that they had just conducted a raid on Fire Island and arrested about 25 to 40 people,” Grossman said. “And they brought them to the mainland on Long Island.”

According to Grossman, these calls were the opposite of pulling teeth. Instead of withholding, the police wanted to divulge as much information about the men as they could. They gave Grossman not only the names of those arrested but also their places of employment.

“Which was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” says Grossman. “You’re trying to tell me that the person worked at the Queensboro Public Library or whatever, so I would put it in the paper, and the poor person would get fired. It was really outrageous.”

Grossman discovered that the raids were actually an annual tradition. Prior to the Suffolk County Police Department’s formation in 1960, individual towns and villages had their own forces. The Brookhaven Police Department, which had been responsible for law enforcement on Fire Island, had conducted these raids before. When the newly formed Suffolk County Police Department took over, the merged force decided to keep them going.

Why queer vacationers and conservative locals collide

Vacationers walk down the boardwalk in Cherry Grove in the early 1980s.
Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Photo by Jim Peppler/ Newsday RM via Getty Images.

Dr. Marc Stein, a professor of history at San Francisco State University and author whose titles include The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, says that these sorts of dynamics between queer vacation destinations and local communities were not unique.

“My understanding of the dynamic in Fire Island and Suffolk County is that you have tensions between the queer visitors and the straight locals. Further complicated is the fact that there were queer locals as well who have to negotiate their family and social connections while also being very aware of the less permanent and part-time queer residents,” Stein told LGBTQ Nation. “You’d often have class resentments or racial resentments layered on top of sexual conflicts with the locals, specifically often young local men and the queer people who were arriving to have fun. That then arguably becomes the basis for the police engaging in really repressive acts.”

In Suffolk County during the 1950s and ’60s, the norm for those arrested in the Fire Island raids — the majority of whom were from New York City — was to plead guilty. “I think they were fearful of casting their fate with a Long Island jury,” says Grossman. “From those from the city’s perspective — and certainly then — there is a feeling that Long Island has been very conservative in many respects.”

Though Suffolk County itself leaned conservative (Republican Richard Nixon flipped the county in the 1968 presidential election, earning over 58% of the vote), its geographic proximity to New York City granted access to some of the resources and political capital that queer people there were beginning to build. 

“Another unique thing in Suffolk County was it was reasonably close to one of the most powerful gay activist groups of the ’60s,” says Stein. “That added an element that arguably had not existed previously, and that changed the dynamics. Mattachine had lawyers, it had experts, and it had a large enough membership base that it could network.” 

Stein argues that Mattachine New York’s reputation as anti-gay bar culture and its disassociation from the more transgressive aspects of gay sexual culture is overstated. From the Stonewall Riots to the Fire Island trials to the Sip-In at Julius’ — where Leitsch and two other Mattachine members told the bartender they were gay so that they would be denied service and then be able to pursue legal action against the state liquor authority — Stein points out that the Mattachine Society of New York and Leitsch either led or actively participated in all three of these events that centered around gay nightlife.

“Leitsch and Mattachine New York were quite willing to lend a hand when people experienced bar raids or when there was police harassment of sexual cultures, in addition to fighting against anti-crossdressing laws,” says Stein. “Mattachine was willing to get involved. Ultimately that would culminate at the Stonewall moment, when Mattachine provided some of our best reports on what happened at Stonewall in its newsletter.​​” 

The Cherry Grove community had also established ways to try to undermine the raids.

Michael Fisher, the director of the 2018 documentary Cherry Grove Stories, said he was inspired to create the film after hearing a story from a man named Michael Delisio who would go out to the Grove in the 1950s. A group of men started having themed dinner parties: one week, it was fancy hats, and the next weekend, high heels. 

“Then they said, ‘Why are we messing around? Let’s have a drag party,’ ” Fisher said. “So they all brought out drag and had dinner.”

While walking home after the party, two of the attendees were arrested and then booked on Long Island. Fisher said their names were in the papers, and they then lost their jobs.

“The guys were hell-bent on not letting anything ruin their fun, so all of the old houses had a hatch in the living room floor, where they would store all of their drag,” Fisher told LGBTQ Nation. “They put a rug over the hatch. Back then you could be arrested for having women’s clothes in your closet. They refused to give up their fun. I found this story so inspiring.”

With respect to the raids, Fisher also spoke about systems of warning. 

“John Eberhardt, who owned the Belvedere, had a light switch in the hotel that he would turn on when he knew the police were coming for a raid in the Meat Rack,” Fisher said. “The hotel was obviously frequented by gay men, and he wanted his customers to feel safe.”

As the Fire Island raids continued year after year, Leitsch and Mattachine New York wanted people to push back by pleading not guilty. Yet, with the hostile and antagonistic environment the Suffolk County police were creating for those who were detained, many opted to immediately plead guilty in hopes that their cooperation would limit the consequences, both in the courtroom and the press.

Stein says this was a common tension of the time between the politics of visibility and invisibility.

“A lot of times gay bar culture in the ’50s and ’60s was based on a politics of invisibility, and what I mean by that is that you had bars that didn’t look like gay bars from the outside,” Stein explained. “They did not have names that revealed they were gay, they didn’t have signage, and they often had blacked-out windows. In many respects, success of the bars depended on the bar owners practicing a politics of invisibility, and then the patrons were often committed to a politics of invisibility, especially because if they were arrested by police or caught up in a police raid, they were at risk in respect to their families, jobs, communities, and so much more.” 

Meanwhile, the gay rights movement, and certainly Mattachine New York, was pushing a politics of visibility. The Movement and the organizations that led it wanted and often sought out positive media coverage.

A colorful ally’s unique legal strategy

A courtroom jury circa 1960s.
Lawyer Benny Vuturo’s presence was pivotal in establishing trust among Suffolk County jurors. Photo: Shutterstock.

So, for many years, there was a debate between compliance and defiance when it came to the raids. 

But when a judge escalated beyond charges and fines to actually begin sentencing some of the men from the raids to serve time in jail, the desire of Leitsch and Mattachine New York to take on the system became a necessity. 

With a courtroom drama in mind, Leitsch and his allies first thought of hiring a civil rights specialist from New York City. Grossman recounts how Leitsch told him that after speaking to the American Civil Liberties Union, they decided to hire a defense attorney from the community in which any trials would be held. That was where Benny Vuturo came in.

“It was probably wise for Mattachine to get a local attorney, as opposed to somebody from the city who people would have claimed, ‘They don’t know the situation in Suffolk County,’ or ‘They’re outsiders,’ and so forth,” Grossman said. 

Where the police had spent years trying to humiliate the men they rounded up in the raids, Vuturo flipped this strategy on its head for the Fire Island trials of 1968. 

Grossman explains how Vuturo would demand a jury trial for each defendant who was detained during a raid on the Meat Rack. He would then attempt to discomfit the officers by making them take the stand and detail how they had attempted to humiliate the men in the Meat Rack. Vuturo would subject them to an intense line of questioning about rounding up the men who were in the middle of various sex acts.

When the officer explained how they used a flashlight to find the men, Vuturo would ask questions like, “And where exactly did you shine the light?”

“And then they’d get red-faced, just very embarrassed,” Grossman said. “Vuturo really made a scene.”

In the courtroom, Vuturo focused on continually hitting on the outrageous conduct of the police.

“Very importantly, he argued that there was all kinds of crime on Long Island, and here the cops were ‘beating the bushes,’ as he put it, to find these gay fellas and arrest them,” Grossman said.

The line Vuturo was able to walk again and again revealed the brilliance of Mattachine New York’s decision to hire him. Vuturo knew the landscape of his community, and though it was conservative, he did not believe that a jury would convict. 

“I watched the juries, and they were very impressed when Benny made his summation,” Grossman said. “These were mature members of the general population in Suffolk County who were on these juries, and they just didn’t go for it at all.”

When the time came for the jury to announce their decision, in case after case they ruled not guilty.

“Actually, Benny kind of wanted some jury to convict so he could appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals and maybe even the Supreme Court,” Grossman said. “But he never lost.”

The victories marked the end of the Fire Island raids. 

“It really was testimony to the jury system, and how, whether you’re a New York City Democrat or a Suffolk County Republican, presented with these kinds of cases, where there were all kind of sodomy charges and morals charges and all this stuff thrown at these fellas, [jurors] would not convict,” Grossman said. “ ‘People, given all the facts, are fair,’ Benny said. ‘People aren’t stupid. That’s what the jury system is all about.’ ”

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