A gift of freedom for gay men on Fire Island came in 1968—47 years ago—with the end, at long last, of police raids on gays of Fire Island. It took gay men taking their chances with juries of Suffolk County residents—as proposed by a prominent, feisty, rough-and-tumble Suffolk County attorney, Benedict P. Vuturo.
The juries, one after another, found the gay men rounded up in the 1968 police Fire Island dragnet innocent. And that did it: the cops finally stopped their raids.
With the just-decided landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing same-sex marriage a constitutional right in all 50 states and gay pride parades and a revolution in how gay people are perceived and their rights accepted and expanded—perhaps the biggest contemporary revolution in the U.S. and many other nations (consider Ireland)—what happened for many years to gays on Fire Island seems like a nightmare of another time. And it was.
These raids every summer were a perverse tradition of the Brookhaven Town Police Department and, with its absorption into the Suffolk County Police Department in 1960, they were 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 County.
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 assaults on Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines 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 Long Island locals, would plead guilty to various “morals” charges. Then one judge began sentencing some arrestees to jail, getting himself plenty of publicity.
The Fire Island gay community had had it.
Then 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.
As I reported in the Long Island Press—I’m looking now at a yellowed Long Island Press clipping of a story I wrote about the defendants being arraigned in Suffolk County District Court: “’Outrageous’ was the word Benedict P. Vuturo used…These men will be cleared of these notorious allegations.’ Vuturo said the men didn’t represent a public nuisance, weren’t annoying anyone and police had to search through beach scrub to find them. ‘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 what they did. The cops were embarrassed. And Vuturo in his summations spoke dramatically about murders, rapes and other major crimes occurring in Suffolk County and how, he declared, the Suffolk County Police Department was wasting its resources storming Fire Island to round up gays.
“To be on Fire Island—in Cherry Grove or Fire Island Pines—when the cops are there for a raid is to put your life in your hands,” he would intone. “The cops go and beat the bush. They grab you and handcuff you to whoever…Was a breach of the peace committed? Who saw it but the cops who went looking?
For Vuturo it was a case of "civil liberties are civil liberties."
The Suffolk County District Court was busy for months in Fall 1968 with the “Fire Island trials” as they were referred to in court corridors.
Vuturo hoped to lose one case so he could get to the New York State Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court to try to have the laws under which the arrests were made ruled unconstitutional. But he never lost.
He said his victories proved "people—given all the facts—are fair. People aren't stupid. That's what the jury system is all about."
Dick Leitsch, president of the Mattachine Society of New York, had told me that the gay rights group had first considered hiring New York City lawyers, specialists in civil liberties work, to defend the arrestees in the next police raid on Fire Island. “But we figured the courts out there might view them as outside agitators,” he explained. So the society, he said, spoke to some members of the Suffolk County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the flamboyant Central Islip-based attorney Vuturo was recommended.
Vuturo later went on to become a Suffolk County District Court judge.
He died in 1991. In the obituary for him in Newsday, Kenneth Rohl of Babylon, also a Suffolk County criminal lawyer who became a judge, said of Vuturo: “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."
The Brooklyn-born Vuturo, a father of five, was key to ending a Long Island witch hunt. And so were the Suffolk County jurors who showed that the jury system works and, as Vuturo said, “people—given all the facts—are fair.” And deserving huge credit are those gay men of Fire Island who stood up to prejudice and hate in a dark time. Together, they caused the annual police raid on the gay communities of Fire Island to, most thankfully, be no more.