Located on a mile-long section of Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, Jacob Riis Park was named after the turn-of-the-20th-century social reformer and photojournalist. Historically, New York City beaches have been popular public social gathering places for the LGBT community where they claimed certain sections as their own.
In the 1930s the beach was redesigned under the direction of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. When the park reopened in 1937, Moses hoped that it would be a more democratic version of Jones Beach due to its easy accessibility by public transportation and cars. By the 1940s the most eastern end of the beach had become a documented well-known destination for mostly white gay men to sunbathe and cruise. Lesbian women also claimed a nearby area of the beach by the 1950s. By the 1960s, this area became increasing popular with a diverse LGBT presence including African-American and Latino/a men and women.
During the 1960s this area of the beach became clothing optional and was affectionately referred to as “Screech Beach” due to the gay presence. The LGBT Community Center National History Archive has a collection of photographs of the beach from this period.
“One of the best Gay Rivieras in the world…so crowded, nudes go unnoticed.”
As a site of activism, the beach was the location of a 1971 voter registration drive led by the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), one of the first gay rights groups to form after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. When the park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1972 with the creation of the Gateway National Recreation Area it became much more difficult to sunbathe nude. In 1981, the Jacob Riis Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Though, at times, beachgoers have dealt with homophobia here over the years, the area still maintains its queer identity as one of New York City’s popular and diverse LGBT public spaces.