Panzi, aka Thom Hansen, is the creator of the world-renowned Fire Island Invasion, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Invasion takes place each year on July 4 and is one of the most spectacular and colorful events known worldwide. Hundreds of illustrious, brightly and creatively adorned drag queens board the huge ferry at Cherry Grove while thousands line the center of town to observe. The ferry, always filled to capacity, travels over to the Pines to invade the peaceful sanctuary of the Pines boys, where another couple of thousands await their arrival. The entire day becomes an enormous party with queens coming from all over the world to partake in the gayety, all led by Panzi.
Hansen has been an activist in the gay community since the early 1970s. He is also a member of The Imperial Court of New York, having been Empress as well as President of the board of directors (2003-06) and executive secretary on the International Court Council. He has supported nearly every march in Washington for gay rights and has been on television and Broadway as well. Currently he heads The Arts Project of Cherry Grove and continues in his quest to raise money for the LGBTQ community.
I am sure that you are well versed in the history of the Invasion.
Were you with it from the inception?
Yes I was, 1976.
Who created it? Whose idea was it?
I knew it!
There was a group of us. There were nine of us all together trying to create a happening, but I’m sure it was my idea. But I shouldn’t take credit.
Take the credit; you deserve it. What was it like the first year?
It was scary, because there was just a small number of us, and we had no idea how people were going to react. We were all excited about going. We got in the water taxi and started going over there, all gung ho. When we got to the harbor we all got real quiet and thought ,“My God, what are we doing?”
And it grew and grew every year.
It was spectacular. The response was incredible. The crowd went wild.
Do you have a favorite year that you loved more than another year?
Oh, I’d have to say the first year.
So this is its 40th anniversary?
This is the 40th Invasion.
Did you ever miss a year?
We did it every year.
So it’s like an institution on Fire Island?
Yes, it is. It’s just incredible. It has a life of its own. It just kept growing and growing, and the response kept growing and growing. It was just like, “Well, here we go.”
Was there a rumor this year was going to be canceled?
That was the boycott people who wanted it to be canceled. They were boycotting the businesses, and they wanted it be canceled.
Well I am glad it was NOT canceled. Does the Invasion have a theme each year?
No, it really doesn’t. People come from all over to be in it, from different countries, and it’s really hard to create a theme, so we never really did it. We tried it one year, but it just didn’t work. There really is no theme.
I saw you perform this weekend for the first time, and you were fabulous.
Oh, thank you.
This year do you plan to do anything special for the 40th invasion?
Yes. We have two boats this year. We have a marching band coming from New York City. I hope they make it. A gay marching band; they’re all coming. The first boat will have the marching band, the special queen’s guard and color guard and dancing girls, so it will be a little festive before the queens all get in the boat.
I can’t imagine it being any more festive than it already is!
We want to put on a little show.
Besides the invasion, what else are you currently involved in?
I’m president of the Arts Project in Cherry Grove. We run the community house. So that’s what I’m involved in out there. I love the Grove.
I love the Grove too, and I’ve seen the Invasion for the last 20 years too.
Even the year China’s wig blew off into the ocean.
And it’s on July 4, correct?
That’s correct, on Saturday.
Now, a drag queen wants to get on that boat. What does she have to do?
Show up at the Ice Palace on the morning of the invasion, then you buy a pass, a ticket. Then you party. That’s it. You listen to the instructions, and you have fun. That’s all, it’s over. We encourage everybody to have a good time.
How long have you been doing drag?
Since I’m 17.
What made you start doing drag?
The true story is, there were four of us who were going to The Waldorf Astoria to see Melba Moore perform. There were three men and one woman, and we figured that with three men they would put us in back of the room. So my friends convinced me to put on a dress so we’d get a better table.
Did you get a better table?
Yeah, we got a better table. Coincidently, we arrived late. They must have been holding up the show for somebody who didn’t show up. They must have just said to give that table to the next people who showed up. When we arrived we got ushered up to the front of the room. It was at the Skylight room at the Waldorf.
You’ve been doing drag ever since?
Yep. I hooked up with a group of kids back then that put on a drag show at the The Gold Bucket, then I hit Fire Island, and the rest is history.
Do you have a favorite queen?
Anything else that you wish to say to our readers.
I think the one thing I’m promoting this year is with the fire in Cherry Grove, our businesses are suffering terribly. We are encouraging everybody to come to The Grove this year and spend money. That’s really the message this year. The businesses are an intricate part of Cherry Grove. We want them to survive. We are really encouraging people to buy local this year!