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Naturism and the Gay Body
What Body Liberation Means to the Queer Nudist
I am writing this piece—which I've been pondering and rethinking and stressing over for months now—in honor of Pride Month, in honor of being open and transparent about the stories that make us who we are, in hopes that it might resonate with others to help them feel emboldened to do the same. In the piece below, there are discussions of naturism, self-acceptance, coming out, sexuality, and how all of those facets intersect. I feel vulnerable publishing it, but I'm pushing through. Happy Pride, everyone.
I am a 32 year-old gay man who grew up in a conservative, evangelical home on the outskirts of a small farming town. To say I've had issues with my body image is an understatement (my youth pastor wouldn't even let boys and girls swim in the pool at the same time!) and all the evidence suggests that my experience is not an isolated one, but it's also one that I have not had a great deal of opportunity or willingness to be open about with others. It always feels like a secret—a secret that I needed to keep because who else would understand? Who else would understand what havoc an evangelical upbringing can wreak on a young person grappling with thoughts and feelings that everyone around them was decrying as sinful, disgusting, ungodly, sickening, perverse, deviant... Who else would understand what that journey to self-acceptance and self-love looked like?
Several months ago, I reached out to Gay Naturists International (GNI), hoping to contextualize the path I had taken to where I am now. I consider myself a longtime naturist (or nudist, if you prefer): Discovering and practicing naturism has been an important part of my journey to feeling comfortable in this skin of mine, so I assumed this would be a perfect place to discuss how those identities intersect. In retrospect, I realize that what I was hoping to find was validation of my experience, to be reassured that my journey coming to terms with my body as a gay man was a universal one. When I sat down to speak with Nicholas Roessler, the young, ambitious, and well-spoken president of Gay Naturists International, I did not find quite what I was looking for. I think I found something better.
I wanted my story to be part of a bigger, shared experience. I wanted to hear that lots of other gay men come to GNI having travelled the same path. What I came out of my conversation with Nicholas realizing was that our paths as gay men and as naturists are disparate and nuanced and diverse, but that an experience does not have to be universal for it to be meaningful or valid or even relatable, that we gain more from learning about each other's diverse experiences than we could ever gain from all sharing the same perspective. Even among a group as niche as the gay naturist community, no two stories are the same... which leads me to what I have felt both nervous and compelled to share for some time now: My story.
I don't think there was ever any doubt growing up that I was different. I played with Barbies as much as I played with LEGOs, Princess Leia was my favorite Star Wars character, the first CD I bought was that Britney Spears album with the pink cover, all my friends were girls, and while the other boys in the family were going on hunting trips, I was hiding in my room organizing my Beanie Babies and rewatching Pocahontas. I also spent a lot of time running around naked, making excuses to take off my clothes and run through the sprinklers or up and down the stairs... which makes a lot of sense, in hindsight. I was also a very quiet, shy, well-behaved kid. I knew I was different, even at a very young age, and I was terrified of the rejection that I might face if the other boys realized it, if the adults around me realized it. So I did not let anyone in, I kept to myself, and I created my own worlds to inhabit.
Then came puberty, which was particularly painful because not only was I suddenly six feet tall and skinny as a rail with acne and big feet and clothes that never fit quite right, but I was also struggling with a major conflict: The thoughts and feelings I was experiencing were the same ones that everyone in my life was telling me God hated and would send me to hell for. I felt unlovable, ugly, socially awkward, and I couldn't talk to anyone about it. All I could do was isolate myself even more, and for a young kid in the early 2000's living in the middle of nowhere, that meant spending a lot of time on the Internet seeking the support and community that I lacked in my immediate surroundings. I stumbled across nudism around this time and found something resembling the non-judgmental space I needed online. I found body acceptance and diversity of thought. I found and connected with other people who were overcoming issues with their bodies, who were reclaiming their skin, who could be gay or straight or young or old or black or white and connect with one another through those experiences. Through naturism, I could let go of all the expectations that society was pushing on me and I could just be me, even if just from the privacy of my bedroom. For a little while, things were good. For a little while, I felt OK. For a little while.
While puberty may have been painful, my coming-out experience was genuinely traumatizing. My time spent exploring naturism and connecting with other young naturists online had soothed the awkward body issues, but it could not prepare me for what was coming. I did not have the luxury of coming out on my own terms, instead it was thrust upon me. Without warning, everything I had ever known was ripped out from under me and I felt like I was in a free-fall. One minute, I was hanging out with my friends and playing board games and studying for my AP exams, and the next minute I was forced out of my home, out of my family, out of everything I knew. I was given an ultimatum: Give up my friends and freedoms and change who I was willingly, or have it taken away and changed against my will. I took the third option and walked out, full of rage and terror and heartbreak. I lost my safety net, my support network, my hopes for the future. For a period of several weeks, I was a homeless straight-A high school senior trying desperately to finish my last term of school. Shortly before graduation, likely to save face with the unwitting relatives who would be expecting a graduation party, my parents allowed me back into the house on my own terms: No conversion therapy or church counseling. Maybe a small win, but still I felt out of place, unsupported, and anxious, like I was surviving on borrowed grace.
A few months later, I left for college. Things almost felt back on track, except that I was more alone than ever. Geographically distant, yes, but also permanently disconnected from the support network that I had grown up with; that trust was forever severed. The love and acceptance and encouragement that my peers could rely on from their families back home was just... gone for me. Being a young gay man in a much larger city than the town I'd grown up in offered some opportunities for exploration: Exploration of who I was, who I wanted to be, and what the world had to offer. Many of my pursuits for discovery and for the acceptance I was sorely lacking were tethered to awkward social settings and equally awkward sexual experiences, which is not to say that I was not in control, only that the gay community is unique and vibrant and multi-faceted and can also be a complicated space to navigate as a young person. I had a lot to learn about my body, about love, about growth, about relationships and boundaries and sex.
It can be difficult to discuss sex in the context of naturism, but I would be remiss if I left this portion of the story out. I needed that time to explore sex and sexuality, to understand that facet of who I am. I can also understand why, for someone who has never been told that they should deny themselves this aspect of their humanity and their body, it may seem trivial or even gratuitous to mention it. I can understand why someone who is strictly heterosexual may have never felt cut off from their sexuality, denied an entire piece of what makes them a whole and complete person, but many queer people are denied those experiences, are denied the opportunity to feel whole and complete, at least for a time. Many queer folks make up for it in what is sometimes called our "second adolescence," a time to catch up on the social, romantic, and sexual experiences that our straight peers were all exploring—or at least discussing—organically as teenagers. The flip side of this belated sexual exploration is that it took quite a toll on my self-esteem and the way I viewed my body. I was an awkward, gangly, young gay man trying to find my worth and navigate a sea of new expectations about what makes a man attractive, worthy of love, worthy of sex, worthy of feeling pleasure—it can easily make you feel disposable and objectified if you're not careful. It's no wonder so many gay men suffer from body dysmorphia, given the expectations we put upon one another.
From time to time during these years, I still recalled the freedom that I felt when I was exploring naturism and nudism online as a teenager, dreaming of living free one day. I wanted to be a part of that community, but I felt so petrified that it would reject me in the same way that my family had. The nude beach was a safe space where I could go to feel free in my skin without risking rejection—I was fortunate that Portland had two within a half-hour's drive—but visiting an actual club or resort felt terrifying. I briefly outlined in a previous blog post entitled "It Doesn't Come Off" how something as simple as the nearby non-landed nudist club using the terms "husband" and "wife" on their membership application was triggering enough to keep me from attempting to attend even a single event. I couldn't overcome that hurdle at that point of my life, and I was also feeling overwhelmed with unstable income, keeping up with college and grad school, managing all the complexities of a relationship... I just was not in a place to prioritize fully embracing the naturist life that I had always wanted to live, though I still held that philosophy close inside, checking in on it from time to time, reminding myself that my body is enough, that it has value regardless of how attractive it is or whether it satisfies someone else... reminding myself of the freedom of feeling the breeze and the water and the sun against my skin, like nothing else mattered.
As I approached my late twenties, I finally found myself in a stable job, finished with my studies and no longer relying on teaching night classes to make ends meet. I finally thought to myself, "I have time now. I owe this to myself." I was determined to jump back into the community that I had felt so afraid to rejoin. I made a couple of nudist friends in my area, I visited the beach more often, I even made the trek out to visit a couple of the landed clubs... and then I started this blog to process what that all felt like. Throughout all these years, naturism has provided a balance to society's demands, to the expectations to look a certain way, or act a certain way, or be a certain type of person with a certain type of body. I was finally in a place where I could put something back into this space, share my thoughts and my hopes for the future of this community, and ponder somewhat aimlessly about how naturism intersects with all these other aspects of life and identity.
It would be irresponsible to claim that naturism cured my insecurities about my body, but I can say that naturism has consistently been a tool I could pull out of my tool belt to help me ground myself and remember that my worth comes from within and not from what others see in me, to remind me to be kind to my body and to embrace myself and others for all of our imperfections, insecurities, and diverse backgrounds. This philosophy of shedding our clothing attracts so many people from so many walks of life, all of us here for different reasons, to solve a different problem, to heal a different trauma or nurse a different wound... all of us here to be better at loving ourselves and being ourselves, discovering all of the facets that make us who we are. We sometimes forget that holistic self-acceptance is more than just accepting our fat rolls and knobby knees—it means accepting and understanding all aspects of ourselves from our appearance and physiology to our sexuality and psychology. For me, naturism encourages acceptance of all of those moving parts. It encourages me to accept myself for being gay, for looking a little awkward and being a little skinny, for being anxious... all of it.
During my conversation with Nicholas Roessler, we discussed a wide range of subjects related to naturism, queerness, identity, various policies, and also a bit about GNI itself. If you're unfamiliar with GNI, they are an organization that began in 1983 under the name "Gay and Lesbian Naturists" as a Special Interest Group under the umbrella of The Naturist Society, during a time when other organizations like the American Sunbathing Association (now known as the American Association for Nude Recreation or AANR) banned homosexuals from becoming members or visiting many of its affiliated clubs. GNI became its own independent organization in 1992 and is well known for its annual week-long "Gathering," uniting hundreds of participants to enjoy non-sexual social nudity in a safe and structured environment as well as providing a separate, carefully designated space to celebrate and explore sexuality. Though that may shock the straight-laced heterosexual naturist, given everything I'm processing about my experience as a gay man and as a naturist, I get the significance of providing both of those spaces. I can see why, for gay naturists gathering amongst themselves, both of those aspects can be parts of a balanced journey toward self-acceptance and self-love... and besides, as Nicholas put it, "GNI spent a long time trying to prove to [AANR] that they were legitimate, and then at one point we were just like, 'Why are we even doing this?' We've never benefitted anything from trying to be like them, so we just stopped being like them."
This isn't me advocating for increased sexualization of naturism and, frankly, that's not what GNI is advocating for either. I'm only advocating for each of us to feel empowered to shed societal expectations and explore who we each are so that we can be better to ourselves and to each other. Your journey may not look like mine or Nicholas's, or anyone else's, but it is yours and it is valid.
I want to leave you with one final thought. Something Nicholas said during our conversation stuck out to me more than anything else, which is that, as queer naturists and nudists, we are fortunate to experience "coming out" twice, to experience letting go of the expectations that society burdens us with... twice. As painful and awful and shattering as my own coming-out experience was, it was also a release, albeit one that I had no control over. I was forced to let myself let go of the obligation to be someone I knew I could never be, to give myself the freedom to explore who I might be without those expectations looming over me every minute of every day. I was thrust into self-exploration but also into self-determination. Perhaps to a different degree, naturism is the catalyst for a similar release: A release of obligation to another set of social rules and barriers, relieving us of feeling shame for being human, granting us permission to love our bodies for all of their imperfections and flaws, pushing us to see ourselves and one another as whole and complex. I think we should embrace that release... and celebrate the opportunities it offers for exploration of ourselves and connection with each other. Otherwise, why are we here?
Thank you, Nicholas, for taking the time to speak with me and thank you to all those who took the time to read this.