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Scapegoating the Nude Beach
Reverberations of Anti-Queer, Anti-Nude Sentiments in America
The tradition of social nudity on America’s beaches, lakeshores, and river banks is one that occupies an arguably outsized place in our perceived list of American freedoms compared to the actual legality of the practice along our bodies of water. While nude use of public and private beaches does persist today, memories of a more openminded time are likely coloring that perception, perhaps especially our collective memory of the era of free love, naked hippies, Woodstock, and the like. The fight to secure the American nude beach and its eventual disappearance is a timely lesson of cultural backlash against sexual and body liberation inextricable from America’s generations-old turmoil over queerness and nudity. Despite legal and social opposition, the United States of the 1970’s and early 1980’s indeed did see widespread nudity along its beaches, benefitting from the cultural impact of the free love movement of the 1960’s and perhaps also inspired by concerted efforts to desegregate and “free” beaches for public use by African Americans in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
In reviewing the rise and fall of America’s nude beaches, among other sources, I referenced both Sarah Schrank’s Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body and Brian Hoffman’s Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, each devoting an entire chapter to the movement of the 1970’s and early 1980’s to expand legal access to nude beaches and increase acceptance of public nudity along the way. These chapters chronicle a history that is equal parts gay liberation and nudist activism. The nude beaches that proliferated during this time, according to both authors, were largely established, frequented, and championed by gay beachgoers, carving out public spaces for themselves in a society otherwise still hostile to queerness, though once the precedent for nude use had been set, gay and straight nude bathers alike flocked to these beaches and their popularity boomed.
Despite ongoing exclusionary practices and a general intolerance of homosexuality within the established nudist community and private nudist spaces, the movement to liberate beaches for nude use united nudists and the queer community over a common cause, occupying a common public space, and allowed both to be visible in a way neither community had previously enjoyed. The Advocate, a Los Angeles-based LGBTQ news magazine, was a vocal supporter of clothing-optional spaces, as were Beachfront USA and The Naturist Society, forming a shared interest between gay liberation activists and the nudist movement. Keep in mind that the previous decades had seen police raids and overall hostility against gay bars and other queer establishments (such as at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles and the Stonewall Inn in New York City), but also at private nudist clubs across the country, which led to the relocation and oftentimes outright closure of countless nudist spaces leading into the 1970’s. While these two communities had not been in the habit of supporting one another, they at least shared the nude beach.
Anita Bryant and the Anti-Gay Crusade
As popularity and public awareness of nude beaches grew, so did awareness of the LGBTQ beachgoers who frequented them and who could occasionally be found engaging in affectionate or even sexual acts, much to the disdain of local communities living near these beaches. For a period, progress was made to stake mostly unofficial claim to nude beaches while police patrols on nude beaches continued in full force. Though actual public approval of nude beach use was high, a swift conservative backlash against an era of newfound sexual liberation was already underway across the country, primed to take down the nude beach in its path. This was the case perhaps nowhere more fervently than in Florida, home of former Miss America contestant, pop singer, and outspoken anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, who is often remembered for her stance that ”what these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life. ... I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.” Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign found success in rallying Floridians against the purported threat that homosexuals posed to children, successfully overturning protections for gay and lesbian Floridians, and is often credited for having spawned a much larger anti-gay movement across the United States, which would impact the lives of gay Americans for decades.
“I think they’re the same kind of people, and if they’re victorious here, their next target will be the gays”
- Robert Jacobs, president of the Nude Beaches Committee, 1975
Echoes of Bryant’s campaign could be heard far and wide. Also in 1977, a copycat campaign calling itself “Save the Beaches” emerged (or rebranded itself as such, anyway) in San Diego with the goal of overturning the recently won official nude beach status of Black’s Beach, based largely on claims of prurient gay activity and the idea that nudists were pedophiles and pornographers who posed a threat to children. Like Bryant’s campaign in Florida, the campaign to close Black’s Beach was successful and marked a major shift against nude beaches in America, crippling efforts to legalize additional nude beaches, emboldening beach communities intent on ridding themselves of gays and nudists on their beaches, and increasing police patrols. The national outrage over expanded visibility of gays and lesbians in society, not merely on the beaches, had turned the beaches into a scapegoat for an ongoing, raging culture war, all under the guise of “protecting the children.” In Free and Natural, Sarah Schrank provides a prescient quote from Robert Jacobs, president of the Nude Beaches Committee, who said in 1975, “I think they’re the same kind of people, and if they’re victorious here, their next target will be the gays,” in reference to those opposing the establishment of nude beaches. In hindsight, it would appear that opponents of nude beaches at the time were not much interested in distinguishing between nudists and gays, rather that they were willing to sacrifice both to safeguard the nation from the sexual liberation and queer visibility that had arisen during the previous decades. It was a thrashing response to change.
While the conservative movement succeeded in erasing nude beaches, it did not erase the gay or nudist community. It merely forced them back into private spaces out of public view, such as gay bars and gated nudist parks, the same ones that had been subject to police raids not long before. Nudists and LGBTQ Americans no longer enjoyed the freedom to occupy the public space they had shared for a decade or more. The fallout from this loss seems also have left a fracture between the LGBTQ community and the nudist community, or at least a loss of reason to support one another, though The Naturist Society did establish a gay and lesbian special interest group and the American Sunbathing Association began to warm to the LGBTQ community in 1994 around the time it rebranded itself as the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR).
Threats to nude beaches have slowed but do continue to this day for various reasons, including a case in 2009 that saw even AANR side against the protection of San Onofre Beach in California (ceding to arguments of explicit activity taking place on the beach), recent rezoning rumblings surrounding Hanlan’s Point in Toronto, and the current closure of Hawaii’s Little Beach to nude use. Importantly, the loss of many of America’s nude beaches in the 1970’s and early 1980’s was a gradual push against the tides of change, a prolonged and sustained effort to eradicate queerness and vice from the public eye that had a longterm impact on the nude beach. It should serve as a case study for future moral panic crusades. If history is any indicator, the current political climate of anti-queer activism bearing a striking resemblance to that of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the nude beach could be at risk again. America’s remaining nude beaches have already been in a precarious place since the 1980’s: While Outforia cites a whopping 299 nudist beaches in the United States, their list pulls from the Wikipedia article compiling locations for social nudity in North America, and many of the beaches listed are locations where law enforcement simply looks the other way, not where nudity is expressly protected.
Anti-Trans Activism Today
In the past two to three years, 2023 in particular, a frenzied flurry of anti-LGBTQ sentiment has arisen, with particularly acute attention to the trans community, leading to anti-trans and anti-queer bills moving through state legislatures in all corners of the United States. These laws target transgender participation in sports, restroom use, insurance coverage and access to gender affirming care for both minors and adults, drag performances, same-sex marriage, parental custody, and access to information about LGBTQ issues and history, even going so far as to ban books and threaten the closure of public libraries to keep information out of the hands of the public. In every one of these cases, the eventual outcome of these laws is to remove trans people from view, to eradicate queerness from public life, and to diminish our shared tolerance and understanding of the LGBTQ community, all done in the name of “protecting the children” from a supposed threat inherent to queerness. The cultural undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that paved the way for these laws has been churning for some time, as casual accusations of “grooming” children have been lobbed with greater and greater frequency, not unlike the claims made in the 1970’s by Florida’s Anita Bryant. Today, Florida in particular has been host to a wide array of similar legislation regarding queer visibility and transgender rights, not unlike the backlash against the LGBTQ community that occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and, like Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, is being similarly heralded as a testing ground for potential anti-LGBTQ legislation across the United States.
Despite anti-gay and anti-nude activism that raged through the United States during the 1970’s and 1980’s, Florida has since fostered a vibrant LGBTQ community, a visible and outspoken nudist community, and a sizable tourism industry for both. Florida’s premier nude beach, Haulover Beach, is perhaps the most shining example of post-Anita Bryant success in establishing an officially recognized nude beach, and is beloved and renowned for its family-friendly atmosphere, the diversity of its patrons, and the tourism that it draws to Miami. Florida’s standing as a hub for nude tourism in the United States does not preclude it—or any other state for that matter—from falling victim to the crossfire of the kinds of conservative backlash that closed the nation’s nude beaches before, especially if it could score political points for either side to pit the public against a salient boogeyman like public nudity.
It did not take long, in fact, for left-leaning political commentators to take to social media to call attention to the hypocrisy of the recently enacted legislation written to erase the visibility of drag queens from public view (to “protect the children”), and to remove queer-themed and books from bookshelves (to “protect the children”), while ignoring that there are nude men and women on display at more than one public beach in the state. The Tweets below do highlight that hypocrisy, but they also lean into the accusation that nudists and nude bodies pose an intrinsic and apparent threat to children. These comments are meant to inform, but they also rely on and stoke the same conservative outrage and moral panic that overturned LGBTQ protections in Florida, led to the closure of nude beaches, and fueled a nationwide panic over LGBTQ visibility in the 1970’s and 1980’s. An obvious oversight in the Krassensteins’ ongoing argument against this hypocrisy is that the American nude beach has historically been—and continues to be—a safe, diverse, and queer-friendly gathering place for the LGBTQ and nudist communities, a place where queer and straight beachgoers can recreate and commune together. The assertion that nude beaches pose a threat to children carries an inherent anti-queer bias rooted in the rhetoric of the “Save The Beaches” and “Save Our Children” campaigns that positioned gays and nudists as “groomers,” pedophiles, and pornographers. Moreover, the idea that queer and nudist spaces are inherently separate or opposed, that they do not heavily overlap at the nude beach, is both historically inaccurate and counterproductive to combating this spate of panic-fueled legislation. Rhetoric like this poses a threat to the lives of LGBTQ people, and to both queer and nude spaces not just in Florida, but across the United States.
In the larger context of American history, the erasure of the nude beach in the 1970’s and 1980’s is just one of many demonstrations of a willingness to throw away institutions, forums, and public spaces out of spite, such as closing public pools to avoid racial integration, banning social media platforms, and closing public parks to force out the homeless. As a result of current, ongoing anti-trans culture wars, we are already witnessing a willingness to dismantle public libraries in an act of retribution against the availability of queer stories and racial justice literature. The nude beach, few and far between as they may be across the United States, is just one public space and cultural institution that has suffered the shrapnel of culture wars in the past and is in a precarious position to take those blows again, especially as tensions rage over LGBTQ rights and visibility. While the nude beach may not seem as high a priority of a public space to defend as, say, our public libraries, both represent an America where freedom of speech, press, information, expression, and self-determination are shared values. More importantly, there is far more at risk than nude beaches and public libraries: The lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ Americans are being thrown into danger and disarray at the whims of a conservative movement rallying against change and a period of legal and social progress for queer people. Lives are more important than beaches, and yet we have every right to expect to defend LGBTQ rights while also defending the parks and public spaces we share and where we can all live our lives publicly and visibly. LGBTQ people also have every right to expect information about their history, their contributions, and their lives to be available and accessible. The loss of these spaces and resources may seem like unfortunate casualties in the culture war, but eliminating visibility by limiting the spaces queer people can occupy and erasing access to LGBTQ information is a feature of anti-LGBTQ activism, not a bug. Preserving spaces and history is part of preserving community.
As events continue to unfold and information continues to come forward about this concerted effort to undermine the LGBTQ community, it is important to hold strong to our shared values and to not throw away our democratic principles, our civil liberties, and our public spaces to satisfy the irrational fears of the few. The lesson to be gleaned from the “Save the Beaches” and “Save Our Children” campaigns is that calculated moral panic will divide and destroy communities, strip all of us of hard-won rights and spaces, and dismantle institutions in service to fleeting fears, the reverberations of which may be felt for decades after. By standing together in opposition to calls for fear and intolerance, we can defend one another, defend these vulnerable communities and spaces, and come out the other side in solidarity. History will rectify lost rights, we will correct our course and restore dignity of the LGBTQ community, but let’s be vigilant in our defense of those rights and those spaces that make America a vibrant and diverse democracy while we can.