This is a proposal that I have seen floated on more than one occasion. “If the gays can do it, then we nudists should be able to do it,” “if the gays can have a flag, then so can nudists,” or “we should latch onto the success of LGBTQ activism,” etc. It seems logical. Nudists feel vulnerable and want basic rights, and this is an area where the LGBTQ community has made steady headway. We both have identities outside of the norm, and we both face undue criticism. So, is nudism the new LGBTQ movement? Is naturist the new gay?
I think my instructors from graduate school would advise heartily against answering the central question of this post before fully exploring all the information but, no, nudism is not the new gay. I know, I know… Why not? We are a persecuted group like the LGBTQ community. Well… no, we are not… not in the same way, anyway.
Firstly, I should be forthright with my own status as both gay and a nudist. I think that’s important because I am writing as someone with experience and knowledge of both worlds. I will admit that there are striking similarities between the two groups, particularly in the language that we use to discuss our experiences. Nudists and LGBTQ folks both talk about a “coming out” experience, complete with the fears of rejection that surround it. We both tend to share stories of self-discovery, of the moment we realized that we were queer or that we enjoyed social nudity. Both groups also form communities and create spaces where we can gather away from the gaze of disapproving eyes. You could even say that both groups have put up with being an easy target of public mockery: Think of all the commercials and sitcoms where simply being naked is the butt of the joke (“I was in the pool!”), or where the humor is derived from implied same-sex attraction. They’re both tired tropes.
Similarities or not, there is a fundamental difference between being LGBTQ and being a nudist: LGBTQ folks do not have a choice and nudists do. Nobody chooses to be homosexual or transgender, it’s just the way we are and the LGBTQ rights movement has sprung up to fight for acceptance, protections, and recognition. LGBTQ folks are regularly targeted for simply existing, for walking down the street, for trying to get a job, for holding hands, for just being who they are in public, whether or not that identity is even outwardly expressed. Nudists, on the other hand, have chosen a lifestyle that they enjoy and suffer no harm from putting on a pair of pants to go to the grocery store. Nobody is out to hurt or silence nudists; no church or politician suggests lining up nudists and gunning them down. The similarities between the LGBTQ and nudist communities end where physical violence and legal discrimination begin, and this fundamental difference has rippled through history: Gay Germans were imprisoned by the Third Reich whereas German naturists were more or less left alone; while police were raiding the Stonewall Inn and arresting members of the LGBTQ community in 1960’s New York, white, middle-class nudists were quietly gathering in lush, remote oases without incident; gay and transgender individuals face threats of violence and death while nudists face verbal disapproval from family and possibly fines for public indecency. The point is that to equate the experiences of everyday nudists with those of everyday LGBTQ folks is offensive and reckless in this day and age. Suggesting that nudists should ride on the coattails of a marginalized group who has suffered violence and aggression is insensitive to those who have fought to end stigma and secure basic rights for the LGBTQ community. As a gay man and also a nudist, I have to say that it’s really not a great look for nudists to make comparisons like this.
Another difference between the LGBTQ and nudist communities is the origin of the respective movements in the public sphere. The LGBTQ rights movement was born of societal and legal persecution, as a unified voice to counter the violence and discrimination that homosexual and transgender people were facing during the middle of the 20th century, and it has been a long, hard-fought battle that has only recently begun to bear fruit in the form of marriage equality, but that still falls behind when it comes to job and housing security, parental rights, and overall safety. The naturist movement, on the other hand, was born of white, heteronormative privilege, as an escape for wealthy and middle-class Christian Americans to escape the diversity and clamor of the big city… and the nudists of the early to mid-20th century were able to do this with very little trouble. Sure, there were some scandalous news stories and prying eyes, but nudists were fairly successful in carving out their own safe spaces, plots of private land with gates and “no negroes” signs. LGBTQ history is one of resistance and a fight for inclusion, whereas the history of nudism has too often been one of exclusion, and this is an important factor to consider as we carry nudism forward into the 21st century.
Now that that’s out of the way, yes, nudists do face forms of persecution and public ridicule unique to our community. Self-disclosure, for starters, is a risky prospect for many nudists who fear the loss of their job or potential criticism and rejection from their community or family. That is a reality. I myself was far less open about my nudism while I was working in education and I am still very careful about the people I tell for fear of creating unnecessarily awkward interactions. Many nudists simply choose not to “come out” and are still able to enjoy a clothes-free lifestyle, but it is never healthy to feel that you need to hide a part of yourself. Being closeted sucks, right? Nudists, especially those who push the boundaries a little further than others, might also face fines or temporary jail time for indecent exposure. Laws and conditions like these are unjust. It is, in my opinion, a violation of human rights to criminalize simple human nudity, the act of just existing without man-made coverings. It is wrong, yes, but laws like these are generally not targeted persecution against nudists, and therein lies a very important distinction. Laws against “public indecency” were not created to justify aggression or legal action against us.
These are laws are generally intended to combat inappropriate sexual behavior but drastically overcompensate and impede on everyone’s rights. (Check out this great article by Jillian Page in the Montréal Gazette that discusses this idea further.) Likewise, the public ridicule and the deep-rooted stigma that nudists face for suggesting that we should be allowed to be naked in our own homes, in our backyards, at the beach, or—gasp—in public spaces, is harmful for every single human being on the planet. Every single human being has a naked body, was born naked, and is then forced to buy man-made garments to cover up in order to not face legal and social consequences. Our plight is not just our own, but everyone’s plight… they just might not know it. I think that’s another interesting similarity between the LGBTQ and nudist movements: The LGBTQ movement aims to increase acceptance of its own community and secure its own basic rights, and, as a result, all humans can feel more comfortable being exactly who they are and expressing themselves in the most authentic way; the nudist movement challenges the infringements on the right to be nude, to be human, particularly as it affects the ability to enjoy clothes-free recreation, and, as a result, it expands rights of everyone to simply be human, without shame. Each movement’s goals expand beyond its own core group.
It can be frustrating as nudists when we struggle to advance our own cause and see very little progress against prohibitive, anti-nudity laws, while other causes have gained the attention of the media and have become a part of public discourse. Those other movements, though, have earned their place in the spotlight. The #MeToo movement, transgender rights, Black Lives Matter… all of these movements occupy a very important place in our contemporary zeitgeist, regardless of any one person’s political leanings. As passionate as we may be about our cause, the right to be nude is not a terribly pressing issue in 2019 and our movement may never gain that kind of attention. And that’s OK. The discussions around these other contemporary movements are important, and they should be given their time. We can continue to focus our individual efforts on living and promoting the clothes-free lifestyle that we love and on spreading understanding and body-positive messages. We can (and should) even speak up about those other movements and support marginalized communities. Eventually, our time will come and it won’t be because we co-opted another movement.
A strong, concerted, nudist movement, whatever form that should take, can stand on its own two (bare) feet as long as we clearly communicate that there is a real human rights concern in criminalizing and ridiculing human nudity. We have a strong case that involves and affects everyone, nudists and textiles alike. Of course, there is no reason we can’t take cues from other successful movements, no reason we can’t fly our own flag of nudist pride, but we should also be very mindful that our movement is its own entity with its own unique history, and that other movements have theirs. If we truly want a popular nudist movement, we will have to identify our unique goals, highlight the ways that our movement will better the lives of individuals (even textiles), make our movement distinct and relevant, and be willing to confront some oft-unspoken issues within our own community, just as other movements have had to do.
So I suppose what I really want to say is that we got this. We got this all on our own, because our message as nudists is valuable and important all on its own.
[Edited on 1/22/2019 to clarify and strengthen the author’s views]