It Doesn’t Come Off

Over the course of the past two months, the discourse and activism that have sprung up in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others mingling with the pent-up energy of the LGBTQ+ community during a Pride month cancelled by COVID-19 has given me a lot to digest on a very personal level. Frankly, my thoughts feel like they are still swirling as I try futilely to grasp at the words that fit. As a gay man, I know what it feels like to be gay… but as a white man, I will never know what it feels like for the color of my skin to negatively impact the way I am able to move through the world or the way other people see me. Yes, I experience otherness, but I would never argue that those experiences are the same. In listening to others and engaging in conversations, my view of the world is adjusting, I am learning a great deal about others and about myself, and I am becoming very aware of the power of sharing our lived experiences. Upon reflection, I am also finding that a lot of this discourse crosses over with my experiences with naturism. More than I was expecting.

Before I proceed, I want it to be known that I firmly believe that Black lives matter and that centuries of oppression, police brutality, and blatant and subtle systemic racism have tormented—and continue to torment—the Black community: Justice is long overdue and it takes all of us working together and holding each other accountable to effect lasting and meaningful change. As far as cancelled Pride goes, all I have to say is that I am exceedingly grateful that the energy of the LGBTQ+ community was widely channeled into support for the Black Lives Matter movement and into recognizing the historical impact that Black queer and trans folks have had on the LGBTQ+ rights movement. It is an important reminder of our intersectionality. This kind of unity is powerful.

In response to current events, however, some opinions I have seen within the naturist/nudist community have been disappointing and eye-opening, but not surprising upon reflection. Though the naturist community has its own activist roots and vaguely liberal—or perhaps libertarian—ideologies, there is at the base of this community an underlying sentiment which looks good on the surface but dismisses all manner of ignorance: It’s the pervasive nudist mantra that we’re all the same when we’re nude. It sounds inclusive and it’s not entirely wrong or malicious. It’s just not really true and it reveals a core barrier to better understanding one another. In many ways shedding our clothing does also shed many social barriers, but mostly just the barriers represented by the clothes we wear: status, wealth, maybe even career. But reducing our differences to these few superficial variables ignores identities with more insidious impacts on our lives; it avoids discussions of race, of gender identity, of sexual orientation, of disability… things that we can’t take off when we walk through the gates of a nudist park.

I can see, though, why this is not immediately obvious within the naturist/nudist community given that the majority of nudists are… well… straight, white, and cisgender. If a person or a community has minimal personal experience with racial discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, or other forms of systemic prejudice, it can be easy to overlook those factors and how they might affect others. We end up glossing over the lived experiences of marginalized communities, not seeing them for who they truly are, not seeing the barriers they face. No amount of clothing can be removed that will undo those obstacles. When we say that everyone is the same when we’re naked, what we’re implying is that we only recognize life experience variables that straight white men experience. We’re implying ever so quietly that those are valid obstacles that nudism and naturism should strive to overcome—class, status, wealth, profession—but that we don’t recognize the unique obstacles experienced by people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.

We have made it clear by spreading this mantra far and wide in our well-meaning naturist evangelism that we believe in equality, in tearing down societal barriers that keep us from appreciating each other for our shared humanity, that keep us from being whole and appreciating the natural world. We believe that it’s wrong to allow certain factors to hinder our ability to connect with one another on a human level. The logical next step is to dig deeper than our clothing.

In preparing to write this, I pondered whether or not I should share my own experiences as a gay man, whether it would detract from or reinforce the message of this piece. In no way do I want to center the attention on myself when there are important discussions around race and prejudice to be had. After some reflection I realized that I feel a great deal of shame around my experiences, of fear that sharing my experiences will color others’ perceptions of me. I fear that people will see me for my struggles and not for my achievements or dazzling personality. I also realized that withholding those experiences of “otherness” from others does nothing to increase awareness or open a dialogue. So, in the spirit of sharing our truth, let me share mine. Let me share with you a small piece of what it feels like to be a gay man and how that relates to my experiences as a naturist. As you read, I encourage you to also consider the ways that other identities and the intersectionality thereof have their own unique impacts on people’s lives. I hope that my sharing these experiences candidly might make room for others to share theirs as well.

One primary recurring stressor for me personally as a gay man with a dash of social anxiety is that rural areas—such as those where the majority of nudist clubs and clothing-optional spaces are located—are not a safe place for LGBTQ+ people. Driving to remote clubs in the mountains or the desert heightens my anxiety. Small towns in rural America are where people like me ruffle feathers by just existing, where people like me are more likely to experience targeted harassment and violence. So, while my desire to get outdoors and get naked still drives me out into the country from time to time, it’s not without trepidation and some level of acceptance of the increased danger. Add to this that rural areas are more likely to be populated by folks who see my identity as political, as something that is up for debate, so I immediately begin bracing myself for uncomfortable conversations, for a rude comment, for any sign that I am not welcome. As a gay person, I never get used to seeing polls on cable news about whether the public believes I should be allowed to get married or adopt children or if employers should be allowed to fire me for who I am, not to mention hearing the various radical political and religious leaders calling for death for people like me. It grates on me. It breaks me down. The thought of willingly venturing into an environment where the half of the polling results who would rather I not exist lives is… stressful. Often manageable, but stressful. Going into those places and then taking my clothes off does not magically make that go away.

And then there are all the little things, like describing naturist/nudist events and spaces as “family-friendly” and “family-oriented,” which are terms that many LGBTQ+ people have come to recognize as thinly veiled code words for anti-LGBTQ+ leanings. Don’t believe me? What does “Focus on the Family” really fight for? Not my family. When people say, “think of the children,” what do you think that means? Why is it that “family” movies never—or very rarely—feature queer characters? That’s not to say that naturists and nudists are racist, homophobic, or transphobic just for using the term “family-oriented,” or even that they should stop using that language. It’s just to say that these little triggers exist all around the naturist/nudist community and they go unnoticed because they’re almost imperceptible to someone who isn’t a person of color or LGBTQ+.

Let me provide a concrete example of something that probably seems minor to the average person but that stopped me in my tracks when I was younger: One of my first experiences in college of researching a nearby nudist club brought up a membership form that listed membership applicants as “husband” and “wife,” which immediately made me anxious. Why? Because I already did not feel welcome. Because at no point had this group considered the possibility that a same-gender couple might be interested in joining. Because if I were to attend an event, I would eventually be expected to join the club, at some point I would have to out myself to the leadership and deal with their reactions, I would likely have to fight for my right to join with my same-gender partner, it would make a bunch of people upset, and I might eventually be told that I simply could not join at all. Even if everything worked out and I did join successfully, I would have made enough people upset or irritated on my way in that I would not be able to enjoy my time there the way everyone else could. There would be families with children who would not want me in their home, or I would get dirty looks. And how could I willingly bring my non-nudist partner into this mess and expect him to feel comfortable? All of these things went through my mind and so I did not reach out that day to attend an event. Or any day thereafter. If the membership form had listed “partner 1” and “partner 2” or some other innocuous terminology, nothing would have triggered that spiral of fear and anxiety and I likely would have made an effort to attend an event.

You might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous! You’re overreacting!” Yes, I probably am! But that’s how my mind has been trained to detect and avoid dangerous and uncomfortable situations. That was just one example of a nearly invisible obstacle that keeps marginalized folks outside the gates. Imagine, then, what it must feel like to be a person of color and to see a Confederate flag hanging at a naturist event, to be given the cold shoulder by the majority white residents and guests. Imagine being a woman and being gawked at by a group of men at the beach or at a club, inappropriate comments about your body being made. Imagine worrying whether you will be welcome and the emotional toll it takes on a person to be regularly reminded of your otherness. Imagine what it would feel like to be black or LGBTQ+ and to see a tweet from your local nudist club that claims that “labels” do not exist and that we should avoid “adjectives” because they’re “divisive.” Our identities are not divisive, prejudice is divisive.

Regardless of those hurdles, still I want to go and find places to be nude, even if they exist outside of my comfort zone. So I do go, but I avoid stopping anywhere en route, especially if I am alone. I go, but I police my speech and behavior lest it betray my sexuality and out me to someone who might be hostile. I go, but I am careful not to mention any subjects or respond to conversations in any way that would tip someone off. I go, but I scan my surroundings for any sign of other LGBTQ+ people, of a rainbow flag or some other sign that I am safe. I go, but I wait for others to approach me first so that I don’t risk rejection or making someone feel uncomfortable. I go, but I worry endlessly that people will only be friendly until they find out I’m gay and then they’ll change their mind. I go, but there is always one identity that I cannot shed. And still, even in my ability to conceal who I am out of fear, I am exposing my privilege: I can hide the fact that I am gay if I need to, at least for a little while, but not all marginalized groups are able to do this. People of color cannot hide the color of their skin, for example, and trans people may not be able to hide their transness. I realize that I am very privileged to be a white gay man who can slide through many situations unnoticed.

Despite all of those things, I am still a naturist and I still want to be here because this movement means something to me.

All that I am trying to say is that asking people to hide their identities and experiences or fostering an environment that avoids discussing them induces shame and denies people their wholeness and humanity. It undermines the core tenets of nudism and naturism, the philosophy that there is no shame in our humanity, that we are all unique and valuable and connected to one another. The naturist/nudist community should not content itself with overcoming the differences made obvious by our clothing while turning a blind eye to the experiences we face due to differences that we cannot control or shed. We all deserve to feel wholly accepted and embraced. We deserve to be seen and to be celebrated for our uniqueness. I believe that, with some effort, the naturist/nudist community is the exact right place for that celebration to occur and I truly hope that current events have brought about important conversations around race and discrimination within our community and among our leaders.

In short, let’s do better for each other, within the naturist/nudist community and without. Let’s not play “colorblind.” Let’s not avoid difficult growth conversations. Let’s make our spaces more welcoming to all by listening to the voices of those who have felt excluded. Let’s do more to acknowledge each other’s struggles and remove hurdles from each other’s paths. Let’s actively advocate for each other. There is a unique strength in uniting over our differences, a wholeness and harmony in embracing diversity. As overly optimistic as it may sound, I believe naturism can—and should—aspire to that.

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