Pride & Shame

It’s June again, which means it’s Pride Month for those who celebrate, myself included. So, with that in mind: Happy Pride, friends!

And, in the spirit of Pride Month, there’s one other thing I need to say, just to get it out of the way: “It’s a sin!” More specifically, pride is a sin, that is. You probably thought I was going to say, “being gay is a sin,” didn’t you? Not this time! Though, to be frank, I think the folks who are quick to speak up each June about how pride is a sin would probably also fall somewhere on the “being gay is a sin” spectrum. Alas, there’s not much I can do about that today.

If you’ve been following my writing for any time at all, you already know that I always wrangle the nudist community into my pieces, and you may know that I tend to revel in any opportunity to find the intersecting points between the nudist community and other communities and identities, the LGBTQ community especially since it’s another that I proudly belong to. So, what is there to say about pride, and what does pride have to do with nudists? Pride as a celebration extends beyond the LGBTQ community, but it’s important to understand why this particular form of pride is unique and how nudists might learn more about themselves by seeking to better understand it and relate to it. So let’s dig in!

Crossing the rainbow crosswalk in West Hollywood, California

Every year during Pride Month, the argument I presented at the top of this article shows itself somewhere on my social media timeline, in a blog post, in an opinion piece, as a passing comment in a news interview, or coming from the pulpit: “Pride is a sin!” OK, yes, pride is indeed one of—and, notably, the worst of—the seven cardinal sins in Christian teachings. But calling pride a sin during Pride Month is a bad-faith claim that strips the word of its nuance and conflates the positive connotations of the word with its negatives in order to further paint LGBTQ people as sinners and deviants. We may not regularly articulate it, but we inherently know that there’s a difference between positive pride and negative pride, between feeling pride in yourself, in a loved one, or in an accomplishment, and acting prideful or arrogant or haughty. Not only do we all know this, but we act accordingly. For example, no rational person would shout “pride is a sin!” on the 4th of July when Americans sing along to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” or when a parent congratulates their graduating child, or when an Olympian wins a medal and cries tears of pride on the podium as they accept it. (For further reading/listening, I recommend this NPR interview in which author and theologian Michael Eric Dyson breaks down many of the nuances within the concepts of pride and sin.) Compared to these forms of pride, however, the type of pride expressed during pride celebrations is perhaps different still.

In the mid-twentieth century, following the Second World War and a severe economic depression, migration from Puerto Rico to New York City increased exponentially, the city’s Puerto Rican population increasing from 13,000 in 1945 to more than 50,000 only a year later, and continuing to grow by nearly as much every year for the next decade. While the Puerto Ricans who had landed in New York often faced racism and discrimination, those who stayed in Puerto Rico were fighting for their independence from the United States despite being prohibited from discussing their own independence or criticizing the United States under 1948’s Public Law 53 (or “Gag Law”). Even displaying a Puerto Rican flag was a violation of the Gag Law, turning everyday Puerto Ricans into criminals. The law was finally ruled unconstitutional and overturned in 1957, and very shortly after, in 1958, the first Puerto Rican Day Parade was held along 5th Avenue in New York City. The annual parade continues to this day as a celebration of Puerto Rican heritage, culture, and, yes, pride. Not pridefulness, not hubris, not arrogance, but bravery and perseverance and community.

The very next decade would see persecution against the LGBTQ community come to a head in the United States, perhaps most notably in—once again—New York City where police raids of gay bars and clubs were so commonplace that LGBTQ people could hardly patronize any bar let alone gather with each other in their own bars. New York City also notoriously had laws on the books targeting drag queens and transgender individuals, criminalizing the act of not dressing appropriately for one’s gender. After years of harassment, the Stonewall Riots erupted in 1969. This six-day stretch of violent clashes following the night that patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village fought back against a police raid is generally regarded as the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. In June of 1970, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first American gay pride parades took place in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as much to protest against ongoing harassment and demand rights as to celebrate community, self acceptance, and, of course, pride. Again, not pridefulness, not vanity, not superiority, but defiance and unity and resilience.

In 2022, despite decades of progress since the Stonewall Riots and the first gay pride parades, LGBTQ people in the United States still regularly face targeted harassment and, very recently, a new wave of new anti-LGBTQ legislation has arrived to roll back much of the progress that’s been made. And what are LGBTQ people meant to feel through all of this? What should we feel when the successes and struggles of our community are excluded from history lessons? When our inclusion in movies and television shows is met with outrage and boycotts? When our participation in sport is met with upset and fear? When men bring weapons and hate to our clubs and parades and festivals to intimidate—if not kill—us? When religious leaders call on their congregations, our own neighbors and friends and family members, to support a death sentence for people like us? What are we meant to feel except exclusion and fear? What effect is all of that meant to have on the LGBTQ community if not to make us want to crawl out of sight, hide, disappear, avoid attention and crowds and public places, protect ourselves in the shadows? Shame is what we are meant to feel, and hopefully enough of it to push us back into the closet, back out of the public sphere, back off the TV screens, back off the streets, back, back, back.

The concept of celebrating and feeling pride in one’s community, in its struggles and achievements and contributions, is shared by more than just the Puerto Rican and LGBTQ communities, extending to other marginalized groups, to other communities of color or shared heritage or disability. These examples, however, exemplify common elements of pride: self-acceptance in the face of intolerance, visibility in the face of erasure, unity and community in the face of division, strength in the face of violence, and love and joy in the face of hate. When faced with pressure to feel shame and fear and rejection, when told that we should not be seen or heard, that we are abominations or ugly or unworthy of love, the most courageous and defiant and radical response is… pride. An unapologetic pride, visibility, and togetherness. This is why Pride Month is so important to so many LGBTQ individuals.

In 2019, I wrote a piece titled, “Is Nudism the New LGBTQ?” in which I outlined a few reasons why, no, nudism is not the new LGBTQ, but that there were lessons that the nudist community could and should take from the LGBTQ rights movement and other similar movements. The history of the nudist community is not quite like that of women’s liberation or the civil rights movement or the LGBTQ rights movement, which is not to say that nudists have not faced some serious struggles, only that the circumstances are unique, and I would caution nudists to be mindful of those differences and not co-opt or bemoan the pride celebrations of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. If anything, we should be there to lift them up. That being said, while nudists may not face the kind of discrimination, threats, and targeted harassment that other marginalized communities face, there is a lesson of pride to be had within the nudist community as well. Not pride in a label or a membership card or a chosen identity, but in something deeper and more meaningful than those things.

What do nudists know about pride? Don’t nudists reject pridefulness by stripping away those layers of class and status? Sure! But that’s not all that nudists do. In a world that demands that we fear our own bodies, that demands disgust at the sight of ourselves and each other, that would have us holding ourselves and one another to impossible standards of beauty, that demands that we feel shame in our skin, our wrinkles, our body parts, our natural variations in appearance and ability, nudists say, “No.” In a world that asks us to divide, that tells us to fear those we don’t understand, that constantly asks us argue with and demean and belittle one another, nudists choose to gather and accept and embrace one another for our differences, to strip away the barriers that keep us apart. These are, in my mind, radical acts of which we should be proud. Proud that we strive to continually build a community that welcomes all the bodies that the world has shamed, proud to embrace those with identities that the world might try to erase, proud that we have bravely accepted the very things that make us human and vulnerable and unique. We should be proud to represent diversity of human experience in the face of division, proud to promote unity in the face of so much hate. Sure, we may not always get it right, but we keep trying and keep pursuing a world where people don’t have to feel shame in their bodies or selves, where we can all feel accepted and loved for who we are.

That’s not pridefulness, it’s pride in community. It’s courage. It’s radical acceptance of self and of one another.

So, sure, “pride is a sin.” But pride is also a defiant celebration of visibility, a refusal to disappear, a testament to what has a been overcome and a commitment to continue working to overcome it, a brilliant light to lead others to self-acceptance and joy, and, most importantly, a rejection of the shame we’re meant to feel for simply being who we are. When faced with calls for shame, the most radical response is pride, after all, and I think that’s something nudists can understand and appreciate.

Naturism and the Gay Body

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.