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Rural naturist spaces can be a source of community for marginalized people, but what happens when those spaces vanish?
Like many rural LGBTQ individuals without the means to participate in what author Kath Weston refers to as the Great Gay Migration to an urban and ostensibly more tolerant cultural environment, I’ve spent much of my life isolated and alone in small southern towns, desperately searching for a sense of community and belonging in a region that has very few social opportunities for the marginalized. One summer, while in college, I happened across a now-defunct naturist campground, hidden away at the end of a winding dirt road in the Cumberland Mountains. Almost immediately, I was welcomed into the community and treated as a member of its large, diverse, and ever-growing family. My summers in the naturist camp forged my belief that a philosophically-principled naturism has tremendous potential to offer a supportive, respectful and healing environment for those that feel unsafe, excluded, or unwelcome in mainstream society. A naturist space can offer a community to those that have no other place to call home.
But as naturist spaces vanish throughout rural America, and as naturists begin their own “great migration” away from small clubs, makeshift gathering spaces, informal free beaches, and communal skinnydipping and sunbathing spots, in favor of the commercial vacation destinations of the coastal regions, can naturism still hope to fulfill this potential as a diverse, welcoming community, as a great equalizer that can bring together all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs?
The Great Gay Migration
The Great Gay Migration, an expression coined by Kath Weston in her 1995 article Get Thee to a Big City, refers to a phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s in which tens of thousands of LGBTQ Americans left their rural hometowns for coastal gay meccas like San Francisco. A criticism of this concept of metronormative assimilation is that it establishes a limited set of aspirational identities and expressions that all LGBTQ people are expected to embrace, if they have any hope of infiltrating and participating in the larger gay communities.
In his excellent book Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, author Scott Herring describes a set of gay metronormative axes—including the narratological, the socioeconomic, the aesthetic, and the racial—that represent non negotiable requirements for participation in the dominant LGBTQ culture. Essentially, one must either follow the mythical narrative of the flight from rural repression to urban utopianism, and possess the wealth, the physical attractiveness, the sophistication, and the whiteness to properly assimilate into the dominant culture, or face erasure. Exclusivity is implicit. This narrative is reinforced by the LGBTQ press, advertisements targeting the communities, books, social media, television programs, and films.
In his article Urban Bias, Rural Sexual Minorities, and the Courts, Luke Boso makes this observation about the inherent limitations of the Great Gay Migration narrative:
The persistent call for sexual minorities to come out and integrate into gay communities signals that it gets better for those with the economic means to uproot from one community to another, the emotional detachment requisite to leave families and homes, and the social capital necessary for acceptance into gay communities. This narrative does not necessarily liberate poor people or people of color who find race and class hierarchies within gay communities. Nor does it liberate rural sexual minorities who embark on the Great Gay Migration and feel unsophisticated, backwards, and isolated by urban gay culture.
Throughout America, LGBTQ spaces are vanishing, and rural areas are especially impacted by the absence of these affirming spaces. According to Greggor Mattson, Associate Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College and Conservatory, 37% of the United States’ gay bars shut down from 2007 to 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lesbian Bar Project reports that less than 30 United States lesbian bars remain, down from 200 or more in the 1980s. “Bars in smaller cities, Mattson notes, “are often the only LGBTQ address for multi-county regions,” and their closure “leaves already-isolated LGBTQ people even more isolated than ever.” In addition to the bars and nightclubs closing their doors, LGBTQ community centers and bookstores have largely disappeared from American towns and small cities. The popular media narrative suggests that this trend is representative of society’s increasing acceptance of LGTBQ people. There’s simply no longer a need for segregated gay and straight spaces, we are told.
But it’s clear that in many rural areas, where LGBTQ residents don’t enjoy the opportunities afforded by their urban peers, the shrinking number of gay spaces has correlated with the disappearance of their associated communities, and contributed to a growing invisibility and intolerance of rural LGBTQ people. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 69% of rural youth described the area where they live as somewhat or very unaccepting, compared to 19% of those living in a large city.
Without essential resources, LGBTQ individuals remaining in rural areas are effectively isolated, silenced, forced into the shadows, and left to seek out community wherever we can find it.
Rural naturist spaces and marginalized communities
Marginalized groups in rural areas have historically shared certain communal spaces that have emerged along the fringes of mainstream society. For LGBTQ individuals seeking a sense of belonging in rural areas, remote, word-of-mouth clothing-optional gathering spots have often served as de facto safe spaces.
In an essay in Nude & Natural 14.2, Russell Nansen reflects on the diverse residents he encountered as a nineteen year-old spending the summer of 1947 at Alois Knapp’s Zoro Nature Park, a rural Indiana nudist camp. In his words, “there were blacks, both married and single, some old hookers who had been law clients of (Knapp), homosexuals, communists, Jews, an unusually large number of ministers, and retirees who would travel from camp to camp in their RVs, always comparing one camp with another.”
Not every private nudist park strives to be anything more than a weekend leisure facility. Indeed, most have quite restrictive admission policies. But there is evidence that some functioned and continue to function as my old camp did, and as Zoro seemingly did, as makeshift “homes” for the marginalized. In 2022, documentary filmmakers Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan turned their cameras on the residents of Florida’s Sunsport Gardens. The film is described as “a portrait of the rebellious retirees, LGBTQ loners, exiles from conservative America and families, all of whom have decided to make this nudist resort their home.”
Clothing-optional beaches have long been a source of community for marginalized individuals, throughout the country. In the November 1981 Clothed With The Sun, Michael Thompson identifies a number of nude beaches established by predominantly gay users, including Brush Hollow, Truro, Riis Park, Fire Island, Red White and Blue Beach, and Pirate’s Cove. “Pirate’s Cove was especially interesting,” Thompson writes, “because of the core group that lived down there at the base of steep cliffs. Among the group was a former Hell’s Angels biker, a runaway from Arizona, a young silent type with military haircut, a man and his wife, and a gay man with waist length hair and feathers in it.”
An alternative to an urban gay identity
Perhaps no single individual did more to identify and promote naturist spaces as welcoming LGBTQ spaces than Naturist Society founder Lee Baxandall. As author Brian Hoffman notes in his book Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, "Baxandall welcomed a growing interest in the Naturist Society among gay men and lesbians who saw naturism as an alternative to an urban gay identity defined by privilege, whiteness, and a depoliticized commercial culture."
Baxandall, whose earliest naturist activism occurred on the beaches of Truro, recognized the critical role LGBTQ people had played in securing clothing-optional spaces on North American beaches. In an editorial published in the November 1981 issue of Clothed With the Sun, Baxandall outlines the historical connections between the LGBTQ and naturist movements, claiming that, “in the 1960s and 1970s on the free beaches of California, New England, and Florida… gays had staked out remote stretches which were then shared by heterosexual couples and singles.” Fully crediting the LGBTQ communities for laying claim to many of North America’s established clothing-optional beaches, Baxandall goes on to say, “Gays on the nude beach have often led because of more experience at defying intimidation on behalf of values too central to abandon.”
In the April-May 1984 edition of Big Apple Dyke News, a lesbian feminist monthly, writer Joan Bramhall discusses the LGBTQ role in establishing clothing-optional beaches, including a section of Will Rogers State Beach in California. She then interviews the organizer of a lesbian nudist group, who describes how the group “loads on board a van and travels out to a secluded riverside area where they have yet to be stumbled across by outsiders.” Bramhall acknowledges Baxandall’s outreach to the LGBTQ communities and cites his Free Beaches Documentation Center in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, established in 1976, as a resource. “Here you can obtain names and addresses of free beach organizations across the country, some of which may be open to or even entirely composed of lesbians.”
In the June 19, 1991 issue of Outweek, columnist Jay Blotcher interviews several individuals for an article on gay naturists in North America. He notes that in 1983, Baxandall “had fielded enough requests from gay male nudists to feel that the time had come for the establishment of a special interest group for gay men. The Gay and Lesbian Naturists, an umbrella group for all lesbian and gay naturist individuals and groups nationwide was formed.” It’s important to note here that Baxandall wasn’t seeking to create a separate organization for LGBTQ naturists. Like all of the special interest groups affiliated with The Naturist Society, the Gay and Lesbian Naturists group was intended to serve as an outreach mechanism, to bring diverse communities into the larger naturist movement. Baxandall recognized that the future of nudism and naturism in the United States depended on building and sustaining a broad, inclusive coalition, and establishing diverse access points throughout the country.
The great nudist migration
But what happens when these alternative community gathering spaces follow the trend of LGBTQ spaces like bars and bookstores and begin to vanish from rural America? Since the late 1990s, organized nudism has witnessed its own “great migration,” one led by an exodus of institutions rather than individuals. While large nudist resorts and sanctioned clothing-optional beaches are flourishing in two or three states, many states have witnessed their nudist clubs, beaches, and groups disappear, driven by a set of cultural and economic circumstances similar to those responsible for the vanishing rural gay bars, bookstores and community centers. In many rural areas, property values are increasing, and nudist parks simply aren’t commercially viable. Additionally, clothing-optional spaces face intolerance, opposition, even hostility from local residents and law enforcement. And a growing number of anti-nudity ordinances and tightening indecent exposure laws in conservative states deter many individuals from establishing new, informal skinnydipping and sunbathing spots.
But this nudist migration has been driven, to a large extent, by the evolving consumer-focused nudist movement itself. The narrative that contemporary nudism is represented by “nakations,” cruises, and trips to luxurious resorts is one that is consistently reinforced by nudist organizations, media, and prominent nudist trendsetters and tastemakers. Nudist publications read like travel brochures. Nudist resorts market themselves as vacation destinations, not as communities. On social media, nudism’s self-appointed cultural ambassadors – travel bloggers and influencers who fill their feeds with photo and video essays of their colorful nude adventures – enthusiastically support this branding of nudism. Some even sell access to their posed and filtered nude photos and videos, further fantasizing and commodifying what has already become a largely commercial enterprise. By defining modern nudism as the antithesis of the old “naked trailer parks” of yesteryear, by promoting a nudism that is necessarily far away, expensive, and out of reach to many, with resorts that only welcome couples, and gatherings that are overpriced, invitation-only, or restricted to certain age groups, the nudist movement is sending a perhaps unintentional but nonetheless unmistakable message that not everyone can participate, and not everyone belongs.
Today’s nudist movement increasingly positions itself as an aspirational brand, driven by profit, and predicated on exclusion.
The implications of vanishing rural spaces
During my years in my old naturist campground, I came to appreciate that it was a space that attracted a number of LGBTQ people, who, like myself, were starved for community. In many ways, it served an identical function as the old small town gay bar did for so many, acting as a cultural oasis in a region that can be inhospitable to perceived outsiders. People whose ethnicity, age, sexual identity, disability, neurodiversity, mental health, religion, or socio-economic status represented barriers in nearby rural communities found a welcoming home at the naturist camp. This was where they came to have meals with others, to celebrate birthdays and holidays, to find the kinds of human connections and interactions they might not have access to in rural areas, where social opportunities are few, friends and family may be nonexistent, and even small differences aren’t always well-tolerated. When the naturist camp closed, a critical resource was lost, a community gathering space for people who had no other space to call their own.
While the loss of inclusive community spaces can be devastating for those living in rural areas, there are broader implications. In the case of the Great Gay Migration, there have been both social and political repercussions from encouraging LGBTQ citizens to flee their hometowns and confine themselves to four or five blue cities. The Great Gay Migration away from small towns and rural areas has resulted in the progressive elimination of LGBTQ community access points, a silencing of diverse expressions, and an acceleration of the cultural homogenization and urbanization of the LGBTQ communities. Across rural America, LGBTQ citizens are being legislated out of existence, due in no small part to the Great Gay Migration, whose promise of a distant urban gay utopia necessarily surrenders rural areas, and the people living in them, to the whims of politicians with supermajority control of state legislatures, and to the shifting public opinions of the regionally dominant cultures. As we’ve witnessed with the recent flurry of bills designed to silence trans individuals, shut down drag performances, pull LGBTQ books from library shelves, and cancel pride events, the constituency left in rural areas is often completely inadequate to fend off these attacks.
Like the Great Gay Migration, the nudist migration away from rural America has effectively eliminated community spaces and left naturists in many regions of the country without visibility, without organization, and without the necessary political clout to confront potential attacks. The nudist/naturist communities, by coalescing around an increasingly small but profitable set of spaces, in two or three distinct regions, have largely abandoned their presence in much of the country, eliminating access points for social opportunities, and growing further exclusive, inaccessible, and unaffordable to large swaths of the population, ultimately contributing to a geographically isolated, politically impotent, and effectively invisible national movement. 🪐
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