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What could Florida’s government mean for nudists?
The politics of nudism: How Ron DeSantis's agenda could impact the nude tourism industry
The 2023 Florida legislative session just kicked off,1 and there is plenty to be concerned about for proponents of body freedom in the sunshine state. With the Republican Party firmly in control of both the State House of Representatives and Senate, and with Governor Ron DeSantis at the helm after winning reelection by a huge margin in 2022,2 many fear that the puritanical values of the conservative government will inevitably result in stricter laws and regulations against nudism and other forms of body liberation.
In recent years, the Republican-led Legislature has passed a series of discriminatory laws targeting the LGBTQ community—and other vulnerable communities in Florida. These include laws which restrict transgender youths’ access to healthcare,3 and ban gender and race studies in public schools.4 The state has banned trans athletes from sports.5 Multiple counties have removed books from bookshelves,6 some for reasons as innocuous as including nudity.7 The state has also taken aim at free speech and the discussion of race in schools.8 The city of Panama City has strictly limited a very lucrative Spring Break celebration9 seemingly due in some part to racism.10 In terms of limiting body autonomy and freedom of dress, Republicans in the State House have very recently begun posting flyers reinforcing a longstanding controversially sexist dress code.11 And with occasional reports about sexual activity on nude beaches12 in such a heightened political climate,13 it is not a stretch to assume that this same government will have no qualms about taking aim at the nude tourism which is so prominent in the state. Just this week DeSantis revoked the Hyatt Regency Miami’s liquor license for hosting a drag event.14 The current administration seems intent on attacking businesses and cultural institutions for supporting certain types of free expression.15 When it comes to issues of body autonomy and civil liberties, the belt has already tightened.16 Meanwhile, kicking off the current session, DeSantis himself proclaims, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”17
But how do Republican leaders feel about social nudity?
Florida is not just ground zero for authoritarian politics in the US, but for nudism as well. The state is home to several of the largest nudist clubs and beaches in the country, plus nude boat cruises and other event businesses, not to mention regional organizations such as the American Association for Nude Recreation of Florida and South Florida Free Beaches, both of which engage in political action and retain lobbyists in the state, as well as B.E.A.C.H.E.S. Foundation Institute which engages in legal, cultural, health, and environmental advocacy for naturists and clothing-optional beaches. B.E.A.C.H.E.S. has a powerhouse attorney as its legal counsel, Jeff Kottkamp, the Republican former Lt. Governor of Florida. Due to its strong ties to the tourism industry in the state, nudist organizations also have powerful alliances in the hospitality business community, and are involved in Florida’s political world.
Currently, social nudity in Florida is protected by Florida Statute 800.03, according to which “an individual who is merely naked at any place provided or set apart for that purpose” is not lewd or indecent.18 However, this protection is always at some risk of being re-legislated. Ralph Collinson, president of AANR-FL, told Planet Nude, “AANR-Florida through it's Government Affairs Team monitors what is happening in Tallahassee on a daily basis. While I don't foresee any direct threats of legislation aimed at curtailing nudist resorts or beaches or proposed changes to FS 800.03, there is always the threat of indirect or collateral damage from legislation aimed at other activities. We always have to be vigilant of proposed legislation dealing with alcohol and nudity or children and nudity. While these efforts may be aimed at the adult entertainment industry, the impact could inadvertently affect nudist clubs that sell alcohol for example or nudist resorts that have summer camps for naturist children.”
Indeed, nudist clubs have a history of being legislatively lumped-in with nightclubs and other adult businesses in Florida, which has brought certain additional hurdles for nudists who may not be able to rely on First Amendment protections the way nude performers can.
While nude recreation in Florida represents a $4 billion industry by some reports,19 that may not necessarily preclude it from DeSantis’s politically ambitious agenda. As he has demonstrated with Disney20 or with the Orlando Philharmonic,21 “Meatball Ron” has no problem exerting his political power and influence over major industries in the state in service of his culture war.22 His consolidation of power in the Republican-held state legislature has given him a broad platform from which to push through his policies, including those which have been criticized as regressive and puritanical. For Florida’s nudist communities, this means that they cannot afford to be complacent or assume that their interests will be protected. Rather, they should be proactive and vocal in defending their right to body freedom and the vibrant industry that supports it.
Republican lawmakers in Florida have already indicated that the current session will be guided by Governor Ron DeSantis's priorities,23 including proposals that would expand gun rights24 and further restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community.25 Nudists in the state are rightfully concerned that their lifestyle could also be targeted. Presumably, if the Republican Party were so inclined, they could hobble the nude recreation industry in Florida with a single vote. If that were to happen, it could have a serious effect on nudism elsewhere in the US, especially several states throughout the South which are already hanging onto their nudist clubs by a thread, many of which are eagerly mimicking Florida’s precedents.26
Florida's nude tourism industry has been thriving for decades, with more than 20 nudist resorts and numerous clothing-optional or top-free beaches, nude cruise and events businesses, not to mention nudist organizations and activist groups. One of the most popular nude beaches in Florida is Haulover Beach, located approximately three miles north of the city of Miami Beach.27 It attracts more than 1.3 million visitors each year, generating in excess of one billion dollars each year for the local economy. However, some fear that Haulover Beach—which has already seen an increased ranger presence on its beach and an icing-out of the nude beach’s longstanding volunteer beach ambassadors28—could become a target for conservative lawmakers. With baseless accusations of “grooming” frequently employed as an excuse for DeSantis to drop the legislative axe on whole communities,29 what is to stop an incident of sexual activity on a Florida nude beach from drawing unwanted political attention to social nudity?
But is that really likely?
Many are quick to point out that a large contingent of nudists are Republicans, which is of course true, and it’s quite possible that has worked to nudism’s advantage on some level in the past. In fact, after nudists were recently displaced from Playalinda nude beach after a hurricane damaged its access points and some wandered onto a nearby textile beach—in incidents which were for some in the local community a source of contention30—its report on Fox News drew mostly support for the nudists from the conservative readers in the comment section.31 Nudist organizations have Republican allies in Florida government. Furthermore, it’s impossible that DeSantis is not already aware of the nude recreation in his state, and hasn’t considered it from a political standpoint.
Martin Novoa, an active Florida nudism advocate and president of the B.E.A.C.H.E.S. Foundation Institute, holds a similar view. He told Planet Nude, “I think that overall nudists here have nothing new to worry about. My experience at Florida naturist resorts is that a majority of retired nudists in the state are conservatives. Currently our groups are full partners with Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, and it promotes our nude beaches and resorts as family-friendly vacation options.”
Florida's nudists have long been accustomed to facing opposition from conservative lawmakers. Since the 1980s, activist organization South Florida Free Beaches has been fighting anti-nudity state bills and county ordinances throughout Florida. As Shirley Mason, a member of SFFB and executive director of the B.E.A.C.H.E.S. Foundation Institute, recently told Planet Nude, “this playbook has been played before.”
In the 1990s, Florida was hit by a wave of anti-nude ordinances proposed by an organized religious right. Counties like Walton and Santa Rosa passed strict rules and regulations, banning public nudity and requiring specific areas of the body to be covered up.32 The anti-nudity bills and state ordinances were met with resistance from nudists such as Shirley Mason and her husband Richard, who argued that they violated their civil liberties. Fortunately the state bills were defeated, but unfortunately too many of the local ordinances were passed. Today, enforcement of the anti-nudity ordinances is not a major issue, with very few complaints being made about public nudity on Florida's beaches, thanks in large part to the advocacy and activism of groups such as the South Florida Free Beaches.
Because of her experience battling the religious right in Florida in the 1990s, Shirley Mason claims she is not concerned about Florida’s current legislature. “We’ve been down this road before in the 90s, and we’re a lot further ahead now than we were then.” And yet, she asserts that nudists should not be hiding away with their tails between their legs. “It’s not time to hide beneath the sheets. The more we get out there and show that we’re proud, we’re here, we’re naked, the safer we’ll actually be.” From their years of experience, the Masons' know that the best defense is a good offense, and to be prepared.
Martin Novoa says nudists are as prepared as they possibly can be. “As a gay naturist, veteran of the LGBTQ rights movement (I was an early ACT UP activist and GMHC volunteer educator) and someone with numerous friends in the trans community, I’m especially sensitive to what this current environment means. But stepping up to be shot is not a wise move for naturists right now. This isn’t a case of Martin Niemöller’s ‘First they came’, because we do not smugly consider ourselves safe. A closer analogy would be Otto Frank and his family.”
Martin has a much closer perspective on the situation in Florida than most, and he makes a strong case for non-action. “I fail to see how it’s anything but noble and stupid for naturists to speak out against what DeSantis and other Christian nationalists are doing to minorities. That’s for those in safe positions to be doing. Naturists can offer no protections and we ourselves are vulnerable.
“Our naturist community itself is a sanctuary, moreso than is society in general. Therefore our strongest position is to be like a church and quietly serve as a refuge for those who are being marginalized or worse. At the moment we look somewhat like the establishment, from the outside. We mind our own business and we don’t openly attack those in power. What we do internally is what really matters right now—and our work eliminating sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia and more within the naturist universe is far from complete.”
Still, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the potential threats from the outside. Never before has the state seen unchecked Republican leadership quite like the situation that exists in this moment. Ron DeSantis has consolidated an unprecedented amount of power in the state since first taking office in 2019. With a Republican supermajority currently in both the State House and Senate, DeSantis has already been able to push through a number of alarming measures that have drawn criticism from civil rights groups, environmentalists, and others.33 In a recent five-day session, the Republican supermajority validated every one of his demands,34 granting DeSantis total control of the board governing Disney,35 permission to fly migrants from anywhere in the US to destinations of his choosing for political purposes,36 and unprecedented prosecutorial powers to his newly created, hand-picked office of election “integrity”. Critics accuse DeSantis of fascism, while his proponents see the special legislative session as his “get out jail free card,” sweeping away legal obstacles and other hurdles that have previously threatened to stall his policy objectives, as if that somehow isn’t a perfectly accurate definition of fascism.
Taking a step back and applying some perspective to the Florida situation, I can only conclude that nudists are indeed right to be concerned, but there are reasons to be confident as well. It does not seem that nude recreation is under any immediate threat in this specific moment. Still, politics are fickle, and if a political opportunity presents itself, things could change on a dime.
What can nudists in Florida (and elsewhere) realistically do?
There is a cogent case to be made for nudists to keep their heads down and wait the current Legislature out. If we can continue to avoid the attention of Florida’s politically opportunistic leadership, perhaps brighter days ahead will give us a better advantage for fending off any potential legislative threats. There’s not much progress to be made lobbying the Republican supermajority anyway, since their legislative action will invariably tow the party line and traditional politicking in such a vacuum can only go so far. It’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if nudists sit still enough, they won’t be noticed, and all will end up okay (for them). In my view, it seems obvious that being vocally political in Florida right now would not serve organized nudism well.
However, a singular strategy of non-action would be a mistake. Nudists in Florida can not be complacent in the face of potential legislative threats to their way of life. While staying quiet may indeed be the best strategy for nudist organizations in the state in this very particular moment, these same organizations can also take a proactive approach to quietly building an offensive and defensive plan to protect their right to body freedom and the thriving industry that supports it. To this end, nudists and naturists outside of the state of Florida can be an important part of the larger equation. Put simply, nudist organizations should be working on one thing we were once much stronger at: coalition building. When we view nudism as a liberation movement rather than just a recreative industry, the importance of coalition building over membership marketing takes on new meaning.
One crucial step is to ally with other marginalized groups, recognizing that attacks on nudism are just one part of a larger culture war being waged by Ron DeSantis and the far right. The issue is not exclusive to the Florida Republican party, but a broader authoritarian movement which is affecting the world far beyond Florida's borders. By working together, nudists can amplify their voices and build an activated coalition to fight against discrimination and oppression. This may look different in California than it does in Florida, but by embracing these communities and building these alliances, nudists can better fend off threats against nudist spaces, as evidenced just last week in Toronto when LGBTQ groups effectively used the protection of queer spaces as a successful argument against proposed development plans at Hanlan’s Point nude beach.37 By staying silent, nudists choose not to ally with the victims of these authoritarian measures, but the perpetrators.
I am once again reminded of a quote by naturist activist Lee Baxandall, one that gets trotted out a lot in this newsletter, because it’s evergreen:
“A naturism which separates from other vital liberation movements in society, and fixes only upon the external forms of its differentness from majoritarian values, is already a sect, a curiosity, and on its way to extinction.”
—Lee Baxandall, 1981
This sort of situation is exactly what Baxandall was referring to. A nudism movement which is content to sit on the sidelines is doomed. Speaking out about the benefits of body liberation and the importance of protecting this way of life is the only way to promote naturism, and reject authoritarianism. Only by sharing their stories and experiences and views can nudists and naturists can help to educate the broader public and build support for their cause. Hiding, sitting on our hands, trying not to be noticed, these are bad strategies for defending our place in the world, when it eventually does come under the threat of fascism unchecked, which it most certainly will.
What nude recreation, comprised largely of socially privileged people, stands to lose ultimately boils down to recreational spaces, while other much more vulnerable communities literally face legislative erasure.38 Ultimately, the fight for body freedom in Florida is about more than just recreational spaces. It is a fight for autonomy, dignity, and respect. While nudists will benefit from a broader coalition, allying with vulnerable communities in the state isn't just something individual nudists should do for nudism, but because it's also the right thing to do. Liberty and freedom of expression are naturist values. For these reasons, nudists and naturists must stand up for their rights and work to protect the vibrant industry that supports them. With a strong and active coalition, we can send a powerful message: that the people of Florida and the nudists of the world will not stand for discrimination and oppression, and that they will fight tirelessly to protect their own—and others’—right to body freedom. 🪐
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Florida Senate Legislative Calendars https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Calendars/2023
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Florida Statutes - http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0800-0899/0800/Sections/0800.03.html
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Florida House Bill 150 - https://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=77403&
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Listen to the story of Haulover Beach on Naked Age, Ep. 7 “The Mother and Father of Haulover”: https://www.nakedage.co/episodes/episode/d38e6eee/the-mother-and-father-of-haulover
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Jones, Ryan Patrick. (2023, Feb. 19). City attempts to quell LGBTQ+ community's concern about future plan for Hanlan's Point. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-islands-master-plan-concerns-1.6753510
Hannah, J. (2023, Feb. 15). States’ push to define sex decried as erasing trans people. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/politics-kansas-state-government-arkansas-health-8f2edaa40b962e5642e108b83bc14246