I went to a nude beach for the first time this weekend. I didn’t go to prove a point or for some exercise in exposure therapy or to reclaim a confidence lost to tragedy and ridicule. I went simply because my friends and I have heard tell of this mythic place in up state New Jersey and were curious.
A few weeks ago, we compared calendars and picked an available weekend just like you’d plan a trip to a vineyard or that cool new bar on top of an old school. The day finally arrived. We all got up early as fuck because we’re grown people who rise before the sun, packed up Brian’s car, made a trip to Starbucks and hit the road.
We arrived at the beach two hours later, bypassing all traffic. Gunnison beach is tucked away in a state park in New Jersey. For $15 a car, beach enthusiasts can enjoy a quaint and well preserved stretch of beach that feels sequestered and peaceful. There’s no hustle or bustle that’s generated by a busy boardwalk or dense residential development.
At every turn, the park gives off a family friendly vibe which I found surprising given that we were about to visit a nude beach. I had been primed to expect a gay-centric space that catered to muscles and hot bods. I found the opposite. Sunbathers of all sorts were there. Men, women and, presumably gender non-conforming individuals of all sizes, shapes and colors made camp with their umbrellas and coolers. At the bathrooms just outside of the beach we even saw families with small children though they seemed to hang away from the nude bathers.
In any case, what I expected to feel like a sexualized day was anything but. More like “anything, butt” am I right?! Anyway, my friends and I stripped down to nothing and enjoyed what felt like every other day at the beach I have ever spent in my entire life. Sure, I checked out the bods, but, like, even that felt like pretty common place.
Within my own self, I also didn’t feel any anxiety about getting naked. I was just one naked body in a sea multi shaped bodies. There wasn’t a specific aesthetic expected of the bathers. It felt inclusive and sublime.
I’m no stranger to being publicly nude so the whole ordeal wasn’t particularly shocking either. A friend of mine has been known to throw naked parties once in a while. A year ago, my two besties and I attended our first one. We weren’t sure what to expect. Given that it was thrown by gay men for only gay men, I was sure it would to turn into an Eyes Wide Shut situation.
When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by a horde of naked dudes holding solo cups chit-chatting like you do at a house party. We were directed upstairs, given trash bags for our clothes, and stripped down. The three of us shared a deep breath and made our grand entrance.
Sexualized it was not. Not really anyway. We all checked each other out, for sure, but strip away the stripping and it was a pretty standard house party as far as parties go. I caught up with people I hadn’t spoken to in a while, had some drinks, ate pulled pork and we all played a game or two.
After the initial shock subsided, the novelty of the nude bodies kind of passed and we were all just a bunch of cozy dudes chatting about Game of Thrones.
Now let me be clear, I didn’t walk into the party with anything resembling the confidence or nonchalance I’m presenting right now. I did a lot of soul searching, iron pumping and physical landscaping to prepare for it. I feel as complicated about my body as anybody else.
I mean, I love it. I do. Generally speaking, I think I have a pleasing face with balanced features. I’m relatively in shape and have an ass that won’t quit. I’m good.
But then there are those mornings or weeks or months when I feel betrayed by it. I’m either too bloated, too soft, there are too many surprise crevices that spring up as I reach for a T-Shirt in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
The journey to personal physical satisfaction is a damn bear and I’m just Leonardo DiCaprio wrestling it, doing whatever it takes to earn a damn Oscar.
That said, at this point in my life, I’ve been exposed enough times that I don’t really feel threatened or fearful of it. I accept myself, flaws and all, and understand that nudity can be a source of fun and joy.
But like all things that require extreme amounts of bravery, it often takes an unexpected thrust to cross that boundary.
Flashback to 2007…
I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college dancing for a very corporate theme park in Tampa, Florida which shall remain unnamed because I’m not tryna get sued here. I, along with seven other people, was put up in deluxe suites for the length of the gig. We worked six hours a day, six days a week and were home by 2pm with unlimited pool access at the hotel and free entry to a local water park. As far as summer jobs went, this one was pretty dope.
This was, however, an especially tenuous moment in my life. At this point, I had never admitted my sexuality to anyone save for the few guys back at school with whom I shared tawdry clandestine trysts. I made them all cross their hearts and swear to secrecy like all terrified closeted homosexuals do. And like most juicy gossip, word started to spread that I was one of Rupaul’s chosen people.
Nevertheless, my secret persisted. Or at least I chose to believe that. While I was firmly denying any public accusations, like Winona Ryder in The Crucible, I was also slowly beginning to personally accept the truth of accusations, like how I wished The Crucible ended #witchesrevenge.
Tensions inside of my own brain were high. My grip on that closet door was slipping and a swift breeze would have blown the damn thing off of its hinges. Fortunately, I was living with a group of people with whom I felt just as comfortable as I did unfamiliar. Our relationship began and ended with this job.
In our group were two gay men and five women who couldn’t have been more open and loving. I was asked on day one if I was gay or not. I choose to answer with the lie while white knuckle gripping my closet doors shut. Obviously they assumed I was in denial but no one pressed me further. Regardless, the gays boys treated me as one of the fold and I didn’t protest too much.
I decided this was the perfect opportunity to test out the homosexual life. We would spend our afternoons at a nearby water park. I know, they’re gross but we got in for free so get off my back. Bobby, one of the gays, made up a game where we would assess the hotness of the bathing men. If we passed a guy we wanted to smash, we’d say “No” and if we wouldn’t smash, we’d say “yes.” It wasn’t the most original code but if anyone heard us, it shrouded our intentions to a degree. I kept silent at first, making my own notes until I started vocally agreeing or disagreeing with the men they spotted but never initiating assessment. As it turned out, Bobby and I had similar tastes which he found all too fun.
During our stay, we befriended another sweet gay man, Andrew, who also worked at the park. Andrew took us under his wing and decided he would show us the fun places to go in Tampa. There weren’t all that many and, as I mentioned before, we worked 6 days out of the week starting at 7am each morning performing three times a day. Night owls we were not.
Monday was our day off and so we lived for Sunday Nights. We were a mixed crowd of people over and under 21 which made finding a spot that would allow us all in together a challenge. As it turned out, the only bar that would let us all in was this divey gay bar.
The first time we went there was as rebellious of a moment as I had ever experienced. Not only was I under age but it was my first time stepping foot into a full gay space. Nothing about who I told myself I was belonged there and yet I bubbling with energy and excitement to be standing where I was. I was flirting with what felt like every possible disaster.
I don’t remember much about the first night there. Partly because I wasn’t yet great at holding my liquor and partly because I was so concerned about how enthusiastic I appeared. At one point, Bobby and I were in the bathroom when someone flirted with me. I remember blushing and telling the guy I was straight. Bobby rolled his eyes and I dashed from the exchange but felt a powerful force drawing me back to that man. I never went back.
Another week went by and it was time for our night out. We went back to the same bar. That night, they had their outdoor patio opened. It stood over the sidewalk and overlooked the water. My friend, Amanda, and I sat on the patio and chatted with Andrew. I started getting loose as one does after a few drinks. I felt dazzling and magnetic, like I was letting myself fully effervesce for the first time.
Eventually, the three of us heard a ruckus coming from the dance floor. A circle had formed and inside of it was a drag queen emceeing what we took to be a dance contest. There was a shirtless man performing a lame Magic Mike-esque dance. This was, of course, before Magic Mike actually came out so we can’t hold his subpar moves against him now.
Amanda and I, feeling overconfident from the Long Island Iced Tea, decided that we could dance circles around this dingus. Were we not literal professional damn dancers? We slammed down our glasses, no doubt splashing cheap cocktail over the railing and onto the sidewalk below, and pushed through the riff-raff around the circle launching ourselves into its heart.
Now, for context, this was the summer that Rihanna’s “Umbrella” came out. We were HUGE fans of that song and naturally had our own choreography to it. I’m not sure if “Umbrella” was actually playing in this moment but we gave it a 5, 6, 7, 8 and fully and spiritedly started to set the dance floor on fire with our well prepared moves.
Just as we were deep deep into our groove, two burly shirtless men came charging into the circle and pushed Amanda aside. I started to panic. We were busted. Not only were we underage, we must have violated the official rules of the dance contest. We were pariahs and were going to be kicked out of the bar, or worse, arrested.
The two men flanked me. They were positioned within an inch of my face and back. I stood stone still ready to surrender myself and exit the bar with what I now understood to be the bouncers into the custody of the Tampa police. Then I felt a tug at the bottom of my Hollister polo. Suddenly I felt the man behind me yank the bottom of my shirt over my face lifting my arms above my head while the other man began unfastening my cargo shorts (remember, I’m still straight in this moment.) With my arms tangled over my head, I was unable to stop whatever was happening below.
Then, at the same time, both men pulled in opposite directions, tearing away my shirt and lowering my shorts to my ankles leaving me stark naked in the middle of the circle. The crowd began shrieking and I was left wholeheartedly alarmed and, honestly, fucking confused. I pulled up my pants with a quickness, grabbed my shirt off the floor and booked it to the safety of my group who had been watching from the perimeter of the circle.
It turned out the innocent dance contest Amanda and I attempted to crash was in fact not a dance contest but a strip contest. And because our dance was going on for far too many 8 counts without so much as a button undone, the go-go dancers, not bouncers, decided to take matters into their own hands.
It was mortifying. But fortunately, my company of pals helped me laugh off what was, in retrospect, a comical misunderstanding. Not only that, they had befriend another group of people who all wanted to get to know the “straight” fool who wandered into a gay strip contest. What was a truly horrifically embarrassing moment turned into a conversation starter and I was lauded as brave and hilarious: two of my favorite descriptors.
In the end, I not only survived but I also came in second place. Obviously this had nothing to do with the sensuality of my strip tease and everything to do with the fact that our party made up about a third of the people at the bar that Sunday night. The prize was free drinks all night which I rightfully decided was not necessary. And because this was before everyone owned a smartphone no one was able to record this moment which I maintain is for the best.
Most of my coming out stories were like this one: unexpected and immediately filled with paralyzingly terror. A simple conversation took a sharp turn and somehow I was completely and utterly exposed. Not every one, of course, ended with a laugh and free drinks. Some were infinitely more challenging than others. All of them are, however, cherished memories that forged deeper love for the people with whom I shared them.
It’s been ten years since that summer where I clung to the last vestiges of my secret. Where exposure seemed deadly. I stand now stark ass naked, amongst friends and strangers feeling the sand in my toes, the wind on my backside, and the sun on my front daring anyone to tell me to cover up.
I will, however, keep that spf 70 within arms reach.