I’ve had two back-to-back weekends of excitement and absurdity, with lots to reflect upon. The first was Philly Trans Health, and I wrote some initial thoughts on that experience. Lots more to write about, though. Then, this past weekend, I attended Lakes of Fire, a yearly regional Burning Man fest in Michigan.
Some background on that: Burning Man is the big yearly festival in Nevada. It draws tens of thousands of people, and – not surprisingly – has resulted in Burner communities springing up around the country. Some of those Burners then organize regional mini-burns, like Lakes of Fire, which are supposed to hold to the same ethos and general experience of Burning Man, but on a much smaller scale. I was invited to Lakes of Fire by a few friends I trust, all of whom are peripherally involved in the Chicago Burner scene. None of these identify full-on as Burners, but all enjoy the community to a greater or lesser extent, and I trusted them when they said they thought I’d enjoy Lakes of Fire.
I ultimately did have a great time at LOF, and am still doing some major processing on the experience. I’ll have lots more to write in the coming weeks, I’m sure, but wanted to start things off with a post linking something I thought about at both PTHC and LOF: Nudity, and it’s place as a social and political act.
On the first night of PTHC, there weren’t a ton of scheduled activities or parties. The friends I had driven out with decided to invite people to the hotel pool, and hang out with some other queer folks. It wasn’t an amazingly raucous party, but it fluctuated between 10 and 15 people and we had a blast. (We also now want to start a queer chicken fight league in Chicago, although I can’t imagine any pool letting us do something so unsafe.) As tends to happen with a group of queer people in a pool, we started loosing some clothing and myself and one or two other people ended up totally nude.
This was the first time I’d been skinny dipping. I had already given a lot of thought to the value of trans folks feeling safe in a pool environment, particularly after seeing the kids and counselors at Camp Aranu’tiq last summer all hang out at the pool in an incredibly body-safe and identity-affirming way. But skinny dipping is different than swimming with a suit on, or even swimming topless. After making a concentrated decision to perform topless, I’ve become pretty OK with baring my breasts. (OK, lets call a spade a spade: I really enjoy being topless.) But I like my boobs; I have a very complex relationship with my cock, and am having a vaginoplasty in December. Getting totally naked was more than a little scary.
But I did it. After another friend took off her suit, I decided I didn’t want to leave her the only skinny dipper, so I stripped. It was scary, but it was also fun. I was surrounded by queer bodies, many of whom were trans, and it very much felt like a safe space.
Afterwards, a trans friend said she was jealous of how comfortable I am in my body. I’ve thought a lot about that. There’s some truth in it, in that I do feel a body comfort I don’t think all trans people (or all cis people, for that matter) feel. At the same time, I was really scared and uncomfortable taking off my bathing suit bottom, but I did it anyway. I did it more because I want to be the type of person who does that kind of thing, than because I actually think of myself as that type of person. (This gets back to a question I often think about, of whether confidence is felt or perceived.)
Lakes of Fire was a whole different ballgame. PTHC was a primarily queer space, and heavily trans. The pool party was a relatively intimate gathering, even though there was always the worrisome possibility someone would walk in on all of us. LOF, on the other hand, was primarily (although definitely not exclusively) a cis and straight space. It was a closed camp ground, so I knew no one would just be wandering in off the street, but I still wasn’t sure if I was surrounded by allies or not.
A day or two into LOF, some friends said they were going to go skinny dipping and swim to the pontoon island at the center of the small lake. The island had a bar on it, with dancing, and you could hear the music from the shore. I’d swam out to the island a few times, and enjoyed the energy there, but skinny dipping – out to a destination with dozens of strangers – was scary. Again, I decided to do it, more because I wanted to want to than because I was sure I actually wanted to. My friends got naked, and I dawdled. “Lets go,” one said. “Being naked means different things to me than it does to you,” I replied. They – gently and lovingly – encouraged me, and I ended up stripping down and heading out into the water.
The swim gave me time to think, and to keep my body hidden beneath the water.
The day before skinny dipping out to the lake, I’d participated in a small bout of coconut oil wrestling. (It’s that kind of festival. I’ll give a more straightforward chronological narrative of my weekend in another post.) I did that totally nude, too, but I knew a bunch of the people, including the organizer, and it was maybe 10 people in a clearing in the woods, not dozens of people on a raft in the middle of a lake. I stripped down and jumped into the ring for many of the same reasons: I wanted to be the kind of person who does that. It looked like fun. And I really wanted to kick the organizer’s ass. (Which I did, although I must admit I cheated. Tickling just seems unfair in wrestling.)
There had been no negative comments about my body, and no weird looks, all things I kept in mind while swimming out to the bar raft. The wrestling organizer, who I like and respect a lot, complimented me on my wrestling abilities, which made me glow. (I’m sure the coconut oil helped with that, too.)
When we swam all the way out to the island bar, my three friends quickly hopped on the raft, had a drink, and began dancing. They weren’t the only people on the raft who were naked, but they definitely brought an increased energy. I, on the other hand, said I needed a minute and began doing laps around the raft. A few people I’d met already tried to entice me to come up on the island, but I wasn’t ready. I hunt along the edge, body submerged, and watched the revelry. I started to feel bad about myself, about my body, jealous at what I saw to be perfect naked bodies dancing, without a thought or care of whether their genitalia would be cause for alarm.
After a bit, my friends noticed that I was still in the water. I asked one of them to come over and said to her, “I’m scared. I need you to tell me to get over my shit, get out of the water, and come dance.”
She smiled, looked me in the eye, and kindly but firmly said, “Get over your shit. Get out of the water. Come dance.”
That moment of connection tipped the scales, and I hauled myself up onto the island and started to move my body.
The experience was incredibly scary, and incredibly positive. I got a few looks, a few thumbs-ups or “You look awesome!” type comments, and a few friendly-but-a-little-creepy sexual comments. (More on those in a later post.) Through it all, however, I felt entirely safe, both emotionally and physically. I wasn’t expecting that, and was pleasantly surprised.
I can’t yet finish this post the way I want to, with intelligent things to say about bodies and politics and visibility and activism. Part of that is because I haven’t finished processing it all, myself. Part of it is because I’m running on too little sleep, and head out to LA tomorrow through July 7, so I’m more than a little frazzled.
For the time being, I’ll end with this:
When we swam back to shore, one of my friends commented that he thought what I’d done was really brave. I thought about that for a moment. I said that I usually don’t like being labeled as brave; that what I’ve done usually feels like necessity, not bravery. But, in this case, I felt entirely comfortable being labeled ‘brave.’ What I’d done wasn’t an intentional and thoughtful act of visible activism, but it absolutely turned into one. And I’ve been having really positive conversations, in person and on Facebook, with other LOF attendees who felt a similar unexpected and positive energy from my nudity on the bar float.
And, if nothing else, I can check ‘go skinny dipping’ off my to-do list.