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The naked & the discreet

The naked & the discreet

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Should sex be put in its place at nude camp?
As I walked up the path to breakfast, I passed a naked man with a cell phone talking with all the enthusiasm of someone who has just seen God.

"This place is amazing! I'm telling you. I'm having the most fun I've ever had in my life. I never imagined. You've got to come next time. I'm definitely coming back."

I smiled and continued on my way toward the line-up for powdered scrambled eggs on paper plates, in full agreement that this was the best way to spend a vacation that I could imagine.

Every year now for the last 10 years, for a week at the end of summer, hundreds of gay men have descended on this campground in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania to shed their clothes and participate in the Gathering, sponsored by Gay Naturists International (GNI).

Though not everyone shares the religious ecstasy of my friend with the cell phone, an overwhelming number return year after year like pilgrims to a sacred shrine.

It makes perfect sense to me. Even though I've only gone for two years now, it already feels like a touchstone, a breathing space to consider the year gone by and the year to come - an opportunity to come out just a little bit further.

My first year I learned how to say hello. In Toronto I tend to scuttle from building to building with my head down, avoiding eye contact. At the Gathering it felt safe to smile and say hello to whomever I happened to pass, regardless of whether they were older or younger or prettier or had a bigger dick or if I had anything to say. The whole place radiates "get over it - whatever it is, it's okay."

The camp itself is beautiful but modest. It was originally designed to be a tennis camp for kids. Now, at various times throughout the summer, it becomes home to overweight teenagers, a police association, high school football teams and homosexual nudists. It has a lake complete with canoes and paddle boats, two swimming pools, two communal dining rooms, a few large buildings for group events and several cabins that each sleep eight to 16 people - the perfect setting to explore a gay revisionist fantasy of summer camp gone wild.

"Camp" is definitely the key word. Though clothing is not allowed (except when weather demands it), accessories abound. Certain men have been rumoured to drive up with U-hauls or ship enormous trunks cross country UPS to accommodate their supplies of feathers and sequins and leather.

Organized events include morning aerobics, themed afternoon cocktail parties, and innumerable contests - from the typical bar events like best buns and Mr Bare Bear to more off-the-wall competitions like cabin decorating and the drag race in which relay teams have to put together a coordinated outfit from piles of clothes strewn along a course. That kind of silliness doesn't usually agree with me, but at GNI, somehow, it works.

Sex can be wonderfully controversial. Some of us seek out every opportunity for orgasm and come home chafed and spent. Others see nudity from a more elevated perspective. They don't want sex in their faces all the time. They want to be able to get through a game of euchre without the distraction of primeval wailing and bodily fluids flying through the air. I imagine I could cope quite well engulfed in perpetual orgy, but even I have to pause at the thought of someone, say, fucking by the salad bar at dinner time - mmm, creamy cucumber....

The tasteful compromise is a designated area on the other side of the lake for sexual activity, where there are no restrictions beyond common courtesy and mutual consent. It's only a short walk from the main camp and contains trails in the woods, otherwise unused cabins, and more tennis courts (if you can figure out a way to use them).

Scheduled events on the other side of the lake include piss parties, pumping demonstrations, bondage seminars and the nightly X-rated campfire. Unscheduled events are up to the men who wander the trails at all hours of the day and night. You can watch them trance-like crossing the bridge like sailors to a siren's call. Except for the privacy of cabins and tents, the rest of the camp is sex-free - theoretically.

The so-called private parties are a bit of a gray zone. Several individual cabins sponsor parties that start off with a limited guest list but then expand by word of mouth to anyone who feels like dropping by. One of the hot parties last year was the glory hole party where the large porch and the space between two cabins was curtained off, with several strategic openings that were well used throughout the night. Another party was hosted by twin cabins with a western theme, complete with an Ok-Do-Me corral at the back, and a tee-pee lit so that everything that happened inside was silhouetted against the walls.

Issues do arise. The hot topic at the annual bitch session this year was sex at the disco (along with the food, busses to the airport and sarongs - sarongs offended some because they thought it a Dorothy Lamour contest, not in the spirit of true naturism. But on the other hand, etiquette demands that you carry around something to sit down on, and sarongs are light and colourful, so much nicer than ratty old towels).

It seems a number of guys got carried away at the disco this year, to the point where a warning sign had to be posted.

Unfortunately, I wasn't there when the disruption happened, so I can't tell you what went on. But I can just imagine. You've got to experience the disco to believe it. Picture hundreds of naked gay men of a wide distribution of ages and types and sizes throwing themselves into the moment - without alphabetical pharmaceutical party favours.

There is more than enough eye-candy to look at, but there is also enough variation in body types for anyone to feel comfortable being there. Music and writhing bodies and sweat, and podiums scattered throughout the floor on which those who feel so inclined can strut their stuff. This becomes a rite of passage for some, to dare to do it once before they leave.

The sex offended some and the signs offended others. The interesting point for me was that we gay campers chose to police ourselves at all. There's only us we might offend.

And why would we be offended? It's nowhere near the food. Where does etiquette end and internalized homophobia begin? The rules that apply at a Sunday school picnic can't possibly apply at a nudist gathering for gay men.

However, my friend Garth Barriere, a longstanding attendee, reminded me that the GNI Gathering was founded by men who had to fight for the right to be casually naked together in a social context. The main obstacle to that is sex. Public nudity on beaches is invariably tolerated only on the condition that there is no sexual activity, and where hetero sex is disturbing, homo sex is an abomination. From the point of view of the pioneers who put together this event, a blowjob by the pool is a threat to all they've worked for.

On the other hand, there is a bad boy element in all of us that has to come out, too. Part of the fun of summer camp is about getting away with breaking the rules, and I am proud to say that I did. On more than one occasion, a new-found friend and I dragged an air mattress under the shade of a tree and had sex all afternoon in the warm summer breeze, a perfect moment of the camp we never got to go to as teenagers. It wasn't quite on the other side of the lake, but it was fairly discreet, and nobody passing by seemed to mind very much.

The GNI board has had to tread a very thin line to keep everyone happy, and they do a good job of maintaining an environment where most guys who go can feel comfortable and safe. The resolution that came out of the disco issue was that erections are okay and fondling is okay - but penile popsicles are out.

Given the degree of consensus required to make the Gathering work, it is a significant experiment in creating a gay community - quite apart from the nudity.

It may be unrealistic to think that anyone could sustain an environment like that all year round, but I do try to take some of it home with me.

Sometimes on Church St I pretend that I am walking to breakfast at camp and everyone I pass is basically friendly and approachable and out to have a good time.
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