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As someone who weighed 275 pounds at age 14, feeling comfortable in my skin has always been a struggle. At age 33 I decided to tackle my biggest fears head-first — by being naked with 600 other gay men in the woods for a week, at Gay Naturist International‘s annual GNI: Poconos trip.
Aug. 21, 2017, was a muggy summer morning in the city that never sleeps. At 9 a.m. the smell of hot dogs and garbage lingered in the heavy air, and I was freaking out. My bus to the Poconos was leaving two hours later, and I had nothing packed. I was heading off to Gay Naturist International, a gay nudist camp. I realized that worrying about what to pack was probably unnecessary since I was about to be completely nude for an entire week, so I downed an iced coffee, filled my smallest bag with leather harnesses and selfie sticks and ran to make my bus.
As I rode the Martz Trailways bus for an hour and a half, an enormous amount of agitation overtook me. I had been publicly naked at a few clothing-optional beaches in other countries, but this felt different. Being completely sober and casually naked in the Appalachian mountains had never even been in the realm of my agenda.
What if it was cold? What if I got excited during lunch? What if I got so uncomfortable that I wanted to leave?
I knew that would feel like defeat, so by the time I arrived I’d resolved to go balls-to-the-wall (literally) and leave my comfort zone on the bus.
I was greeted by a naked man in a hat who offered to take my things to my cabin.
“Lunch is still happening, so take off your clothes and join us in the cafeteria,” he said.
I quickly realized that I didn’t have any cell phone reception in the Poconos, so even if I wanted to leave, there was no turning back now. I took off my clothes and tried to fluff myself — you only have one chance to make a first impression — but I was so damn nervous that no matter what I did it was as if I was in a cold pool. I was starving, so finally I said ‘fuck it’ and walked by myself in my birthday suit to the cafeteria.
I opened the door tentatively to find a room full of around 600 nude gay men. As soon as I opened the door, five guys came up to say hello. They cheerfully introduced themselves, hugging me kindly and platonically, pressing their warm skin against mine briefly and welcoming me to camp.
I gazed around the cafeteria, and seeing the wide range of body types, I felt a sense of relief. Everyone has flaws, and here they were, out on display — and no one was worrying about them. I stood in the lunch line and skeptically stared at the vast options of food. I was deciding between salad, pizza, samosas, grilled cheese, Chinese food and mashed potatoes.
I played it safe and got a salad with a roll and made my way to a table of 12 guys. I was nervous but felt incredibly welcomed. I started talking to a young couple who also were at gay naked camp for the first time. They seemed nervous, too, but within 15 minutes we felt like old friends. It turns out there’s something about sharing a meal naked together that fosters a sort of brotherhood.
As gay men we often judge people on what they wear, the size of their goods and the shape of their body. I quickly realized there was something nice about knowing my body was bare and my penis was already out, so with that out of the way, all that was left for people to judge me by was my character.
After lunch, some guys invited me to go swimming. I went for a dip in the pool and basked in the sun wearing absolutely nothing, alongside a bunch of other dudes wearing absolutely nothing. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and preoccupied by it, as I’d feared, I felt liberated and at peace.
That feeling continued over the next five days at Gay Naturist International, while I engaged in naked daily activities like volleyball, mini golf, whitewater rafting, tennis, swimming and yoga. I laughed my ass off playing Twister, slid down a slip ‘n’ slide and attempted to play human-sized chess all while completely nude.
I stumbled upon a leather store on-site called Leatherwerks and was comfortable enough to partake in my first harness-making and S&M technique class. At 4 p.m. daily there’s a themed happy hour (so bring costumes if you want to play along). I attended a “lampshade”-themed party and wore a literal lampshade on my head, but some of these guys got super creative!
Each night Gay Naturist International offers entertainment like comedy shows, Mr. Leather GNI, drag shows, movies, bingo, a naked disco and much more. The drag shows were top-notch, and dancing naked for hours felt incredibly empowering. In the evening it gets pretty cold, but thankfully hoodies and blankets are allowed.
Gay Naturist International isn’t a big sex party. It’s a group of nudists enjoying life without the limitations of clothing. What I gained at GNI last year was a deeper appreciation for and acceptance of my body, lifelong friendships and a feeling of freedom that was unlike anything in the world.
To get more information and to register for Gay Naturist International 2018, click here and use my special discount code, RAVI18. Step out of your comfort zone and attend this summer’s Poconos retreat, taking place Aug. 17–26. GNI: Australia will take place Feb. 21–28, 2019.