Everyone’s got their own story to tell. And we think it’s interesting that no matter how niche someone’s experience is, we can all identify with at least a few aspects. In this blog post, we’d like to share a story originally published on AlmostWild.com. It’s the story of a young man who grew up in a conservative, evangelical home in a small farming town and struggled with his body image and sexual orientation. And like so many of us, he found solace in naturism. Read more from a proud gay naturist, below.

I am writing this piece—which I’ve been pondering and rethinking and stressing over for months now— in honor of being open and transparent about the stories that make us who we are, in hopes that it might resonate with others to help them feel emboldened to do the same. In the piece below, there are discussions of naturism, self-acceptance, coming out, sexuality, and how all of those facets intersect. I feel vulnerable publishing it, but I’m pushing through.

I am a 32 year-old gay man who grew up in a conservative, evangelical home on the outskirts of a small farming town. To say I’ve had issues with my body image is an understatement (my youth pastor wouldn’t even let boys and girls swim in the pool at the same time!). All the evidence suggests that my experience is not an isolated one, but it’s also one that I have not had a great deal of opportunity or willingness to be open about with others.

It always feels like a secret—a secret that I needed to keep because who else would understand? Who else would understand what havoc an evangelical upbringing can wreak on a young person grappling with thoughts and feelings that everyone around them was decrying as sinful, disgusting, ungodly, sickening, perverse, deviant… Who else would understand what that journey to self-acceptance and self-love looked like?

I don’t think there was ever any doubt growing up that I was different. I played with Barbies as much as I played with LEGOs, Princess Leia was my favorite Star Wars character, the first CD I bought was that Britney Spears album with the pink cover, all my friends were girls, and while the other boys in the family were going on hunting trips, I was hiding in my room organizing my Beanie Babies and rewatching Pocahontas.

I also spent a lot of time running around naked, making excuses to take off my clothes and run through the sprinklers or up and down the stairs… which makes a lot of sense, in hindsight. I was also a very quiet, shy, well-behaved kid. I knew I was different, even at a very young age, and I was terrified of the rejection that I might face if the other boys realized it, if the adults around me realized it. So I did not let anyone in, I kept to myself, and I created my own worlds to inhabit.

Then came puberty, which was particularly painful because not only was I suddenly six feet tall and skinny as a rail with acne and big feet and clothes that never fit quite right, but I was also struggling with a major conflict: The thoughts and feelings I was experiencing were the same ones that everyone in my life was telling me God hated and would send me to hell for. I felt unlovable, ugly, socially awkward, and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. All I could do was isolate myself even more, and for a young kid in the early 2000’s living in the middle of nowhere, that meant spending a lot of time on the Internet seeking the support and community that I lacked in my immediate surroundings.

I stumbled across nudism around this time and found something resembling the non-judgmental space I needed online. I found body acceptance and diversity of thought. I found and connected with other people who were overcoming issues with their bodies, who were reclaiming their skin, who could be gay or straight or young or old or black or white and connect with one another through those experiences. Through naturism, I could let go of all the expectations that society was pushing on me and I could just be me, even if just from the privacy of my bedroom. For a little while, things were good. For a little while, I felt OK. For a little while.

While puberty may have been painful, my coming-out experience was genuinely traumatizing. My time spent exploring naturism and connecting with other young naturists online had soothed the awkward body issues, but it could not prepare me for what was coming. I did not have the luxury of coming out on my own terms, instead it was thrust upon me. Without warning, everything I had ever known was ripped out from under me and I felt like I was in a free-fall. One minute, I was hanging out with my friends and playing board games and studying for my AP exams, and the next minute I was forced out of my home, out of my family, out of everything I knew.

I was given an ultimatum: Give up my friends and freedoms and change who I was willingly, or have it taken away and changed against my will. I took the third option and walked out, full of rage and terror and heartbreak. I lost my safety net, my support network, my hopes for the future.

For a period of several weeks, I was a homeless straight-A high school senior trying desperately to finish my last term of school. Shortly before graduation, likely to save face with the unwitting relatives who would be expecting a graduation party, my parents allowed me back into the house on my own terms: No conversion therapy or church counseling. Maybe a small win, but still I felt out of place, unsupported, and anxious, like I was surviving on borrowed grace.

A few months later, I left for college. Things almost felt back on track, except that I was more alone than ever. Geographically distant, yes, but also permanently disconnected from the support network that I had grown up with; that trust was forever severed. The love and acceptance and encouragement that my peers could rely on from their families back home was just… gone for me.

Being a young gay man in a much larger city than the town I’d grown up in offered some opportunities for exploration: Exploration of who I was, who I wanted to be, and what the world had to offer. Many of my pursuits for discovery and for the acceptance I was sorely lacking were tethered to awkward social settings and equally awkward sexual experiences, which is not to say that I was not in control, only that the gay community is unique and vibrant and multi-faceted and can also be a complicated space to navigate as a young person. I had a lot to learn about my body, about love, about growth, about relationships and boundaries and sex.

I can understand why someone who is strictly heterosexual may have never felt cut off from their sexuality, denied an entire piece of what makes them a whole and complete person, but many queer people are denied those experiences, are denied the opportunity to feel whole and complete, at least for a time. Many queer folks make up for it in what is sometimes called our “second adolescence,” a time to catch up on the social, romantic, and sexual experiences that our straight peers were all exploring—or at least discussing—organically as teenagers. The flip side of this belated sexual exploration is that it took quite a toll on my self-esteem and the way I viewed my body.

I was an awkward, gangly, young gay man trying to find my worth and navigate a sea of new expectations about what makes a man attractive, worthy of love, worthy of sex, worthy of feeling pleasure—it can easily make you feel disposable and objectified if you’re not careful. 

I still recalled the freedom that I felt when I was exploring naturism and nudism online as a teenager, dreaming of living free one day. I wanted to be a part of that community, but I felt so petrified that it would reject me in the same way that my family had.

As I approached my late twenties, I finally found myself in a stable job. I finally thought to myself, “I have time now. I owe this to myself.” I was determined to jump back into the community that I had felt so afraid to rejoin. I made a couple of nudist friends in my area, I visited the beach more often, I even made the trek out to visit a couple of the landed clubs… and then I started this blog to process what that all felt like. Throughout all these years, naturism has provided a balance to society’s demands, to the expectations to look a certain way, or act a certain way, or be a certain type of person with a certain type of body. I was finally in a place where I could put something back into this space, share my thoughts and my hopes for the future of this community, and ponder somewhat aimlessly about how naturism intersects with all these other aspects of life and identity.

It would be irresponsible to claim that naturism cured my insecurities about my body, but I can say that naturism has consistently been a tool I could pull out of my tool belt to help me ground myself and remember that my worth comes from within and not from what others see in me, to remind me to be kind to my body and to embrace myself and others for all of our imperfections, insecurities, and diverse backgrounds.

This philosophy of shedding our clothing attracts so many people from so many walks of life, all of us here for different reasons, to solve a different problem, to heal a different trauma or nurse a different wound… all of us here to be better at loving ourselves and being ourselves, discovering all of the facets that make us who we are. We sometimes forget that holistic self-acceptance is more than just accepting our fat rolls and knobby knees—it means accepting and understanding all aspects of ourselves from our appearance and physiology to our sexuality and psychology. For me, naturism encourages acceptance of all of those moving parts. It encourages me to accept myself for being gay, for looking a little awkward and being a little skinny, for being anxious… all of it.

I want to leave you with one final thought. As a queer naturist, I was fortunate to experience “coming out” twice, to experience letting go of the expectations that society burdens me with… twice. As painful and awful and shattering as my own coming-out experience was, it was also a release, albeit one that I had no control over. I was forced to let myself let go of the obligation to be someone I knew I could never be, to give myself the freedom to explore who I might be without those expectations looming over me every minute of every day. I was thrust into self-exploration but also into self-determination.

Perhaps to a different degree, naturism is the catalyst for a similar release: A release of obligation to another set of social rules and barriers, relieving us of feeling shame for being human, granting us permission to love our bodies for all of their imperfections and flaws, pushing us to see ourselves and one another as whole and complex. I think we should embrace that release… and celebrate the opportunities it offers for exploration of ourselves and connection with each other. Otherwise, why are we here?

Thanks for reading this blog, we hope you gained some new insights from it like we did! Do you have any advice for someone who is struggling to come out or be open about their identity, and how they can find support or validation? We’d love to read your comments below!