Memorial Day 2019

It’s the unofficial first weekend of summer and I spent it with my gay brothers at a campground in Northern Ohio called Freedom Valley. There were campfires, camp food, whiskey and, clothing optional, nudity involved. It was however during some fireside conversation that I got the idea for this post. I wanted to take a moment and share these thoughts, and while car camping is really not my thing, for some reason, I find myself drawn to the company of these guys time and time again. It feels a little bit like home.

My train of thought starts about two generations before me. Those folks who pushed the cultural tectonic plates until, against all odds, the world began to change. It was during the 1950s & 1960s however when the term “gay” became adopted over the somewhat more clinical “homosexuality,” heard time and time again as a way to group and distance “normal” culture from the abnormal. It was an era of dramatic social change. The thing to remember though is that this was just the current set of people who were pushing those cultural fault lines toward the kind of change that would make a world free of stigma, gay-bashing and hate crimes against the LGBTQ communities. Wait, plural? I’ll get to that in a bit.

I was born on the borders of 1970. My best friend, and accidental mentor, Nick, was born almost 15 years earlier. My boyfriend Eddie and I spent a couple of decades across many parties, dinners, drinks, breakdowns, Holidays with Nick always celebrating our collective past by remembering it together. Sadly, Nick has had a stroke which has squelched that fountain of rich GLBTQ history which I used to enjoy. While my mind was not built to store points in time, I do have a general sense of the patterns I heard both Eddie and Nick discuss at length. This, of course, reminds me of my history professor at The Ohio State University (OSU). He used to say “history never repeats itself, but it has a fetish for patterns.”

I believe it was the 70’s/80’s that Nick was talking about where gay men had establishments, well bars, we could go to in semi-secret. Some with actual slide trap doors so the people inside could sort of screen for threats on the outside. That may have been more the ’60s. Again, Not sure. The thing to take away here though is that our culture’s socialization found a home in bar culture. Of course, while under the radar to most, the police and fire department had a hand in enforcing “morality” by implementing things like fire lanes in bars where you were in violation by simply drinking a beer in those zones. That doesn’t sound like much in an era with safety plan maps in every building, but throw a police raid in there and it was a whole different matter.

Of course, there were other constraints placed on our socialization. One that always made me cock an eyebrow was the code where men who chose to dance together had to stay a certain distance from one another at all times. I suppose, in my opinion, these negative social constraints lead to magical places like “The Wall” just above OSU where gay men would cruise one another and hook up for sex all night long in back alleys. Or the infamous “book stores” where men would rent stalls for 20 minutes at a time and enjoy each others company. It’s also, I would speculate, the birthplace of gay subcultures like the BDSM, drag, fisting, bondage and so many other communities of men that came together, sometimes literally, in an effort to create a life and find belonging.

A page from gay history, the communication mechanism of “hanky codes.”

There’s also an argument to be made against the current atmosphere toward homo-normalization. I enjoy the creative force behind the subcultures that spun off in a time period of repression. Let me rephrase that though. It’s not the oppression but the innovative spark and the moments of connection that brought so many like-minded men, women, bisexuals, and non-binaries out into the open together in various groups. Such as the aforementioned BDSM culture that I’ve always been on the periphery of but not myself a member. Fisting was more my speed and I’ve met so many great guys over the course of nearly 3 decades now. Some of these guys are close friends.

So yeah, I went up to Freedom Valley for Memorial Day weekend this past Thursday. I was meeting a close friend of mine and his boyfriend for the first time. We had different campsites in the area called “tent valley.” There was an underwear party that one of the seasonal campers throws on Thursday nights. Lot’s of men feeling free to just hang out around a fire ring, have cocktails, conversations, laughter all through the evening under the trees together in little more than underpants. It’s one of many moments where all body types, backgrounds, walks of life converge and simply be real with one another up at that place. I think I find the atmosphere of acceptance one of the best things about the campgrounds.

Men on each others shoulders smiling shirtless near a waterfall
Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

It’s a moment that I thought about while talking with my friend and his boyfriend over a campfire at my tent site. Oddly enough, this is not my style of outdoor activity. People take 12 man tents, for two, and have all manner of tables full of appliances, rugs, bathrobes, disco lights, sound systems, fans, king-sized air mattresses, and the list goes on… however, it’s really dear to my heart. It proves my credo that whatever the reason, or implementation, anything that gets a person outdoors is totally worth it. I was standing outside my tent, buck naked, after the festivities calmed down and people were hunkering down when the thought crossed my mind that this place was sort of like the old Leather/Levi bar in Columbus called the Tradewinds. It was a social spot for gay men to meet, talk, share stories, make friends, fall in and out of love, dance and just generally be a safe place for guys to let it all hang out together among friends and explore together. The trick is to try not to judge one another like we all had to deal with on the outside world of that wonderful bubble.

Change, however, is the only constant in life. The Tradewinds is long gone and now we have mobile phone applications like Scruff and Grindr where gay men can simply push a button and alert another fellow that he is interested. But, as I alluded to when calling up old school places like The Tradewinds, you miss the body language, the nights, weeks, months it might take you, and the inner storyline, of getting up the courage to say “hi.” I’m not talking down the apps though either. Cultural change happens and technology assists (but does not lead these). Yet it’s nice to find places where you can still meet face to face and find some of that magic that has seemingly become scarce in the wake of all this change. Places like Freedom Valley.

It’s funny to think of these things as I have done a lot of hiking and backpacking now over the past few years. The times I have stayed in State Forest or State Park Campgrounds have so many parallels to gay camping. While these places are more family friendly, and there is a definitely different code of conduct, I have also been the neighbor to the straight couple who were drinking all night, listening to music into the late hours and then fucking like wild elk later under the moonlight. While there were no disco balls, drag shows, or shot parties involved, it’s a similar vibe that I get from gay camping. People just doing their thing and having fun together. Perhaps that is what we share with one another after all? Gay and straight folks are not that much different at all. And yeah, this past weekend was a little “extra,” I would not have changed a thing.

I walked away with some awesome conversations, some great new connections, a chance to meet some incredibly wonderful guys who are doing fantastic things with their lives. It makes me proud to give of myself, bare all so to speak, taking every minute to be honest and open with my brethren and just relax together while trying to make others feel the same way.

Men laughing together
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Though I don’t go as often as I’d like, these weekends are golden to me. I feel closer to my brothers every single time I get to laugh quietly about the enormous tents, disco lights, dance music, nakedness and frolicking all around me. I don’t think there is a better way to celebrate being alive in fact than just this kind of experience for those of us who are into this kind of self-expression.

I guess it’s yet another thing that I am truly grateful for. That and for all the guys I got to spend time with and get to know a little during the past weekend. I feel at once humbled and elated in the same breath. That and grateful for the continued friendships I have and the new ones I walk away with going forward into summer 2019.

While I am getting back to my backcountry backpacking soon, Dolly Sods and Hoosier National Forest are up next, I will return to these kinds of moments as often as time, and goals, permit with a light heart and a fresh pair of underwear for the campfire hangout with my brothers.

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