Communities of equals. (Essay).
GAY men are far more likely as adults to live in some form of communal life or intentional community than are our straight siblings. The pattern has been noted in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Examining rural queer communities more than fifteen years ago, one author remarked on "the diversity of community helping structures that ... gay men have elaborated."
The sleepy farming town of Ukiah, California, seems an unlikely spot for a mass experiment in gay diffuse intimacy. Nestled in the amber foothills of Mendocino County, this is an agricultural town set in rolling farmland, the sort of place where nobody blinks when someone rides a horse downtown. Ukiah has at least two claims to fame. First, it bears the distinction of being America's only town whose name spells "haiku" backward. Second, it is home to the Sweet Williams (not its real name), one of the most genial experiments in gay male communality around. The group began in the 1980's as a network of rural gay men taking care of their neighbors and friends with AIDS and educating others about prevention. "You know, looking in on them, taking meals by, caring for animals," recalls an early member. "Just good old queer neighborliness." That queer "neighborhood" has now grown into a loose network of a thousand-plus men, many from isolated rural towns with names like Sebastopol, Willets, and Weed. Many travel th ree hours north from the Bay Area to attend gatherings. A few migrate from faraway places like Hawaii, Brooklyn, and London. All have come to be a part of the Sweet Williams mission: "To establish intimacy and community among gay and bisexual men, and to build bridges with supportive communities."
The July Fourth gathering may reach several hundred participants, with smaller convocations at New Year's, spring, and Labor Day, and several monthly potlucks. Whenever Sweet Williams gather, gentle acceptance has been elevated to an art form. As it was explained to me on my first visit by one attendee: "The default mode here is affection and acceptance with each other." The prevailing politesse of the place says that when someone approaches you, whether friend or stranger, a hug might be a perfectly reasonable place to start. Of course, after a day or two in this friendly space, what seems unreasonable is that anyone any place else would see it differently. "The key attitude here ... is no attitude," says Grant, a regular attendee. "It's such a welcome relief to the high-tension sexual scene in bars." The core ritual here--there are many--is the heart circle, where up to 150 men sit in a circle, sharing feelings and stories, narrating struggles and victories. As the stories unfold, men lie on the grass, on hay bales, sprawled across each other.
At random intervals, several blissed-out chums may clump into a free-form "puppy pile," a happy mandala of male parts, suffused in smiles and a simmering sensuality. (Imagine M. C. Escher meets Norman Rockwell meets Paul Cadmus, and you get the basic idea.) In circle, men listen to each other muse on their heart challenges, lost loves, personal griefs and victories, or offer life observations or anecdotes. The man cuddled next to me is rubbing the small of my back--the fact that we haven't met is mutually irrelevant. The man on the other side of me, clad in a flowered sarong, sleeveless lumberjack shirt, and a body that flatters both attires, says simply: "I never miss a heart circle." At the moment, an 87-year-old man is telling how it was to come out only three years ago, and discusses his impending death. The talking stick passes to the next man, in his twenties, who tells in a small voice that he has just learned he's HIV-positive. The stick passes and the next man offers a favorite Sufi erotic poem.
Over the ten days of gathering, meals are prepared and cleaned up communally. The programs flow from whatever anyone is moved to offer: meditation, a hike, drumming, discussions about leather, sex, gay ecology, holistic remedies for HIV, or just a lot of hanging at the pool or hot tub. Massages--non-sexual, Swedish, shiatsu, Tantric, sexual, clothed, naked, your choice--are offered on outdoor tables under huge oak trees, given and received for free. In the words of the day's kitchen coordinator: "I see men open up here in ways I see [at] no other place in my existence." The Sweet Williams share some features with the profuse network of gay adult camps now being created around the country. They go by names like Camp (Boston), Camp Lifeguard (California), Camp New Hope (Pennsylvania), and just plain Camp (Seattle). By whatever name, all are communal crucibles where grown men share group lives for a weekend, a week, or longer.
Penobscot Bay, Maine, is about as far from Ukiah as you can go in America without getting your feet wet. Instead of Mendocino foothills, the landscape is Maine birch forests, the locals more taciturn Yankee stock than mellow New-Agers, and the county's main cash crop blueberries, not marijuana. But the same spirit burns bright at the Make Beautiful Tribe that meets on Penobscot Bay. The "tribe" is made up of two clans--the Sunrise Clan, from the east side of the bay, and the Sunset Clan, hailing from the west. For 17 years, several times each year (in accord with Maine's migration seasons), they gather. The invitation reads: "Bring tent, sleeping bag, food for potluck, joy of being with men who love men."
"We're here to take care of each other for a weekend," says Ron King, one of its founders. "That means emotionally, physically, socially, sexually, and spiritually." Heart circles and touch exercises, massage, sex, and meditation are all part of the experience-not to mention the requisite Is-It-Talent? show. "Guys laugh a lot, and cry some. And don't forget the sex!" grins Mark, another tribal organizer. "It's about being with each other in whatever ways you want."
If one's tastes run to the less tribal, you can spend Sundays with the Bachelor Farmers Brunch Group, enjoy seasonal retreats of Mainely Men, prowl with a local Bear pack, join groups of Faeries at their solstice parties, or hike with any of several gay outdoor clubs. Northern Maine is so sparsely populated that the government still classifies many counties as "frontier." But when it comes to opportunities for diffuse intimacy, the networks are rich and elaborated.
TRAVEL down the coast a few hours and you reach what may be the purest experiment in gay communal intimacy yet seen. Two hours east of New York City, two clusters of wood-frame houses hug a precarious half-mile-wide sandbar between the bay and the beach. Two vacation enclaves, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, have been here for decades. When J. Edgar Hoover was donning drag in the nation's capital to lead the fight against perverts, Fire Island was already an established beachhead of the people-your-mother-warned-you-against. Thirty years later, Cherry Grove retains a genial mix of lesbians, gay men, and more than a smattering of straight-but-not-narrow bohemians. But just fifteen minutes down the beach, things change dramatically.
Remember that fantasy about God waving a hand and malting everyone on earth into a gay man? Well, She did. And behold, She called it Fire Island Pines. Hike from Cherry Grove across the patch of dune and forest known as the Meatrack, and you step into the most thoroughly gay-male municipality on Planet Earth. It is the site of a vast social improbability. The Pines is a living laboratory, the prototype of an intentional community that some gay men might create if they could.
One need never actually have set foot on Fire Island to hold strong opinions about it. We know it by reputation, that sun-drenched Sodom, a citizenry of the drug-addled and dissolute, full of wealthy, white, steroid-swollen gym queens. Books and films, magazines and porn have rendered the place as an endless carnal carnival, a bacchanal both delicious and dangerous. It is a mythic place in the gay imagination, our Shangrila, our Atlantis, or our Hades, depending on your perspective. Like any good mythic isle, Fire Island has its Sirens on the rocks, luring unsuspecting males to an untimely fate. Only here they are butch beach gods, Sirens on steroids. Their song is a fierce dance beat calling men to an island paradise of lustful pleasures, only to doom many of them in the rocky shallows of drugs and sex. What's more, life in paradise doesn't come cheap: it can cost thousands of dollars to take a bed here for the summer.
But spend even a weekend on this narrow isthmus and the myth begins to dissipate like a morning beach mist, as other shapes come into view. The first thing one sees is a charming skew of accustomed male mores. Everywhere men hug and smooch; couples walk, hands entwined or casually draped into the rear of a partner's cutoffs. On the Boulevard--a six-foot-wide plank boardwalk--groups of three and four men clasp hands as they stroll. In line at the Pantry checkout, arms drape over a friend's shoulders; pals tickle each other in the hardware store and bestow pats on heads and butts at Eddie's butcher counter. Couples make out in boardwalk alcoves, clumps of men sprawl over each other under beach umbrellas, and knots of sweaty bodies melt into each other on the dance floor. Everywhere an easy male affection suffuses the air. For a moment, one almost forgets it isn't like this on every sidewalk, in every small-town grocery store and butcher shop.
Although this affection is most visible in the public square, the most interesting forms of diffuse intimacy become visible only when you step behind the weathered wood fences. Tonight, in most of these 600-odd houses, a half dozen or more unrelated men will sit down at the table to share meals they have prepared together. They will clean up, argue over music, share bathrooms, go to sleep, roust each other from disco naps at 1:00 a.m. to dance, and learn to knock discretely before entering bedrooms (sometimes). Every April to October, thousands of such men come together and twine around each others' lives, trading boyfriend stories (and sometimes boyfriends), romantic dreams, and career woes, recounting life's vicissitudes, swapping drag outfits and Abercrombie shirts, and giggling over sexual exploits. They are part of the largest ongoing experiment in gay intentional community yet attempted.
It's easy to deride this place as a preserve for the wealthy and white, the privileged and the pumped. Some see here only an isthmus of attitude and rejection, and the place certainly has all of those elements. But the unsung truth here is far more interesting than the body culture, the dancing and drugs, the perception of exclusivity and wealth. For Fire Island is a sort of queer kibbutz. Where else do groups of men from age 25 to 55 (and up) step beyond the rules of single men and domestic coupledom to blend in a messy communal existence? Where else in American culture can a dozen grown men go off for weeks and merge their lives, sharing space, shaving cream, finances, house laundry, and activities night and day? Where else do they enact such intimacies among a menagerie of men they may never have known before this summer?
The People's Republic of Fire Island Pines is what locals call it, a winking homage to just how different the rules are in this place. It's a short mile and world away from the manicured lawns and SUVs of suburban Long Island just across the bay. Not just the rules of intimacy, but all sorts of rules are transformed. Doors are rarely locked here; neat rows of $200 sandals lie untouched all day at the edge of every boardwalk down to the beach; and the local police log doesn't show a violent assault in recent memory. For years, Don, a local (straight) insurance agent, has kept an eye on the insurance claims filed from The Pines. "It would be hard to find a place of this size with fewer claims," he observes. "For vandalism and theft, there really isn't much out there, not for years and years." But surely, he can recall something? He smiles. "A few years back some fella went home with a guy. I guess he was pretty looped, so while the all the housemates slept, he grabbed a can of black spray paint and sprayed wha t he thought were witty sayings on the white walls. They weren't exactly readable." The only other claim he recalls was when "some pissed-off guy broke into the house his ex-boyfriend was staying at. He cut out the crotch of every pair of pants in the poor guy's closet. Only thing was, it was the wrong house. Jeez, do you have any idea how expensive some of those pants can be?"
Render this island as a sun-drenched Sodom if you must. But see in it also a place where values of mutual support and camaraderie reign, where a value of basic American neighborliness thrives. Lift the top off these houses and one can find sex parties, cliques, drugs, and attitude. But you can also find a herd of friends weaving common lives, dancing in and out of each other's arms, living rooms, and hearts. It is our choice which parts of our story we tell. Do we caricature the perils of party life or honor a communal effort that started on a deck in an attempt to raise money to care for dying friends? Do we train the analytic telescope on the place and revile the revels? Or do we peer through its other end to behold a site of celebration, a sacred healing venue where thousands of men have valiantly resurrected a shared life from ashes of mourning and death? These are contradictions only if we insist on calling them that. Our story is not so easily written as we think. As Whitman reminded us a century ago, we are vast, we contain multitudes. Places like Fire Island invite one to look harder. Beyond the glare of skin and sex, all that sun and sand, something far more tender and sweet is taking root on these dunes.
Dave Nimmons is the founder of Manifest Love, a workshop series for gay men.
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|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2002|
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