The Naked Eye
Diego had convinced me to arrive at seven pm.
Guys show up early, he texted me.
Wanting to be one of the guys, perhaps, I followed his advice. The sun was just beginning to limp beneath the rooftops as I emerged from the Christopher Street station heading west, past lingerie displays and incense dispensaries, past crushes of men heading the other way. I don’t remember what I was wearing that night other than an overly baggy pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in years. I’d kept them anyway, a tenuous link to a younger version of myself that was now mostly confined to my closet. There was never going to be a better opportunity to wear them, I figured.
When I found the bar, a squat brick box almost touching the Hudson, the front gate was locked. What kind of bar has a gate, I thought, unable to see through the windows, which were lined with trash bags. Still, $10. I yanked the gate, which gave just enough for me to shimmy through, walked up the quiet walkway, and opened the door.
I don’t know what I was expecting: sweat, flesh, leather at least, some kind of depraved gay fantasia. But instead there were eight older men on barstools, talking in twos and threes, wearing clothes. Portraits of Putin and Pope Francis observed serenely from behind the liquor bottles. I wondered whether I had gotten the address wrong until I noticed all the TVs plastered with dick pics, a montage of male genitalia interspliced with the message “INCLUSIVE AND AWARE COMMUNITY BUILDING.”
Realizing that I’d shown up a bit too early, I took a seat at the bar next to the disembodied head of a sex doll and, while waiting for the bartender to approach me, watched a drag queen getting ready to perform on a small stage in the corner of the room—Vida Vidalia, as she told me later. She unfurled fishnet stockings across her thighs and fixed her statuesque blonde bouffant while staring straight at me. Flirting? Mocking? Or merely observing? I looked at my fellow barflies, potbellied, balding, bearded men in their 40s and 50s who sometimes blinked in my direction. I was 23 years old, with a 5 o’clock shadow I’d been working on for several days now.
When the bartender asked what I wanted, I opened a tab and ordered a Bud, which here apparently counted as some sort of cry for help. Moments later, the man to my left turned to me, introduced himself as David, a 39-year-old art director (some names are changed to protect people’s privacy), and asked: “Are you straight?”
I was not. Although, admittedly, I wasn’t exactly there to be gay. I was on assignment—that is, completing an assignment, for a class about community reporting. The community I had chosen to report on was this monthly gathering, known as “Fuck Clothes, Get Naked,” which I’d discovered late one night while trawling online boards for queer groups in New York City. As the event’s listing had informed me, it was open to anyone so long as they identified as male and were willing to socialize with no clothes on for an evening, a stipulation that essentially guaranteed the night would be gays only. (At least, I doubted that any straight men willingly forked over cover to traipse through a dick forest.) To observe, I had to participate.
To say the idea of stripping down hadn’t fazed me would be half-true—it was half the reason I was there in the first place. Still, though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, what I was really looking for that night was a community. Well, that and some dick. A community of dicks, say. Getting naked with other gay men was something I was more or less used to, although I had never done it in such organized fashion. But being part of a community with them was, for me, much harder. At least, I had never been able to find a gay community, or to make one happen. Maybe that was the problem—I didn’t know, and still don’t, whether a community was something you found, or made, or maybe just something that happens given the right conditions, like the beginning of life or spontaneous combustion. More to the point: was not-fucking one of those conditions? The naked party adverts had promised that the night would remain free from “the pressure of sexual exchange,” the better to build an “INCLUSIVE AND AWARE COMMUNITY,” and yet I wasn’t sure what a gay community devoid of sex would look like. Still, I wanted to find out, to talk to other gays with their dicks out and see what happened. And if I couldn’t say whether I had come to find friends or lovers, the nice thing about being gay was that I didn’t have to.
I told David that I thought it was obvious I wasn’t straight, and asked him why he’d come tonight. “To blend in,” he said. I was about to probe what he meant, but just then the drag queen finished her rendition and yelled “Everybody take their clothes off!”
“I want a drink,” David said, but didn’t order one. Instead he stood up and started unbuttoning, as others followed his lead. This was it, the moment I had come to observe, but it didn’t look at all like the bacchanal I had expected. The patrons were stripping down yet acting like they weren’t, maintaining casual conversations about apartments, pets, and diets while shedding their shirts, pants, and underwear, revealing everything they’d been keeping hidden, the pimples and wrinkles, the scars from surgeries or accidents or altercations, the sagging paunches and sacks, the tattoos and birthmarks, the unremarkable penises. I thought back to the locker room at the Y I used to frequent, all those old and presumably straight men walking around with their leathery dicks out in front of them like drooping leashes. That nonchalance seemed to be what the evening was aiming for, not entirely successfully. The unclad crowd, still scant, milled around the vacant dance floor, mostly avoiding eye contact.
I stood up and started taking off my clothes, stuffing them into a personal trash bag provided by the bar. People were looking at me, probably, something I didn’t observe so much as sense. Though elsewhere I might have enjoyed the attention, here it felt somewhat stark, as if my bodily assets and flaws were being privately tabulated by everyone in attendance—or maybe I was just projecting. I felt like covering myself with my notebook, far too small for the task. (It was a very small notebook.) Instead, I picked up my drink and sat down next to a young man twiddling the straw of his G&T. Tim, a professional dancer who had recently dropped 115 pounds, told me that he was a regular at these events. At his previous size, he said, “I felt pushed away. I felt like I wanted to end it all because I didn’t have a physical purpose.” But these events reminded him that “everyone feels the same way.”
My initial reaction was defensive, a private protest that I’d never felt quite so strongly. But then I thought about all the other gay bars I’d ever visited, and about all the times I’d left alone, unsuccessful, feeling even more out of place than I usually did. I had supposed that was the price of admission, less to any specific bar than to queerness itself, that feeling of dislocation and unrequited longing, whether crushing on straight boys or observing other gays, not so different from myself, making good on their desires. But Tim’s optimism seemed to suggest that this wasn’t the only way.
On my other side, a burly Black man leaned on the bar, grinning directly at the pope, who was smiling right back. He told me that his name was Jonah, and he was 36. He had grown up attending Catholic school, and described the primary lesson of his childhood as “everything you do is evil.” He felt his path was set out for him: “Marriage at 18, eight kids by 20, a mortgage, a car payment, a heart attack. You know, the American dream.” He renounced that trajectory on a college trip to Europe, where he realized that he was gay, and a nudist to boot. I wondered if that exhibitionist streak might mesh uncomfortably with his continued Catholicism. But he didn’t think so. “If the Pope took his robe off, he’d be naked, too,” he said. “Hey, are you gay?” he asked me.
I told him I was, and that I was surprised he asked. I get the question more often than I’d like to while clothed, but here, at a gay bar, with nothing other than my naked body and my notebook to signal one way or the other, people still seemed suspicious. “I can see it,” Jonah allowed.
I wondered if the crowd’s skepticism said more about me or them. Although I had hoped that simply attending would render my queerness invitingly obvious, perhaps some reservoir of normativity within me was sending out anguished, squeamish vibes on wavelengths too subtle for me to pick up on. But I didn’t think so. Perhaps, instead, the questions about my gayness had less to do with my signaling, or my failure to signal, than with my position as an onlooker, not a participant. Others were flirting, dancing, fondling, and I was standing there, taking notes like a well-intentioned anthropologist. Though I thought I had adopted this pose in pursuit of journalistic objectivity, I started to wonder if it was really a sort of preemptive defense mechanism, a way of announcing my outsider status before anyone else could thrust it upon me.
In any case, I didn’t need to worry: I got plenty of attention that night, most of which I enjoyed. The men I met gave me meaningful glances and friendly pats on my back and bum. They asked for full-frontal hugs, and introduced me to a little something known as the gay handshake (a bit lower down than the straight variant).
As the crowd swelled to well over 200 attendees, I saw groups of men made up of various ages, races, and tumescences, chatting politely, mostly keeping their eyes level. A bald older man with a bulging midriff passed by, noted my notebook, and quipped “it takes a piece to write a piece!” We started talking, but soon a much younger man with implausibly perfect hair interrupted the conversation, caressing my ass before approaching my ear to stage-whisper that “it’s easy to lose yourself in these places.” I asked what he meant, and he replied “whatever you want,” before disappearing into the crowd. He seemed like the kind of guy who could get lost whenever he felt like it, a face that could launch a thousand search parties. Still, for most of the attendees, getting lost seemed less like a potential outcome of the evening than a permanent condition of existence. These men had insecurities, histories, demons that the party couldn’t entirely exorcize. But maybe the party was less an exorcism than a chance for your demons to talk to somebody else’s for a while.
The people there seemed hungry for that chance. All of them flirted. Most asked for my number. (Some got it.) A few of them, while my hands were busy writing down quotes, kept their hands busy as well. I could have asked them to stop but, eager for the scoop, I simply scrawled, in my tiny spiral notebook, “grabbed my dick.”
The first time this happened took me by surprise. Even though the physical sensation was unobjectionable, my reflex was to feel violated, the way I would if someone groped me on the subway. But on second thought, the analogy didn’t quite hold up. Although I obviously hadn’t asked to be fondled (unless you count walking around with your dick out as asking for it), I had asked for these men’s attention, which is what their gropes felt like, lustful but otherwise benign. Simultaneously sizing me up and gauging my intent, the groping was sited somewhere between a frank come-on and a friendly gesture, more of a pass than a sexual act unto itself. In this way, the frequent dick-grabbing embodied the central paradox of the event, which claimed to be free from the pressures of sex even as it created a perfect storm of exhibitionism, insecurity, and competition.
But then, none of that was unique to tonight. I had felt the same tensions in every gay bar I’d ever visited, not to mention in almost all of my friendships with gay men, a feeling of mutual understanding that coexisted with, or even depended on, the knowledge that sex was a possibility, and also not that big of a deal. When I finally found Diego, the event’s organizer, he immediately hefted my dick and inspected it approvingly. I asked him whether he still thought the evening was “free from the pressure of sexual exchange,” to which he replied: “sex is the lingua franca of gay male culture.” (Somebody nearby, shouting: “He just wanted to say ‘lingua franca!’”) In this sense, the nudity didn’t create sexual pressure so much as lay it out in the open, where it might be easier to talk about. The nakedness certainly bred a sort of immediate intimacy, distinct though not entirely divorced from more ordinary eroticism. The evening, that is, may not have transcended sex so much as rebranded it.
At that point I had been there for several hours, and my only desire was to go to the bathroom. Two men were pissing into a trough with their asses out, like a couple of toddlers. I took a spot between them and found that urinal etiquette still applied—looking around here would have felt sordid, a little cheesy. I tried to ignore the men around me and let loose but I found it impossible, half-expecting one of them to reach out and touch me. I started only when they were at the sink.
As the night wore on, the crowd began skewing younger, more conventionally attractive, less white. Those who had been there since early hours retreated to the room’s edges to sip their drinks quietly and watch the others dance.
The room’s outer rim was where I’d spent most of my evening, but I was no longer sure it was where I belonged. If this notebook-carrying reporter had any allegiances, clearly they were to the onlookers, not the objects of their desire. Watching a parade of Adonises descend to the dance floor, I felt the same pang of insecurity that everyone else did. And yet, I didn’t entirely discount my chances either. Though I still felt like the quiet, scrawny queer kid I’d been my entire life, I was also increasingly aware that this was no longer how others read me—or at least, that it counted as a desirable archetype in bars like this. If I wanted to, I thought, I could join the room’s center, could find someone to dance with, could even find someone with whom to go a little further than the gay handshake. The question was, did I want to? Well, actually, that one I knew the answer to. The better question was, if I wanted to find some dick, did that mean I had given up on finding a community? Had all the idealistic talk I’d listened to earlier in the evening been just that—talk? Just a quixotic rationalization for what was otherwise a chance to hob-knob and cock gawk? Even if it was meant sincerely at the time, that was back when the crowd was almost uniformly composed of older, rounder, whiter, balder men, letting it all hang out. Perhaps the comfort and confidence that these men had felt was due less to the nudity itself than to the sight of other bodies as messy, matted, and imperfect as their own, and the reminder that no one much cared what they looked like as long as everybody looked more or less the same.
These newer arrivals tended to care. Although they didn’t much resemble the pack of aging bears that had occupied the bar previously, the latecomers were equally, though differently, homogenous, composed mostly of the young, lean, well-coiffed twinks and twunks reliably found at any other West Village bar. One of the latter, a mid-thirties psychology professor named George, approached me and tried breaking the ice: “I can tell you work out.” He said he came here because he liked “being naked, seeing cock. I can do whatever I want to do,” although he did complain that there were “more people looking at my cock than I would like,” while simultaneously grabbing mine like a cocktail hotdog on a passing tray. He was cute, but the way he hefted my dick, entirely devoid of irony or charm, felt off-putting. What had he done to earn it? I shimmied out of his grasp and made for the bar.
There, I talked for a while with Jay, a 27-year-old Black consultant with a drink in each hand—he was holding onto one for his boyfriend, Jiyoun, but offered to buy me one too. Jay told me that “it’s basically only white people here. I look for diversity, but New York is New York. It’s not exactly comfortable.” Then why attend, I asked? “I’m a fetish here,” he said, “but I’m used to being looked at.” This didn’t surprise me, I told him, but then he did surprise me—he said that he and a bunch of friends were going to a gay Halloween cruise in a few weeks, and that I should come. Just as I finished giving him my number, Jiyoun came back, plucked his drink from Jay’s hand, and led him to the dancefloor.
Diego approached the bar and asked me how I’d enjoyed my night. I told him that I’d had several memorable interactions—all thanks to the nudity, he said. “It forces honesty. You don’t have a phone, you can’t put your hands in your pockets. You gotta have a conversation.” I’d seen a little more than conversation taking place here, I told him. He shrugged. “We will lick someone’s asshole before we know their name. Sex can be a default for people who don’t know how to converse.” But that’s not what tonight was about. “The end goal is to show that nudity isn’t always about sexuality,” he said. “It’s a big fuck you to everyone’s ideas about the gay community.”
Assuming that “everyone’s ideas about the gay community” were that we were only interested in sex, I didn’t see how a throbbing mass of naked men was going to change anyone’s mind. For one thing, were there even any straight minds around to change? If Diego thought that the night was a big fuck you to everyone’s misconceptions, I saw it more as a fuck you to the idea that correcting them was our responsibility. We hadn’t escaped the usual sexual hierarchies and insecurities, which were likely permanent anyway, but we had at least laid to rest the idea that, as Jonah put it, everything we did was evil. Admittedly, that idea was already pretty well dead before this evening, particularly among the younger crowd, who had grown up in a culture at least superficially more tolerant than our predecessors’. Still, a little reassurance couldn’t hurt. For instance, even though I’d never felt that my attraction to men was in any way shameful, this hadn’t stopped me from occasionally feeling ashamed of my attraction to individual men, particularly when it was unreciprocated, unfulfilled, or ultimately unsatisfying. But tonight, shame seemed beside the point. We hadn’t created a utopia, but I had seen some flashes of one, a world where the imperfections and desires people normally kept secret could be, if not answered, then at least not secret.
By 1 a.m., having fought off a hard-on for six hours, I was ready to leave. I considered asking someone to leave with me, but I didn’t recognize any faces, and the thought of starting over from square one sounded exhausting, so I reclaimed my clothes and dressed. As I neared the exit, I realized that I’d forgotten to close my tab, so I turned around and squirmed my way through the nude horde to the bar, promising my clothes I’d wash them when I got home. While waiting for my card, I took a last look around, and for the first time that night felt alone. In a room full of nudes, I had become an interloper. But then I left through the rear and, despite the October nip, didn’t bother to button my shirt.
Elliott Eglash is a queer writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He received his MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University, where he also taught undergraduate writing. His essays have appeared in The Font Journal, The Believer Logger, and Musée Magazine, and will appear in The Smart Set.