Welcome to the first installment of a new column from Country Queer writer Nashville Naturist. Capturing the magical, poetic, funny, and poignant moments of Southern Queer life as a Naturist. -Ed.
by: Nashville Naturist
Locusts splatter on the cracked windshield of my busted-up, oil-burning station wagon as I turn off the highway and head down the meandering dirt road. Kudzu vines swallow dogwoods whole and the unsettled summer sky threatens a thunderstorm. On the radio, Tiny Tim sings “I’m Gonna Be a Country Queen,” a gender-bending, one-man duet that seems long overdue for a cover. On the passenger seat, a flyer for an Independence Day potluck at a backwoods nudist camp.
Undress to de-stress this 4th of July! Lawnmower parade! Potluck! Live band! Dunking booth! Fireworks! All welcome!
The photo on the flyer depicts three nude people in front of a teepee. It doesn’t seem terribly queer, but it does seem delightfully weird, and I’ve found that weird spaces can often serve as queer spaces, safe havens for boys like me, searching for a temporary reprieve from the disapproving glares and disgusted whispers or worse of folks back home.
The rusty cattle gate at the entrance to the nudist camp swings open, and a nude woman holding a cat waves from the office porch. “Well, look who came to see me!” she exclaims, as if I am an old friend she hasn’t seen in years. Gravel crackles beneath the car wheels. Antifreeze boils beneath the hood. Cats dart beneath the porch. “Supper’s ‘bout ready!” Stormy sky above.
I toss my pants in the backseat and tread barefoot up the roughhewn steps of the lodge and onto the cracked linoleum floor of the sweltering dining hall, where grey-haired grannies hover over burnt pans and tinfoil-covered Cornflower Blue casserole dishes and mismatched Tupperware, stirring sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, seasoning green beans and turnip greens. They fuss.
These ain’t store-bought, I can tell you that! I was up all night snapping them beans. They ain’t got no strings in ‘em! I’m gonna be madder than a wet wasp if that Mississippi mud cake don’t turn out. That better not be thunder!
Grannies stir beans. Baked beans. Pinto beans. A beanpole of a boy chases a buzzing mud dauber with a guitar-shaped flyswatter. He offers me a Coke. An old metal box fan rattles in an open window. On the radio, Loretta Lynn sings “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Her 1980 single “Naked in the Rain” might have been more fitting in this moment. Thunder rattles the windows. Raindrops sizzle on the sidewalk like grease in a skillet. Lightning cracks open the black sky, nudists flood into the lodge, and the potluck is suddenly underway before the grannies are ready. They fuss.
Now, them taters ain’t no good without the gravy. Shoulda made tomato gravy for the biscuits. Shit, I ruined this corn with the salt. Don’t you let him have no beer unless you’re gonna take him home with you. I’ll take him home with me! Honey, you don’t want him!
On the radio, Tammy Wynette. Stand By Your Man. Lights flicker. Tammy cuts in and out. I prefer the Tina Turner version, from 1974. Tina sings it with ferociousness, shimmies in a San Francisco psychedelic Kaisik Wong dress, a blur of legs and sequins and feathers. Lightning.
In the camp office, there’s a picture of the owner, nude except for a feather headdress. Silver locks intertwined with red, blue, yellow feathers. The nudists call him the Chief. In the dining hall, the Chief and an older fellow are talking about the alleged “cross dresser” from the adjacent mobile home park.
He was sittin’ on his porch in a damn dress and panty hose! I seen him! Why, if I catch him in panty hose I’ll yank ‘em up over his head! Naw, shit, ya’ll all know damn well I don’t care what nobody wears! Let him be!
On the radio, Paula Cole. Static. Where Have. Static. The Cowboys Gone? There’s a naked fellow in a cowboy hat working his way down the buffet table. Just a hat. “Yes, ma’am” to the polk salad. “No, ma’am” to the fried corn. I think of the queer cowboy song by Ned Sublette, covered by Willie, Orville, Pansy Division. Just a hat. He walks past me, nods, says, “Hidee.” Wet blonde locks spill out from beneath a black brim.
At the bar at the back of the lodge, there’s a photo album of past camp happenings, and in it, there’s a picture of the Chief’s son in panty hose, wig, no dress. Halloween party. Costume contest. First place. He’s grinning ear-to-ear, holding a plastic trophy, neon Budweiser sign turning his bare shoulders blue. Tonight, no costume. He asks me to play a board game with him as rain pounds the rusty roof, streams down the windows. He talks about “his woman,” whom he says he loves even though she had his ass thrown in jail this one time over some shit about something or another. There are probably rules against straight boys and queer boys sitting around naked and playing board games and talking heartache, but rules are different here. He laughs as he tells me how his woman kicked another woman’s ass over him, and I find myself humming Glen Meadmore’s “I’ll Teach You to Steal My Man.”
The storm rages on. The outdoor pavilion is flooded and the band is rained out, but nobody seems to mind. Folks forage through leftovers, grannies gossip, boys laugh. I decide this might just be the only place I’ve ever felt at home.
A rural queer space can be almost any place, any place where folks without prejudices and preconceived notions congregate over greasy food and good music. The nudist camp’s full of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the kind. Widows, alcoholics, queers, regular folk, irregular folk. Peel off a layer or two, and you can’t hardly tell the difference. Scratch away the veneer. It’s all veneer.
“In here, we’re all tadpoles in the same puddle,” the Chief tells me.
The rain finally subsides. The sun teases us with a few rays, before sinking back into the blackness of the Tennessee hills. The nudists drift back to their tents and trailers and cabins, and I put on my pants, check the radiator, add a quart of oil and head for home. Windows down. Wind on my chest. Headlights flash across faded billboards. Motels with vacancies. Gas stations with fireworks and Elvis souvenirs. On the radio, Patrick Haggerty sings of a place where nobody cares who you love or what you wear. Some fabled place of acceptance that all rural queers long for, pine away for, search for, and sometimes find, on long drives on steamy summer afternoons, through lonesome hills and hollers, on roads that lead nowhere.