Courage (in Chicago)
The following text is my reportback from Bash Back! 2023, simultaneously published here and submitted to Bash Back News, where I hope it will be published soon. There are more than a few references that might be obscure to folks who weren't there, who don't know some of the pertinent lore. I hope that that does not diminish the value of the piece to the wider readership.
On the sunny afternoon of Sunday, September 10, 2023—the third day of the Bash Back! network’s physical and psychospiritual reconstitution in Chicago, Illinois—it felt nearly all of us fags, dykes, freaks, and all combinations thereof, alongside however many theyfabs with cis boyfriends in tow, had assembled on the shore of Lake Michigan just west of Montrose Harbor on the breakwater.
How can I describe the scene? How much should I? Everything is already fading into memory, but a few images remain in sharp focus. Two smiling and naked women with dicks, big teeth and big laughs, standing and talking and drying in the Sun just to the side of where people are jumping into the rough water of the lake. Later, another trans woman, wearing nothing but a covid mask over her face, up close and personal with the fucker who had not only decided to film the scene with his smartphone, but who had insisted on keeping it up when he’d been told to stop.
Personally, I was nervous about getting naked, and I had my reasons. I pushed myself and did it anyway, jumping into the water—a little cold and a little rough for my liking—but when I got out, I was fairly quick to put my swim trunks back on, to conceal my dick and my butt. It had nothing to do with body shame; it had to do with society. The Montrose Harbor breakwater is not a sanctioned clothing-optional space. There is, in fact, no such public space anywhere in Chicago. (Mere days before the convergence, on September 4, the city government had affirmed as much, removing a sign at Loyola Beach to the north that had declared it a “nude beach”.)
Most other people didn’t get naked either, but there were a lot of naked titties, and those are legal in the state of Illinois, if various infographics on the internet are to be trusted. Exposed groins and butts, however, are definitely not legal. Where we were located is at a remove from the city as such, its police-patrolled streets and the great masses of its cop-calling good citizens—yet in broad daylight, with sight lines and cell phones and passers-by, it was not quite enough for me to feel safe. Or rather, comfortable, which is an overlapping emotional affect to be sure. This, despite the fact that I know that I could have been naked as hell in that crowd, out of the water as much as in. For all the inter-participant drama that the weekend generated, I don’t think it’s likely that my loose pecker was going to elicit much more than an eye roll from even the most prudish of attendees. And weather-wise, it was a perfect day for it.
Unfortunately, the police continue to exist.
What happened has already become legend. The blood dripping down the smartphone guy’s forehead. The mistake of clemency, when his phone was tossed inland (with a remark of “go fetch!”) instead of propelled lakeward with speed. When fuckface came back a bit later with some cops in tow, one person was put in handcuffs briefly, but eventually all members of the anti-fun brigade backed off without arresting anyone. It was a good time. Or, a victory? Or at least better than a lot of us would normally expect. People continued to chill, to drink, to laugh. But, there’s at least one sad aspect, which is that instead of a maximum six to seven people (out of nearly two hundred) being naked at a given time in the water or out of it, that number went all the way down to zero. This amounted to something of a buzzkill, given what was still only the mere inching towards free bodies in the air and sunlight that had been in evidence a few minutes before the ruckus started.
I don’t know how many people would have needed to get naked in order for me, the nudist blog guy, to feel a bit better doing so myself and staying that way, rather than spending my brief time naked in the relative obscurity of the lake water. But I think there is a number. The threshold to reach would have been a bit higher up still, for me to feel comfortable stepping away and walking my bare feet on the grassy embankment, navigating through the dense crowd of people, to where my friends were seated. Going to where the barbeque was—or hell, maybe approaching some new folks and trying to start a conversation, would have been still another step up. And how about ditching my clothes for the rest of the evening?
I have no pretense to being anything but a relative coward when it comes to potential friction with the state and/or just with other people who I expect are better at fighting than I am. I don’t especially like rowdy or hairy situations, e.g. Ryan Harvey’s concern trolling article from 2009 (title: “Are We Addicted to Rioting?”) was never written about me. Really, it’s for the same reason that I don’t like rough water. To put it succinctly, danger alarms me. A cool thing about a lot of anarchists, however, is that danger doesn’t seem to alarm a lot of them nearly half as much—and I’ve always thought that was pretty cool, personally!
A side effect of this relative ambivalence towards danger, however, is that we sometimes do stuff that pisses each other off. That is why a white-passing, girl-passing (something something) got jumped and at least two of her locs cut off earlier on Sunday. She probably knew, in 2023, that some people would have strong opinions about her hair. The two that jumped her definitely knew that a lot of people involved in the convergence wouldn’t think their action was very cool. Anarchists, typically, don’t call the cops—not on other anarchists, and not anyone else. But that means we have to resolve our conflicts with one another in other ways. Is it surprising that when most of us don’t know each other and a lot of us have pretty strong expectations of what other anarchists should be doing and how they should behave, things sometimes get a little fighty?
The reason that, even as the nudist blog guy, my nudity was brief and confined to the waterfront, is that I was at least a little concerned about my dick being in proximity to, and at eye level with, strangers. Anarchist faggot strangers they may have been, and as I said earlier, I deem it unlikely anyone would even say anything, let alone get physical. But apart from my fear of what might happen if the police came, there was still an inkling that, as with masks and veganism and which people are too shitty to be allowed to come to the warehouse rave—and of course the most urgent issue of our generation, white dreads—anarchists are not on the same page about nudity, e.g. when and where it is appropriate, when and where it is not.
Can I share with you, though, that I regret it? That I didn’t live out that other timeline, where events played out exactly the same way, but I was more fully the anti-civ give-no-fucks and (provided the correct ambient conditions) fully naked queerdo I am at heart.
In this alternate history, the mêlée still breaks out a little bit later, but this time, my scandalous exposed penis, and any other nudity that my own had inspired up to then, is part of the reason why. I would probably still hang back from the action, maybe even a bit further back—but well-impressed by the aforementioned naked go-getter with the covid mask, and knowing that the cops wouldn’t be around for a while at least, I might have been able to talk myself down from putting on clothes too quickly. Things necessarily get more speculative when we think about buddy returning with the cops, but never mind that. Even thirty more minutes of not wearing clothes, which would have weighed me down and made me sweat, would have made a sweet afternoon even sweeter. To be as naked as I (often) want to be—not while I was writing a reportback in the safe space of my nudity-optional anarchist household, but while adjacent to anarchist history’s unfolding in dangerous outdoor space, in a moment that would matter to me later and to other people later—would have been a special treat indeed.
I had, by Sunday, heard about trans girls’ place in the holy war—one between insurgent but frightened right-wing Christianity and its allies, on the one hand, and between, well, us, which is to say queers and anarchists and perhaps adherents of an altogether different, necessarily antagonistic “religion”. The spiritual stuff was heady and I’m not sure I buy it. But I saw that big smile on the one whose face was turned to me, like Baphomet with breasts and transfemme cock, glowing in the Sun and looking happy and in danger and being normal. It was beautiful, but something that our enemies would wish to snuff out, to make ontologically impossible and physically unrealizable; and something that trans-inclusive blue America still treats as terribly excessive, a violation of a norm that needs regulating. The logic in the dominant culture is that exposed penises are antennae radiating psychic violence, that women must be at all times presentable, and that transness is pitiable when it isn’t pathological. Simply by existing, the nude comrade Baphomète-in-Chicago, radiant by the water, nullified that culture in that moment, at that location. (Sorry for turning you into a metaphor, sister! Usually I’d ask for your consent for that kind of thing, but I don’t know who you are.)
Now, of course, I’ve turned it up a notch or two from how I really feel. One of the takeaways from the convergence is that fags are dramatic, so I’m playing my part. Like the Suck Cock Not Covid cohort, the ungrateful hyenas, Flower Bomb, and the crypto-Maoists, I have an agenda.
In the little attention economy of the geographically dispersed Bash Back! network and its supporters—now overlapping with many North American anarchist scenes, from at least Montréal in the northeast to the Bay Area in the southwest, from Pacific Northwest towns and cities to denizens of the Weelaunee Forest—it seems like the best move is ALWAYS to turn up the emotional pitch. Use the word “eugenics” in your graff. Lift the cut locs above your head and shout “And I’d fucking do it again, bitch!” Ask a presenter if they are “even an anarchist” for not wearing a mask. I don’t know what the anarcho-nudist equivalent is, but I guess I could argue that jumping into the lake with clothes on is cowardice; that there should have been ostentatious public nudity from day one (what if even three or four people were naked during Flower Bomb’s workshop in the cemetery across the street from the venue when that guy came over and asked about shutting it down?); that privacy is basically a fake idea and really only the concern of liberals with generally vermin-free fixed addresses; that radlibs are at least twice as tolerable when they are nudists; that a lot less energy should be spent worrying about saying the right thing and more priority given to making sure that everyone’s junk is getting enough fresh air; and that this is, bar none, THE THING that everyone needs to talk about. (Civil war in ‘24? Never heard of her!)
There is no time like the present, with that weekend in September still fresh in our minds and rumours of regional convergences in circulation, to get nudism on the priority list and nudity on the dance floor.
I want to think of Bash Back! as harbingers of something better than this world. Additionally, I get the impression that, in theory if not in practice, a lot of us are ready (if not eager) to see more of our friends get as naked as they want to be, when they want to be, where they want to be. By no means do I think this is actually more important than, like, anything else. If anything, compared to a Serious Issue (let us gravely bow our heads and Think on Them), I would acknowledge nudism as, like, maybe not quite as important. But we had orgies, we had games, we had squats, we had expropriated cans of caffeinated fizzy beverage. In other words, we had good shit, and I think it’s fair for us to want even more.
It’s apparent enough that most of what happened in Chicago in September was at the behest of a core group of only seven organizers who taxed themselves to the very limits—and despite the fuck-ups (do you know that 17 trainhopping teenagers starved to death because there was no food on the Monday?), I think things were pretty good, overall. But, improving the conditions of our lives (which includes relieving as many people as we can in the overlapping scenes of our subculture of their wretched anxieties, their most Victorian of sensibilities, and their dead weight of cotton-polyester blend) not only makes us less alienated, and more dangerous as a result, it’s also more or less what all of this is supposed to be about. You don’t have to be an egoist or whatever to include yourself in the category of what you are fighting for. Thinking through how to expand the option of nudity for participants at our events, and navigate competing interests and preoccupations in our messy dramatic camp with (and hey, this is just me) as little violence and suffering as possible, is of a piece with other problems like how to make our parties cooler, how to make our drugs safer, how to distribute hormones for as cheap as free, how to turn down the notch a bit on shrill and outraged while turning it up on self-confident and slutty.
Anyway, personally speaking, I’m ready for some new kinds of drama: whether white nudity is allowed on Stolen Native Land; just what level of FUCKED UP it is when someone unconsensually inhales unfiltered pit stink from the biggest naked oogle in the room; bitching out the organizers because they didn’t prioritize shower facilities in their event planning. I think—to use the watchword coming out of Chicago—it would be generative.
Down with civ. Shed the armour. For anarchy, experimentation, and freedom in all domains.