If you call yourself gay, but spend your days working, fretting, fussing and setting an alarm clock, you should get your ass to Burning Man in 2016.
It’s an oasis of delight in our deserts of routine. Is this annual art/music festival gay? Its own survey of last year’s attendance shows it to be largely straight, white, young, affluent, and West coastal, but rest assured that if you are none of those, “burners” are above all else playful, welcoming, inclusive and desirous of sharing a lot more than their water bottle with you!
A larger than usual number describe themselves as sexually fluid, and this is where they go to let it spill.
Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is about as inhospitable a place as can be imagined. Blazing sun, hot dry air, blinding dust storms and night temps that approach freezing will challenge even the most seasoned camper.
Why then did I join the 70,000 “burners” who congregate there for an annual week of swarming bicycles, outlandish outfits or nudity, sex, drugs, booze, fellowship, careful hydration and cringe-inducing porta-potties?
I did it because, until you’ve been to Burning Man, you just haven’t quite completed yourself, and you’ve missed a bus that takes you back to your playful and childlike self. For almost 30 years, the annual Burning Man festival, culminating in the ritual burning of the 100-foot tall wooden Man that towers over the circular “Playa,” entirely vanishes at the conclusion of its week, honoring one of its ten basic principles, that the festival should depart the desert having left behind not a single sequin or feather of evidence.
LGBTQ burners constitute a large segment of a festival that celebrates polyamory, sexual fluidity and sex-positivity. According to its own Burning Man 2014 census, burners are mostly people who own up to a higher than usual (30%) sexual fluidity. Much older than most, I would add that burners – gay or not - make a serious effort to set aside the prejudices and cautions and social boundaries that often ostracize people. Sexual playfulness at Burning Man very often includes folks of every description and orientation whose overlapping demonstrations of physical affection are refreshing. I experienced kaleidoscopic combinations of folks in large meeting tents, or more intimate couplings in smaller yurts, tents and RVs. Burner orgasms are often followed by the question, “Why can’t it be like this all the time and everywhere?”
Having said that, I must swiftly add that Burning Man is about you and what you make of it. The instant anyone attempts to define it - as did I just now - a chorus of protest will dismantle that definition. I camped with a group of men including some who are in recovery (There are plenty of AA meetings and events) and some who are in monogamous marriages. They were equally at home, while having an experience of the week that was vastly different from mine. I cannot think of anyone who ought to avoid or would not enjoy Burning Man except for those with serious physical limitations or health issues.
For gay folks, Burning Man is where bears, twinks and every other variation of the LGBTQ community and its friends happily mingle and celebrate each other. It’s a pity that we have to go deep into the desert to experience the love and respect we constantly talk about and work diligently to protect through our activism.
I camped in Burning Man’s gayborhood and spent much time at four of its largest groups, “Comfort And Joy,” “The DownLow Camp,” “Celestial Bodies” and “Glamcocks,” each constantly offering a wide variety of music, art, events, drinks, food, parties and performances, all of which are free to anyone who wandered into their space. (Another of the ten basic principles of Burning Man is decommidification. Gifting is mandatory. For example, at the popular Celestial Bodies bar, all drinks including their cosmos and beer were free. This is true also of the hundreds of other camps offering free food and drink.)
As you cycle through Burning Man (a bike with lights is a necessity) you need only wear anything (or nothing) that truly expresses your soul. Don’t be afraid of the tutu or the silk scarf or the majorette outfit, the splendiferous tights, the oversized bling or the feathered hat.
The most remarkable ensemble I saw was a man wearing a platinum Doris Day wig and a brocade cocktail dress with a white satin portrait collar. He carried a large cocktail in one hand and dragged a vacuum cleaner with the other as he staggered across the Playa feigning bitter disillusionment. I stood and cheered. He never broke character. Just remember that whatever you wear has to allow for a breathing mask and goggles for the frequent sudden dust storms and has to be coupled with sensible boots to keep your feet protected. You will also always travel with a cup clipped to your belt or bag to receive the beverage offered by the next camp into which you tumble.
What did I see and hear and do? Time allows you to experience only a small amount of what happens at Burning Man. Your experience may be vastly different from mine. I went to a Motown disco where I showed the kids on the dance floor how to move like the Temptations.
I went a week without a shower (but went through hundreds of wet wipes) and the men still got frisky on me! I had my misfortune read by a laughing man drenched in rubies. He said tomorrow would suck, but that I might like it. As I walked through the temple watching the silent tearful reverence of folks honoring their dead with written messages and little altars of mementoes, I learned that young people have not lost the need for ritual, but must reinvent what organized religion has trashed.
I learned that I am less of a princess than I had presumed, and am able to rough it with the toughest. I learned that I could give up control over what was happening around me, and that it was okay to wake up from a nap covered with a thick layer of dust and draped with some new friends.
As Burning Man came to an end, and as I watched the RVs and tents and campers all around me disappear in succession, leaving only empty trapezoids of flat sunburnt desert where there had been flamboyant merriment, I learned to embrace my extremely tiny place and moment in the universe. Because life passes in the twinkling of an eye, we need to spend it singing and laughing and in gorgeous colors and loving each other in all ways imaginable.
If you can handle that possibility, and if you can direct your personal behavior safely, go to Burning Man next year. Such great fun, I might do it again.