Letters From Berlin

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11/08/2003: "Modesty"


As uncomfortable as it was for me to shower naked with the rest of the guys in my class as a prepubescent ninth grader, I never would have showered with my clothes on. Some guys do. I never saw this back then, when I was a kid, but I have seen men recently do this in the showers at the midtown YWCA in Minneapolis, and in Elixia, a private club where I swim in Berlin. And it was policy in the showers for the pool in Galway, Ireland. You could not choose to be naked around anyone.

It all has to do with how we view our bodies, and modesty. As anyone who knows me knows, I donít put a lot of stock in modesty. I like to be naked, and I like to be naked around other naked people. In Minneapolis this was only possible in locker rooms. When possible, I belonged to a gym with a pool where there was more to do in the locker room than shower. Saunas, steamrooms, whirlpools are all great places to be able to hang out, in the most literal sense, and relax with others. Conversations happen when you are naked and taking your time that donít happen otherwise. In Minneapolis, this is always a same sex environment. Being gay, I enjoy having a same sex naked environment. There is always an undercurrent of sexual energy there. I think sexual energy is good. The one mixed gender exception to being naked in Minneapolis is at the (not legal) nude beach at Twin Lake. This provides for a curious situation. Gay men get to legally hang out, be naked together in Minneapolis, but not heterosexual men and women. In California and New York, as in Minneapolis, I have found that the nude beaches seem to sort themselves out to where there is a mixed section, and a gay area. (I will let someone else write about this from the lesbian and transgender points of view).

In Ireland I did not find a nude beach. I didnít even see naked people in the locker room in Galway. There was just one locker room for everyone. Inside that, there were numerous changing rooms, where you get out of your clothes, and into your swimsuit. Then you shower in your suit in an open mixed shower room, or out of your suit in one of two private individual shower rooms. Hmmm, I thought, this is a different appoach to a locker room. So far only this is the only locker room I have seen that seems to be ready to deal with more than two genders.

Here in Berlin, I have found yet other approaches to locker rooms. At the public pool in Krummestrasse there is a nude swim night weekly. As usual, there is a menís and a womenís locker room. People go into the locker rooms in their clothes, and come out to the pool naked. Only the dressing and undressing is gender segregated. At Elixia, where I swim now, there are also the standard two locker rooms. But, there is a wellness area, which combines a dry sauna, a sauna for water on the rocks, an area with chaise lounges to relax, and a steam room - for all genders together. Clothes are not allowed in the saunas or steam room. It was a bit disorienting at first, being around women (and men) walking around naked. I only knew this from nude beaches. Here we were indoors and sweating. I got quickly used to it, it seems a very natural thing, but the tensions shift.

For example, there are many Turks who live in the neighborhood near the gym. Turkish men go to the gym, and are more likely to shower in the menís locker room with clothes on (like a swim suit, or work out shorts). Some use the wellness area, naked. I have seen no Turkish women in the wellness area. I think I have seen a few Turkish women in the pool. Clearly where Turkish culture meets German culture on body issues, gender norms are very different.

And in this wellness area the sexual tension of a same sex menís locker rooms is gone. This is the least sexual gym I have ever experienced. From my point of view. A man entering the sauna the other day was clearly having a different experience. I observed him as he moved swiftly into the sauna to sit down, trying to conceal his erection. I thought, hmmm, avoiding sexual arousal always seemed to me an unfair challenge that we as gay men face in locker rooms. I always wondered how straight men would fare being naked around naked women they found attractive. It made me smile to see that at least one straight man was not up to the challenge, or should I say, that not all straight men had it down.


November 2003
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