Note: This essay contains photos featuring naked bodies.
I became aware of World Naked Gardening Day in 2018. At some point in history, a group of passionate nudists declared that we, the people of Earth, should dedicate a day to getting naked and weeding. I was fascinated. As a self-described ridiculous person, it was imperative I found a way to participate.
I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me to just get naked, go out to my patio and plant something. It just didn’t. My brain immediately defaulted to, I must share this silly holiday with the world.
I had no idea how to throw a nudist party and didn’t even consider myself a nudist, but I did have a network of queer artist friends, so I invited them to create the content for a queer, nudist art magazine with a gardening theme.
To my surprise, people were very interested. The party happened and the art we made together during it was great. I worked with a friend, John MacConnell, to lay it out as a magazine, and Natural Pursuits was born.
I was incredibly proud of the first issue and firmly believed the project would be wildly popular. It seemed conservative to print just 1,000 copies. I assumed it would sell out in a few months and I would order more — thereby quickly becoming a publishing magnate. Instead, I sold only 150 in the first six months. Cardboard boxes full of issues became the cornerstone of my interior design aesthetic and my bank account was hurting.
My biggest hurdle was not being able to tell people the magazine existed. Because of the full-frontal nudity, it was impossible to market on Instagram and Facebook. At the time, they both had clauses in their user agreements that prevented businesses linking to sites that contained nudity. I resigned myself to the fact it would take me a very long time to sell my inventory.
Despite my lack of sales, people kept asking when the next shoot would be. I loved the project, so I chose to keep going and think of it as an expensive ― but very gratifying ― hobby.
Because I was over the queer, nude plant zine concept, I decided to devote each new issue to a different hobby. The Game Night issue was shot in spring of 2019 in a packed Brooklyn apartment. Participants brought cameras, sketch pads, guitars and puppet-making supplies. Everyone was ready to be naked, play games and make art. I was as proud of that second issue as I was the first, but, considering my track record, I ordered only 400 copies.
I was planning the spring 2020 magazine shoot when COVID-19 happened. The in-person shoot was, of course, scrapped, but I made it a priority to keep in touch with my artist community. The pandemic had a huge financial impact on most of them ― gigs were nonexistent and stimulus checks only went so far.
I wanted to help, so I moved the magazine online. I charged a monthly subscription fee and highlighted the work of different queer artists who primarily work with nude subjects. I paid each of them for their work and, although I couldn’t offer much, I was touched by the artists’ gratitude. I was grateful to them as well: Creating and updating the site was a wonderful distraction during lockdown, and my audience was growing.
Not only were people enjoying the online content, but many of them told me they were anxiously awaiting the return of my in-person events. I realised I didn’t just have an audience, I had a community, and as the world began to open up again, I started hosting monthly art-making events to create the articles for the site.
I’ve hosted over 20 nude photo shoots since then and have asked hundreds of participants about their experiences. I discovered one of the main reasons people come to nudist events isn’t for sex or to gawk at genitals, it’s to move past their hang-ups about their own bodies. I can relate. Seeing all of those people with so many different bodies carefree and smiling in those World Naked Gardening Day photos had made me want that for myself.
Thanks to some residual puritanical shame, getting naked in front of strangers is weird for almost everyone. We are taught that our bodies are inherently despicable or embarrassing or gross and should only be seen by medical professionals or the people we’re sleeping with. Queer people, including myself, frequently have an additional layer of shame that stems from the stigma we encounter growing up in homophobic environments, where we were taught that important parts of our identities and bodies were broken. Unsurprisingly, this stigma damages us in myriad ways.
Frequently it leads masc-identifying individuals to strive for some idealised (and often unattainable) physical form ― sculpting the perfect Adonis-like body or growing to bear proportions. We become hyperfocused on the parts of our bodies that we don’t consider perfect, like our weight, body hair or penis size. I’m too lazy to go to the gym all the time, too small to be a bear, and am far from hung. Because I never felt I had a body that was worthy of being seen, I was always apprehensive to get naked in front of anyone ― let alone a room full of people.
With the vulnerability it takes to strip down in mind, I made it a priority to create as comfortable a space as possible for my events. Part of my approach included removing any sexual component from the gatherings. This way, attendees aren’t worried that friendly gestures might be misconstrued as foreplay, and everyone can relax, get to know one another, and concentrate on having a good time.
Since sex isn’t allowed, some participants are incredibly worried about erections. The apprehension is understandable. Most of the spaces where queer men can be naked, like locker rooms, are places where a boner can get you beat up. In my case, people worry that an errant erection would result in them being asked to leave, and at least once a week I reassure someone through email or DM that, yes, sometimes people pop wood, but it’s not a big deal — everyone simply ignores it until it disappears.
So far, the formula is working. Participants quickly begin to realise that bodies are just bodies ― they come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and there’s nothing inherently shameful or dirty about them. We move past our own hang-ups without too much effort and just enjoy each other’s company.
It was only after I began asking attendees about their experiences at the meet-ups that I began to realise what I built. A trans-masculine participant told me, “Among a community of sweet and nonjudgmental queer folks, I experienced a very pleasant freedom. I could choose to trust that others would see and appreciate me, and treat me kindly. And, if I could find it in myself to accept and love what I was, I too could be among a group of queer men and masculine people celebrating the pleasure of the breeze on our skin.” Another guest said, “I grew accustomed to my nude self, chatting openly about my life and aspirations with others, and even participating in a photo-op or two. I was witnessing something beautiful ― something genuine.”
I understand now that attending my events may feel like going to a fun party, but it’s actually an act of bravery. It’s a moment where we declare that there’s nothing wrong with us and that we’re worth knowing just as we are. In those few hours together, we create a space where we feel free and accepted in our “imperfect” bodies.
I wish I could end this story here with me quitting my day job to create queer, nudist art and community because it’s become such a wild success. But that’s not what happened.
Things were going great for a while. I shot the next print issue ― this one tattoo-themed ― kept up the pace of monthly events and offered weekly online articles. The project’s Twitter account blew up and with it my reach. Things weren’t moving as fast as I’d wanted, but they were headed in the right direction. I was excited for my upcoming five-year anniversary and planned to expand the project to include femme photo shoots run by femme-bodied folks.
Then, last month, I got an alert from the payment processor for my website that said they needed proof that the project doesn’t violate the “adult content and services” section of their “Prohibited and Restricted Businesses Policy.” They specifically noted they did not allow “pornography and other mature audience content (including literature, imagery and other media) depicting nudity or explicit sexual acts.” Clearly, the project includes imagery that depicts nudity, so I knew I was in trouble.
Since the company that hosts my website only uses this particular payment processor for its membership pages, I was forced to find an alternative website host and payment processor and rebuild everything. Quickly. The membership page had become a huge chunk of my income and many subscribers had paid for an annual membership.
I began approaching “high risk” payment processors that work with adult websites. I was shocked to discover that the photo shoots I was doing made banks incredibly uncomfortable. They have policies and procedures for companies that make pornography, but not for content that’s created by queer people simply hanging out naked. I received three rejections before finding a company that was willing to work with me. Of course, because I’m considered “high risk,” the service charge taken by the bank to process the payments is much higher, which is equal parts dumb and maddening.
Things are finally mostly back on track, but I have to admit that some of the joy I used to feel for this project has been replaced by anger. It’s been a sobering reminder that the internalised stigma queer people struggle with is also enshrined in laws, policies and business practices. I’m furious that the work I’m doing that helps people feel better about themselves also requires changing a system that would rather see us disappear.
I’m frustrated that the things I’m struggling with are the same issues queer artists have faced throughout history. Queer painters, authors and photographers have long had their work deemed “inappropriate” or “unsuitable for general audiences.” It not only reinforces the idea that nude bodies are disgusting or dangerous, but also that, because of who we are and what we do, we’re degenerates that should be relegated to back rooms and closets (if anywhere at all).
I’ve spent countless hours reminding myself that what we’re doing is important and helping to change our society. Countless other queer artists ― from James Baldwin to Robert Mapplethorpe to Audre Lorde to Catherine Opie ― have been censored and banned and have had to fight to get their work seen. It’s awful, it’s unfair and it’s a pain in the ass, but it didn’t stop them and it won’t stop me or the incredible participants who’ve helped to make my project what it’s become.
In the same way it never occurred to me five years ago to just get naked and go outside and plant something, it’s never occurred to me to quit what I’m doing. I don’t know where we’re headed and Natural Pursuits may never become the household name I’d hoped it would be, but I know, no matter what, I’ll keep making rad magazines, keep paying queer artists, and keep spreading queer joy.
Phillip Miner, a queer man based in Brooklyn, New York, has established himself as a driven creator and passionate advocate. As the founder of PM Pursuits LLC, he leads diverse projects such as Natural Pursuits Magazine, Pheromone, and specialised communications consulting for LGBTQIA+ individuals and organisations. Notably, Phillip’s art direction skills earned him a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators. Guided by his mission to champion inclusivity and equality, he envisions a future where every person, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, lives with dignity, authenticity and an unwavering sense of self-worth.