Inhibition is not my strong suit; I'm not shy. I'm even less shy at Burning Man, the annual arts festival and bacchanal in the Nevada desert that I just attended for the second time. And yet it took me a long while last summer before I could take the plunge into Camp Sunscreen. This camp, which consisted of several shaded massage tables, a barrel full of lotions and the mantra "Give a little love, get a little love," was perhaps too concentrated an offering of the kind of cheap thrills that draw me to Burning Man and other gatherings of the shameless. Maybe, for all my lack of inhibitions, I really wasn't ready for everyone -- women, children, drag queens -- to see my boner.
Then, like the dust devils that periodically wend their way around Black Rock City, the word spread through the playa about an extraordinarily durable and vertical hard-on sighted at Camp Sunscreen. If I hurried, I could still see. With this advisory, I overcame my shyness and soon found myself standing at the camp's far table, applying runny blobs of SPF 30 to the calves of a buxom 20-ish woman while sneaking as many glances as shame would allow at the famed erection across the table. It lived up to reports by pointing skyward for another 25 minutes, flying from its apex a fine spider's filament of pre-ejaculate.
The erection was attached to an eccentrically sexy guy, bantam and bald, mid-30s, white like virtually everyone else in Black Rock City. He and I were the last holdouts at our table after a dust storm chased the others away. Dusted with a light coat of white powder, he gave me an utterly unerotic, bone-crunching massage. When it was my turn, I was thorough but skirted his asshole. Then I kept finding myself back near it. A sign hanging from a shade structure told us to ask about boundaries when we were unsure. I asked.
"Go crazy," answered the rakish baldie. I did what I was told.
Go crazy indeed. Under this ethos, a queer subculture has bloomed in the Black Rock Desert over the last few years. This year, for the first time, the makeshift city had a de facto gay ghetto as half a dozen queer camps banded together under the auspices of M*A*S*Hcara, a "ladies' militia forced-aid camp." But the heart of queer Burning Man is not so much the queers who go there, but the queer heart of the festival itself. Out in the Nevada desert in the last week of summer, everyone's a freak -- and they're playing by our rules.
"Write about how queer fashion sensibility has swept the playa," suggested Eric, a childhood friend whose Day-Glo drag confections lit up the desert day and night. "Write about all the straight guys who look like they're gay. But how it doesn't really matter because everyone's friendly and flirty."
The fashion, sex and art of Black Rock City form a dizzying jumble: men in skirts, men in nothing; topless women, bacchants of both sexes crawling over each other in the playa mud, hard-ons leaving a thin trail of slime over male and female thighs; casual couplings initiated by glances, invitations delivered by water pistol or laser; wigs and merkins, slips and dresses, pubic shavings, cock paintings, sex standing up, sex in public, sex on camera, sex at odd hours, after breakfast. It is a city whose highest structures -- the expressions of its highest values -- are flammable sculptures and disco towers.
I could not claim that queers -- a largely urban and countercultural subset of gays and lesbians -- invented sexual or artistic liberation. A better argument is the reverse. And I can't argue that we brought these values to Burning Man, a festival whose origin is in a heterosexual heartbreak and that, according to veterans, had no discernible queer presence until recently. Nonetheless, Burning Man has become a magnet for gay men and some lesbians, and out on that dusty ancient lake bed something happens that rarely does in our natural urban habitat: queer and nonqueer cultures bleed together to the point that they're virtually indistinguishable.
For gay men of my generation especially, Burning Man restores an atmosphere and promise of sexual freedom that was just being eclipsed as they came of age.
This atmosphere was not always as queer as it is in today's Black Rock City.
"When I started going five years ago, Burning Man wasn't queer at all," said M*A*S*Hcara founder Ggreg Taylor, known on the playa as NAMBLA the Clown. "Back when guns were allowed, when dogs were free and it was about a fifth of the size, there was zero queer presence. There were no drag queens at all."
Other Burning Man vets recall early inklings of queer presence.
"I've been going to Burning Man since 1993, and I've always thought that there was a bit of a queer undercurrent there," said Adrian Roberts, editor of Burning Man newsletter Piss Clear. He recalled a friend's 8-foot-tall effigy, dubbed "Flaming Man, Burning Man's queer little brother." The 1995 sculpture was triangular-shaped, had a limp wrist and wore a feather boa.
Piss Clear parked its RV with M*A*S*Hcara this year, but Roberts questioned the need for queer people to band together at the festival.
"I always thought that the idea of creating a gay ghetto in Black Rock City was sort of ridiculous," Roberts said. "You need gay ghettos in real urban areas to create a sense that there is a zone where you can openly be yourself, to create a 'safe space' for queers. But at Burning Man, all of Black Rock City is a 'safe space' for queers. So what's the point?"
As Burning Man approached this year, I was not thinking about gay ghettos or safe spaces. My preoccupations were more along the lines of basic survival and its related discipline: packing. In addition to all the lumber and tchotchkes I needed for my contraption -- a mobile shade structure rigged with a misting system, a thunderstorm soundtrack and 12-foot aqua banners -- I had to pull together six different outfits as well as six days' food, water, ice, condoms, lube, film and everything else I thought I'd need to survive in the desert for a week. And I was sleepless with excitement about the event itself. I hadn't looked forward to anything this much since Christmas as a 6-year-old. Only this time the mystery boxes under the tree contained Tesla coils, flying machines, red laser beams dancing on black mountains, desert trannies painting penises, motorized couches scooting by on the playa and an arsenal of erotic fantasies.
Imagine my surprise when those boxes turned out to be full of splitting headaches and crippling nausea. I started feeling it almost immediately after getting to Black Rock City after sundown Tuesday night. I felt OK in the mornings, but by the late afternoons I would be down again, thinking comforting thoughts about euthanasia. After two days of this I wound up at Center Camp, where the medics hooked me up to an IV and pumped salt water into my veins for three hours. The next morning, in a vampiric terror of the rising sun, I packed my tent, my barely used mobile misting contraption and the rest of my belongings into the SUV and fled Black Rock City before dawn.
What a defeat! What a disappointment! What an extraordinary waste of time and money, and -- worst! -- of fine, naked, dusty men still gallivanting around the playa without me. From Black Rock City I drove to Reno and visited an octogenarian friend whose recent stroke confined her, lame and virtually wordless, to a convalescent home. There I spent an hour with her, stewing in the exile and isolation of illness. I knew a better life was going on back on the playa without us.
I also knew a story was unfolding that I was supposed to cover. What was queer Burning Man? I had this idea it had to do with drag and art and a city that rises and falls every year, reinventing itself the way each generation of queer people must reinvent itself, or the way transvestites reinvent themselves every night of the week. This enduring promise of self-regeneration draws queer people to Black Rock City the way it has drawn us to San Francisco, a place charged with the energy and fear of having burned to the ground four times between 1849 and 1906.
And now there was this grim summons from the erotic playground. Two days of dehydration and heat stroke is not fatal illness, much less a plague, just as an annual festival in the desert is not a life. But I could not escape the fact that illness had once again engineered an erotic disappointment, that sexual liberation once again was receding just as I had prepared to seize it.
I'll probably never go back to Black Rock City, or stop searching for some place like it. I felt such an affinity for the festival; it was the closest imaginable realization of my ideal habitat; it was the restoration of a withdrawn promise. There was one thing wrong with this paradise, however: I could not survive in it. Queer or not, our lives have no more common epitaph.