homosexuality, nakedness, nudity, swimming, YMCA

Frank Answers About Swimming Naked at the YMCA

Many older men say they experienced swimming naked at the YMCA. Could you write about that?

Warning: nude images

I included information about the YMCA’s swimming program in Frank Answers About Swimming Naked. But the Y played a big role in naked swimming in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. Many men over fifty experienced this when they were boys. So it is worth writing more about the YMCA and the cultural and religious background of its physical education programs.

Fig. 1

The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded as an evangelical organization by George Williams in 1851 for young men who were migrating into the city of London from the countryside. It was intended to be a place of refuge for those seeking employment in the commerce and industry of the city. It specialized in helping with employment searches, providing a place of accommodation, and offering Bible study and prayer meetings. The objective was to provide male Christian fellowship to keep young men away from the lures of pubs and prostitution. Very quickly the concept caught on and Young Men’s Christian Associations sprang up throughout the far-flung British Empire and in the United States.

The steady growth of YMCAs in the U.S. was interrupted by the Civil War (1861–1865) in which many young men fought and died. After the war single young men again began drifting into the cities looking for work, which were also burgeoning with the massive influx of immigrants. Responding to unhealthy living conditions as well as the lure of morally questionable activities in the cities, the YMCA aimed to put Christian principles into practice by developing in young men a “healthy body, mind, and spirit,” as emblemized in the Y’s Triangle.

By moving in this direction the Y tapped into the Muscular Christianity movement that emerged in England and came into the U.S. in the late 19th century. Its aim was to counter the feminine image of Christianity by providing fit bodies for missionaries and ministers working in foreign mission fields and urban inner missions. Theodore Roosevelt, like his father, was a strong promoter of muscular Christianity in his book, The Strenous Life. See Clifford Putnam, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Fig. 2

The YMCA became a major promoter of the physical culture movement that began in Prussia in the early 19th century under the influence of Friedrich Jahn. Jahn developed the use of heavy equipment to shape and strengthen bodies, especially of the Prussian military which had suffered defeats by Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars. Because of his development of this form of gymnastics Jahn came to be called the Turnvater (father of gymnastics). Turnverein (gymnastic associations) sprang up in many German cities and were brought to the U.S. by German immigrants. Following the Greek ideals of the physical culture movement in Prussia, exercise with heavy equipment was often done in the nude in the YMCA.

Fig. 3

The other form of gymnastics to come out of the early 19th century physical culture movement was Swedish, as developed by Pehr-Henrik Ling. Ling’s “light gymnastics” (as opposed to Jahn’s “heavy gymnastics”) was based on body movement (Ling had been a fencing instructor) that Ling developed into calisthenics and tumbling. These movement exercises were adopted by the British Army and became staples of British and American physical education.

Fig. 4. Adult gymnastics club performs a group stunt on the parallel bars at the Rochester, N.Y., YMCA at the beginning of the 20th century.

While not everyone in the Associations was on board with the new direction of promoting bodily fitness, the YMCA evolved from a Bible study fellowship group for young men to become a major youth organization dedicated to physical, mental, and spiritual fitness as well as a social center for young men.

With expanding programs the YMCAs outgrew the church facilities they rented in their early years and saw their need for buildings of their own. In their own buildings they could meet the general need for physical fitness among the many young men whose office jobs kept them at their desks all day. They weren’t receiving the natural muscle strengthening that came from farm work or manual labor jobs. The first YMCA building to construct a gymnasium opened in Boston in 1869. Other YMCA facilities in North America began including gyms and pools as well as hotel-like dormitories to house men coming into the cities looking for work.

Boston YMCA physical education director Robert J. Roberts is credited with coining the term “bodybuilding” in 1881. He developed exercise classes that anticipated today’s fitness workouts. The YMCA is also credited with inventing the games of basketball for use in its urban gyms and volleyball for use in its summer camps.

Because many urban boys were drowning, the Brooklyn, NY YMCA built an indoor swimming pool in 1885. Following the custom of men and boys swimming naked outdoors, the Y pools also required men and boys to swim naked. This was considered healthy, manly, and it kept the primitive filters from clugging up with lint from cotton swim suits that also impended swimming.

The American Public Health Association recommended showering and swimming naked in indoor, at least for boys (the need of modesty for girls was recognized), in 1926, for health purposes. The last naked swimming recommendation from the APHA was in 1962. But many Ys, Boys Clubs, and schools continued the practice of swimming naked into the early 1970s. Local Y associations ended the practice when the Ys admitted women and girls into membership in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Before that the Ys had women auxiliaries, staff assistants, and instructors — including swimming instructors for young naked boys (the women were suited, although the male instructors usually weren’t — see the second photo below) –, and reportedly sometimes served as life guards in indoor pools and at summer camps.

Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7. Boys swim classes at Walla Walla, WA YMCA

Early in the 20th century YMCAs were adding summer camps to take boys out of the cities during the summer months.

Fig. 8. YMCA Summer Camp 1910
Fig. 9. Swimming and diving at YMCA Camp Greenboro ca. 1935

It is ironic that although the YMCA was officially a homophobic organization, homoeroticism flourished in its programs and YMCA facilities became prime places for homosexual cruising. This is an aspect of the YMCA’s history that was simply too pervasive to be ignored. It was the subject of the study by John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Fig. 10

It’s probably not surprising that homoeroticism flourished in the YMCA. From its founding the YMCA encouraged intimate friendships between young Christian men. It intentionally fostered intimate relationships between the mostly bachelor secretaries (directors) and young men. The object was to “take the young stranger by the hand” and provide the bonds of Christian fellowship. This intimacy included a great deal of attention given to the male body. The physical culture movement encouraged men and boys to study the bodies of other men for models of musculature and physical development. The YMCA’s magazine, Association Men, began a regular column answering “Muscle Questions,” accompanied by drawings of classical nude statues and photos of men flexing their muscles.

Fig. 11. Association Men June 1919 issue. “Rejoicing as a strong man to run race” is a quote from Psalm 19:5.

The spiritual values associated with the development of a well-proportioned male physique were not essentially different from the values of the homosexual emancipation movement in pre-Nazi Germany, even though officially the YMCA was a homophobic organization. See Harry Oosterhuis, Editor, Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany: The Youth Movement, the Gay Movement, and Male Bonding before Hitler’s Rise. Original Transcripts from Der Eigene, the  First Gay Journal in the World. Binghampton, NY: Harrington Park, 1991.

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Fig. 12

Young men signing up for the use of physical facilities were given a nude inspection by physical directors to evaluate their physical needs and prescribe workouts. These private conferences also served as opportunities to discuss and answer intimate questions about sexual practices such as masturbation, use of pornography, visiting prostitutes, and homosexuality.

Fig. 13. These are probably models from Bob Mizer’s photography studio in the 1950s. The photo shows a young man connecting intimately with an older youth. It suggests the homoerotic mentoring that flourished in the YMCA.

As Gustav-Wrathall pointed out, these conditions had the unintended consequence of setting up an environment for cruising by both young men who were coming to terms with their sexuality and older men who, as upstanding members of the YMCA and the community, volunteered to mentor the young men. There were a few scandals from time to time. The most devastating one to the Y’s reputation occurred at the Portland, Oregon YMCA in 1912.  A police dragnet resulted in the arrest and indictment of over fifty members for indecent behavior, who turned out to be Protestant men of “high moral standards” in the community—leading business and professional men among them. The concern of the journalist who exposed the situation was the potential corruption of youth. But the Y’s leadership emphasized that the men and boys were kept separated (except when fathers and sons were swimming together).

Fig. 14

YMCAs across the country promised to provide more vigilance over what was occurring in their facilities. Nevertheless, the Ys continued to be safe places for homosexual cruising and liaisons. This reach a height during the war years of the 1940s when many service men were coming into the cities in transit to their stations and during the Red scare of the 1950s which increased police harassment of gay men in public parks and gay bars. The Ys were a much safer place in which to cruise. The extent to which the Y’s leadership was aware of this activity or even participated in it is difficult to determine.

Fig. 15. YMCA Locker Room, painting by Paul Cadmus (1934)

Three things happened to reduce cruising in the Ys. First, gay liberation in the later 1960s caused many homosexuals to affirm their gay identities. After the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York City in 1969 they were more willing to cruise in other, more open, places. Second, the YMCA became a “family oriented” organization when women and girls were invited into full membership and male nakedness ceased except in the men’s locker rooms and showers. Third, as a result of this decision female directors were included on Y staffs and many new male directors were recruited from the ranks of family men as the former directors retired.

Within this shadowy history, the fact is that many lonely single young Christian men (who may or may not have been gay) found hospitality and an opportunity in the associations to make friends with other male Christians—the original purpose of the YMCA. The YMCA offered friendship, a sense of belonging, and even the possibilities of mutual male bonding or intimacy in what was for many an insecure urban environment. As a parachurch organization the YMCA could be somewhat relaxed about welcoming young men who might be exploring or expressing same-sex intimacy in the Y/s facilities and co-exist in the ambiguity of also being a Christian organization at a time when churches were not welcoming those who identified as homosexuals.

In the meantime, with the inclusion of female members, the Y transformed itself into a “family organization.” There is no more naked swimming or even shirtless exercising or sports activities. And in the showers and locker rooms only the older men walk around naked. The younger men modestly use a towel. There are many reasons for the displays of modesty by younger men and boys. It is reinforced in homes and schools and boys simply don’t experience being naked with one another. Homophobia and now the ubiquitous iphone cameras also discourage nudity. But the story of the YMCA shows that up to about fifty years ago the Y promoted a healthy sense of bodily self in its male members that could probably use some reinforcement today to counter what has been described as “toxic masculinity.” (For a question and answer about “Toxic Masculinity” see Frank Answers Briefly About Male Body Issues.) The YWCA promotes a secure sense of being a woman in its programs. The YMCA can no longer do that for young men.

Pastor Frank Senn

Fig. 16. This could be a Hi-Y (high school YMCA organization) ca. 1960. I belonged to my high school Boys’ Hi-Y at that time (1958-61). The man in the glasses could be their adult advisor. We had some occasional nights in the pool and, yes, swimming naked was required.

8 Comments

  1. Martin

    I just want to thank you for the factual and non-judgemental tone of voice with which you approach this subject. Nowadays everything associated with nudity is deemed bad, but it is refreshing to read that some fifty years ago, things were much different.
    (I live in the Netherlands, so the uptight morality towards nudity in today’s America is strange for me to observe.)

  2. fredric merithew

    In 1960 when I joined the YMCA at age 14, swimming naked was accepted
    and even had parental approval for the most part. Surprisingly there was no
    mention of being gay or homoeroticsm. Young boys were learning about their
    sexuality at point and exploring being gay was not even a thought. We were
    growing into young men and developing physically.

  3. Comment by post author

    John writes:

    Frank Senn’s story and photos about male YMCA nude-practice history is an amazing peek through the window of past non-homophobic male historical non-homosexual -inferred-“issue” true “manly” balanced “normalcy”. It’s both bewilderingly astonishing and reassuringly heart-warming to see a Clergyman balanced enough and brave enough to understand and unashamedly show that males can be “homosocial” without being “homosexual”, and it once was natural in men, with natural homoeroticism a non-homosexual “tag-along” to natural male comparative competitive primal self and family protective instinctive interest, and same-gender expressed sharing and touch a needed healthy thing, not the opposite. I’m writing a book about it historically-understandably, and when and how it got messed up and messed men up, with their own gender-identity, and their same-gender relations and relationships. I’m 69 and not real good with emails, but would love to hear from men about this and TRY to respond. John J. Hvozda, at 745 Wilhelm Road, Hermitage, PA, 16148

  4. I belonged to the YMCA for 4 years, ages 10 to 14. On test day moms and dads would come to watch us. If you passed you would advance to a higher class. Some young girls would smile as we walked by them.

  5. JT

    I came at the end of this era. Swimming at camp we wore suits but at swimming holes we passed during hikes we skinnydipped. YMCA’s in NYC still had men swimming in the nude and so did all male colleges I visited.

  6. David Rhodes

    My dad would swim naked at the Y when he was a boy. Nobody questioned it at the time and he was disappointed when they started to require swimsuits. The Y I joined did not allow nude swimming but had communal showers, and had a separate communal shower for fathers and sons if the boy was under 12.

  7. Wayne Harria

    For several years when I was in my 20’s and 30’s (I’am now 84) I swam naked in YMCA pools. I stayed in great shape. I didn’t think anything about swimming nude. It is a very uplifting and rewarding experience. When the Y discontinued the nude swimming practice I felt my rights were violated.

  8. Eddie

    I grew up swimming naked at the YMCA, Y camp, and at our family cabin on a lake. I did not own a swimsuit until I was in college as a member of the swim team, although our practices were naked as well as some meets against other men’s colleges. I also worked at all these places in various positions and also always worked naked. And in my experience, all other staff invariably did as well. Communal male nudity made me the man I am today.

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