homosexuality, nakedness, 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?

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 for young men migrating into the city of London from the countryside by George Williams 1851. 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,” 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

While not everyone in the Associations was on board with the new direction of promoting bodily fitness, the YMCA fully embraced the ideals of the physical culture movement that had emerged in northern Europe and was being brought to North America in the later nineteenth century. From a Bible study fellowship group for young men the YMCA quickly became 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.

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.

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

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. Showering and swimming naked in indoor, at least for boys (the need of modesty for girls was recognized), was recommended by the American Public Health Association in 1926. The last naked swimming recommendation from the APHA was in 1961. 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.

Fig. 10

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

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. See John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Fig. 13. Probably models from Bob Mizer’s photography studio in the 1950s. It shows a young man connecting intimately with an older youth. But it suggests the homoerotic life of 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 the Y transformed itself into a family organization. No more swimming naked or even exercising shirtless. And in the showers and locker rooms only the older men walk around naked. The younger men modestly use a towel.

Pastor Frank Senn

Fig. 16. his could be a Hi-Y (high school YMCA organization) ca. 1960. I belonged to my high school Boy’s 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.

29 Comments

  1. Frank Senn
    Comment by post author

    Brian Forrest writes: As a child I swam naked, and never thought about it. Nothing was wrong with it, in fact I found it strange when told I had to put on swim trunks. The world has changed so much, and I don’t think some of it is good – a simple life, a childhood that many today will have never known.

  2. Frank Senn
    Comment by post author

    Doug writes: In 1959 the hit TV series “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” had an episode entitled “Love is a Science” – Season 1 Episode 3 – and about 12 mins into that episode, in order to shake off an adhesive girl, Dobie says that he can’t meet her in the afternoon because he works at the YMCA (lifeguard). It was very funny because everyone knew that guys swam naked at the Y so of course she could not go. By the time I was old enough to swim the Y, or at my school, both had admitted girls so swimming nude was a thing of the past. I wish they would bring back men-only pools so guys could swim nude again.

  3. Avatar

    Though I never took swim lessons at the “Y”, I assume there was/is a membership fee. As long as ANYBODY payed that fee, the administrators may have looked the other way.

    • Frank Senn
      Comment by post author

      Ron, the administrators (“secretaries”) of the YMCA certainly “looked the other way” regarding (adult) homoerotic activity going on in YMCA premises, but the reasons were far subtler than not wanting to lose paying members. Collusion in those activities has not been proven.

      • Avatar

        Doug Roberts

        They also looked the other way when young girls would show up to sit in the bleachers. In 1962 our local Y clamped down on this making a rule that you had to be invited by the boys mother. Easy to get around that. LOL!

  4. Avatar

    Old Swimmer

    Pastor Senn,
    I noticed the fairly newly added photo fourth from the bottom and wonder if it were taken from YMCA photos. In the original are there more boys? It reminds me of my time at the Y and it appears that the older one is possibly a swim instructor. He reminds me of the young instructor I had at a Y in Chicago more than 60 years ago. There were photos of all kind of Y activities on the stairs and the corridor leading to the pool locker rooms. Some of the swimming photos did have full nudity as pictured here. The photos were not on public display but in the corridor to the locker rooms. Certainly, we did not view them as strange or offensive at that time.

    • Frank Senn
      Comment by post author

      Hi Old Swimmer. That photo came from a YMCA archive collection. It looks like it was cropped from a larger photo, but I didn’t see that one. If I come across it sometime I’ll download and post it. It would be great if that guy was indeed your swimming instructor from 60 years ago. Even greater if I found a photo with you in it! But if you ever find such a photo, send it to me by email. I often find a photo on Google Images that fits one of my blog articles. So I’m constantly changing photos and adding some new text if necessary. Blogs are, as I’ve said, “living documents,” unlike print. Thanks for checking my posts from time to time.

      • Avatar

        Old Swimmer

        Thanks for the response. It would be interesting to see the full picture. I don’t have a photo from my Duncan Y days but it there were one on the web, I would send it even if it had me nude. I do remember that during each swim class some candids were taken and put in a local neighborhood paper, now long gone. Thanks for the pictures and discussions.

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    JuanB

    Remember also the film The Green Book.

  6. Avatar

    I think the 4th pic from the bottom is a studio shot from one of the homoerotic mid century photographers. I believe I’ve seen others in this series over the years. Could be one from Walter Kundzic (Champion Studios) or possibly Bob Mizer of AMG. I doubt very much that’s a shot from any YMCA.

    • Frank Senn
      Comment by post author

      Thanks for the tip, Jim. As I wrote to Old Swimmer, I found it in an online site named “YMCA Archives.” I chose it because it illustrated my point about mentoring at the Y. Old Swimmer thought it seemed real enough based on his experience and memory. But we have no idea who the photographer was and you may be on to its origin. I will check it out and add a caption.

  7. Avatar

    Tom Buhler

    Yes, the fourth picture is one of thousands taken by Bob Mizer in the shower his Physique Pictorial models used at his studio. The British artist David Hockney immortalized it in one of his paintings.

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    Tom

    I used to swim at the New York Athletic Club in NYC in the early 1980s. You had to wear a sports coat to get in, otherwise, you got in through the backdoor. And no jeans allowed as I remember. The pool and related activities, i.e. water polo, racing, were always done naked. While it was a tad homoerotic, there was just something so simple and primal about hanging out naked that I loved.

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    John Marus

    Swam at the Union Boys Club in Chicago from the age of 8 (earning various badges for swimming accomplishments) and we never wore swim suits. I didn’t think it was different because I had never been to an indoor pool as a young boy and everyone was just as naked as I was. There was never a hint of anything “out of the ordinary” and when I went swimming at another club years later, suits were required and it felt strange to have on on.

  10. Avatar

    When I was young, dad would take me and my two younger brothers to the Boston Y. It was all nude and all boys and men. Many students from nearby colleges swam there too. Dad taught us to dive and swim. I was terrified by the water but soon got over that. My little brothers were like fish in a pond…..very easy with it. He taught us about strokes, floating and treading. Later we took swim lessons there. Later, when in HS and college I kept going back. My bro’s, dad and I were natural nudists. In the 80s it went co-ed. No more nudity except in the locker room and showers. It was in the showers as a kid where I saw my first young man with an erection which puzzled me. Soon I noticed it on more and more men, college age and older.

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    sunrise

    I am from Taiwan, I also hope to experience nude swimming, but it is totally impossible under the current social atmosphere. I really envy you that you have experienced those beautiful times.

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    Will

    When when I was in college and on the swimming team we practiced at the local ymca. We were required to swim naked. Needless to say doing a racing dive naked causes pain to the testicles. We finally persuaded the local ymca to let us use athletic supporters when practicing. But they made us take the jockstraps home.

    • Frank Senn
      Comment by post author

      Congratulations on your blog Doug. Your “Swimming Naked at the YMCA” is a well written article. You might want to change the date of the beginning of naked swimming at the YMCA from 1840. The Y was only founded in London in 1844. The first indoor pool was built in the Brooklyn, NY YMCA in 1885. The first APHA recommendation of nude swimming was in 1926, and every four years after that until 1962. Best wishes on your blog.

    • Avatar

      Old Swimmer

      Doug,
      I just ran across your comment. I checked out your blog and mentioned my own experiences that were similar to yours. I have commented on several of Pastor Senn’s blogs on this topic.
      Male nudity in those days was more acceptable and at our Y, everyone swam nude, no exceptions even for father-son night or instructors. No one even commented much about it

      Sometimes photos were taken of the swim class and posted in local neighborhood newspapers, kind of like some of the photos above 1,5, 6, 7, 12. Thanks for your photo. Nude swimming was very common, casual and even unremarkable in the 40’s and 50’s

      Thanks Doug

  13. Avatar

    Grant

    My grade school on the southside of Chicago required all the boys to swim naked in swim class. It was considered healthy and sanitary to swim nude in the 1960s. I went to the YMCA in the 1970s on the northside of Chicago and they had men and boys only and also required you to swim naked. I think it’s a shame that girls sports ruined it for guys to swim nude. It was fun and healthy. I had no problem with it as kid and neither did my classmates. It was normal and accepted back then.

  14. Avatar

    What I’ve noticed in these columns on the bygone days of gender-segregated swim classes is: none of the boys seemed overweight! “Course there weren’t as many households with TVs, or as many TV channels/shows in homes with TVs. Of course personal computers & the Internet were still in the future. But lots of boys attended Boy Scout/summer camps & there were more open areas to hike & bike.

  15. Avatar

    Randy

    My father recently told me that he was also tricked into swimming naked when he was a member of YMCA in the 1950’s. He still has anger issues, self esteem issues from it. I was also taught as a boy that boys are to see each other naked when they bathe, shower. It had a bad effect on me.

  16. Avatar

    I wrote on Facebook about these columns on gender segregated swim lessons at the Young Men’s CHRISTIAN Assn. & High schools. A couple of “millennials” replied they didn’t believe it. But a baby-boomer replied that he learned in the buff. Maybe some of the post baby-boom generation seem to be in denial that previous generations had a virile upbringing, giving them an emasculated feeling of inferiority.

  17. Avatar

    Bruce Kaplan

    ETHS (Evanston Township High School)- which was a economic miracle having four separate high schools on one site- did always (thru at least the 60’s) have only nude swimming for the boys swim classes. The girls, tho, were required to wear suits in their segregated classes. As a student there during this time, I thought this to be somewhat “sexist” at the time. What was even stranger to me, was what the need was for a special glass walled room built in the side of the deep end of the pool. It measured easily some 15′ wide and had couches and seating for the “coaches” to sit and I was told its function was to critique the style of the swimmers strokes from 10′ down. Even decades before sex scandals became mainstream, I thought this “weird” even at that time period. Stranger still, was that the swim and diving teams didn’t have to practice nude.

    • Frank Senn
      Comment by post author

      Thanks, Bruce, for your information about ETHS. My two sons attended ETHS (1992-1996, 1996-2000). In my original swimming naked post (Frank Answers About Swimming Naked) I included a Lifemagazine photo of nude swimming at ETHS rival New Trier. I assumed nude swimming was also practiced at ETHS but had no confirmation. What you describe about who was nude (boys, PE classses) and who was suited (girls, swim teams) was also the practice at my high school in Buffalo, NY. But we had no glass wall. That wall is a new piece of information. and I wonder if it was included in other school pools. Take a look at the Swimming Naked article and feel free to leave a comment there about your experience at ETHS.

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