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