"Nudity and Body Acceptance"
There is not much precedent for someone like Marie Willa Bobo-Smith, so providing historical context for her and her work required some creativity. There was plenty for me to learn, but as a cisgender man preparing to ask a trans woman questions about her trans experience, I knew I had a lifetime of preconceived notions and biases I would have to unlearn as well.
If you can't tell from the podcast, I'm a pretty progressive guy. I support trans people and find that my heart really bleeds for that community and the issues they face. Like most, I have known multiple trans people in past jobs or in social circles, but I've never dug deep with any of these acquaintances, or been in a scenario where it would be appropriate to ask questions. Marie was already incredibly generous to agree to share her story with me and to be vulnerable for a recording. I did not want to offend her by not knowing something basic like a common concept or phrase.
Each episode starts with research. Beyond some books about the gender binary or transgender history that I read, I also wanted to find some history to provide context for Marie's nudist activity. This was another challenge. It's not that there aren't trans nudists who belong to nudist clubs, frequent nude beaches, or practice nudism at home. There are, and there always have been. However, there aren't many transgender people documented in the popular nudist resources from the past. Likewise, nudism is not a concept that often comes up in transgender studies.
When we first started communicating, I asked Marie Willa, "Do you have any heroes? Anyone who came before you that you admire?"
"Not really." She replied. She doesn't like to iconify others who came before. She prefers to blaze a new trail.
At first, this response made me kind of sad. As someone who has many heroes, I get much inspiration from the people who have bravely leveled new ground for us to stand upon. But as I got to know Marie Willa and the way she operates, I realized that her refusal to exalt other mortals isn't sad at all. It's actually quite brave. She's not looking for level ground to stand on. She's looking to level new terrain herself.
Because for Marie Willa, there really isn't someone who came along before and set the stage for her particular sort of visibility, either in her small community, or online. And for her, it's all about visibility. As she says in our interview, she is trying to be the person that she never had growing up, for someone out there struggling with what she went through.
For some of us to acknowledge that we are transgender is a terrifying experience. Without the warm, welcoming acceptance, and willingness of other transgender people openly sharing their vastly different experiences and knowledge, I would not be here now, I'd be in my grave.
In other cases where I've struggled to find historical context, some important discovery came out of the interview process. In Marie's case, there was discussion of the age old practice by nudist clubs of disallowing single males in order to maintain a gender balance. This topic of discussion is not uncommon in nudist articles or podcasts, but rarely is it examined from the point of view of someone who is trans.
Exploring this history was additionally interesting to me because my own great great grandfather, Rudolph Johnson, a prominent nudist in the US in the 1940s, wrote about this problem. As president of the American Sunbathing Association from 1950-1952, he would deliver a regular presidential address in The Bulletin and Sunshine & Health magazines, and he often wrote about issues of inclusivity and equity. I could not resist the opportunity to include an excerpt of Rudolph's writing. I then cast a voice actor to play the part. As I have never heard my great great grandpa's actual voice, I had a little fun taking some creative license here.
Marie Willa is a compelling storyteller. She has a strong voice and emotional delivery, with dramatic pauses. Furthermore, she's funny. Really funny. I found that I loved to hear her talk when we were recording, and editing her interview was a joy as well. When I listen to it now, at times I laugh out loud, and at others I am moved to tears. I hope you had the same experience listening.
I learned from Marie Willa that honoring your body sometimes means honoring your heart first. I'm moved by her strength and resolve to be visible in such a small community, the kind of community where everyone knows each others' names. But her work to be visible isn't confined to such a microcosm. Through social media, her visibility has a global reach. It seems, wherever Marie Willa exists, she enthusiastically demands due recognition. Her confidence and joie de vivre work together to convey the message, "I exist here! Love me or fuck you!"
How can you not love that? Clearly, the police department of Fort Bragg who have given her full sanction to conduct her nude activism does.
I'm also inspired by the support and love of Marie Willa's family. True love is shown through unconditional acceptance and support. Without this support, it's very possible Marie Willa would not have the strength or circumstances to be so visible with her life. Sadly, the level of support that Marie Willa has been fortunate to encounter from family and community is simply not the reality for many transgender people out there in the world.
Be an Ally
Transgender people are under legislative attack in the United States. In just the two weeks prior to this writing in mid March 2022, new anti-trans bills have been introduced in fifteen states. These laws are dangerous for all trans people, but particularly so for trans youth and people in marginalized communities. More than 40% of young trans people attempt suicide. And in some communities, even in America, trans people are under constant threat of violence by people or the state. In Texas, families supporting their transgender children are subject to investigation and separation for child abuse.
“Transgender children bring fulfillment to their parents, joy to their friends, and are made in the image of God. Affirming a transgender child’s identity is one of the best things a parent, teacher, or doctor can do to help keep children from harm, and parents who love and affirm their children should be applauded and supported, not threatened, investigated, or stigmatized.”
President Joe Biden, State of the Union Address, Mar. 1, 2022
The fact is, the pain caused by these laws reaches far beyond the trans community, effecting families and children of all walks. Please consider supporting the organizations working to fight these unjust bills and provide support for the trans community. I will include links to several great organizations below. Personally, I recently chose to make a financial gift to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Learn more about them or donate at transequality.org.
Finally, contact your state senate and assembly representatives and urge them to support House Resolution 5, also known as the equality act.
Resources for supporting transgender rights: