I’ve been chewing over this New York Times piece from last week ever since it was published. Basically, it’s a story of personal exploration by a lesbian who discovers that there is a beach in Oaxaca where she can be nude around other queer people. It’s a very typical sort of self-help, self-discovery kind of thing. But it also demonstrates the very real limitations of how we see ourselves in relation to the areas in which we travel.
I would probably not have cared about this except that she is talking about Zipolite, which is a well known beach. I I initially read it because the title was about swimming naked, which sounds like the worst activity in human history. But then it got more interesting and also more frustrating. Like a lot of this kind of writing, the author claims she has learned about a secret, but Zipolite is no secret. Every single traveler in Oaxaca–which is a lot of people–knows about Zipolite. That doesn’t mean everyone in the world knows about it, but this is no hidden secret. It might be the first time this author heard of it. OK, no big deal.
But the issue is how tourism intersects with the people around you. And the author expresses zero interest in understanding this. She wants to be nude on the beach with other queer folk. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. I am not opposed to people living out their personal desires. But what I do know is that the people of Oaxaca HATE the nude beach scene at Zipolite. Yeah, people are making some money off it, but not that much. It’s not that developed. This isn’t Cancun or Mazatlan here. The reason I know about the local attitudes toward the nude beach is that my wife is a scholar of Oaxaca and we have spent a lot of time in this area, including at Zipolite itself (not all of it is nude, just one edge really). And we (or OK, mostly she) talks to the locals about this stuff. These are conservative, mostly indigenous, people. They are not down with this at all. There’s nothing they can do about it and they don’t mind the money. But they really wish people would put clothes on, which doesn’t seem like a massively unreasonable ask to me.
So here’s my question for you. What is our ethical duties when it comes to international travel, especially when said international travel exists to free us as developed world people with our developed world values around personal freedom and extreme individualism? To me, this reads as an article of queer, nude neocolonialism, where the beaches of Mexico exist to serve, in this case, a desire to be nude on the beach around other queer people without actually caring what anyone in the area actually thinks about it. Maybe it’s too much to ask of people to do this. But every time we travel abroad, we are an agent of American foreign relations, whether we like it or not.
I don’t know, to me it seems that when you are abroad, you should at least try to act according to local norms and customs rather that seeing the world as a place for you to fulfill your own individual desires without concern for how it impacts you. And while I say this as a straight white dude who wouldn’t be caught dead getting naked on a beach, it sure feels like another form of neocolonialism to me. And just because someone is queer and into her or their body and wants to feel that personal freedom around other like minded folk does not mean that the act is inherently progressive or good for the world.