One of the issues I have wanted to write about since taking over this web site is the nude sunbathing that everyone in Venice knows takes place at Caspersen Beach. At several content meetings, the story idea was shot down as being too controversial.
In light of the intense criticism that venfl.com took for taking a controversial stance over a year ago in support of internet privacy, the nude sunbathing issue at Caspersen was viewed as another trip into P.R. no-man's-land, and I was told to avoid it or be shot.
Happily, events have taken place that have now forced the issue of nude sunbathing at Caspersen Beach into the public eye, and I am no longer constrained to keep my overly big and opinionated mouth shut.
Ken Thomas, a retired I.B.M. executive, is heading up an initiative to make sunbathing in the buff legally protected for a small section of Caspersen Beach. Having taken economic and environmental impact info from other areas that allow nude sunbathing, he makes one substantive argument that only an idiot would refute: there's big tourism bucks in allowing all to free Willy. We're talking incredibly huge sums, quite a bit from European tourists alone.
Thomas heads up an organization called the Suncoast Naturists. He's just bought a domain name, and is getting together a web site - it'll be at www.suncoastnaturists.org in the near future (there is no content online as of this writing). What you won't ever see are gratuitous pictures of nekkid people -- the organization plans to use the site to inform, not to titillate.
Thomas is fighting an uphill battle that he ultimately may never win: a recent article in the Venice Gondolier by Tommy McIntyre quoted county commissioners as unanimously stating that given a choice between supporting a nude beach or being tied down and having their faces ravaged by weasels, they'd take the weasels. What wasn't clear to me in the article was if any of the commissioners truly understood that the area in question is extremely isolated and difficult to get to (McIntyre did his homework, though -- read his synopsis at the end about Haulover Beach in Miami).
Let's unfairly pick on Nora Patterson, arguably one of the best and the brightest of our current batch of local politicos -- that's not a joke, I really have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for her. Patterson is quoted by the Gondolier as saying that "...you have to make a public beach comfortable to a majority of the people." I strongly suspect that that was a quote on the fly, because the grand majority of the people who come to Caspersen Beach never trek to the spot being proposed for nude sunbathing. It's a loooo-ooong walk from the parking lot.
If you pull in to the Caspersen parking lot, the bulk of the folks are plainly using the beach adjacent to the lot. Walk south about a quarter of a mile, and you run out of people -- we're talking near-total isolation. Maybe five or so people fishing, but that's it. Continue walking south and you eventually come across the area that Thomas is hoping will be a nylon, rayon and cotton-free-zone.
The area in question is about a mile south of the main Caspersen parking area, or about a half of a mile north of the ferry drop-off for the South Venice Civic Association . It's not by any means one of the easiest places in the county to reach -- you have to be willing to take a major hike to get there.
There have been nekkid people at Caspersen Beach for as long as I have lived in the area (going back to 1981), and everyone seems to know about it. Over the years, no one has publicly taken a big moralistic stance of chest-pounding outrage.
However, the area has also been known to be unsavory gay cruising grounds. The fact that many of the current crop of nude sunbathers are gay should be of little to no concern. Most behave responsibly, not wanting to ruin a good thing. The behavior of a few, however, has caused a taint to be placed on the entire area as a place where only park perverts hang out. Beyond being extremely offensive, this behavior does a disservice to all nude sunbathers, regardless of sexual orientation. For many residents, the assumption is that anyone nude sunbathing in the area is gay and cruising for sex, and nothing could be further from the truth.
This small chunk of geography has been a naughty little secret in Venice for ages, known and talked about by locals but never written about for outsiders. Because of that, "honest" nude sunbathers have been done a terrible disservice.
What Thomas proposes would create a more homogenous atmosphere, where sexual orientation is irrelevant, and where open sexual behavior is forbidden. Many gays will undoubtedly lament that they are losing their beach to a hostile 'breeder' takeover. It is hard to sympathize with that view. It is that type of isolationist thinking that has caused Caspersen Beach to earn its reputation in the minds of many as a place where only perverts hang out (literally).
Moreover, the Suncoast Naturists do not have an anti-gay agenda, only a pro-nude one.
Thomas and his organization are pushing for responsible and accountable behavior, with volunteer patrols designed to curb all inappropriate behavior. This would afford protection to local citizenry from unnecessary criminal prosecution for fairly benign behavior and from predatory behavior from park perverts. His is a grandparents' coalition that is stressing family values for a cause that might shock some families.
Now, what Thomas is not saying is "Come on down, bring the kids, we're family oriented." His organization is made up mostly of folks who have raised and packed off their kids. Rather, he is stressing a 'family friendly' environment: mostly older couples, and some younger folks, in an environment where kids would not be unwelcome when accompanied by a parent.
Right now, nude sunbathing is allowed only by see-no-evil cultural acceptance, a sort of community wide "don't ask don't tell" situation. Almost everyone in this town knows that it has been going on for years. Everyone who knows has an opinion. Few are voicing their own opinions about it publicly because it's a no-win situation -- if you are against it, you are an old-school prude; if you are for it, you're either an exhibitionist, a voyeur or both.
On the legal end of things, nude sunbathing is not allowed by local law. Arrests at Caspersen, while rare, are not unheard of. Rightly or wrongly, the laws are currently perceived to be loosely and whimsically enforced. That said, the initiative that Thomas and the Suncoast Naturists are pushing for would not encourage something that isn't already happening, however it would allow legal protections for a pastime that many otherwise law-abiding folks already enjoy.
Thomas proposes placing signs at either end of the beach warning folks that their eyeballs may burn out of their heads if the thought of nude sunbathing is offensive beyond measure. He also proposes a beach patrolled by volunteers (wearing only a uniform baseball cap) on a daily basis, with accountability to the county from his naturists' group. If there are complaints about inappropriate behavior on the part of beachgoers or volunteer staffers, his pants-covered butt will be on the fire at county commission meetings.
The way it is supposed to work: each morning two or more volunteers will put up the warning signs at either end of the approved nude area. They then set up a 'command' table, which will be manned at all times. Literature about the beach and the volunteers, first aid and emergency access phones will be available. If someone sees something inappropriate, they report it to a volunteer. The volunteer will respond to the complaint by either confronting the situation or by reporting it to law enforcement directly.
It's a system that Thomas insists has worked amazingly well in other communities, particularly Haulover Beach in Miami. Now I've seen the system at Haulover on a few occasions, and on that score, Thomas is exactly right. Haulover is very much a family atmosphere, with people of all ages, sexes and nationalities dispersed almost evenly. Once I got over the initial culture shock of seeing everyone naked, one really strange thing hit me: it all seemed so ... well ... normal and uneventful. Folks were swimming, eating, playing cards, reading, and lying around on towels. Actually, there was a lot of lying around. There was a lot of people. Right smack in the middle of the beach was the volunteer command post, with huge colored umbrellas, clearly marked signs, foldout tables, and barely (but clearly) uniformed volunteers. I never saw a hint of inappropriate behavior at Haulover, which is something that few regular beachgoers at Caspersen Beach can say.
Thomas' most compelling argument is a secondary issue to most who advocate a nude beach: public safety. From a public safety point of view, Thomas' plan of mandatory daily volunteers would be a good thing if it actually works (and Thomas is quick to point out that Haulover Beach in Miami has been using this model successfully for years). It would provide relatively easy access to emergency services, something that is presently woefully lacking in this extremely isolated area of the county.
Despite all the rhetoric, pro and con, about the acceptability of nude sunbathing, the plain fact is that there are no lifeguards along the entire stretch of Caspersen Beach. If you don't have a cell phone and you spot trouble, you have to pray someone is around that does have one. The Suncoast Naturists volunteers, while not lifeguards as such, would carry some first aid supplies and, more importantly, a cell phone.
Such emergencies are not uncommon, although rarely life threatening. The most common is caused from stingrays during breeding season.
Thomas' plan for an all-volunteer all-nude army, while strange sounding and highly controversial, at least allows more protection than anything else tried so far at Caspersen. Besides, this town was getting boring, we needed something to get folks fired up about.
Let's see: the perverts get harassed, the beach gets patrolled by volunteers and tourism goes up along with an influx of that wonderful euro-cash.
Works for me. Bring on the all nude army.
John Patten is the editor and publisher of Venice Florida! dot com and had previously worked in broadcasting for over 12 years. He can also be incredibly rude at times.