To the untrained eye, an empty beach appears to be an undifferentiated wide open space with no particular swath of sand looking much different from another. Build a sandcastle wherever you want, do a little skinny dipping, walk near the water or far from it, have a private conversation at maximum volume—anything goes.
But the moment other human beings show up, a map of meaning is laid over the sand. Surfers hang out here where the waves are biggest, families with kids hang out here near the waterline, the nudists tuck themselves in among the dunes. Beaches are the perfect places to witness people sorting themselves by identity and activity.
And everywhere in the world where there are nice seafronts, LGBTQ2S+ people have claimed their swath of sand; gay men, especially, have a propensity for surfside socializing. On the world’s most famous beaches—think: Miami, Santa Monica, Fire Island, Ipanema, Puerta Vallarta, Patong, Cape Town, Bondi, Wreck, Punta del Este—queers have, over time, made a section all their own. And even those queer sections can be further subdivided by types of people and what they’re up to. What’s par for the course in the trees by the parking lot is uncouth in front of the restaurant patio; women may feel more comfortable by the flagpole, less so over behind those rocks.
On my own local beach, Toronto’s Hanlan’s Point, the “gay area” takes up one of the biggest chunks of the city’s only clothing-optional beach. At the far north end, it’s quite mixed, with each cluster of friends being maybe 80/20 straight/queer. Moving south, the queer ratio goes up and up, so by the time you arrive at the fallen trees that end the stroll, it may seem like every person around you is a naked gay man. Right in the middle, where the ratio is 80/20 queer/straight, is where the hypersocial homos hang out; by mid-afternoon they’re flitting from group to group like they’re in a 1970s gay bar, and by sunset they’re dancing like they’re at a 1980s White Party.
Being a first-timer can be daunting. But fear not. We’ve collected some expert advice from around the world on how to feel comfortable—and make others feel comfortable—sunning yourself on an LGBTQ2S+ friendly beach.
The first thing to remember, and I’m only being a little condescending saying this: gay beaches, unlike gay bars, nightclubs and saunas, are outdoors. There’s the sun. There are the sand fleas. Right there by your leg, that’s a massive horsefly. Oh, and is that a raincloud? Bring sunscreen and any apparel you need to prevent yourself from sunburn, sunstroke and other bodily discomforts. If you’re on a more isolated beach, bring all the food and water you might need.
“It’s obvious when you see someone who’s not used to the Florida sun and they don’t put protection on, because that sun is strong,” says Dan Rios, director of LGBTQ marketing for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Locals usually know what they have to do to stay hydrated.”
Of course, don’t just protect yourself, protect the environment. Littering and disrupting nature, including animal habitat, are major no-nos.
Location, location, location
On arrival, read the vibe of the beach by observing what other people are doing. Is it super social, with strangers choosing to sit very close to other strangers and doing vodka shots together? Or do people spread out and socialize by taking walks? Are there areas with people whose personal style and music make you feel more comfortable, areas with fewer people with annoying beach accessories like rainbow fences?
Pick your spot carefully because your choice will determine how the rest of your day goes. Too close to the garbage/recycling bins, you’re going to be spending the day shaking the sand off your beachmat. Shade is good. Easy washroom access is important for some. Close to the water is usually busier with foot traffic, so there’s more to oggle but it’ll also be more crowded.
Your perfect spot will depend on what you’re looking for and what kind of LGBTQ2S+ beach you’re on. Gay beaches fall along a spectrum of “excited outdoor nightclub” to “let it all hang out and do your own thing.” Miami is the perfect example city because it has a beach at each extreme: there’s the party zone, 12th Street Beach, and the chill-and-cruise-and-perhaps-be-naked zone, which is at the far north end of Haulover Park.
Partying like there’s no tomorrow
In the middle of 12th Street Beach, the young crowd is ready to mix and mingle. People might arrive in twos and threes, but their intention is to merge camps until there is no differentiation between who they came with, who they’re having fun with and who they’re leaving with. If you’re trying to read a novel and eat boiled eggs in the middle of this, don’t scowl at the people stepping on you. Move up or down the block based on how intense you want your experience to be. Miami beaches are big enough for everybody.
“Twelfth Street is where visitors go to see and be seen, with lots of beautiful bikini-clad people,” says Rios. “But if you go a bit further up or down, you’ll see older people, people who want to be close to it, but not in the middle of it.”
In Torremolinos, an LGBTQ+ friendly resort town in the south of Spain, there are at least four distinct gay/gay friendly areas packed into one end of the main city beach. One is the flashy Eden, where you might order some champagne and nibbles to be delivered to your sunbed or cabana. “Those people are there to be seen,” says Stephan Tang, a Canadian (and a friend of mine) who moved to Torremolinos to study about a year ago. “I don’t know if I’d approach the people on those sunbeds.” If that sounds intimidating, there’s Paraíso next door, Tang’s favourite, which has a more relaxed and older crowd. Further along, there’s Banana Beach, which is still LGBTQ+ friendly, but also where you’ll see more women, more families and—shock!—straight people. And finally there’s an area occupied primarily by gay locals who bring their own towels, spreads and chairs rather than relying on rentals. “That can be super friendly. A lot of people meet there and make friends,” says Tang.
Like a lot of urban beaches, you’re unlikely to see overt sexual behaviour on Torremolinos’s main strip (unless you’re searching and staring, which is not polite beach behaviour; more on that later). Instead, people meet in the sun to go somewhere more private. Those who want to get frisky outdoors can make their way to clothing-optional beaches like Playa Guadalmar, which is about a 20-minute drive from downtown. “There are dunes there, which are the cruisy area,” says Tang. “Once you’re in the dunes, you can’t really see what’s happening from the beach.”
Typically, the further a beach is from urban development—the more effort it takes to get there— the more difficult it is to predict what someone is there for: tranquility, a hike, a full-body tan, an intimate picnic, sex al fresco. The founding patrons of many secluded beaches were gay cruisers who picked a spot as far as possible from civilization, only to see their spaces gradually taken over by people who might have heard “LGBTQ2S+ space” and thought “glamorous fun with banging tunes.”
On the Greek Island of Mykonos, for example, Super Paradise used to be more sexually charged, but upscale restaurants and bars have gentrified it into a much more mainstream destination. “People will go there to watch the drag shows,” says Edward Prendergast, an Irishman and retailer who has lived part-time in Mykonos for more than 20 years. Mykonos’s Elia Beach, which is harder to get to and has rocks that can provide some privacy, has better maintained its cruisy-flirty vibe, even as it too has become more developed.
While on a party beach like 12th Street, Super Paradise or Eden, it’s safe to assume that the person reclining or standing next to you would be open for chatting or sharing a snack or drink; in a more secluded area, it’s best to give fellow beach users more space until you know better what their deal is. Immediately setting your towel down next to a stranger’s might come off as weird or too forward—but walking over to nearby sunbathers to ask a friendly question might be the start of a new friendship.
Haulover, Super Paradise, Elia and Hanlan’s are all clothing-optional, and at clothing-optional beaches, the basic courtesy around creepiness and consent applies double: no staring, no picture-taking, no physical contact without an invitation. It’s never, under any circumstances, okay to make fun of other people’s bodies. If your companions do so, a speedy “That’s not cool” is essential.
Some clothing-optional beaches, like Toronto’s Hanlan’s, have unfortunately become so popular that nudists have become the minority, which seems unfair since nudists lobbied to create these spaces. If you really want to capture the spirit of the place, you should seriously consider doffing your kit; there are fewer obstacles to doing so than you keep telling yourself. Ultimately, there’s no pressure to disrobe—such pressure is also not cool—but clothed visitors should realize that they are guests. They can go elsewhere, the nudists can’t. Respecting nudists on a clothing-optional beach is comparable to respecting your elders; defer to their reasonable requests and follow their lead on how to behave.
The same respect should be extended to conscientious cruisers. There’s a reason many gay beach areas are near bushes, rocks and other visual obstacles that provide rough-and-ready privacy. While passing by these spots, if you keep your focus soft, as you should, then horny people who have made efforts to be discreet might easily be mistaken for wildlife; treat them as such and give them a wide berth—unless you were flirting with them earlier.
Closer to urban settlement, codes of beach conduct can be quite refined, established over time through trial and error and eventually becoming unwritten laws that the locals strictly follow. In Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema neighbourhood, the LGBTQ+ beach is at Posto 9, at the bottom of Rua Farme de Amoedo and is quite visible from busy Avenidao Vieira Souto. Cariocas (the name for people who live in Rio) go to the beach for a multitude of reasons: to jog, walk their dog, cry after a breakup, scarf down a sandwich, walk to work, play sports, dance. At any time, a co-worker on a bus might pass by. If a non-Carioca at Farme beach just looks at the “scene”—all the skimpy bathing suits, the rainbow flag towels, the guys kissing and cuddling under their rental umbrellas—they might think, “I should get naked and start hitting on people right here by the lifeguard kiosk.” But no. Don’t. To accommodate so many different kinds of uses of the same space, Cariocas have established certain ways of doing things. If you want to meet someone, then go for a swim when they do and splash around suspiciously close to them. Or loiter at the waterline where people go to pose and chat. Strike up a conversation—even if only with your eyes—and make plans for later.
“You go to the beach to find out what to do after the beach,” says Carlos Tufvesson, a fashion designer and, for the last few years, the sexual diversity co-ordinator for the city of Rio de Janeiro.
While my perennial piece of advice for travellers is to dress as much as possible like the locals (which can be a way of avoiding harassment and offending local culture), that can feel like a challenge in Rio where bathing-suit fashion is taken very seriously. One year the preferred style is super revealing, the next year it’s extraordinarily revealing. But body-conscious visitors should look a little closer at the Ipanema scene. It’s true that many of the guys strutting around Posto 9 do look like models on a photo shoot—there’s a name for them: Barbies. But there are actually many different kinds of bodies and different kinds of beachwear. Move up the beach a bit: bears. Move over here: emo kids. Move over there: more women. What draws our attention is not always what the norm is. “There’s not just one kind of gay here,” says Tufvesson. That’s true for most other gay beaches if you adjust your gaze appropriately.
For a more relaxed scene in Rio, there’s Praia do Abricó, which is about an hour’s drive down the coast from Ipanema. While most nudist-friendly beaches are clothing-optional, Abricó has mandatory nudity, which means it gets serious naturists, perhaps there with their families, who may not make an automatic connection between being naked and getting jiggy with it. In cases like this, nudity may be a signal that cruisers need to exercise more, not less, discretion.
Choosing the right time
Of course, beach culture is not only organized by geography, but by time of day. A rocky area that’s cruisy at sunset may be full of people fishing at sunrise; a section of beach that seemed so peaceful at noon might have a DJ arrive at 4 p.m. Constant surprises are integral to beach culture and you need to be flexible to accommodate them; there’s no shame in relocating as the sun makes its way across the sky.
Some beaches clear out the moment the sun goes down—people will go back home or to their hotel to change and figure out dinner. In Rio, after applauding the setting sun, many people just pull on a tanktop and head up to the restaurants at Rua Farme de Amoedo, often with people they met during a waterline chat.
At other beaches, people hang out after dark. That scene might end up being very social, like an outdoor cocktail or dance party, or might end up being very homosexual. The first week I visited a particular gay-friendly beach in Mexico, which I will not name for fear of it being overrun, I was packing up my stuff as soon as the last glow on the horizon faded. I wanted to shower and eat ASAP. One night, a nearby couple interrupted my departure and suggested I should stay longer. Within 40 minutes of drinking beer with them, the expanse of sand started to feel like an open-air bathhouse. What’s rude at one time of day can be the most popular use at another.
When there can be such big differences in how space is used 50 metres this way or that, or an hour earlier or later, conflicts can happen. There’s a reason why the Charles Atlas fitness ad dating back to the 1940s, of a brawny guy kicking sand in the face of a skinny guy, still resonates today. One person’s best-day-ever is another’s nightmare, and at the seaside there are no walls—and very rarely authority figures—to take the edge off.
Which is why, corny as it sounds, the mantra of true beach lovers is “chill.” It is always better to move away from assholes. Unlike in the Atlas ad, where the skinny guy gets buff and punches out the sand-kicker, the true winner in any surfside conflict is the one who manages it with humour and grace. Sure, this spot in front of your picnic lunch seems like the worst place in the world to throw around a football. But careless people aren’t going to respond to your stink eye. In fact, your stink eye may annoy your friends, making you, not the footballers, the buzzkill. So turn up the charm. Teasingly ask to join in. Or perhaps offer a cheerful: “Hey there, I see a fantastic spot over there for your game.”
On occasions where flexibility and patience are not enough, a polite reasonable request, stated clearly enough that there is no chance for misunderstanding, is more likely to be backed up by others nearby who, perhaps, have the exact same complaint. Smiles are a fantastic way to get people on your side.
There are many reasons why queers congregate. It’s not just to people-watch, gossip, flirt and impose our musical tastes on others, though that’s all fundamental. It’s also, at least subconsciously, so we can protect each other, back each other up and feel nurtured and powerful as a community. That’s why the rainbow umbrellas, the unicorn flotation devices and the outlandishly sexy bathing suits are so important—they signal to ourselves and to outsiders it’s our space and this is what fun it all can be. If others buy into it, it’s one delightful strategy for changing the world.
But never mind the revolution. It’s too beautiful outside to get all heavy. Just pick the right spot at the right time on an LGBTQ2S+ friendly beach, and I guarantee that your neighbours are just friends and lovers you haven’t met yet.