The dust settles. In the distance, the hazy afternoon sun shines on a body, a man you might know. A man you must meet. Walk past the pink bar, the pink drinks, the pink go-go dancers, the pink streamers blowing in the wind, Burning Man's Pink Mammoth camp takes its name seriously. In the middle of the desert, across the dancefloor, a man wearing a bowtie and a cummerbund meets a man in a red bandana and a loincloth. "We spent the night walking a scale model of the solar system a few miles long. We stopped at every planet to sit and talk and have a drink. By the time we reached Pluto, the sun was almost up. It was an absolutely perfect first date," that's how Kevin Farrell describes meeting Nick Vivion at Burning Man. The co-founders of Unicorn Booty both talk of their six-year affair with the Man and the yearning to go back year after year with the same energy it'd make the Energizer bunny jealous.
And they're not alone. Before Milk, Dustin Lance Black's first film, On the Bus, was about his trip to Burning Man, and Adam Lambert got a revelation to audition for American Idol while on his own personal trip of self-discovery and ginger rejection.
Today you can't light a sage in the Mission without hearing a story about the annual gathering of gift givers. It's so pertinent that even national business magazines now have something to write on the subject. "It feels like this year, Burning Man and Facebook finally met, and it reached a tipping point in the mainstream consciousness," said Brenden Shucart. That tipping point is that for the first time in the history of the festival, Burning Man sold out of tickets, reaching capacity at 50 thousand. "I think it's good that the Burning Man ethos is seeping out. I've met dumb, jock, frat boys who came just because it was the hip thing to do and left completely different," Brenden said.
Even though it's guesstimated that about a third of the participants are LGBT, queer tales from Burning Man are harder to come by, swallowed up by bigger, all-encompassing narratives. For example, the just-published Tribes of Burning Man by Guardian editor Steven T. Jones includes "not much" on the topic of gay camps (I couldn't ask Steven any follow-up questions because he refused to be a source for an SF Weekly piece, where this column originally appears. Which just goes to show Burners are not immune to being petty).
"Burning Man is a lot like Europe," Nick said. "Everyone seems pretty damn gay because everyone is bright and furry. So the game is 'gay or just a Burner?'"
Since I didn't have the money to live like I didn't care about money, I set out curiously to find out what exactly happens inside the tents of the gay camps at Burning Man. Back in the default world, I wondered if I had what it takes to go a week without showering. "What?" Brenden asked. "Trust me, the gays bring showers."
Losing your Burning Man cherry may sound intimidating, with friends preparing for it months in advance. For first-time Burners, it's recommended going with a small group of friends and getting a feel for the overall experience so that next year you'll be ready to join an established camp that will fend for you (with food at least).
"Most of the bigger, returning camps have vetting processes, camp dues, and pretty elaborate chore lists. It's so much easier to do your own thing and grow it organically," Kevin said.
It's been six years since Dan Estabrook of DanNation has been to Black Rock City, on the tenth-year anniversary of coming out to his friends during Burning Man in 2001. Appropriately enough, the theme of this year is Rites of Passage. "They were the first people to whom I came out," Dan said. "They were critical in this transformation, and who I am today." However, the theme that year was not Transformation.
"The best way to know you're in a camp that's a good fit for you is to create your own," Kevin said. "I've camped with 100-person mega camps on the Esplanade, and tiny little two-person camps in the backstreets." That's perhaps one of the reasons one-time Burners are eager to come back; each year is a completely different experience.
For Dan, this will be a completely different experience mostly because it will be his first time staying in an almost exclusively gay camp, Mudskipper's Café, located in what can only be referred to as Black Rock City's "gayborhood." Recently, large camps at Burning Man have been designated certain regions, as to make sure the S&M camp is far away from the kids' playground. Due to this zoning structure, most of the gay and queer-friendly camps like Pink Mammoth, Mudskipper's Café, Comfort & Joy, AstroPups, and Emerald City Glam Cocks have been "ghettoized" between 7 and 10 o'clock (the city is mapped out after a clock face).
Dan's camp, Mudskipper's Café, serves root beer floats every afternoon before going out to bigger dance parties at nearby camps with speakers, DJs, and go-go dancers.
"The gay camps are pretty much the heart and soul of daytime dance for a big portion of the city," Kevin said. "The gays know how to throw a killer party."
One of the largest and most well-known gay camps is Comfort & Joy, where Brenden will be staying this year. "It's nice to be with a large camp and they can figure out some of the nuts and bolts, and you can just relax, explore, and party."
But Comfort & Joy is not just famous for its dance parties; it also hosts yoga sessions and lectures. Meditations, story telling, massages, body painting, fashion shows, roller skating rinks and costume trading are also a part of other gay camps. "There's no one type of camp," said Kevin. "I've seen a life-size Mousetrap board game camp complete with a real man flipping at the end, hot air balloons, eye spas, massage temples, playgrounds, spaceships..."
And the people are as diverse as the activities. "Even with a gayborhood, there are all kinds of people mixed all over Black Rock City," Dan said.
"That's the beauty of it," Nick added. "Everyone is together partying, dancing, talking, learning, laughing. It's all-inclusive and is so much more fun than the segregated gay scenes in most cities."
"It's great to party in this area, but I like being able to go home to my lesbian and straight friends to trade war stories at the end of the day. Kevin said. He and Nick will be staying at the Fucking Flamingos, a camp they'll share with straight folk and lesbians. "Sexuality is such an afterthought for most people on the playa," he added.
Everyone I asked confirmed that casual sex is common at Burning Man. Camps like Spiffy Lube even offers an plushy place to do the naughty, although some people prefer to have sex in their private tents, next to a structure, or right down on the playa.
"Burning Man is the most sex-positive environment on the planet," Kevin said.
"Sexuality is a sliding scale there," Dan added. "I have had hook-ups with straight men and women. The term 'gay' almost becomes meaningless."
Perhaps more meaningless is the term "straight." Several gay Burners report sleeping with straight men at the festival. "I think for them, the whole thing is such a departure from their everyday lives that it gives them the freedom to do things they wouldn't normally," Brenden explained, similar to a "When in Rome..." mentality.
There's even a camp set up for straight men wanting to get their dicks sucked by gays. The DL Club is not necessarily discreet or on the down low, but at Burning Man nothing is.
Beyond physical sex, people report a kind of mind fuck at Burning Man. "I operate under the conceit that I know myself pretty well," Brenden said. "But every time I've gone I have learned something about myself, how I operate. You need distance in order to get that perspective."
Another thing you might need to get this altered perspective is hallucinogens. Although Nevada state law still considers possession and consumption of LSD, MDMA, ketamine, and marijuana illegal, the law of the land works in the favor of recreational drug users. Let's be real, drugs are nothing new in the gay community.
"There are probably more drugs at any circuit party than at Burning Man," Kevin said. "Most people I know don't have much interest in partaking in anything that will leave them bedraggled in 100-degree heat the next day. Especially not when there are homemade moonshine bars and vodka bars with 50 different flavor infusions and Irish pubs and so many other free, super social drinking wells set up."
As fun as the festival looks with the naked dancers and nonstop parties, all the crazy stories of bumping into a lesbian camp with women sucking on each others's breasts and being challenged to suck your friend's cock to prove your homosexuality (thus entrance into this lady-loving land), all of that seems to be secondary to Burners. Story-telling fodder of an experience they can't really articulate.
"Every single big idea that I have had is somehow related to the mind-space that I create while I'm on the playa." Nick said. "Being away from all the daily crap, all that minutiae, does a really powerful thing. It's like you are cleansed of all the bullshit and can just focus on yourself. Sure, there's plenty of hedonism, but there's an equal helping of self-discovery and intelligent exploration."
"There's so much talk of manifesting on the playa," Kevin added. "50 thousand people brimming with positive energy in one place has a funny way of making the things you seek appear before you."
For Dustin Lance Black, it was a feature film. For Adam Lambert, a spot on American Idol. And for Kevin? A man in a red bandana and a loincloth.