At Russian River, Gay Campers Find They Are Not Alone

By Sara Rimer.

It isn't that the two men don't enjoy touring the country's national parks, Mr. Selph, a 44-year-old children's entertainer from Los Angeles, explained as he sat in a canvas chair on a warm late July morning sipping a cup of coffee that had just been brewed on a Coleman stove outside his tent. It's just that those places impose certain limitations, Mr. Selph said: "You're not going to come out of the shower with a towel wrapped around your head pretending you're Norma Desmond."

Fife's and the two dozen or so other resorts scattered around the valley, a verdant stretch of redwood-rich land about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, have long offered a bucolic refuge for gay men and lesbians, a place where a mix of freedoms - social, personal, sexual - transform the annual summer holiday into something more than just a week's break from the grind of the workplace.

That's particularly true of Mr. Selph and Mr. Bracciotti, 48, his partner of 19 years. Both men recall childhoods - Mr. Selph's in rural Tennessee; Mr. Bracciotti's in Northern California - that included summer camping trips with their parents and siblings, an annual family ritual they found they missed as they grew older and it became clear that their futures would not include wives and children.

So the two men joined the Los Angeles branch of Great Outdoors, a gay and lesbian recreational organization, and for the last five years they have led a group pilgrimage to Russian River and to its commercial hub, Guerneville, a somewhat rough-around-the-edges California town of 3,000 that is home to an eclectic mix of gay bars and Irish pubs, gay bookshops and ice cream parlors, tattoo artists and vegan chefs, and stores selling a variety of merchandise, including X-rated greeting cards and chain saws. According to the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, about half of the 2,000 to 3,000 people who visit this resort area on a typical summer weekend are gay.

This year, about 70 members of Great Outdoors (www.greatoutdoorsla.org ) made the trip to Russian River, and on this morning, they are scattered around the open fields of Fife's, some, like Mr. Selph, finishing their breakfast; some taking showers; and others folding up their tents and going for a last walk in the grass beside the river. "This is Marty's and my summer tradition," Mr. Selph says, nodding in the direction of his fellow campers. "This is our family."

SAN FRANCISCANS discovered the Russian River as a summer destination in the late 19th century, the first vacationers coming by train up the California coast. By the 1940's it had become a summer oasis for the families of Irish, German and Italian immigrants. At night, big bands played in parks along the river.

In the 1960's, the area fell on hard times, and the family-run resorts declined. Bikers and hippies moved in. Then, in 1978, a wealthy Philadelphian named Peter Pender bought the old Murphy's Ranch Resort, which the Murphy family had opened in 1905 along the river at the edge of downtown Guerneville, and reopened it as Fife's, the area's first gay resort.

Other resorts underwent similar transformations, adding disco bars and clothing-optional hot tubs, and soon the Russian River Valley was Northern California's answer to Cherry Grove on Fire Island and Provincetown on Cape Cod.

"Gay and lesbian people have always sought out ways to gather in places where they could let their hair down and be themselves," said Eric Marcus, the author of "Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights" (Harper Collins, 2002).

"Gay people vacation like everyone else," Mr. Marcus said, "and they're generally looking for the same things: relaxation, fun, camaraderie and maybe a new boyfriend or girlfriend. And they know they'll find these things at a gay resort, though in the early days for places like Russian River, it was more bathhouse than bungalow colony."

Joe Selph made his first trip to the Russian River with friends in 1979, shortly after he left Clarksville, Tenn., an Army town, for San Francisco, and began coming out. "I as like `Oh, wow, look at this, it's a whole resort just for gay people,' " Mr. Selph said. "You couldn't get into the parking lot. This place was wall-to-wall men."

In San Francisco, Mr. Selph said, he had been too shy to dance with a man in public. In the summer, on the dance floor by the pool at Fife's, with disco music blasting and alcohol flowing, he lost his inhibitions. "I felt comfortable," he said. "It was, like, `O.K., this is safe.' "

It was before the AIDS epidemic swept San Francisco, when gay liberation was at its height, and people who had been closeted for years were reveling in their newfound freedom. At night at Fife's, men would leave the doors of their cabins open, just in case a passing stranger wanted to drop by. "I'd have sex with someone and I'd never learn their name," Mr. Selph said. "Everybody was doing it. It was the whole sexual freedom thing. AIDS hadn't come along yet."

By the mid-1980's, AIDS had changed everything. The cruising scene at Fife's, and the other gay resorts, disappeared. Several resorts closed; others struggled to stay open. Peter Pender died of AIDS, as did many other local businessmen. "Almost everyone I know from that period is dead," Mr. Selph said.

In 1983, Mr. Selph met Marty Bracciotti, a financial analyst, through a mutual friend, and moved to Los Angeles to be with him. He stopped going to Fife's soon afterward.

IT'S a slow weekend at the Russian River. Many of the regulars are back in San Francisco for the Up Your Alley
leather festival, an annual gathering that draws nearly 15,000 leather aficionados from around the world to a small side street in the Folsom district.

But the lack of a crowd doesn't faze the Great Outdoors members, several of whom are on their first camping trip. One, Simon Harvey, went to Target the week before to buy a tent ($29), which he practiced setting up in his living room before he headed north. He also bought a flashlight, a water bottle holder and a compass with a whistle attached - "in case I got lost" - but drew the line at a lantern. "I thought, `This is going too far,' " said Mr. Harvey, a 44-year-old actor who recently played a mattress salesman on "Friends."

Though the group's organizers, Mr. Selph and Mr. Bracciotti, are experienced campers (Mr. Bracciotti led the hike through the redwoods), most members of the group are not, so the five-day excursion was billed as "camping lite." The trip, for which each member paid $79, has since been redubbed "Safeway camping," because Fife's (with its 54 cabins, swimming pool, restaurant and dance club) happens to be a five-minute walk from a 24-hour Safeway grocery store.

"Most gay people we knew, their idea of camping was no room service," Mr. Selph said.

For those who have come for several years, memories of the first trips remain vivid. John Ball, 45, who started coming to the Russian River in 1977 when he lived in San Francisco, recalled starting out in the morning's chill and deep fog, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, then driving north on Highway 101, and emerging from the mist around Petaluma. "Suddenly, the fog starts clearing and, wow, there are all these redwood trees," he said.

On this Sunday morning, the group is sitting around the campsite, finishing off a batch of pancakes cooked by Mr. Ball - this time made with Aunt Jemima mix and water, not the beer that Mr. Ball usually works into the batter - and rehashing the events of the previous night. They had all gone to Club Fab, a local dance spot, and found the drag show wanting. The lip-synching was off, one camper complained. "Yeah," Mr. Selph said. "Last year's show was better."

For Mr. Bracciotti, whose large family always traveled with big groups of friends and relatives, this camping trip is a pleasant flashback to childhood, albeit one that was without beer-laced pancakes or harsh critiques of a miming Liza Minnelli.

"Summer to me was being around people my own age," he said. "That's what I've got with this group." Just a couple of days earlier, as members of the group floated down the river on inflatable mattresses and boats, Mr. Bracciotti was in a state of bliss: "I felt like a damn kid again."

For more information, click on the Russian River link in the right margin.

© 2002 New York Times; All Rights Reserved.

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