Burning Men

Matteson Perry Issue: Section:

I went to Burning Man for the first time this year. I was excited to see the art, discover the “real” me, and be a part of a giant social experiment in radical self-expression.  Oh, and also I wanted to have all sorts illicit sex with beautiful hippie chicks.

I thought my Burning Man experience would go something like this – When I arrived at the gate a greeter would ask, “Do you have a penis?”

“Why yes, I do,” I’d respond.

“Perfect.  Just head to your right and in a few minutes you’ll come upon a pile of naked, horny, hippie chicks.”

“Literally a pile of naked women, waiting to have sex with me?” I’d ask.

“Yes, you can’t miss it.”

I imagined I’d spend the week having sex with different women everyday in crazy positions, the type that would require a license and three-day safety course in the real world.  The women would be named Star-Child or Sparkle-Horse or Moon-Humper, though I wouldn’t even know that because hedonistic desert orgies don’t have a “meet and greet” portion. For seven days I’d be a purely sexual being, enjoying so much anonymous sex that Bacchus himself would look down from Mt Olympus and say, “Whoa, take it easy dude!”

That was the plan, but that is not what happened.  Instead of a lot of sex with woman, I fell in love with a man.  Which is how this picture came into existence: 

I’m sure many men have gone to Burning Man and had a homosexual encounter that made them realize they were gay.  This is not one of those stories.  I am still straight and did not have sex with a man.  No, what happened to me at Burning Man was much gayer than having sex with a man - I fell head-over-heels in friendship.

That man caressing my shoulder oh-so-gently is Peter, a nice English lad that was in my camp at Burning Man.  Within two days of meeting Peter, we were practically inseparable, going everywhere together, always side-by-side chatting about something. We took bartending shifts together at our camps parties.  At mealtime we’d sit together.  If one of us got a beer, we grabbed one for the other. By the fourth day we were calling each other “hubby” – “Need a drink Hubby?”.  Our campmates declared us “the cutest couple at Burning Man”.  And how could you argue with pictures like this one:


I have a lot of very good male friends.  But I’ve never “fallen” this fast.  There is something about Burning Man that quickly bonds you to people and it’s more than just the drugs. It’s the intensity of the experience, the emotional openness of the attendees, the harshness of the environment (and also it’s the drugs). Burning Man is a friendship accelerator, like summer camp for adults.  You can go knowing no one and emerge with a non-sexual soul mate.

The even namesake man is burned on the second to the last night and it is the crescendo of the week. 50,000 people gather around the 50’ tall man.  It starts as a small fire but quickly grows to be an inferno hot and big and you can feel the heat on your face even 100 yards away.  There’s a tension in the air as the crowd watches, waiting for it to burn to the ground, so they can release their pent up energy.  When the last piece finally falls, the crowd erupts into chaos.  People yell and howl like wolves and many strip down to nothing.  We rushed towards the ashes and then ran around them in an animalistic fervor.  People are crying, yelling, laughing, singing, expressing almost every human emotion there is to express. It was a primal experience –I seemed to have no thoughts of my own, caught up in the groupthink, running wherever the crowd took me. 

After 10 or 15 minutes the commotion died down.  I returned to my senses and went back to find my campmates.  Reunited, we trudged through the desert back towards our camp to replenish our water and booze supply. Peter and I were, as usual, walking side by side. We passed a beer back and forth. All around us were neon lights moving in ever direction, attached to people and bikes and vehicles.  Techno music drifted towards us from every direction.  Up above the stars struggled to compete with the man-made show below.  It was surreal and beautiful, a quiet contemplative moment after the wildness of the burn. Drunk, high and exhausted, I was feeling joyful and thankful for my experience.  I reached over and put my arm around Peter’s shoulder.


“Peter, before the drugs wear off, I have to tell you how happy I am to have met you.  I can’t quite explain how it happened, but you feel like one of my best mates even though I’ve only known you 5 days.”

Peter chocked out a “thank you,” holding back tears.  Hubby’s a bit of a crier.

Continuing, I said, “We get along so easily, just really understand each other.  We’re simpatico.”

“Is that a real word?” Peter asked.

“I’m think it is,” I said.  In my state I couldn’t be totally sure.  I started to explain what it meant, but then we got distracted by a topless girl using a light up hula-hoop.  That’s Burning Man – one moment you’re expressing a non-sexual love for a man, the next you’re staring at large breasts bounce up and down, illuminated by neon-green light.

For some, Burning Man is a life-changing event – it can be the first time one feels accepted, a springboard for major life changes, an “awakening”.  It wasn’t that for me.  I’m not going to quit my job or join the Peace Corps or take up Capoeira, but it did allow me to have this conversation with Peter, which may not seem like a big deal, but for an adult male, such conversations are rare.  Outside of our significant others, we rarely tell people how much they mean to us.  It just doesn’t feel right while watching a football game to give your friend a hug and say, “I hope you know how special you are to me, bro!” Even if it’s during a commercial.

Sincerity is something with which I struggle.  I’m always looking for a joke to undercut the serious moment. Partially, this is because I’m a comedian and it’s fun, but at its base level I think it’s about avoiding pain.  If nothing is important to you, you can’t be hurt.

But you can’t avoid sincerity at Burning Man.  It is a place of INTENSE sincerity (sometimes too intense).  While this sincerity was the cause of many jokes and much eye rolling through out the week, overall it was good for me to see people expressing unbridled passion for something and to do so myself. It often feels that in our society we are encouraged to be quiet about how we feel, to keep our emotions under wraps, to not stand out. Burning Man is the antidote to this, a weeklong catharsis that allows one to release all that is contained the rest of the year. 

At the end of the week, Peter and I parted ways with a hug and wet eyes.  I went back to Los Angeles and he returned to London.  For now we’ll do the long distance thing and we’ll always have Burning Man.

One last picture of Peter and I, practicing for when we open our non-gay gay bar. 


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