Arielle at Jacob Riis Park, a queer, trans, and POC community beach in Queens, NY.

My 1st Summer at Riis: How a Queer and Trans (Topless) Beach Taught Me To Love My Trans Body

From the Time I could Walk, I Knew I LOVED THE BEACH.

The ocean was always my happy place. As a child, I anxiously awaited the summer warmth that signaled blissful beach days ahead, counting down the seconds until they finally arrived.  The moment I stepped off the boardwalk on our first trip of the year, I would skip down to the dimple where the ocean kisses the land, lower myself to the ground, and wedge my little legs beneath the damp sand below.

Sinking into the earth, I would gradually scan my body from head to toe; first captivated by the tranquilizing cool of the ocean breeze across my face; then how my skin shimmered where it had been brushed by sand; then by the pseudo-melodic hum of the waves as they ebbed, flowed, and wove around me. I stared into the vast expanse, letting the rest of the world flow away with the tide. 

When I learned how to drive, I was eager to make my first solo trek to the shore. In line with my subtly rebellious nature, I encouraged my friends to tell their parents we were going to the mall, then pulled up to their homes with my windows rolled down and my beach bag tucked away in the trunk. We passed the hour drive belting showtunes at cars as we left them in the dust, hearts full of joy and excitement at the adventure to come. 

Dysphoria Changed Everything – but I Thought the Beach Was an Exception.

By this point, I had already begun to lose my breath, suffocated by the invisible grasp of my worsening gender dysphoria; still, I refused to let it rob me of the beach’s infinite joy. “This is my happy place,” I thought. “Nothing can take that away.”

At the beach, 17 years old, in the midst of wrestling with my gender dysphoria.
Taking selfies at a beach in Connecticut, age 17, on the precipice of finally acknowledging my trans identity. One of my final beach trips before transitioning.

When I came out as transgender, I realized with a dizzying jolt that I was wrong. 

I stared into my bedroom mirror one evening, transfixed by the many flaws of my own form. I was nauseated by the sight of that hideous bulge persevering through several layers of tape, ashamed of my inability to disguise the concavity of my chest with body tape and a padded bra. Overwhelming shame displaced my bliss. I became paralyzed by the fear of strangers judging my visibly transitioning body in a setting where the expectation of bathing suits limited my ability to hide behind the euphoria of breast forms and gaffs.

Though I yearned to feel the ocean breeze whipping through my hair, which now billowed in waves down to my upper back, I shuddered at the thought of tainting my memory of this sacred space with pain and dysphoria. With each passing summer, I grew increasingly heartbroken as I scrolled through social media posts of my friends and loved ones enjoying their time in the sun. 

Seven Years Came and Went Before I Finally Made My Return to the Beach.

Last summer, a close friend introduced me to the clothing-optional, veritable queer and trans safe haven that is Jacob Riis Park. It’s one of those “if you know, you know” places – relatively small and tucked away in The Rockaways, but once you’ve been there, nothing else really comes close to its magic.

At first, I was apprehensive to go. What had once been a source of comfort now held so much uncertainty. Would my return feel triumphant, a powerful reclamation of my childhood love for the shore? Or would I stand there, exposed, ocean breeze in my hair, while strangers gawked and stared and permanently redefined what the space represents?

In spite of my doubts, I decided to take a chance. I rolled down the windows in my friend’s PT Cruiser and glanced out at passing cars. I turned up the radio, hoping this might drown the sound of my pounding heart as we made the trek to Riis beach.

My very first time at Riis Beach, AKA the queerest beach on earth (~May 2019)

A Single Step Off the Boardwalk Dispelled All my Fears.

I was instantly blown away, not just by the sea of pride flags that extended far beyond the breakers, nor the vast expanse of the ocean, but by the nearly tangible sense of pride that filled my lungs with the ocean air.

There were topless, tucked, bottomless, untucked, guarded, bound, unguarded, boundless, positively liberated trans people as far as the eye could see. At first, I relished in the comfort of the flowy swim skirt I had recently bought. The extra fabric hid exactly what I wanted to hide, exposed just as much as I was comfortable exposing, and allowed me to flaunt my femininity while hiding away that extra few inches of human that had so long been a source of my shame. 

Then I glanced down at the hundreds of figures scattered across the rocky shoreline. I turned to my left, then my right, and just to be absolutely certain, I turned to look behind me. Everywhere I turned, I found myself face-to-face with powerful transgender people who were unafraid and unashamed, even celebrating their trans bodies. 

We set up our towel. I lowered myself to the sand and paused for a few moments, staring out into the vast expanse to let this new world sink in. I inhaled. A deep sense of calm came over my body. I exhaled. 

I looked down at my swimsuit and took a deep breath in. This time, when I breathed out, a fire ignited somewhere deep within my soul.

The beach was lined with trans and gender non-conforming folx who changed my life.

I rose to my feet, and as I did, I shed my swimsuit like the suit of armor it had come to represent, leaving nothing but a pair of black spandex shorts between my bare body and this beautiful world around me.

For the Rest of that Evening, I Was On Top of the World.

I had never dared to dream that I could feel so free and powerful while being so physically exposed. Part of me still expected to notice the familiar look of discomfort on others’ faces as they took stock of the noticeable bulge in my spandex. As I modeled for pictures (one of my favorite activities!), I glanced around as if to confirm my fears. Instead, friends and strangers alike chimed in with words of support and encouragement as I struck pose after pose in the damp sand of the shoreline. “Yes, girl!” they chanted, in affirmation of my fabulous womanhood. 

I felt a sudden release inside my chest; the end to a tightness that had just been for so long that I no longer noticed until it was gone. I breathed, truly breathed, for what felt like the first time in years, and smiled at the tranquilizing cool of the ocean breeze across my back.

Riis beach is everything that’s right with NYC.

On our second trip to Riis, we had barely lodged our umbrella in the sand before I was down to my shorts.

On our third, I didn’t even bother bringing a suit — just spandex, some dry clothes, snacks, a sheet, and a towel.

It quickly became a tradition, going to Riis Beach.

We returned every week for the rest of the summer – the “Monday Crew,” we called ourselves – making new friends and memories each time that we went.

The summer soon passed, but my wonder never wore off. I was amazed by the profound lack of judgment that was evident throughout the space, the unparalleled confidence and power of the trans folx I met, and my own radical transformation over the course of a few short months. With each return trip, my shame continued to fade as it gave way to the bliss of my youth, and ultimately, a profound self-love that I had never dared to dream possible. With each passing moment, I learned to celebrate my trans body in a manner I had once accepted was reserved solely for my cisgender peers.

That summer at Jacob Riis Park transformed me in ways I could not have imagined. I found pride in what makes my body unique, and in doing so, relinquished much of the shame I once felt at its form. My trans body is not better than any cisgender body, and it is certainly not worse, – it’s just different

Today, that difference is what makes me feel most beautiful.

This photo, which sits on the home page of Trans and Caffeinated, will always carry with it fond memories of my first summer at Riis beach.

2 thoughts on “My 1st Summer at Riis: How a Queer and Trans (Topless) Beach Taught Me To Love My Trans Body”

  1. Thank you for sharing this empowering story. Pre surgery I had an awful disphoria experience at my favorite outdoor swimming spot in wnc. It hurt so much to feel judged by others in my happy space. Thank you for reminding me that in time I get to reclaim my body and my connection to the earth and the elements.

  2. So happy for you 🙂 You are wonderful and you inspire me everyday. SO blessed to have been able to share one of those trips with you. Being by your side was incredibly empowering.

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