‘Free to Play at Last’: The Discovery of Play by Gay Men Attending Retreats

‘Free to Play at Last’: The Discovery of Play by Gay Men Attending Retreats

William Potter

Mention the notion of ‘adult play’ and the response will frequently be a raised eyebrow, or possibly more brazen references to sexual activity involving ‘toys’ and role ‘play’.  However, for many gay men attending retreats, the opportunity these events provide to play as an adult proves to be an epiphany, and one which has little if any such association. This ‘free-play’ is largely spontaneous and thoroughly infused with fun, laughter and even wonder. Its rediscovery is usually accompanied by a realisation that play, and the pleasure derived from it, has been largely missing from their lives for a very long time. Likewise this lack of attention to adult play is mirrored in the rather thin literature on the subject within the social sciences.

My awakening to the near-absence of play in the lives of many adults, arose out of my research into gay men’s experiences of participating in largely secular and non-commercial retreats, specifically those arranged principally by and for gay men. Such events constitute one element in a proliferating post-materialist, ‘alternative wellbeing culture’. Typically individuals spend a week to a fortnight away from their everyday lives, usually in a rural setting. Indeed this element of separation in terms of physical space and time, as well as from social and emotional connections, is perhaps the key feature of such events. However the experience of attending these gatherings is far removed from popular conceptions of taking part in retreats, which tend to focus on either the hedonism of the health spa or the austerity of the monastic cell. In contrast these events are generally organised on a non-profit basis, take place in hired venues and are run by volunteers. In addition they frequently involve some element of reflexive ‘work’, centred on making life changes.

The study sought to provide a detailed analysis of the experience of attending the retreats, as well as of their organisation, underpinning principles and content. It also examined why participants chose to take part, relating the retreat experience to their life histories, together with the challenges they faced as gay men in late modernity. The first event was an international summer retreat held on an island off the north coast of the Netherlands by the Eurofaeries, while the second was a winter retreat in the English Lake District organised by the Edward Carpenter Community. The numbers attending ranged from thirty to forty individuals, who were aged between mid-twenties to mid-seventies. Approximately ten per cent were of black or minority ethnic descent, with participants comprising a diverse population in terms of class, with some being employed and others not. The research drew on three sources of data: participant observation of both events, in-depth biographical-narrative interviews with Dutch and British participants, and semi-structured interviews with organisers from the retreats.

During their time away from their everyday lives, participants took part in a range of large group and small group sessions, often discussing past and present difficulties, as well as hopes and plans. Individuals also drew on their knowledge and skills to offer ‘work’shops on a wide range of subjects, from art and dance, to how they might live differently in future. There was plenty of time for chatting as well as quiet contemplation.

Play and the opportunity to play as adults were reported by participants as highly significant aspects of their retreat experience. As an attendee commented: ‘that’s what comes to mind, I think there was so much play, so much freedom to play’. Examples included one person delighting in splashing about in the mud on a walk, and a group dancing and laughing together in the rain. Others recounted jumping on top of each other and rolling about in ‘puppy piles’, or ‘playing aeroplanes’, attempting to fly down a beach in a strong wind. Some took the opportunity to explore dressing differently, as opposed to ‘dressing up’ as a given character, and told of how despite looking ‘ridiculous’, they revelled in the ridicule. All in all, play appeared to be characterised by a mix of physicality and creativity, with lashings of laughter and delight.

In thinking further about this play, I came to realise that rather than attempting to encapsulate the concept within a succinct definition (but, see Gordon), it was more useful to identify some of its key elements. It became clear that play was being described in terms of providing intrinsic enjoyment – ‘play for play’s sake’ – and as already noted was marked by a degree of spontaneity and lack of planning or instrumental rationality. This was in contrast to play as organised games or sports which conform to a set of rules, and emphasise competition alongside judgements as to who plays well or badly. Several principles underpinning the retreat experience were highly conducive to the promotion of playfulness, including a strong egalitarianism, together with the notion of being able to do what you wanted, as long as this did not impinge negatively on anyone else.

A number of participants commented that they had come to realise how work demands had crowded out any notion of spontaneous play from their lives, especially in an employment climate characterised by job insecurity. Others made a distinction between the freedom to play as they wished and ‘leisure’, viewing the latter as largely commodified compensation for an (over-)commitment to work (see, Kane 2006) – and as being packaged by an industry whose principal aim is to maximise financial returns, rather than advance wellbeing.

An additional reason given for why free play had all but disappeared from the lives of those interviewed was because of its association with children – and hence childishness. As one interviewee noted: ‘it’s the privilege of when we are children, being encouraged to play and to dress up, and explore being a pirate or being a princess’. The idea of play as something infantile was one that this, and other participants had reframed, coming to relish play for the sense of ‘collective joy’ (Ehrenreich 2007) it promoted, as well as the balance it provided to the more intense, affective aspects of the retreat.

Play appeared to participants as existing outside of ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life, involving a sense of ‘only pretending’ and ‘only for fun’ (Huizinga 1955: 8). One participant described ‘larking about’ in a boat on a lake with a couple of others, and told of screaming and shouting simultaneously in terror and hysterics, ‘in a way that you just can’t do, in quotes real life’. The liminal space of the retreat provided a safe environment in which such behaviour was not only accepted but encouraged, in marked contrast to the norms of a largely ‘playless’ everyday world. Play as ‘outside reality’ also enabled participants not only to act differently, but also to see themselves differently.  One participant in his mid-sixties, described how play allowed him not to take on an ‘elder-type position’ and not to be ‘responsible’, instead becoming mischievous but also creative. He was therefore able to self-fashion anew, as someone who did not have to ‘act his age’.

The notion of play as healing was also highlighted, particularly in relation to the gay men’s experience of homonegativity and exclusion. Being able to play with others was seen as contributing to a sense of being involved as ‘an insider’. One interviewee commented how his resulting improved self-confidence, had led him more easily to challenge homonegativity in situations outside the retreat.

This discussion has so far concentrated on the benefits play brought to the retreat participants. However, it is important also to recognise the significance of play in contributing to the appeal of the events, and in fostering a sense of belonging to a community centred around those groups arranging them. In promoting this connection, play assists in ensuring the very viability of these groups, not least through encouraging participants to return to future events.

It was apparent in conducting interviews with participants, often several weeks after the retreats had taken place, that many yearned to incorporate play into their daily lives. One response focused on taking and creating opportunities to play on a regular basis, with others who recognise the benefits of doing so. However I suggest that in addition to play as a social activity, it would seem useful to undertake even solitary chores with a degree of playfulness – think washing dishes with lots of splashing and plenty of bubbles. More generally it is interesting to note the associations between play and bodily movement and touch, such as in dance, play-fighting or even playing fetch with a dog – as well as with sound, linking music to action.

Whatever means are employed, I argue that taking the opportunity to foster a re-enchantment with play, principally but not solely as a social activity, offers the possibility, of a life enhanced by much laughter and joy. In a late modern world in which great emphasis is placed on the individual, it may also help provide a fresh perspective, and even challenge, to the often overwhelming demands of work and personal career. Similarly an emphasis on play may assist in assuaging a dominant focus on competition, in much of what passes for ‘leisure’.

Ehrenreich, B. (2007) Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, London: Granta.
Huizinga, J. (1955) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.



William Potter undertook the research on which this article is based for a doctorate in Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London – the title of the thesis being ‘Havens in a Heteronormative World? Gay Men’s Experiences of Retreats’. His background is in social work and social development.