Growing up gay in St. Louis, I knew about Boxers ‘N Briefs years before I was old enough to set foot inside. Every gay man within a 50-mile radius knew about the all-nude male strip club, and its reputation as a sort of anything-goes sexual haven held particular appeal if you weren’t skinny (me) or conventionally attractive (me). In those early days, even as I began to embrace being gay, I didn’t have many opportunities to express the “sex” part of my sexuality.
Boxers is located about a half-hour outside St. Louis in southern Illinois, nestled along the northern border of the Bible Belt. The club is surrounded by megachurches, pro-gun billboards, and more “Jesus Saves” messages than you’ll find in the Bible. In some ways, this location makes sense: For more than 20 years, it’s served as a church of sorts for both dancers and patrons seeking positive affirmation of their queer identity.
Gay bars everywhere play an important role in queer life, but even more so in places like the Bible Belt, where people don’t always feel free to express their true sexual selves. Many of the men that visit Boxers, or dance there, are seeking an escape from a reality that isn’t all that pleasant—a reality where they’re unable to fathom the idea of having a boyfriend, or worse yet, living as an outsider within their community. As the recent rampage at the Pulse Orlando made especially clear, safe spaces that allow us to feel accepted, like Boxers, are a pretty damn important outlet to have.
And so, on a recent trip back to the Midwest from my current home in Los Angeles, I decided to check in on the club that had given me that initial outlet. Since my first and only visit in 2000, when I was just a wee 18-year-old, I’ve seen plenty of men naked in real life and learned to navigate a gay bar better than your grandma can navigate a kitchen. But I was curious if the inhabitants of the club had changed as much as I had. Even though our country’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have progressed tremendously, were the men seeking refuge there going for the same reasons I did as a teenager? To express their sexuality because they had nowhere else to go?
On my first trip to Boxers, I remember driving down a long dirt road with zero street lights that lead to the square-shaped structure with metal siding, and thinking I was visiting a V.F.W. hall. Nervous and excited, I walked in and paid the angry door lady—think Kathy Bates in every season of American Horror Story—then entered the main room. I remember thinking for a moment that it looked like a strip club film set: there were poles in one corner, a bar in the center, and a pool table by the restrooms. To my right, a naked man on a pole, and in front of me, two naked men standing on the bar, dollar bills stuffed into their tube socks.
I decided to go alone that first time, too embarrassed to bring a friend. My sole objective at the time was to see a naked man in real life—and from everything I had heard about Boxers, this was the place to make it happen.
On my recent visit, 16 years later, I showed up on a slow Friday night to the same angry lady, and walked in to a similar scene of nudes dancing. The Top 40 music was too loud for my taste, and the neon lights that bounced off the mirrors hurt my eyes. This time I went with my cousin, Patrick, also gay. I brought him along for fun, but also because I wanted to give off the appearance of being ready to party, despite the fact that I don’t drink. We took two seats at the bar—prime stripper territory—as the men rotated shifts walking around the bar naked in tube socks (tips gotta go somewhere).
It was fun being there with Patrick, but I felt out of place now. I no longer needed to gaze at naked men dancing to feel sexy and have a good time. After a little while and a few drinks for my cousin, however, we started chatting up people around us and loosened up. Patrick came through on every front, ending the evening by dancing naked in the shower above the bar with Caleb, one of the dancers. The perfect nude wingman.
As the night wore on, and Patrick had more to drink, we became a popular presence among the staff. The dancers spent extra time with us, and the bartender regularly made sure Patrick was well boozed. Ashleigh, the bartender and the only other woman in the building besides the angry door lady, took on the role of sassy older sister in charge, ordering the dancers around, and passing out drinks to customers like holy wine at church—drink more, tip more, so the gospel goes. We grew so popular that the club’s manager (who didn’t want to be interviewed) invited Patrick and I back to his office to see the tiny pig he had just adopted. But none of this seemed to matter to the other customers, who were obviously more interested in the naked body parts on display than any of the commotion we caused.
Unlike the hip clubs in St. Louis proper, Boxers doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than dick. If you took away the mirrored walls, it could double as a straight dive bar—something that Steve Shay, a local businessman and a regular at Boxers I chatted with, thinks works to its advantage.
“It’s not like the St. Louis gay bars,” Shay said. “St. Louis gay bars have the preppy people, the beautiful people. Boxers attracts the working class, regular guys. Its location in the middle of nowhere is probably part of it’s appeal. It’s far away from prying eyes.”
These were the prying eyes I was trying to avoid all those years ago. And it brought me joy to hear that it still maintained that integrity.
Boxers screams come as you are. It’s a no-judgement zone. And this vibe resonates with both the clientele and dancers alike. “Boxers is a foster home for people who are broken, looking to find themselves, people that aren’t sure of who they are or what they want,” said Caleb, 25. He was tall and lean with a pale complexion. Before stripping he worked as a farmer in the small Missouri town where he’s from. “It’s a safe haven for us. It’s a place for people who have been mistreated.”
Caleb referred to the Boxers crew as Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. “That’s pretty much what we are,” he said. “We start out as strangers and we become a family.”
The road to stripping wasn’t the easiest for Caleb. His father was absent and his mother worked a lot, also as a dancer. At 14, he started experimenting with drugs. “All of them,” he said after I asked which ones. After a night-long binge, he and his best friend had sex, resulting in a child. Caleb tried to clean up and be a good father, but his friend struggled, and at five, the little girl was put up for adoption. Feeling distant and lost, he left his small town and came to St. Louis, ultimately arriving at Boxers.
“My mom is fine with me being gay,” he said, “but not okay with me dancing for men. I think she still hopes I might marry a woman.” It occurred to me that a lot of the men I saw at Boxers probably had mothers who felt the same.
Looking around I saw mostly the type of men who would come to the bar after a hard day of work. It was a mix of T-shirts and jeans and guys in slacks and untucked button-up shirts. Speaking with one of the more casually dressed patrons, he confided in me that he worked at a local lumberyard. He seemed apprehensive, and when I asked if he had a boyfriend, he grew uncomfortable and told me he didn’t want to talk anymore.
It became clear to me there was a strong possibility that some of these men had wives and children at home. I can only speculate, but based on my 34 years of pretty spot-on gaydar, I wasn’t getting a “gold star gay” read on these dudes. (For the uninitiated, a “gold star gay” is a homosexual that has never had sex with a member of the opposite sex. I am one of them.)
But the patrons weren’t the only ones seeking refuge as outsiders. Even many of the dancers shared a discomfort with their identity, too, and turned to Boxers to help sort it out.
“I’ve always been an outcast. I’ve always done my own thing. I don’t like to follow rules,” Kameron, 20, a tall redheaded dancer, told me at the bar. Extremely pale with a lean body, Kameron was a flirt, but in a classy way. While we talked, he’d gently touch me. That is, before he later put both legs on my shoulders and twisted his you-know-what in front of my face—a sea of skin and red pubes blinding me from seeing anything else. Needless to say, he got lots of dollars.
“I had a few doubts,” Kameron said after I asked how he gets comfortable to dance naked, “only because of my anxiety. I don’t know, I just put on a persona. Like Beyonce, like when she’s Sasha Fierce. She created this persona to feel comfortable with who she is. So that’s what I did, I created Kameron.”
Like Caleb, Kameron is from a small town in Missouri, but his journey was bit smoother. While there weren’t many gay people in his town, he was still able to form a tight-knit group of queer friends, and his family is not only fine with him being gay, they’re also fine with his dancing. In a way, his openness and honesty about his sexuality make it seem like he was destined for Boxers. He just doesn’t know what he wants to do after this stage of his career.
“This is my first job,” he said excitedly, and again, completely nude.
Caleb’s earlier reference to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys kept coming back to me. Everyone at the club that night appeared to be escaping something, be it a troubled past, a hard job, or even a wife. It was obvious that Boxers was a sanctuary for people teetering on the edges of gay life, as I once was. Sure, you can judge a man for being in the closet to his wife, or you can say these young dancers are being taken advantage of, but being there in the midst of it, it didn’t feel that way. Instead, I saw people who never quite fit in coming together in a place that fit them.
I have changed dramatically since my first visit to Boxers—the man I was then is similar to the men that visit Boxers today. I was able to leave the Bible Belt, explore being gay in a deeper sense, and in the process, accept my sexuality in a way that sometimes makes me forget that insecurities about being gay won’t change until queerness is universally accepted in our culture. We aren’t there yet, and because of that, some gay men are still marrying women, living in the closet, existing as outcasts. Fortunately, places like Boxers help them survive. Because even though everyone there is on their own journey, somehow, over a shared enjoyment of IRL penises, we’re able to realize that we’re not that different after all.