A French woman walks her son down San Francisco’s Castro Street, where the technicolor whiplash of flags in the sun fills the street with resounding cracks. One of the woman’s delicate hands protectively grasps her son’s while the other grapples with a taut leash, at the end of which her dust-bunny of a terrier struggles for freedom. A van scoots past them, leaving behind a cloud of hashish-stained air and exhaust that streams from the beaten-up tailpipe like the hair of some hippie. In front of Harvey’s Bar, a drag queen films a music video backed by two women dressed in clothing that seems to make a strong case for third-wave feminism to the few straight men on the road.
“Excuse me, misters.” The mother approaches a pair of balding men walking up the street hand in hand. “Do you know where there is a good place to eat here?”
“You could check out Market and Castro, there are some nice little places up there,” one of the men says.
Leaning in closer, his partner brandishes a heavily ringed hand and adds in a grave tone, “If you don’t mind seeing a few asses and cocks, that is. There’re some perverts up there who like to walk around without their clothes on.”
The man’s more cautious attitude with regards to public nudity has permeated San Francisco’s Castro District, the historical nucleus of radical sexual culture in the city; whose liberality defines so much of our identity as residents of the Bay Area. District 8 (which includes the Castro) Supervisor Scott Wiener passed a ban on Nov. 20 on public nudity that prohibits displays of “genitals, anal-area and perineum” on San Francisco’s streets and parks, the stages on which free-lovers and gay protesters played out the unrestricted scenes of sexual liberation. The ban applies only to those above the age of five, and violation is punishable by a potential $500 fine, although violators will not be arrested as sexual offenders. Licensed street fairs and parades are exempted from the ban, which has seen unanimous support from the district’s neighborhood services committee.
In an article that appeared in Slate magazine on Nov. 27, William Saletan states that the public nudity movement is an affront to the gay community and that it has falsely adopted the gay movement’s rhetoric in its campaign for “freedom of sexual expression in all its forms.”
An article by Joshua Sabatini that appeared in the SF Examiner on Nov. 5 quotes Wiener saying, in repone to allegations that the ban is anti-gay, that homosexual men make up the “dominant demographic” of the ban’s supporters. The same article quotes Supervisor David Campos saying that he is “still trying to understand why [anti-public nudity] legislation was a priority.”
Wiener’s ban, Sabatini says, has become representative of San Francisco’s rising conservatism and “has prompted soul-searching questions about San Francisco’s identity, such as whether tolerating nudity on public streets is intrinsically tied to what makes The City a destination for visitors and a leader on social causes.”
These are the soul-searching questions that nude activist Gypsy Taub attempted to answer by tearing off her dress during a Nov. 5 city hall discussion on public nudity, spurring San Francisco lawyer Christina DiEdoardo to sue the nudity ban in a class action case on behalf of four of its protesters. The ban asks the core of the gay and sexual liberation movements, a center of radical dissent and the United States’ most renownedly liberal city to reconsider its definition of lewd behavior, not to punish the innocent. At the same time, it asks lewd exhibitionists to accept the responsibility of tolerance and and challenges a definition of free expression that is so tied up with what it means to be San Franciscan.
“[The ban] is an interesting experiment in acceptance,” says Richard, a San Francisco nudist who refrained from sharing his last name.
“The line between ‘nude’ and ‘lewd’ is pretty ambiguous,” Richard says. He notes a disagreement in the legislation’s premise and its enforcement, saying somewhat sardonically that “It’s interesting to me that nudity is going to be reserved for the Folsom Street Fair and Gay Pride Parade [both overtly sexual events].”
The French woman and her son sit down for breakfast at a bar overlooking Jane Warner Plaza. Unwrapping burnished silverware from linen swans, they don’t give a second look to the practically nude, wiry figure who looms at the hill’s crest like a mirage. As he reaches the plaza, a sequined butterfly on his loincloth winks in the light.
“I think that the nudity on Castro is something that tourists really appreciate,” says Lloyd Fishback, a prominent nudist in the San Franciscan community, the butterfly over his crotch threatening to take flight on a passing breeze. “It’s iconic.”
Averting eye contact and in a self-conscious tone, Fishback concedes that locals of the Castro may not agree with his lifestyle on account of some “bad apples” whose lewd exhibitionism has ruined public nudity in the eyes of many. Cars pass and a group of winos hoot in ecstasy as they beat on a goatskin drum and pass a cockatoo over to Fishback’s sunburned shoulder. Nobody glances up from their breakfasts or newspapers.
“Nudity to me isn’t about showing myself off,” Fishback says, kneading the day’s warmth into a long scar that sits uncomfortably on his abdomen like a botched caesarean. “It’s not an exhibition show. To me, it’s about freedom of expression. I’m just out here enjoying the sun.”
At a nearby table Richard writes in scrawling letters on the fading pages of his notebook. Growing up, he says he “was taught to be ashamed of [his] body, the expression of our most basic selves.” He vigorously taps his hand with a thick fountain pen as he recounts a childhood of repression.
At San Francisco’s nude beaches, he learned to accept his body and himself. A blue-eyed, diffident child beat up for his long hair and pushed in the gym shower, Richard’s celebration of self through nudity means more to him than the free air tossing itself against his ruddy skin. To Richard, outlawing public nudity would be an oppressive action against the expression of his most essential being. His metronomic thrashing continues.
“We’ve laid a guilt and criminality upon ourselves that we should let go of,” Richard says. He delivers his philosophy without pretension. “I just want to sit here looking boring and writing in my book. Sex has no place in this.”
Crossing the plaza, a woman with brightly dyed red hair warns her less experienced friends of the weirdos around who are “just here to expose themselves.” A man makes a joke about some street art to his partner.
“It’s a homobile!” He points to a hanging bike wheel adorned with running rainbow flags, ornaments shaped like cosmic ellipses and pairs of Ken dolls in stiff, plastic embraces. “Doesn’t this violate the ban? There’s a naked one!”
Richard’s nakedness sparks much discourse between passersby, but being the subject of controversy does little to shame him for his unassuming celebration of self. Only once has a reaction to Richard’s nudity awakened old humiliation. His pen-tapping crescendos, Morse code for distress, while he tells the story.
“It was this young woman in a full burka,” Richard says, pointing his slate-disc eyes at the concrete. “She looked at me with such fear. She shielded her children from the sight of me with incredible urgency and shame. I felt sorry for her, even a little guilty for awakening that kind of trauma.”
Offering a widening of his smile and a Diet Coke, Daniel Bergerac, a perpetually grinning gay man in his early middle age, momentarily excuses himself from the terrace behind the dogwash that he owns with two other men.
“I’ve really evolved on this issue,” Bergerac begins, gentle voice underscored by the crack tzzzz of the opening coke can. “It used to be a few guys, two or three times a week, sitting out in the sun. Nothing more.” Nudity in the Castro, like Bergerac, has undergone some change in recent years.
“Since that time, we’ve had exhibitionists show up in genital adornments,” Bergerac says. “Constantly adjusting themselves, oiled bodies …they’ve ruined it for the nudists.”
He mimics the shape of the area around Jane Warner plaza.
“There are three elementary schools and one public library within three blocks of Jane Warner Plaza,” Bergerac says. “I think it should be a parent’s choice when they want to expose their child, if at all, to that kind of overt sexuality.”
Bergerac mentions twice that he is convinced there is something for persons of every sexuality in the “tremendously accepting” Castro District, but conversations with his customers and others in the community have revealed nudist exhibitionism as an unsavory form of expression.
“It is making the majority of people very uncomfortable,” Bergerac says. “It doesn’t add anything positive to the district’s atmosphere. There’s a lot of humanity that passes through the Castro on bus lines and metro lines, they don’t necessarily want to see a bunch of naked guys just …hanging out.” Bergerac chuckles, faint lines in his face creasing in pleasure with his innuendo.
At noon in the center of the plaza, a circle of older gay men listen intently to a comrade’s tales of sexual escapade and declarations of social equality one night, conversing with a robust nude man at a bar down the road.
“And I go back to the bar, and my friends all say, ‘Are you crazy? Why were you talking to that pervert?’” he says, cataract-ridden eyes full of incredulity. Around the table, a wide-set woman who joined in the middle of the story begins to absently weave bottle caps into jewelry.
“This is San Francisco for Christ’s sake!” He eyes each of them carefully with the emphatic mannerism of a dissident. “This is San Francisco! There are no perverts here. I’m a pervert, he’s a pervert. We’re people, goddamnit!”
So his story ends, his pummelling of the table ushering only apathy from his listeners. The wide-set woman tends to her bottle caps, which have been jarred off its edge in a series of clacks. The rest seem rather unaffected by his account, continuing to salute passing acquaintances and to stretch and curse arthritic ligaments.
Across the road, the rainbow flag above the gaping subway station snaps against itself like a thrashing rainbow beast, a fighting testament to the obstinate liberalism of San Francisco.