The Worldwide Spectacle Of Banning San Francisco’s Naked Soul

Wolf Richter

Rarely has a city council received so much worldwide attention as San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. Yesterday, accompanied by booing and heckling and shouts of approval, they voted 6 to 5 to ban public nudity. A close decision, after months of hot debate. And protests, when it wasn’t too cold, by naked people outside City Hall. “Ban” in the San Francisco sense.

The earth-shattering event was plastered all over the world. The New York Times ran a story on it, as did the Wall Street Journal (et tu, Brute?) and the Guardian. The French business paper, Le Figaro, used the same photo that most other papers were using, a naked woman named Gypsy Taub wagging her finger at someone, perhaps the supervisors, while a sheriff’s deputy was getting ready to take action behind her. The photo was cropped above her breasts. “Is San Francisco Losing Its Soul,” the story started out.

The Spanish paper, El País, had a photo of naked men and women, but the essential details weren’t visible. The German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine had two stories, it simply being too good to pass up. And three photos: some naked hippies on a cable car (these people were skinny back then!); Taub, draped in a blue cloth and smiling at the cameras, being manhandled down a hallway; and a guy sitting on the steps of City Hall, dressed in a white hat, long hair, white socks, and shoes. These are the images of San Francisco that are now circulating around the world—and tourism, already a huge business, will doubtlessly spike.

The mayor and some of the supervisors were cited by name or even quoted, thus becoming instant worldwide celebrities, for a few minutes. Presidential candidate Ron Paul, though vastly more important in the overall scheme of things, never got anywhere near this kind of attention from the mainstream media [Where the Heck is Ron Paul? A Media Boycott Heats Up].

A tourist interested in naked people may be disappointed, though. In our neighborhood, I’ve never seen any. In North Beach, a few minutes away, I’ve run into a couple of guys, a few years apart, stragglers who’d forgotten to put on their clothes. On the beach down the street (Aquatics Park), people sunbathe properly attired, though there is a nude section on Baker Beach.

While driving down a busy street South of Market one day, I passed an overweight middle-aged naked guy on a bicycle. His ample buttocks were hanging off both sides of what appeared to be a tiny saddle. Not a pleasant sight. But hey, it’s not a lot of trouble to avert your eyes. In other parts of the city, you’d never see any naked people on the street.

Then there is the Castro. Naked guys have been congregating at the corner of Market and Castro with a “hey-look-what-I-have mentality,” explained Supervisor Scott Wiener, who’d authored the legislation to ban public nudity, and who represents the Castro district. He had to listen to complaints by upset business owners and residents for two years, he said, as the situation morphed from sporadic to seven days a week. “Freedom of expression” was important in the Castro, he maintained. “But that doesn’t mean we have no standards whatsoever.”

And public nudity “has its place,” Wiener said. “We’re just trying to chart some kind of middle path.” That meant that other interests had to be accommodated. You can’t just pass a blanket abolition of public nudity, not in San Francisco.

So nudity would still be allowed at special events, such as the Pride Parade, the Folsom Street Fair (a big leather-and-kink street party), and the Bay-to-Breakers run. They’ve always been associated with naked people, and spectators come from around the world to participate or watch the spectacle. Tourism is too important for San Francisco, and the zaniness of those attractions had to be maintained.

San Francisco’s fashion consciousness had to be accommodated as well. Apparel that exposes the buttocks is for some a wardrobe basic and will continue to be allowed. Buttocks, it was determined, weren’t the offending parts. Remains to be seen what happens when someone so attired bends over to pick up a coin on the street and the banned parts become visible.

Of course, men and women can still go topless. Turns out, the only offending parts are the genitals, except during certain events. So, people have to figure out how to cover them somehow.

Naked people can still enjoy their freedom for a while. As some amendments were added to the legislation, the board of supervisors must vote on the law a final time. Then Mayor Edwin Lee’s signature will need to be affixed to it before it can take effect on February 1. Penalties will be draconian: up to $100 for first-time violators; $200 the second time; $500 and up to one year in the hoosegow the third time.

But the battle isn’t over. A lawsuit has been filed in federal court against the city of San Francisco, claiming that the ban violated naked people’s constitutional right to free speech or whatever. Never a dull moment in San Francisco.

And here is a fun San Francisco special: a 650 hp Ford Fiesta, 0-60 in 1.8 seconds, takes over the streets “in an epic use of an iconic city, the ultimate urban playground San Francisco” (video).


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