Behind the SF public nudity ban controversy
The continuing protest against the San Francisco, Calif. public nudity ban ordinance that went into effect Feb.1, 2013 was back in the news recently. “Nudism activist” Gypsy Taub and her fiancé exchanged wedding vows on the steps of City Hall and then stripped in defiance of the ordinance. They were immediately detained by the police and then released a short time later with citations.
Virtual reams of news copy exist on the web that covers this story from beginning to end. For anyone willing to take the time to read some of it, two things are clear. This latest ordinance criminalizing simple nudity should never have needed to be passed. Those responsible for making it a reality are the same group of “urban nudists” who now continue to futilely protest against it.
Having lived there for several years in the past, it is safe to say one would be hard pressed to find a place more liberal and tolerant than San Francisco. That goes double for the Castro neighborhood where the controversy started. The average San Franciscan doesn’t generally have a problem with simple nudity which likely explains why the city never saw the necessity of criminalizing it before now.
If you don’t know much about the genesis of the San Francisco brouhaha over public nudity that culminated with the passage of the ordinance banning it, here is a brief review.
Exactly when or how the “urban nudist” movement got started is still pretty sketchy, but according to SF Weekly News columnist Lauren Smiley, one day in 2009 “A construction supervisor named Barry appeared in his fedora and flip-flops – and nothing else” in a city plaza at Castro and Market. In a classic case of monkey-see-monkey-do it caught on and several other, mostly middle-age, nude men started regularly hanging out in Castro District.
Estimates vary but according to most reports, there ultimately were about a dozen men involved. Three or four regulars formed the core group. Initially there were no claims that the nudity was about free speech, free expression or anything else related to nudist rights. It mostly seemed that the group just decided to take advantage of the fact that San Francisco had no law prohibiting public nudity and chose to see how far they could push the envelope.
Feeling that right was on their side, even when the complaints started rolling in from business owners and residents of the neighborhood, the Castro nudists just grew bolder. That predictably resulted in more complaints. According to the city, it wasn’t just nudity. There was also some public lewdness involved.
The city also asserted that the nude men were going into restaurants and utilizing other public seating without placing anything between their bare butts and the seats which in the opinion of city officials was unsanitary.
In the story she filed for the SF Weekly news, Lauren Smiley reported that at least one of the regulars was observed engaging in a public lewd act by a reporter which seems to illustrate that the city’s version of things, at worst isn’t entirely inaccurate.
The Castro nudists continued to see how far they could push things and in so doing firmly established themselves on the radar of San Francisco officials. That eventually provoked action.
Supervisor Scott Wiener of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided the nudity had gotten out of control in the Castro neighborhood, part of the district he was elected to represent. Eventually he put forth a proposed ordinance banning public nudity and it was passed by the board.
In November 2012, Gypsy Taub, became aware that the Board of Supervisors was considering an ordinance to ban public nudity and decided to get involved. Taub, a Russian immigrant, represents herself as a “Russian-style revolutionary” and as “a big rebel” who just likes “to stir sh*t up,” decided to appear at a special meeting of the City Operations and Neighborhood Services committee, called in advance of a vote on the ordinance proposed by Supervisor Weiner.
When it was her turn to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting, Taub used her two minutes to completely disrobe before the committee while branding Wiener’s proposal to ban public nudity “fascist.” Taub, who runs an amateur porn site called Lustful Goddess as well as an interviews-in-the-buff video blog, in so doing, became the face of the public nudity ban protest. She frequently organizes “nude-In” protests which have achieved little more than getting herself cited multiple times for violating the new ordinance.
Recently Taub was one of three plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City and County of San Francisco, seeking to overturn the ordinance on the primary grounds that the law restricted free speech and that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Edward Chen dismissed the suit, citing as expected the landmark cases that demonstrate that the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that public nudity in and of itself is not inherently expressive, thus not subject to First Amendment protection at all. He noted that the Supreme Court has also long held that laws that regulate public nudity are not aimed at regulating expression but at protecting order and morality which furthers a legitimate and substantial government interest.
Spoiler alert – the San Francisco public nudity ban protest is over whether or not Gypsy Taub and her cohorts are ready to accept it. It ended for all intents and purposes when the ordinance became law. There are no precedents for laws that ban simple nudity being repealed once enacted. Also the ill-advised decision to file a lawsuit based on arguments that have already been tried and rejected numerous times by the Supreme Court was the final nail in the coffin for clothes free rights in San Francisco.
Two of the participants interviewed and mentioned in Lauren Smiley’s article admitted their motivation for going nude in public was that they found it sexually arousing which seems more the definition of exhibitionists than nudists. They probably aren’t the sort of folks that San Francisco nudists should want representing the local lifestyle. Even in the case of Taub, one can’t help but suspect she was a rebel looking for a cause and the public nudity ban passed by the Board of Supervisors conveniently gave her one.
There isn’t anything that says those who started the Castro nudist movement and the self-styled nudist activists can’t identify as nudists if they wish. But the type of public nudity they espouse is certainly not of the wholesome, non-sexual, family-friendly variety that reputable nudist and naturist organizations and most nudists for that matter represent. The American Association for Nude Recreation for example advocates nudity and nude recreation in appropriate settings.
Given the prevailing generally negative attitudes toward nudity in our culture, the public square it could be argued probably isn’t an appropriate setting for public nudity, especially the in- your-face, confrontational style practiced by San Francisco’s urban nudists. It is hard to imagine how that strategy could be effective in winning any hearts and minds or that might translate into increased tolerance for nudity within larger society.
It can’t be forgotten that the opinions and perspectives on nudism formed by the vast majority of those who are largely ignorant of what nudism is really about, are shaped by the news media. The press generated by the urban nudists in the Castro District and “nudist activists” like Gypsy Taub are not helping but hurting the cause.
You don’t have to agree with people who believe that nudity in and of itself is offensive or indecent to agree that in this country all have a right to their own opinions. It has long been a part of our culture that the freedom of the individual to exercise his and her freedoms ends where the rights of others begin. In other words, there is no protected right to infringe on the rights of someone else.
While nudists understand there is nothing offensive about the naked human body, realistically there are many in society who equate nudity with sex and do find nudity offensive. Thus exhibiting oneself in public in circumstances that expose people to nudity against their will only serves to further alienate those people and makes achieving greater tolerance of nudity in our society less likely.
Such behavior is generally considered little more than rude, selfish and well, offensive even by many who don’t really have an issue with nudity.
All of us are offended by something. Take a moment and think about something you personally find offensive. Would it be something you would learn to embrace if someone decided to try and force you against your will to experience it on a regular basis? Not likely.
One take away is that the San Francisco nudist community should have taken an interest in what was going on long before the wheels of legislation were set in motion and an official ban on public nudity was churned out. They should have spoken out as soon as the local media started epitomizing folks like the Castro nudists as representative of what nudism is about.
The urban nudist movement managed to alienate others in one of the most liberal and tolerant cities in the country. It has perpetuated undesirable stereotypes that nudists have been fighting almost since the beginning which in large measure explain why society largely tolerates nudity only in approved spaces like private nudist clubs and resorts. The movement has got in the way of normalizing nude and integrating nudity into everyday life.
Naturists I think have been more effective than nudists when it comes to presenting a wholesome lifestyle that has established philosophies, core values and a common set of principles. For that reason naturist isn’t nearly as polarizing a term as nudist.
Perhaps it is time Americans who enjoy nude recreation and non-sexual clothes free living that want to embrace a descriptive label for their lifestyle should follow the lead of the old British Sunbathers Association which in 1961 agreed that the term nudist was inappropriate and should be discarded in favor of naturist.
It may time for those who practice wholesome, non-sexual nudity to distance themselves from “nudist” altogether and leave that term to the exclusive use of those like exhibitionists, swingers, pornographers and other opportunists who insist they are part of the nudism community and then use the term as a cover for behavior that make the “nudist” more of a pejorative in contemporary society than it already is. What do you think?
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