It is a common belief that the difference in attitude towards public nudity in the US and Europe is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean, with the US being repressive compared with the more accepting Europeans, with the UK perhaps leaning more towards America. But as with all generalisations, this is not the true picture.
In case you missed it, in the dying months of 2012, US activist Gypsy Taub caused a stir in San Francisco as that city’s Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services Committee heard arguments for and against a civil ordinance (bylaw) to ban public nudity in that city, except for specified places or events. Her actions, of course, gained all the column-inches and airtime you can imagine, but my question is, did they advance the cause of naturism in California or push it back?
For everyone unfamiliar with the state of naturism in California here is a potted history; I apologise to everyone already familiar with it. Unlike the UK, where public nudity is legal, in Re Smith (1972) California’s Supreme Court ruled that sunbathing (nude) on an isolated beach was not lewd and subsequent court rulings have stretched this definition to a point where non-sexual nudity is now neither permitted nor not permitted under state law. So, it might be prudent to suggest that just because people in California can walk down the street naked, they would not necessarily choose to do so. Where as we in the UK might say, “only in America” they say “only in San Francisco”. In general, San Francisco is said to have nice weather, not warm, although often foggy, which had the effect of curbing the population that would insist on walking around naked. Supervisor (the equivalent to a counsellor in the UK) Scott Wiener, the antagonist in this story told the New York Times in November 2011: ‘It used to be that there would be one nude guy wandering around the neighbourhood and no one thought twice about it. Now it’s a regular thing and more obnoxious.’
Despite the generally unpromising weather, pockets of micro-climate that are frequently sunny are known about the city and one of these is Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro District, carved out of an intersection and a tramcar turnaround. Almost daily, roughly a dozen men – locally known as The Naked Guys – top up their tans by sunbathing naked in this urban plaza. I should also note here that none of the articles I’ve read indicated that this display of public nudity is happening elsewhere in the city or that women are involved. Anyway, back to the story; Matthew Johnson, a Castro resident, spoke in favour of the ban despite having bared all at the city’s nude beaches and at Folsom Street Fair (a BDSM event) and was quoted by SFGate.com as saying: ‘You expect to be nude [at the beach], however when it’s in my neighbourhood and I can’t enjoy lunch because a guy is spread-eagle near me, it’s a problem.’
Let me make myself clear. I found nothing that Ms Taub said in defence of public nudity objectionable; in fact until she flung off her dress and the meeting fell into momentary chaos, it was a fine example of presenting a logical argument. What I do think, however, is that it was not the right time or place to appear naked. The moment she removed her dress the event turned into a minor farce and more about Ms Taub’s actions than the rights or wrongs of public nudity. This was a moment when the campaign could have spoken indirectly to the 11-member Board of Supervisors, although only three were present, and to all San Franciscans about why public nudity is not the threat some would like them to believe. And why Wiener’s proposed civil ordinance was an overreaction to an issue that only affects the district of Castro.
I grant you, the lack of drama would not have made good television – boring even – but so much in political activism is exactly that. Unfortunately I have enough grey hair to tell everyone that I am old enough to remember the Thatcher premiership and the upheaval caused by the protests against the Community Charge, more popularly known as the Poll Tax. The largest of these demonstrations had an estimated 200,000 people marching to Trafalgar Square, a figure not surpassed until the people voiced their opposition to the Iraq war. It was not these demonstrations, however, that ended Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party. Among voters Thatcher was never as popular, as an individual, as her party and had the second lowest approval rating of any post-war Prime Minister up to that time. By September 1990, the Labour Party had a substantial lead in the opinion polls. The Conservative Party grandees decided if they were to win the next General Election then Thatcher had to be replaced. Although the leadership was contested in public view, it was behind the scenes negotiations that led to the realisation that Thatcher had insufficient support among her fellow MPs to continue, and her eventual withdrawal from the contest. The new leader, John Major, needed something to improve his party’s ratings in the opinion polls, and the quickest and easiest way to do that was to abolish the poll tax.
Activism of any kind needs two types of people: the flamboyant publicists and their opposite, quiet behind-the-scenes diplomats. Public demonstrations are needed to gain awareness, public support even, as like-minded people hear about an issue that has the potential to affect them and they take an interest. If you want action, however, then more often than not, it is the persuasive powers of the diplomats among those seeking change that will win the day by obtaining an agreement to act by those with the power to do so. In the end the Board of Supervisors voted six votes to five in favour of introducing a nudity ban. The Neighborhood Services Committee meeting could have been the beginning of a 15-day blitz to persuade any supervisor that showed willing to listen to either change their vote or to abstain. They only needed one to do so.
While the actions of Gypsy Taub may have gained even more publicity for the campaign, in my view it was not what was needed at that point. What was needed was the quiet diplomat to begin breaking down the barriers with cold logic. This, I’m sure however, is just a battle, the war is still to be won. My sincere hope is that more diplomats get on board and begin to win friends among San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.