Naturists Campaigning for Naturism

The Fine Art of Protest

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.

5 Responses to The Fine Art of Protest

  • I’m afraid this sounds rather like those naturists who claim that the only way to win over people to the cause of naturism is to “educate” them through debate and discussion. Important as debate and discussion is, the only way to address the irrational fears that some people have about nudity is to actually “demonstrate” that the mere sight of the human body is completely harmless. No amount of talking will do that.

    This is precisely what Gypsy Taub did. In fact she went one better because she demonstrated the harmlessness of nudity whilst delivering a rational argument.

    I understand there will be lots of naturists who think this is the wrong approach just as many think Steve Gough is wrong, but if we continue to believe that nudity – as a form of dress – is a special case when it comes to its appropriateness or inappropriateness then we undermine our own arguments.

    I admire Gypsy Taub and Steve Gough – they have a bravery and, perhaps more importantly, a level of integrity that most of us can only dream of.

  • Reg, lots to think about as usual. Fascinating that Scott Weiner thought a single naked person was OK but that many were not, and that a naturist had concerns about seeing someone naked. I agree that we need to work simultaneously in a number of areas to achieve our freedom. I suggest that these are the cultural, social, political and legal.

    Most change is led through the cultural and social areas. We are well on the way here, the vast majority of the population are OK with public nakedness. Gypsy Taub and Steve Gough dramatically underline that point, even though they are individual protests. The more public naked and clothes optional cultural and social events that we organise, involving and engaging the general population, the more that we show that nakedness is normal, not a problem, and part of our culture and society.

    Of course, we also need to work in the political and legal areas. Campaigning to those in authority is very important. Here our work in the cultural and social areas enable us to make the key points that the vast majority of the population is OK with nakedness, indeed supports it, and that he law (or in many cases, the abuse of the law by the police) is out of keeping with public opinion, is decades behind the times and needs reform.

    Looking back to the gay liberation struggle (and others, such as the abolition of slavery) we see that success does indeed require first and foremost a change to the cultural and the social; political and legal then follow.

    Different people respond in different ways: the vociferous street protest, the dramatic gesture; the behind-the-scenes diplomacy; persistent and persuasive campaigns; reaching out to the community with clothes optional events; defiance of the law, acts of civil disobedience. We must value all these different approaches, they are all needed and we should work together and ideally co-ordinate our actions.

    Roger Coupe

  • Those who find nudity offensive are irrational. You cannot win any logical argument with those who do not accept logic. I believe that Steve Gough and Gypsy Taub are doing us all a great service by publicising the heavy handed oppression that those in power are happy to use for no good reason.

  • I am one of the San Francisco Urban Nudists and have worked with Gypsy Taub. I have had significant differences wity Gypsy on philosophy, occasional loss of focus (both of us), and tactics, but not the issues mentioned by Reg.

    In my opinion, the giant core issue for nudity bans all over the world is from religious fundamentalists and right wing (dare we say “fascist”) groups. Although they are in a minority at least in San Francisco, they are willing to put their money where there mouth is and buy influence. Globally, they will not a allow a major International City to recognize the practice of body freedom.

    Some misinformation in the article, in Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro there are only a dozen nude people on a warm weekend day. Otherwise the count is more like zero – 3 on a nice day. Aside from the Castro District historically being more open to freedom of expression than most places in the world, because of a 1960’s era Park and Recreation nudity ordinance (to protect the public from naked hippies), the other parks in the City are not open to nudism. I will assure you, the political officials have been lobbied by nudists to open up other parks to nudism to deaf ears.

    Traditional approaches to defusing the San Francisco nudity ban were attempted. An organized campaign by the Naturist Society and legal representation/lobbying by their Naturist Action Committee. Other local nudists organizations like the Bay Area Naturists, Friends of Urban Nudism (FUN), and Nakity campaigned against the ban. Their only success was to get female breasts excluded from the ban. Since “leather” gays and practioners have worn assless chaps and leather jock straps for decades on the streets of SF, buttocks were also removed from the ordinance from their lobbying. The ordinance prohibits the sight of genitals, the anus, and perineum. As far as I can figure and poetically describe the situation, “a sock on the cock is legal as one does not spread eagle.” At the end of the day, this is all illogical bull shit.

    Now back to Gypsy, who is a long term nudist activist. She has a cable TV show also available on the Internet, http://www.mynakedtruth.tv, where she gets nude and interviews nude people on nudism, alternative health, psychedelics, and alternative lifestyles. All topics inadequately covered by mainstream media.

    The hearing alluded to in the article was chaired by 3 supervisors that were in favor of the ban. No matter what, the outcome was predetermined. It made absolutely no difference in the outcome that 2/3 of the public comment was opposed to the ban or in a Zogby poll that 63% of San Franciscan’s have no problem with nonsexual public nudity. The ordinance was going to clear the committee to be recommended for passage by the Board. Gypsy’s stripping made National and International headlines showing that the nudists are not rolling over.

    After the hearing, Gypsy prepared an information package of written and video materials advocating the nudist position. Gypsy, Rusty Mills, and myself visited every Supervisor’s office in City Hall and spoke to several of the Supervisors and all their staff. By the way, because of Gypsy’s reputation, they all know who we were and were most interested in meeting us. 5 out of 11 Supervisors did vote against the ban.

    Gypsy has organized at least ten actions or demonstrations aagainst the ban and has gotten a lot of publicity on the issues. There were no demonstrations in favor of the ban.

    Gypsy is also the co-editor of our eBook, Free Your Body, Free Your Mind!, available on Amazon Kindle ($5) which comprise the writing of 20 San Francisco Body Freedom activists. We will have a print-on-demand version as soon as we get through the technical glitches of having to use high resolution photo images.

    Give me 1 Gypsy to 100 “diplomats to get on board and begin to win friends among San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors” for the work that needs to be done.

    George Davis

  • Hello George,
    Thanks for that. I had hoped other comments would come after your explanation of the situation as it stands now, never mind. I accept my understanding of the circumstances you and the other protesters found yourselves in was perhaps flawed, having gained it from newspaper reports, from both sides of the Atlantic, and gypsy’s webcast. (BTW I’ve put My Naked Truth on our links page.) You might also be right. Having lost this particular battle, you will need the efforts of all those prepared to protest against the ordinance – regardless of them being naked or not – to keep the injustice all of you have felt in the public’s mind.

    OK I got it wrong about the lack of diplomacy, which was not brought out in any of the interviews – and certainly not by the webcast. But tell me this, you have now hired a lawyer to represent you in a US Federal Court, if you’d rather have one ‘Gypsy Taub’ to 100 ‘diplomats’ why isn’t she standing up in court, arguing your case?

    I was not having a dig at Gypsy, but at the strategy that was on view. I don’t see how protests and disruptions are going to win any arguments, but as politicians like to argue, maybe naturism needs more politicians in addition to the street fighter that could be an apt description of Gypsy. [I think I need to insert an explanation here, someone said (Wilde, Churchill, Shaw – not sure who) that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language, and I mean ‘street fighter’ as a compliment. Backhanded maybe, but a compliment nevertheless.] For the Supervisor’s meeting the strategy was wrong and I’m willing to bet that it either lost you support among the public or it hardened the views of the politicians on the board of supervisors (regardless of what their individual offices might have said).

    Still, what do I know.
    Reg Barlow
    chairman

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