Vivienne and I took the opportunity of a stop-over in San Francisco in January, to meet with the leaders of the campaign to overturn that city’s new ordinance ( by-law). The history of this issue has been covered before, but a brief re-run may help.
Since the 1950’s San Francisco has been one of the most liberal cities in the USA, probably originating in Berkley University, the early ‘beat-nicks’, and developing its own momentum in the hippy days of the 60’s and 70’s, and the parallel development of an overt gay scene there. The ‘gay centre’ of SF became the Castro district, and along with its alternative lifestyle, alternative dress styles became common, including groups of gay men who took to spending warm days in the public areas and a few cafés enjoying the sun and conversation au naturel. Like most things in Castro this went largely unremarked for a number of years, and gradually the practice spread to straight men and some women, who enjoyed the relaxed ambience social nudity brings with it. Eventually this came to the attention of the City Authorities, sparked partly by a new influx of Silicon Valley Yuppies who were moving in to Castro and attempting to ‘gentrify’ it, thereby destroying the very character which attracted them in the first place. A few local traders also made noises about the naked people deterring visitors (whilst ignoring the ones it attracted). And nothing speaks as loudly as money, in the USA as elsewhere. Pressure was added because of an increasing number of out-of- town gay exhibitionists joining in at weekends with flamboyant sexual displays which even the original nudists found weird. It was a familiar tale of a few extremists getting the moderate many a bad name. At the same time a ‘new broom’ City Supervisor (similar to a Police and Crime Commissioner) was elected. The joke is that his name is Scott Weiner, pronounced ‘weener’, which is US slang for a small penis! His first reaction to the urban nudists was also somewhat of a joke. Pronouncing nudity a health risk, he promoted a city ordinance decreeing that it would henceforward be illegal to sit on public furniture or other surfaces with a naked bottom, unless you put some cloth down. The nudists (the term ‘naturist’ is almost unknown in the US) loved this because they were using towels anyway, and it confirmed that it was OK to sit around naked. He would also not listen to the voices of moderation who suggested naturist areas in some public parks, so that like folk could be kept together. So the pressure for a blanket ban on public nudity continued, and eventually another city ordinance was passed late last year setting out in medical detail the genital areas of both sexes which it would become illegal to show in public. It would apply to anyone over 5 years old, and be effective 1st February this year. Strangely, ‘parades’ agreed in advance by the City can include nudity. So we have the strange paradox which seems to afflict Authorities everywhere, that public nudity is OK, so long as it is done for a special reason, but not if it is enjoyed simply as a natural state! It also seems that the offence caused is inversely proportional to the number of people involved. Odd!
Throughout this process the voices of dissent were rising to a crescendo. One of the first to speak out against ‘the ban’ was George Davis. George is a long time San Franciscan who had quietly enjoyed urban nudism for many years, including teaching naked yoga classes and lecturing on the history and sociology of nudism at the Free University. A semi-retired business man, George became the spokesman for the movement opposing the ban by legal and political pressure, and working on public opinion. The issue was quickly taken up by Gypsy Taub, who turned the volume right up. Gypsy is a Russian émigré, nudist and all-round activist who has lived in the US for about 20 years and now has her own small cable TV show – ‘My Naked Truth’. She and George are opposites in many ways; he an amiable softly spoken American, she a tiny outspoken firebrand. However they share a steely determination not to lose their liberty to go naked, and they have around them a determined and diverse collection of campaigners who are not afraid to be arrested. Indeed, they have been – several times when they have publicised the issue by stripping off during televised City Council and Court meetings.
At the time of our visit (late January) an appeal against the ordinance was being heard, and we did not then know the outcome.
Over a meal in Gypsy’s home, with George and activist friends Carl and Lloyd we discussed what might happen. The appeal was based largely on Human Rights issues, and claims that the ordinance went against US Constitutional rights (which supersede all other law). Subsequently we heard that the judge had rejected the appeal, and the ban came in to effect on 1st February. However, in doing so he indicated that there may be grounds for a further action in defence of the constitutional right to political freedom – nudity being a form of freedom of expression which is a ‘small p’ political issue. So the campaign is now going on along those lines. Associated with this is some direct action keeping the matter in the public eye, by naked events on the steps of City Hall, which bizarrely seems to be covered by a different jurisdiction. The World Naked Bike Ride was also allowed to pass through the city recently with no police intervention, even though it was not an ‘agreed parade’. The PR campaign is trying to show that this piece of institutional prudery is the tip of an iceberg of conformist repression which can so easily spread to anyone who is a bit different, and to issues other than nudity. Most recently, in a ludicrous over-reaction, 24 police broke up a naked demonstration on the City Hall steps, arresting Gypsy and accusing her of getting sexually aroused whilst being handcuffed, thereby committing ‘gross indecency’! Despite prior agreement, someone in officialdom had ruled that nudity breached a previously unannounced City Hall dress code. You couldn’t make it up!
This one will run and run. The irresistible force of the very dedicated urban nudists is up against the immoveable object of City bureaucracy and prudery. George Davis has announced that he will stand against Scott Weiner as City Supervisor, when the job next comes up for election. As an official Nudist candidate he will maintain his political right to campaign in the nude. If Weiner plays his cards wrong and George plays his right, George might even get elected; stranger things have happened. An added twist will come in the summer when SF hosts the prestigious Americas Cup yacht race, which will be seen on TV all over the world. The City authorities will be looking to project an image of an orderly and conventional city, no doubt. What they ignore is the reality. Visitors are actually drawn to the ‘anything goes’ image of SF, because it gives the place character and makes life so much less boring than in so many US cloned cities.
So, the fight goes on. Like all wars, it needs money to fight it. You can contribute and also have a fascinating in-depth read all about this, plus a whole gallery of photographs, as the team have put together an e-book “Free Your Body, Free Your Mind” which you can buy from Amazon on Kindle for only £3.18 . All proceeds go to the fighting fund. It used to be said what happens in America today happens here tomorrow. We’ll see. I wonder how much longer the USA will be able to claim to be “The Land Of The Free?