by Matthew S. Bajko
Nudity will be front and center at San Francisco City Hall now that gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener has moved forward with plans to ban nudists from the city's sidewalks and public plazas.
Last month the Bay Area Reporter broke the news that Wiener, who represents the gay Castro district, was looking at outlawing public nudity. At the board's October 2 meeting he introduced an ordinance that would amend the city's police code to require people be clothed on public streets and parklets as well as on transit vehicles and at Muni stations.
The increasing number of nudists congregating in the Castro correlated with the rise in complaints about their behavior led Wiener to determine that his proposed nudity ban is warranted, he told the B.A.R. in an interview Tuesday.
"A lot of us have been hoping it would run its course and it hasn't. It has become clear to me it isn't going to any time soon," he said. "It is important for us to have this conversation."
The nudists had already begun to organize prior to Wiener's decision this week. A petition opposing a nudity ban posted in late September to the change.org website had 667 signers as of Tuesday afternoon.
Rather than seek a citywide rule change, the nudists believe the conversation should be focused on resolving the issues that have sprung up at the Castro's Jane Warner Plaza where they congregate.
"What we've got is a localized neighborhood situation that a politician is blowing up into a citywide issue to get more media attention and further his political career," said Mitch Hightower, a gay nudist who runs a website about public nudity and organizes the annual Nude In at the Castro plaza. "Whether or not you think what is going on in Jane Warner Plaza is specifically a problem or not, finding a solution to it doesn't need to engage the entire city government."
The proposed legislation would allow for exemptions of the policy at "permitted parades, fairs, and festivals." Violating the rule would be considered an infraction and cost $100. The fine would increase to $200 for a second offense within 12 months.
On the third and subsequent violations within one year a person could face either an infraction or a misdemeanor. An infraction would cost $500, while a misdemeanor could land the violator in county jail for up to a year.
Any convictions due to the ordinance would not constitute a sex offense for purposes of the state sex offender registry.
In a press release announcing the new rules, Wiener's office stressed that the legislation "has no impact on nudity at beaches or on private property." Its aim is to "prohibit display of genitals and buttocks in in city plazas, parklets, sidewalks, streets, and public transit."
The ordinance must first be heard before one of the supervisor committees, likely city operations and neighborhood services, before being heard by the full board. The first hearing is expected in November.
Ever since the city turned a block of 17th Street at Market and Castro into a parklet, residents and merchants have voiced concerns about the nude men who congregate there. This summer complaints have centered on a proliferation of naked men wearing cock rings and other behaviors some consider to cross the line into indecency.
"Use of this small but important space as a near-daily nudist colony, while fun for the nudists, is anything but for the neighborhood as a whole. This plaza and this neighborhood are for everyone, and the current situation alienates both residents and visitors," stated Wiener. "We are a tolerant neighborhood and city, but there are limits."
Under current rules a person can be naked in public as long as they are not aroused. The police have contended they are unable to do anything about the nudists unless a member of the public is willing to make a citizen's arrest.
In recent months police officers have warned the nudists that they could be cited for wearing cock rings in public. But to date there have been no reports of a nudist being arrested.
Several of the nudists in recent weeks have asked the handful of naked men believed to be causing most of the problems to either behave or no longer use Jane Warner Plaza, said Hightower.
"Yes, there are problems. We have spoken to the people we think are most problematic," he told the B.A.R. this week.
A group of four nudists met with Wiener at his City Hall office last week to discuss the matter in hopes of avoiding an outright ban. Their counterproposals run the gamut from designating Jane Warner Plaza a park, since nudity is already banned in city parks to allowing a portion of Dolores Park be used by nudists.
Other ideas being floated include allowing nudity in the Castro plaza at certain times or limiting the number of people who can be there sans clothing at the same time.
Hightower, who took part in the discussion, acknowledged that there is no consensus on the best approach.
"We are not all in agreement," he admitted.
Wiener said the only idea he remembers being brought up at the meeting was making a part of Dolores Park clothing optional, which he advised was not possible, nor addresses the crux of the problem.
"Although cock rings have gotten a lot of media attention and are perhaps the most extreme part of this situation, the fundamental issue is not the cock rings. It is the consistent group of naked guys at Castro and Market and elsewhere in the neighborhood seven days a week unless it is really cold out. That is the issue," said Wiener.
Merely banning cock rings or having the police determine if someone is aroused or being publicly lewd are not acceptable solutions either, said Wiener.
"I think it puts the police in a very awkward position to have an officer make an examination if someone is aroused or not aroused or to look to see if they have something on their genitals," he said. "So I think it makes more sense just to determine if a person is naked or not."
Hightower accused Wiener of not being open to finding a compromise. He believes Wiener had already made up his mind to seek an outright ban prior to the get-together.
"I think the meeting was a dog and pony show combined with a fishing expedition. He told us he had not drafted the legislation or made up his mind," said Hightower. "Now he can say he met with us and it makes him look reasonable. He was interested in finding out how well organized the nudists are and if they pose any threat to his future political aspirations."
Wiener countered that he is not personally opposed to public nudity nor did he enter public office to champion the issue.
"This is the last issue that I want to work on or that I want to be in the media about, believe me. I want people to know about the lion's share of work I do around transportation, housing and small business," he said. "As the district supervisor I have a responsibility to respond to issues in my district, even if it is not necessarily an issue that I am wanting to work on.
"Whatever one's view, this is an issue – a significant one – in the neighborhood," added Wiener.
Public response has been mixed
Based on the online comments generated by the B.A.R. 's coverage of the issue as well as letters to the editor, reaction to the proposed nudity plan has been mixed. Some are opposed at seeing another only-in-San Francisco characteristic be taken away.
"There are all sorts of things on the streets of San Francisco that I personally find annoying (this is not one of them), and I am saddened that a trivial issue like this is one that has garnered so much energy," wrote Race Bannon, a longtime gay activist and leather community member. "I'd like to see the real problems of San Francisco addressed, not faux problems like this one."
Nudists in the Castro are not a "legitimate" concern City Hall should be focused on, added Craig Scott.
"Can't he find something more important to spend his time on? How many empty stores are in the Castro right now? When he campaigned he promised to help small business," added Scott. "Wiener should focus on something useful like trying to help small business. Turning the Castro into Walnut Creek does not help small business."
But Wiener has lined up backers for his legislation.
Dennis Richards, who announced this week he was stepping down as president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, voiced support in the release sent out by Wiener's office.
"The neighborhood is for everyone, and while the Castro has always been and needs to remain edgy and forward-thinking, the level of public nudity here has gone well beyond that. It's become obnoxious and unwarranted," stated Richards.
Cleve Jones, a longtime gay Castro resident, progressive labor leader and LGBT rights activist, also is lending his support to the nudity ban.
"Like most San Franciscans, I am proud of our city's diversity and multi-cultural heritage. One of the ways we make diversity work is by showing sensitivity and respect for all people, and sometimes that requires compromises," stated Jones. "I'm all for designated clothing optional spaces for my nudist friends, but the middle of one of the busiest intersections in San Francisco is not the appropriate location for a nude beach."