Sunday, May 13, 2012

Normalizing Public Nudity in San Francisco

Here is a draft of the oral history project I am currently engaged in for my seminar class on the History of Sexuality in America:

Normalizing Public Nudity in San Francisco
Elwood Miller
HMSX 702

“I think if anyone has a problem with [nudity], it’s their issue not mine. Because, what kind of damage is there? If they’re offended, look the other way. I might be offended by something you’re wearing, but I’m not going to complain, I’m going to look the other way if I don’t like it. So I think they should have the same courtesy.” [1]

One particularly warm San Francisco day, I found myself sitting with a friend in the newly fashioned Jane Warner Plaza at the intersection of 17th, Castro, and Market streets. I was naked, my friend was not. An older woman passed by with a little boy beside her. The boy found us fascinating. He looked, smiled, and said with that wonder only a child can muster, “A naked man!” The older woman told him, “He is disgusting!” The boy replied, “Disgusting, yea, he’s disgusting,” stopped looking at us and ran to keep up with the woman. My friend and I had just witnessed the very moment when a child’s mind is closed, when that child is first taught that what they believe to be interesting and natural, a naked body, is shameful and disgusting. Teaching this child that my naked body is disgusting teaches him that his body is disgusting as well. Many believe the time has now arrived when our very bodies deserve to be recognized and afforded equality in the public realm. There is growing resistance to the societal control which dictates hiding our bodies because some see them as shameful, dangerous, primitive, or disgusting. Exploring four oral histories, I will argue that not only has a movement for nudist equality been in ferment since the 1960s, but has also experienced what were once thought of as impossible advances in the past fifteen years; a movement to normalize the naked body in public space, to guarantee equal access and freedom from stigmatization by those who choose clothes freedom.
Given the prevailing attitude towards our bodies, it is not surprising that historians and other academics have largely ignored the nudist or naturist movement as a serious topic of study until recently. Those who do address the topic seem unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo. In Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Martha C. Nussebaum states that even though the rationale for laws against public nudity are weak, “many people really do believe that premature exposure to the sight of adult genitals harms children, and the intrusion on personal liberty that is involved in restricting public nudity is probably not great enough to worry about.”[2] Nussebaum dismisses the right of the body to exist in public space as inconsequential, although she sees no logical reason for its prohibition, revealing her own biases and learned prejudices. Ruth Barcan, in Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, argues that while we might seem to possess more body freedom now with the proliferation of nudity through various media, it is always restricted by regimes of representation which privilege only certain bodies, insist on sexualizing the body, and highlight the vast differential between actual permissible bodily practices and those representations.[3] Barcan’s observations and conclusions are astute, but what both Nussebaum and Barcan fail to see is a growing movement that not only questions regimes of corporatized, commoditized representations of bodies but also demands access to equality in the public sphere in spite of social myths centered on childhood sexuality and the hysteria that subject currently evokes.
San Francisco has had a reputation for being a wide-open town, providing fertile ground for the outsider, the marginalized, and the freethinking since its initial surge as the way station to the California gold rush of 1849.[4] Andrew T. relates how San Francisco has the reputation for always being a place for renegades, as well as a place that affirms human sexuality more readily then many other places.[5] Indeed, in San Francisco the push for nudist equality, for normalizing the naked body in public space, may be traced at least to August 21, 1965, when Jefferson F. Poland, leader of the San Francisco Sexual Freedom League, along with his girlfriend Ina Saslow and friend Shirley Einseidal held a Nude Wade-In at the Aquatic Park near Fisherman’s Wharf. The group had notified the press, and reporters and cameramen were on hand as well as a crowd of about five hundred mostly male curious onlookers. Handing out fliers and holding signs proclaiming, “WHY BE ASHAMED OF YOUR BODY?,” other supporters were on hand to form a picket line. Once out of the water, Poland, Saslow, and Einseidal joined the picket line, naked. The police arrived and the trio was arrested.[6]
Almost forty years later, the nude body in public space is becoming more normalized in San Francisco due to the efforts of a core group of activists. At Seventeenth, Castro, and Market Streets on any warm, sunny day, men will come to sun and lounge naked. Men may often be seen walking through the neighborhood naked as well. Andrew T. finds what has happened there “amazing in terms of people’s acceptance and in terms of emboldening [himself].”[7] Andrew gives a great deal of credit for the success of the movement as well as his personal increased comfort level with public nudity to activist George Davis as well as events such as a dance project he participated in with the Dandelion Dancetheater. The Dandelion Dancetheater describes itself as “being situated at the crossroads of dance, theater, community activism, healing, and new performance forms.”[8] The event Andrew was involved in took place in a warehouse space in San Francisco’s Mission District around 1998. All of the performers were naked at some point during the event, and each night the event would begin with a march, led by a drummer, as naked as you dared, around the outside of the warehouse space. Some people were top-free, some were dressed, and some were naked. The dance, being about body acceptance and the exploration of who may be named a dancer, incorporated all body types: classically fit, obese, young, old, and other-abled. Walking around the block naked night after night in the mission was a big breakthrough for Andrew. Seeing people engaging in public nudity, Andrew related, gave him the feeling that he wanted to be a part of this, to be a pioneer for change.[9]

A bunch of guys [were] outside of a bar, and they were like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘This is who I am. I don’t like clothes. I don’t wear them unless I have to.’ And they’re like,’ Aren’t you afraid you’ll be arrested?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s not illegal.”[10]

 Public nudity is not illegal in San Francisco except in the parks and for decades the police ignored this fact until recent actions by local nudist activists challenged longstanding police policies.[11] The San Francisco Police Department regularly cited people engaging in public nudity as recently as the fall of 2010. However, the District Attorney’s Office would not prosecute. George Davis has been a nudist activist for many years, and many nudists such as Andrew T. credit him with doing much to change the police department’s policy regarding complaints over public nudity.  Davis worked as a cab driver in San Francisco in the 1970s before moving away. When he returned to the city in the early 1980s he noticed a major conservative shift in mass culture, even in San Francisco. Davis believes one of the barriers to having public nudity achieve more citywide acceptance is the lack of a gender balance. During the 1970s, Davis said it would have been easy to find women willing to participate, but since the 1980s it is nearly impossible.[12]
Davis first began his activism practicing nude yoga at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. On July 29, 2004, Davis was cited for committing a public nuisance after a nearby clothing store merchant complained. “You have a man standing in front of the cable car turnaround doing yoga nude, with a bus full of children from a Christian school next to it,” said Harriet Gibson, the storeowner. “We don’t need that in our city.”[13] But prosecutors dropped the charges. “Being naked in San Francisco is not a crime,” explained District Attorney spokesperson Debbie Mesloh, “unless the gentleman had lewd conduct or was obstructing traffic.”[14] Since then, Davis has run for mayor of San Francisco and for supervisor of District 6, always campaigning naked with a nudist platform. Davis has twenty-three citations and eighteen arrests for indecent exposure and was handcuffed and sent to prison for seven hours since the District Attorney’s pronouncement. The result of all of these arrests and citations was zero trials and zero convictions. Davis also has fifteen letters from the Office of Citizen’s Complaints describing police dealings with him as harassment. It was not until he and fellow activist Lloyd Fishback protested in front of city hall naked during his supervisoral campaign in 2010 that the police harassment stopped.[15]
Rusty Mills tells of frequent confrontations with the police when going out with a group of friends for nude urban excursions in the evenings. Mills and his group knew what they were doing was not illegal, but the police did not. Mills took the approach of arguing with the police about it. Some of the nudists with Mills thought this would make it worse, but Mills related that it did not; in fact it made it better. “They [the police] realized they weren’t dealing with someone who was easy intimidated.”[16] Mills said several others began taking this approach as well, not backing down when confronted by police who were challenging their right to be legally nude, and he feels it made a huge difference in the long run. Mills began his urban nude excursions around 1988 and eventually ran into a few others who were engaged in the same activity. However, it was with an Internet group he founded around 2002 that led to an explosion of contacts with urban nudists and their supporters.
Even at events such as the San Francisco Folsom Street Fair, a leather and fetish celebration, and the San Francisco Bay 2 Breakers, which has a history of celebrating the absurd through costumed participation, the police would intervene when public nudity occurred according to nudist advocate, Mitch Hightower.[17] The first year for naked runners, 1993, six who ran naked in the Bay 2 Breakers were arrested as soon as they crossed the finish line. Five of the group opted to challenge the charges; one member accepted a plea bargain. Attorney William G. Stripp filed a demurrer to the court on their behalf substantiating that the charges were illegal, and the charges were immediately dismissed. That was the first and last year naked participants in the foot race were arrested.[18] 
The first Folsom Street Fair was held in 1984, and public nudity was discouraged from the beginning by use of  “informational tickets” that fair monitors would hand to naked participants explaining that the fair was meant to be a “safe-space” for everyone, thereby conflating genitalia with danger and harm. People would put something brief on, walk a half block, and get naked again, recalled Hightower. This cat and mouse game occurred year after year. The Dore Alley Fair began in 1987.[19] It was smaller, less public, and attracted fewer tourists than the larger Folsom Fair, so it quickly gained a reputation as being more sexually open and nude friendly. In the 1980s, Hightower described the Dore Fair as being more intimate, more about male bonding. The popularity of the Dore Fair forced it out of the alley and onto Folsom Street, resulting in a more restricted and policed event.[20]  Hightower remembers having an exhibit at the Folsom Fair in 2004 that was a jail. Everyone who they saw naked, they threw in the jail cell. Soon, Hightower said, the cell was filled with naked people. He believes that was the point after which people started coming to the fair explicitly to be naked.[21]
Rusty Mills and Lloyd Fishback were stopped by San Francisco Police officer Lorenzo Adamson while walking by the LGBT Community Center naked on Saturday, June 7, 2008, after supporting San Francisco’s World Naked Bike Ride, an annual event held in cities worldwide since 2004 to protest fossil fuel dependence and celebrate body freedom. Adamson told Mills and Fishback that they could not walk around naked; it was indecent exposure. Mills informed Officer Adamson that it was only indecent exposure if you engage in lewd behavior. Adamson retorted, “I don’t care about all that legal mumbo-jumbo. It’s not normal . . . it’s not healthy, and no other police officers would disagree with me.” However, Mills and Fishback were not cited and were soon on their way (See image #1, appendix).[22] San Francisco Police Officer Lorenzo Adamson made it clear in his exchange with Mills that he was aware of the law but did not care, citing it as so much legal mumbo-jumbo, and that he believed his opinion and the opinions of his fellow officers that public nudity was not normal or healthy overrode any legal concerns.
When George Davis ran as the nudist candidate for supervisor of San Francisco District 6 in 2010 with a platform espousing freedom of expression and freedom from censorship, he challenged and confronted police prejudice and harassment head-on. Davis campaigned nude all over the city. On August 18, 2010, Davis, along with three other campaigners were arrested and cited in front of  Macy’s on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco’s Union Square shopping district. The following Friday, August 20, Davis and Lloyd Fishback began what they planned as daily protests in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (see image #2, appendix). On Monday, August 23, before anyone entered the courtroom, the nudity citations were dismissed and San Francisco Police Department’s legal department issued new nudity law guidelines. These guidelines specified that: 1. The police will no longer cite for Indecent Exposure (PC 314) unless there is obvious lewd and obscene conduct. 2. The police may cite for Public Nuisance (PC 372) with a citizen’s complaint. The police are to exercise their reasonable discretion on this issue.[23]
The actions of George Davis, Rusty Mills, Mitch Hightower, and the original five Bay 2 Breakers nudists who challenged their arrests may all be seen as working to influence both the police department’s attitude towards public nudity in San Francisco and the issuance of new nudity law guidelines. It is clear, however, that the defining actions in the struggle against undue police harassment of public nudists in San Francisco were George Davis’s actions in 2004 after his arrest at Fisherman’s Wharf for performing nude yoga in public and again after his arrest in front of Macy’s in 2010 for campaigning for San Francisco supervisor while naked.

I do think it is a basic right. For me, nudity is the default. When people say, “Oh, you’ve grown a beard.” No, I didn’t grow a beard, I didn’t shave. “Oh, you’re naked.” Well yes, I’m naked, but it’s because I didn’t put on clothes. Nudity is the default.[24]

Following the release of the San Francisco Police Department’s new public nudity guidelines, an increase in public nudity occurred on the streets, especially in the city’s Castro district. According to the district’s supervisor, Scott Weiner, “Now it’s a regular thing and much more obnoxious.”[25] Supervisor Weiner introduced legislation to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that required any unclad person to put a cloth or similar barrier down before sitting on benches or other public seats and prohibited nudity in restaurants. George Davis believes, “Wiener might as well have shot lasers and fireworks into the sky announcing that public nudity is legal.”[26] According to Steve Adams, president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro (MUMC), “As long as the people who come to look spend money in the neighborhood, that’s all I care about.”[27] Most of my interview subjects agree that an inadvertent effect of the new Weiner regulations is to acknowledge the lack of legal grounds for an outright prohibition of public nudity without going so far as to legalize it. Because of this, along with the many tourists’ positive responses, most of my interview subjects do not see a backlash coming.[28]
My interviews show the existence of a growing movement for nudist equality in San Francisco through the normalization of nudity in public urban spaces that has roots in the 1980s and 1990s and while having shown some significant successes, still remains fragile and vulnerable. My subjects believe that public nudity can teach the LGBTQ community that all bodies are worthwhile, have value, and are beautiful by upsetting body entitlement and looks-ism within the community.[29] Body acceptance is something everyone is entitled to, says Mitch Hightower.[30] Beginning in the 1980s, events such as the Folsom Street and Dore Alley Fairs have made the queer community aware of the possibilities body freedom presented. Through the efforts of activists like George Davis, Lloyd Fishback, Mitch Hightower, Rusty Mills, and the original five Bay 2 Breakers nudists who challenged their arrest, over time the San Francisco Police Department was forced to recognize that, in fact, public nudity was not illegal in spite of individual officers’ moral objections. People like Kevin Alves, Andrew T., myself, and others who appear naked in public spaces on a daily basis advance the movement by making the naked body visible in an urban environment, thereby normalizing the naked body in everyday discourse and commerce. We may also see how the activities of these people have indeed attached value to the naked public body; a monetary value which may be seen in the reactions and statements of business leader Steve Adams who sees the nudists as a boon to capitalism, and more importantly the value inherent in normalization, as the naked public body comes to be seen as natural and life affirming.


Image 1.
Rusty Mills and Lloyd Fishback are questioned by Officer
Lorenzo Adamson, June 7, 2008. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland.

Image 2.
George Davis protests police harassment in front of San Francisco City Hall, August 20, 2010

[1] Kevin Alves, interviewed by the author, Mar. 21, 2012.
[2] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004), 304.
[3] Ruth Barcan, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2004) 94-6.
[4] Nan Amamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003), 1-5.
[5] Andrew T., interviewed by the author, May 3, 2012.
[6] Cec Cinder, The Nudist Idea (Riverside, CA: Ultraviolet Press, 1998) 591-93. ; Jefferson F. Poland, Sloan, Sam, Sex Marchers, 2nd ed. ( San Rafael, CA: Ishi Press International, 2006) 18 – 20.
[7] Andrew T.
[8] “Mission Statement,” Dandelion Dancetheater, (accessed Apr 18, 2012).
[9] Andrew T.
[10] Kevin Alves.
[11] SCOCAL, In re Smith, 7 Cal. 3d 362, (accessed April 19, 2012). ; San Francisco Park Code, Sec. 4. 01 (h) Disorderly Conduct., (accessed May 13, 2012).
[12] George Davis, interviewed by the author, Mar. 24, 2012.
[13] Phillip Matier, Ross, Andrew. “Au Naturel is Natural for Naked Yoga Guy,” San Francisco Chronicle., (Sep. 22, 2004).
[14] Matier, Ross, “Au Naturel is Natural.”
[15] George Davis.
[16] Rusty Mills, interviewed by the author, Mar. 22, 2012.
[17] Mitch Hightower, interviewed by the author, Mar. 28, 2012
[18] “Bare To Breakers 20th Year Run,” Bare 2, Apr. 17, 2012, (accessed May 10, 2012).
[19] “History,” Folsom Street Fair 2012, (accessed May 10, 2012). ; Mitch Hightower.
[20] Mitch Hightower.
[21] Mitch Hightower.
[22] “Naked Men Meet Cop,” Bay Area Reporter, 42:9, Jun. 12, 2008.
[23] George Davis, “New SFPD Nudity Guidelines,” Georgedavisdistrictsix’s Blog,  (accessed May 10, 2012).
[24] Andrew T.
[25] Malia Wollan, “Protesters Bare All Over a Proposed San Francisco Law,” New York Times, Sep. 25, 2011 (accessed May 10, 2012).
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] George Davis. ; Rusty Mills. ; Lloyd Fishback, interviewed by the author, May 4, 2012. ; Andrew T.
[29] Mitch Hightower.
Normalizing Public Nudity in San Francisco
[30] Mitch Hightower.