Gray Area Surrounds Public Nakedness
By J. Dean Woodbury
On a recent semi-Arctic day in The City, I braved the elements in order to expose myself firsthand (ahem) to a much-debated issue as of late and took a stroll around our most prominent gay ghetto...in my birthday suit.
There has been a fair amount of coverage in the media the past few months around the subject of public nudity, specifically as it pertains to The Castro. From a legal standpoint, public nudity often falls into a nebulous gray area, where prevailing social norms dictate how local public decency laws are enforced.
There are currently no statutes on the books at the federal level, so each state, county and city must undertake to create their own. California law, Section 314-318.6, states that nudity that a) annoys other people, and/or b) is intended to sexually provoke, is subject to fine.
In summary, it is at the discretion of the enforcing officer to register an official complaint concluding whether or not the offending bits are lewd or innocent.
Before stripping down and striking out for a stroll, I thought it a wise move to check in with the local branch of the SFPD, and see what I may have to expect if I get a surprise visit from Johnny Law. I spoke with Sergeant Charles “Chuck” Limbert at the Mission neighborhood station, who is also the LGBT liaison, and asked him how often he dealt with public nudity cases.
“I get calls every week from all sorts of people with regards to public nudity, but I rarely hand out citations. I find it’s a lot more useful to talk to both parties and come to some sort of agreement between them, because at the end of the day, it’s more about opening dialogue than just charging people with a misdemeanor. Sometimes it isn’t even necessarily about the gratuitous nudity itself, but more to do with hygiene. People will call up and complain that some naked guy is sitting on a chair in the middle of Jane Warner Plaza with nothing between him and the seat, and it’s unsettling for them.”
Note to self: if you decide to take a seated reprieve, put down a napkin!
I also wondered why this phenomenon had become more visible and controversial, even since I myself moved here almost a decade ago. So opines Officer Limbert: “I think also that because the demographic has changed over the years, from predominantly gay men to now families with children, gay and straight alike, the response is different. If I perceive that someone is getting naked for sexual gratification, or at least has some type of genital adornment or what have you, then I encourage them to wear a thong. And, most of these guys don’t live here, and so can’t really say that they are just casually hanging out in their neighborhood; many come from outside the city specifically to come to the Castro. It’s their right to do so, but it is interesting to note that none of them are walking nude around Union Square or in the Mission, so I think that says something.”
But what about the folks who live, work and spend time in the neighborhood? Without asking every Tom, Dick and Mary what they thought about naked men prancing about (and it is men, by and large), I went to the people’s elected representative himself, Mr. Scott Wiener. As the voice of his constituents, what is the general consensus? “It’s really about balance,” Wiener said. “In the past, there were always a few random naked people, and that was fine. They minded their own business, and so did everyone else. In recent years, it seems that the Castro has become more of a naked destination. We’ve had an increase in the number of naked people, particularly in the 17th Street Plaza. At some point, it’s not OK. It becomes more of an organized exhibition as opposed to people simply expressing themselves. I’m fine with the random naked person enjoying himself or herself in the neighborhood. When it becomes more of an organized thing, then I’m less fine with that.”
In any case, as I trekked the “gayborhood” in naught but my running shoes, I got the feeling that most people just didn’t care too much. Sure, I got my fair share of whistles and eye rolls, but for the most part, it seemed like a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Not a lot of people wanted to talk to a naked reporter, for whatever reason, but I did have a pithy chat with a drag queen by the name of Thirsty Alley, who had some insight.
“I’m actually more offended when I see people walking around in sweatpants and flip flops; it’s sending the message ‘I don’t care about the image that I’m sending out to the world’, whereas a naked person has probably at least given a modicum of thought to what message they are putting out there. Apathy is so unattractive. Do you like my wig?”
And there’s the naked truth.