In San Francisco you’ll see naked people on bike rides, lounging on Baker Beach, running in the Bay to Breakers or walking around at the Folsom Street Fair.
A few years ago Bay Curious listener Kelly Hardesty was walking in the Castro with her daughter when they saw a naked man, who wore nothing but white tennis shoes. Her daughter said, “Mommy, Mommy he’s naked.” She replied, “Yeah, he is.”
Kelly didn’t want to make a big deal about it, since it wasn’t exactly the most unusual sight in the city, but then a mailman looked at her and said, “I remember when I first started my route, and that used to shock me, too, but now I don’t think anything of it.”
That got Kelly wondering:
“Is it legal to be naked in San Francisco … and if so, has it always been that way?”
The state of California has incident exposure laws, making it illegal if someone is naked with the intent of being sexual (like masturbating in public), or intentionally offensive (like flashing someone). If you’re just hanging out naked minding your own business, California leaves that up to local governments.
Getting Closer to Nature
For the first half of the 20th century, San Francisco didn’t have public nudity laws. In that era, local people weren’t walking around nude much, so it was a non-issue. But then the '60s arrived, and many saw nudity as a form of political, artistic or personal expression.
College students streaked across the nation. In San Francisco, hippie culture was thriving, and Golden Gate Park became a favorite spot for nudists looking to get closer to nature. According to police patrolling the area, there was also a decent amount of public sex.
“It wasn’t uncommon for a gal to come out of the bushes there in the Panhandle without a damn stitch and stand right in front of you with her hands up,” said Thomas J. Cahill, who was chief of police at the time. “I was out in the park and two started going to it on the lawn beside me.”
Of course, sex is sexual, and thus already illegal according to California law. But conservative San Franciscans wanted tougher laws to prevent this kind of behavior, and they eventually got public nudity banned in the parks.
Outside of the parks, nudity wasn’t regulated and considered fair game.
Bans Up and Down the Bay
As time passed, nearby cities made public nudity illegal -- among them, San Jose and Berkeley.
Berkeley is interesting because its ban is mostly due to one naked guy -- Andrew Martinez was a student at UC Berkeley. He believed that society was sexually repressed and, to address this, he decided to undress. He went to classes, parties and did errands wearing nothing but a pair of sandals and a backpack.
Among his fellow students he was known as “the Naked Guy.” In 1992, the university implemented a dress code policy and found Martinez in violation of it. When he showed up naked to his disciplinary hearing, he was expelled.
Martinez stayed in Berkeley, continuing to walk around nude. But then in 1993, the City Council decided to discuss whether public nudity should be allowed. When Martinez showed up naked to speak against it, he was flanked by nude friends. The council was sufficiently offended and voted to make public nudity a misdemeanor crime.
San Francisco in the Buff
Back in San Francisco, nudists were enjoying their time in the sun. The city developed a reputation for bodies in the buff. Especially at certain public events like the Folsom Street Fair, a leather fetish festival, and the Bay To Breakers, a rambunctious 12K race.
Rich Pasco, coordinator of the Bay Area Naturists, a nudist group, has been running in the race since 1998.
“We are a group of people who believe that the human body is God's divine creation, nothing to be ashamed of, and that our interaction with Mother Nature is enhanced by removing the barrier of clothing,” Pasco says.
He says it wasn’t just public events where people could let it all hang out. There were nudity-approved beaches, and certain neighborhoods where nudists would congregate.
“There were a group of people in San Francisco who thought going to Jane Warner Plaza would be a good idea. It’s a little urban park, and this urban park became an urban nude beach,” he says.
The Wiener Bill
But the tides of the urban nude beach began to change in 2011 when then-Supervisor Scott Wiener began focusing on “quality of life” issues.
Wiener started off by trying to ban nudity in restaurants and requiring naked people to put a buffer between themselves and public seating -- like sitting on a newspaper when riding the bus.
But Wiener didn’t stop there. He felt the men in Jane Warner Plaza were still taking it too far by wearing genital jewelry designed to maintain erections.
“I just don't buy the freedom of expression argument here,” said Wiener in an interview with KQED Forum at the time. “Freedom of expression is not about taking your pants off at Castro and Market and showing your genitals to passing traffic and pedestrians. That’s not freedom of expression.”
To prevent this, Wiener wrote up a bill banning public nudity on streets, plazas, sidewalks and on public transit, though there was a blanket exemption for street fairs and festivals, and no impact on nude beaches.
Wiener’s campaign received coverage from national news outlets. While some people supported the ban, others felt it was unnecessary.
A KQED listener at the time said, “We do have laws already that enforce lewd behavior. Castro has always been an adult neighborhood. We have smoke shops, porn stores, probably 15 gay bars alone ...”
Longtime residents felt the proposed nudity ban was due to demographic shifts and catered to the new wealthier residents, some who had children and wanted a more family-friendly atmosphere.
Obviously, the nudists were not fans of Wiener’s proposal. There were a number of public meetings about the ban, where nudists made their thoughts known, sometimes by taking their clothes off in opposition. Among the most vocal was longtime nudist Oxane “Gypsy” Taub.
Taub had a public access television show where she and her interviewees were always naked.
“People say that somehow public nudity hurts children. I would say to the contrary. Because children who grew up without ever seeing a naked body grow up extremely insecure about their own body because all they see is commercials and porn,” Taub said.
Life After the Ban
Despite nudist activists like Taub, the anti-nudity bill, also called the Wiener bill, was passed in November 2012 by a 6-5 vote. It became illegal to show your genitals, perineum or anal region in public.
According to the new law, the first violation is a $100 fine, the second a $200 fine and the third violation results in either jail time “not to exceed one year” or a fine “not to exceed $500”.
There were some loopholes. To appease people concerned about events like the Bay to Breakers and the Folsom Street Fair, the bill says that the ban does not apply to permitted events like parades, fairs and festivals. So as long as the event organizers don’t mind, you should be able to be nude at any permitted event.
However, it didn’t exactly work out like that. Taub says she ran into trouble when she applied to get permits for nude-specific events after the ban took place.
“When we went and applied for parade permits, we were denied over 20 times,” Taub says. “Every single one of them was either ignored or denied, every time with a new flimsy excuse.”
Taub and other nudists lawyered up, and filed a complaint against the San Francisco Police Department for infringing on their First Amendment rights.
The nudists also held nude protests against the ban, and Taub even got married nude on the steps of City Hall, after which she was arrested. She says she was arrested about seven or eight times in the first year of the ban. The district attorney never imprisoned Taub for her nude protests. In 2015, a federal judge ordered the city to give a permit to the nudists for a parade.
“I mean it's still not as good as having public nudity be legal, which is our goal, but it's way better than what we had before, where we couldn't even have an event without everybody being arrested or cited,” Taub says.
Today, you need a permit to get fully naked in San Francisco. Or, if you’re not into paperwork, you can always go to a nude-approved park, like the north end of Baker Beach, where the National Park Service has said it’s legal to be naked.