The naked and the dread in San Francisco

Yes, there are limits to acceptable behavior, even here in the open-armed home of naked jogging, public floggings and all things boundary pushing.

Retired math teacher David Goldman and his husband, Michael Koehn, were sharing a pleasant alfresco moment at a public plaza in the heart of the Castro district this week, passing a slender joint between them (medicinal, of course), as Eric Anderson sunbathed one table over. Naked.

Resplendent in flip-flops, hoop earrings and a sheen of Coppertone, the out-of work retail manager, 44, had draped a lime-green sarong between flesh and public seating.

Naturists call such posterior protection “normal etiquette.”

But San Franciscans soon may call it the law.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the Castro, has just introduced an ordinance that would regulate nudity, igniting a rare debate in this famously tolerant city over personal freedom and public propriety.

“If you’re going to be naked in public, and you’re going to sit down on public seating, you should cover the seating up,” said Wiener, whose measure also would require diners in restaurants to don clothing. “We shouldn’t have to legislate about that, but we do.... It’s about basic public health.”


Goldman and Koehn are in vehement agreement. Common sense should prevail in restaurants -- pants, shoes and a shirt at the minimum -- and people need to sit on something, the two men said.

“I have no problem with public nudity that’s not sexually suggestive,” Goldman said between puffs. “It’s not something I would do. But I wouldn’t want to frighten the children.”

“Or,” agreed Koehn, a retired city gardener, “the horses.”

San Francisco has the so-called Naked Guys to thank for this latest lesson in lax limitations. The growing group of naturists is a regular part of the scenery in the Castro, among the best known gay enclaves in the country. They particularly enjoy Jane Warner Plaza, an often sunny spot in this foggy city, carved out of an intersection and dotted with tables and chairs.

What began as a few guys strolling starkers through the streets has reached enough critical mass in recent years that Castro residents -- and not just the increasing number of parents, gay and straight -- have begun complaining to officials.

Jonathan Storper, for one, talked to Wiener’s office this summer about the Naked Guys placing bare bottoms on the plaza’s public seats. Nudity “is not a gay-straight issue,” the attorney said, adding that even in San Francisco “there is a time and place for everything.”

“I’ve talked to the police about enforcing the healthcare concern, and they tell me they cannot do that,” Storper said. “And I’ve talked to the public health department. They say it’s not their jurisdiction.”

Some members of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro also have an issue with public nudity, said organization President Stephen Adams, who personally isn’t bothered by such displays. He does, however, support Wiener’s goal, particularly for restaurants.

“You always see signs on the door, ‘Shoes and shirt required,’ ” Adams said. “You’d think [customers] would have to have pants too.”

According to city and police officials, simple public nudity is not a crime. Lewd conduct is a crime. Being naked and aroused is a crime. But dropping trou and wandering down the street is not. To have a naked person removed from the neighborhood, a resident would have to make a citizen’s arrest and then call the police.

The only people who aren’t allowed to bare all -- or even wear costumes that resemble naked flesh -- are waiters, waitresses or entertainers on duty in places that serve food and drink.

Which is why George Davis could lounge in Jane Warner Plaza on Tuesday afternoon, sitting on his rumpled khakis. But not in them.

Clad in nothing but a broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses, the slender 65-year-old lauded Wiener for “furthering the knowledge” that “nudity is not illegal.”

Davis, who calls himself an “urban nudist,” campaigned in the buff for mayor in 2007 and supervisor in 2010. (He lost.) He believes that simple politeness demands something be placed between flesh and chair. But he’s not so sure such behavior should be mandated.

“Basically, if someone has a cold, it’s a greater health threat than the situation of sharing a seat,” Davis said. “It seems like an excessive clarification, but, whatever.”

To Anderson, working in public on a full-body tan is a matter of pride and logistics. He can’t sunbathe in the privacy of his backyard. Like many people in this densely populated city, he simply doesn’t have one.

“Why make your clothes sweaty and dirty,” he asked. “Why hide if you’re comfortable in your own skin? This is an open-minded city, and it should continue to be so.”