A ban on more than public nudity

January 22, 2013

UNLESS STRUCK down by the courts, a new law will make being fully nude illegal in virtually all public places in San Francisco on February 1. There will no exceptions for artistic or expressive activities, nor for political speech. The first two violations of the law will result in citations; the third, in arrest.

Introduced last fall by Supervisor Scott Weiner, who represents the Castro District, the ordinance was presented as a quality-of-life measure, one demanded by neighborhood residents. Over the past couple summers, a small public parklet at an iconic intersection in the Castro has occasionally been home to small groups of nudists, who generally sunbath, drink coffee, or pose with tourists on the sidewalk. Supervisor Weiner has argued that their presence has made neighborhood residents so uncomfortable that he was inundated with grassroots neighborhood demands for a nudity ban.

On January 17, at a federal court hearing to address a constitutional challenge to the ban, a statement by counsel for the city may illustrate the true reasons for its passage. When called on by the judge to explain a rational government interest in banning nudity, the attorney stated that the city had an interest in preventing harm to the city's residents; and this harm could be illustrated by the fact that "85 percent of Castro business owners surveyed said they felt their business had declined due to the presence of nudists." There, then, is the real concern of city government.

Although at first glance the nudity ban might seem to be one simply pitting a small group of exhibitionists against a group of morally prudish city councilors, it is part of a much larger pattern in which the city of San Francisco criminalizes conduct or appearance in order to appease commercial business alliances. These groups, who have little concern for neighborhood residents, simply seek to ensure that their storefronts are picturesque for tourists and monied shoppers.

Until 1962, it was illegal to display a disability or deformity in public in San Francisco--people with disabilities were expected to stay behind closed doors, invisible. Throughout the '60s and '70s, it was illegal to portray oneself as a member of the "opposite" sex in San Francisco--and many transgendered men and women would pin small notes to their jackets which stated "I am a man" or "I am a woman" in an attempt to avoid police harassment.

MORE RECENTLY, efforts have focused on finding ways to ensure that homeless individuals can be more easily harassed by police and shuffled out of "desirable" neighborhoods. In 2010, San Francisco passed a law banning sitting or lying on the sidewalk by voter referendum--after a business coalition calling itself the "Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association" spent hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting it.

Notably, neighborhoods with large working-class populations, such as Hunter's Point, the Tenderloin and the Mission--neighborhoods where sidewalk life is most integral to community building--voted against the measure. However, they were outvoted by overwhelming majorities in wealthy neighborhoods, areas where people are more likely to drive an Audi to the store than walk. And last month, the Castro Merchants Association commenced removal of public benches from Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro--because they were being used as a gathering place by homeless youth.

San Francisco is a city where the median rent is now $3,100 a month; one where the wealthy live in neighborhoods of designer boutiques, cultural amenities and excellent services while the city's working-class is forced to commute into the city from increasingly far-flung suburbs.

The public nudity ban should not be seen simply as an attack on First Amendment rights--although it is--but as part of a larger program to ensure that the poor and any individuals with an "undesirable" or counter-cultural appearance are kept out of the increasingly Disneyified neighborhoods of the urban core. The Castro, once a community known for organizing around gay rights and HIV/AIDS, is now a community where the interests of business owners set the agenda.

The nudity ban should be opposed by socialists--as should all attempts to criminalize peaceful conduct in public spaces. Sidewalks and public squares belong to all of us, and the ability to live without interference, express oneself, and organize communities around political issues should not be restricted to those who can afford to rent private spaces.
Matthew Denney, San Francisco

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