Frame Game

Gays Against Nudity

San Francisco’s nudity ban shows gay households aren’t making society queer. They’re making gays bourgeois.

A nudist outside San Francisco’s city hall, protesting passage of the anti-nudity ordinance.

Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since gay marriage became a plausible idea, opponents have predicted it would unravel society. There’d be runaway polygamy, bestiality, and public nudity. In 2008, as Californians debated a gay-marriage ballot measure, Americans For Truth About Homosexuality said it was “no coincidence that the man who took it upon himself four years ago to illegally and radically redefine marriage,” then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, was promoting an event featuring “rampant public nudity.” This year, the Family Policy Institute of Washington warned that Referendum 74, which proposed to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state, would “make marriage genderless” and lead to men using women’s locker rooms. The National Organization for Marriage, capitalizing on a nudist’s stunt, ran the headline: “The ‘Naked Cowboy’ Comes Out for Gay Marriage.” The Iowa Republican depicted same-sex marriage as a gateway to nudity, incest, and necrophilia.

The predictions haven’t panned out. Instead, gays have drawn a line. While voters in Washington and three other states endorsed same-sex marriage this month, residents of San Francisco’s Castro district, possibly the most gay-friendly place on Earth, persuaded the city’s board of supervisors to pass an ordinance restricting public nudity. The rise of same-sex households isn’t making society queer. It’s making gay people bourgeois.

San Francisco is famous for tolerating nudity. Men in chaps, jockstraps, and sometimes less stroll around at annual festivals such as the Gay Pride Parade, the Folsom Street Fair, and the Bay-to-Breakers street run. But what used to be a confined, occasional indulgence has become a chronic nuisance. Certain men, known as “the naked guys,” walk the streets and hang out daily at a busy Castro intersection, offending bystanders. It’s exactly what critics of same-sex marriage predicted.

What happened next, however, didn’t fit the prediction. The offended bystanders—most notably, gay men—asked the district’s representative, Supervisor Scott Wiener, to stop the naked guys. Last week, Wiener persuaded his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance making it illegal for anyone to “expose his or her genitals, perineum or anal region on any public street, sidewalk, street median, parklet or plaza.”

The proposed ban outraged nudists and libertarians. Many of them showed up at the board’s Nov. 5 and Nov. 20 meetings to charge Wiener with attacking free expression and trying to “Peoria-ize San Francisco.” They borrowed the rhetoric of the gay marriage movement, preaching “freedom,” “diversity,” “acceptance,” and “civil rights.” They accused the ban’s proponents of “hate,” “bigotry,” “shame,” “intolerance,” “fascism,” “dehumanization,” and “a war on gay men.” They said making people wear clothes was like making women wear burqas. They compared opponents of nudity to segregationists and Nazis.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have heard this language before. But this time, the libertarians weren’t up against the Christian right. They were up against the gay mainstream.

If you want to know what the gay mainstream looks like, watch the hearings, which the board of supervisors has posted online. You’ll see old men and middle-aged moms, gentlemen in suits and dudes in T-shirts, stepping to the microphone to say enough is enough. There’s the well-appointed yuppie who says he and his partner just want “our neighborhood back.” The representative from the local merchants association who says 17 of 20 nearby businesses, many of them gay-owned, have reported that the naked guys are hurting sales. The hairdresser outraged at the outdoor “nudist living room” that’s alienating his clients who “complain to me when they come into the salon. They are offended by the visual display, and some are hesitant to return.”

The speakers don’t say whether they’re straight or gay. What they share is a sense of decorum. A former art student says that while he loves nude beaches, what’s going on in the Castro “is a sexualized version of nudity that also sexualizes the bystander without consent.” A neatly groomed man in a dress jacket argues, “If nudists want to live their lives, the Bay Area Naturists have a marvelous organization with venues and events. I don’t think my backyard is where I want to see you. This is not about expressing yourself. This is about misbehavior.” A foppish man with a fanny pack says the Castro nudists’ “genital decoration” signals a “further escalation to standards being yielded.” He concludes tartly: “Let’s keep nudity to those private occasions where nakedness receives its true reward.”

There’s a lot of talk about kids. The president of a neighbors association says, “As a gay woman, I have a partner. We have grandchildren. And we do not like seeing the naked guys.” A middle-aged man in a dress shirt pleads, “I would like to have the freedom to take my two nieces that visit me from Texas to an animated film at the Castro and not have them come out of the theater and be exposed to naked men. I think we should have the right to introduce nudity to our children when we decide to [do] so.” Another woman testifies:

I am a lesbian, I am a mother, and I am a volunteer leader in a girl’s leadership organization. I drive my children to school through the Castro several times a week. On those drives, the children have seen naked men on the sidewalk several times from the car. It has been upsetting and confusing to them. … As a mother, it is my job to teach them the value of boundaries. … If my child sees this as normal on the street, it puts her at risk for not knowing what is safe behavior from herself and especially from others. … People who expose themselves in public in non-designated events are committing a form of nonconsensual sexual behavior … The Castro is my neighborhood, it is my family’s neighborhood, it is home to community, and I want it to feel safe and comfortable for my daughter and our friends and family.

These voices weren’t a majority of the speakers who came to testify. Nudists, after all, are less shy about standing in front of a crowd (and yes, some took off their clothes). But according to Wiener, the naked guys are the number one problem he hears about from constituents—exceeding homelessness and transportation—and the people who complain most frequently are homosexual men. If you read the gay press and comments from longtime activists, you’ll see similar expressions of support for the ordinance. It hasn’t become law yet, and none of the witnesses who testified for it have legal recognition from the state for their same-sex marriages. But these people are the future of gay America. For them, being a husband, mom, uncle, or resident isn’t about tearing down the community. It’s about protecting it.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: