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Arts & Culture
Nudists continue to cause controversy despite citywide ban
The Jane Warner Plaza, on the corner of Castro and Market streets in San Francisco, is better known, locally, as the Buff Stop. That’s because of the nudists who can be found letting it all hang out on sunny days. Earlier this year, they caused so much controversy with area businesses and residents that Supervisor Scott Wiener penned and passed an ordinance, in February, ordering nudists to cover their private parts in public. But that hasn’t necessarily made much difference.
I meet a 57-year-old Buff Stop regular named Woody Miller at the plaza on a weekday afternoon. After about 10 minutes, I see Miller standing casually surveying the scene. Except for a pair of pink high top Converse and a small black sack that covers his man parts, Miller is standing completely naked while 15 or so people sit drinking coffee and talking at the red metal tables scattered around the plaza.
“I think that having this little black bag over my genitals draws more attention to them than if I was just naked,” says Miller. “It’s like I have to have this piece of fabric on to cover up my anatomy that people have decided is obscene and dangerous and I think it’s stupid.”
As of February, public nudists in San Francisco must keep their privates covered. This new law follows another ordinance, from 2011, that requires nudists to carry around something to sit on so their bare bums don’t touch communal seats. Miller doesn’t like it.
“You know, it's kind of silly because most of us I’d say 98 percent of us were doing that anyway because it’s just nudist etiquette,” he says. “Basically you do it because you want to protect yourself from whatever crunge might be on the seat before you sit on it with your body exposed to it.”
As I talk to Miller, who is sitting on a green handkerchief, I start to notice people creeping into the periphery of the plaza to get a closer look. Many are holding up their phones to take his picture. One woman wearing a big white Stetson hat isn’t so curious – she’s angry. She walks right up and tells Miller that she is offended by seeing his bare body in public.
“I find it to be personally appalling and I believe that the penis is often used as a symbol of power and I think it's degrading to all women,” she says. “I think it’s degrading to all gay people, and I think all of these tourists that come and then go back to their hometowns associate gay people with perversion and all sorts of sexual sins. I think it’s not a progressive thing, and it’s not right for the gay community.
Not all women in the plaza are offended by the sight of nearly naked men.
“I think they’re terrific,” says a woman sitting at one of the public tables in the plaza. “They’re not afraid to be themselves. I’ve found that women really like the nudists more than the men like them which I find very interesting because the tourist women, they want their pictures with the nudists, and they just laugh and giggle and have a good time.”
One of her table companions agrees.
“Personally I think they should have the right to do it, just sometimes I like it a little prettier, a little classier, you know?” says a man seated in the plaza. “I think that everyone should have the right to express themselves.”
Another man seated close by thinks differently.
“This is not a free speech issue. We could have nude beaches and designated areas – why aren’t they going somewhere else in the city, you know?” he asks. “Give us a break. The gay community is already suffering tons of stereotypes. I don’t really like being here, that’s why I got my back turned away. I just don’t like it.”
The Castro district is obviously still divided over the issue of public nudity.
“To me it’s like, how important is nudity to what we’re facing politically in America?” says a Castro resident. “It doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a deal except in this neighborhood – and in this neighborhood people are taking sides and they’re screaming at each other, ‘Oh, you’re a bunch of Nazis,’ ‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, have respect for other people!’ Everybody has their own take on it but I don’t know how important it is really.”
I was curious what the tourists thought. They were easy to spot around the plaza. Most were hopping off the old-fashioned F Market street cars that drive up 17th Street, right through the Buff Stop, before turning down Market street toward the Embarcadero.
“Well it’s not the most pleasant view but it’s very San Francisco,” says a man seated in the plaza, who is visiting from Los Angeles. “So for us being from LA, we’re kinda having the whole San Francisco vibe. I’ve heard about it and seen it before, so it just adds to the flavor of San Francisco.”
Around 4 o'clock, another nudist named Lloid Fishback strolls into the plaza wearing a crocheted hat made to look like the head of an owl. He is deeply tanned, nearly hairless, and aside from his hat, he’s wearing only a bright orange thong and flip flops.
“I’m here pretty much everyday after work,” says Fishback. “I’ll come here and sit awhile and do a little walk. It’s just a way I can relieve stress from work.”
When I ask Fishback how the ban has changed the Buff Stop he starts to sound a little defeated.
“It’s like they just took your total freedom away,” he says. “This was probably the last city in the world that you could do this and now it’s gone, gone forever. We used to call it the Buff Stop and so now we could say the Semi-Buff stop, I guess.”
Miller says he also felt repercussions from the ban – and told me that the other nudists who hang out at the Buff Stop are willing to cover up for now, but they will not stop fighting.
“We kind of all decided that we would do what we could to stay within the law and we would wear the bare minimum and see if people still complained,” he says. “A small number of nudists got together and decided to fight the ban in court so they’re litigating a lawsuit at this point.”
The nudists say they’re looking forward to this weekend’s Pride festivities, like the all night street party Pink Saturday, and the Pride Parade, an event in which full nudity is still legal.