While walking through the Castro, I spy two naked men outside of Peet's on Market Street. I stop and ask if I can take their photo. Sure, they reply, before inviting me to join them.
The two are part of a group known as the Naked Guys, a dozen or so urban nudists who primarily hang out in the Castro. These brave few epitomize the city’s acceptance and advocacy of personal expression, and uphold the reputation of San Francisco as a city that challenges taboos. Like all good San Franciscans, the Naked Guys have found a way to push boundaries and challenge the status quo.
Spontaneously, I strip down right then and there, and enter into the collective of the Naked Guys. It felt like I was consummating my relationship with San Francisco.
Standing naked on the sidewalk at Market and 16th Streets with my new friends, Bare and Lloyd, I tell them my personal history with nudism. At UC Berkeley, I lived in a student co-op called Cloyne Court, where naked hall racing and rewards for nude housecleaning were common. This openness about nudity fostered the kind of community we wanted – comfortable, uninhibited, and a bit freaky and weird.
While we chat, a nudist with long hair and a staff approaches and greets me warmly. He introduces himself as Wil, and gives me a business card featuring a photo of himself posing with his staff and an enormous erection. His profession: art model.
When the initial rush of being naked in public subsides, it’s amazing how normal it can feel. After a pleasant hour of hanging out with Bare, Lloyd, and Wil, I completely forget I’m naked. That is, until someone yells, “Looking good, guys!”
At the end of our hangout, I agree to meet them again the following Saturday at the Buff Stop, the bustling corner of Castro and Market, the Mecca of the Naked Guys.
It’s unseasonably warm the following Saturday, an ideal day for a naked adventure. I arrive at the Buff Stop, still fully clothed, where I meet Mick and George. Mick is wearing cutoff “shorts” (effectively just a denim belt). George is a major advocate for nudists’ rights who recently ran for mayor, campaigning naked the whole time. For some reason, I feel a bit more hesitant to strip down than I did last time, but once I’ve taken my clothes off, it feels completely natural.
Everyone I meet at the Buff Stop seems glad I’m there. A queen in very theatrical drag comes up to me and says, “Girl, I really like seeing you out here.” A nudist named Woody introduces himself and remarks that people often approach him and thank him for helping to keep the Castro the Castro. “There’s a little old lady I see in the neighborhood who always tells me, ‘You brighten my day every time I see you! I love how you push the envelope.’”
The majority of the comments the Naked Guys receive are positive. Occasionally someone reacts negatively; the most common complaint is that public nudity hurts kids. Won’t someone please think of the children? In my experience, kids are generally unfazed by nudity unless their parents tell them there’s something wrong with it.
A man approaches us and asks to take our photo. “It’s a tourist thing,” he says. I ask where he’s from, and he replies, “Berlin, where they invented social nudity.” It’s fair to say that the Naked Guys have become a tourist attraction in their own right. Bare tells me a story about last year’s World Naked Bike Ride. When the roughly 150 unclothed cyclists finished the ride at the Palace of Fine Arts, streams of tourists suddenly poured out of buses to take pictures. Many posed for photos with the nudists, with the swans on the lake as the backdrop. All of these photos and experiences returned home with the visitors, and were shared online – helping spread the gospel of the Naked Guys.
At the Buff Stop, I also meet Rusty, the OG Naked Guy, who tells me his story. All his life he desperately desired to get naked, but it wasn’t until he was a grad student studying biophysics at Stanford in the early ’90s that he took action. He started by slipping out under the cover of night and wandering around campus in the buff. When he moved to San Francisco in the mid-’90s, he began walking nude at night; occasionally others would join him.
The California Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that nudity isn’t inherently lewd or sexual, and doesn’t in and of itself qualify as indecent exposure. Individual counties can pass legislation banning nudity, but no such law exists in San Francisco.
Emboldened by this discovery, Rusty and the fledgling Naked Guys started doing daytime walks. At first it was a cat-and-mouse game; they would often duck into the bushes when they saw cops approaching. They received many citations, and were sometimes handcuffed and detained, but judges would always throw out the charges because there were no grounds for prosecution. It took years, but slowly attitudes changed and knowledge spread that it wasn’t illegal to be naked in San Francisco. These days, it’s not very shocking in San Francisco to see public nudity, especially at events like Bay to Breakers and the Folsom Street Fair.
Official legal acceptance of public nudity came from an unlikely source. Last year, Supervisor Scott Wiener (whose district includes the Castro) passed legislation making it illegal to sit naked in a public space without putting down a towel or some kind of barrier. It also became illegal to go into a restaurant without covering up. The Naked Guys were against the legislation because they deemed it unnecessary; it’s already required by N.G. etiquette to put down a barrier. And whether patrons had to wear clothing in a restaurant was left to the discretion of the establishment’s staff. But although the Naked Guys initially fought these new laws, the effect of the legislation was the opposite of its intention. Previously, the city didn’t have any law forbidding being naked in public, but now it has legislation that implicitly allows it, with just two restrictions. Furthermore, the second part of the law was written very vaguely. Bare says, “I can put on the tiniest cape and say I’m wearing clothing. It’s up to the individual restaurant whether or not that’s okay, just like it was before.”
We decide to walk to Peet’s. I notice there’s a guy following us down the street. He’s staring at me, and when I look back, he throws both fists in the air and exclaims, “I LOVE FRISCO.”
Not long afterward, a woman comes up to me and excitedly says, “Yes! I have been waiting so long for you!” Mick replies, “We’ve all been waiting for Katie.” Excellent! I am a naked messiah. Throughout the day there are countless smiles, waves, and thumbs-up in my direction. A woman shouts at me from across the street, “You have the biggest balls in the group!”
I ask the Naked Guys if there are Naked Girls. Women occasionally participate, they tell me, but it’s rare. When I ask why, Woody says, “Patriarchy has severely sexualized women. I think it forces women to be really careful about what they do and how they look, even in the 21st century.”
Being naked in public breaks social expectation, and that’s part of what makes it so thrilling. There are many social conventions that should be questioned and challenged. Rusty says, “Breaking rules like this is a very useful tool in disempowering those in control who are trying to restrict us.”
Woody tells me that a cop recently yelled at him, “This isn’t just a gay neighborhood anymore!” To which he replied, “This isn’t just a gay thing! Straight people are nudists, too.” Wait, what?! I had wrongly assumed that the Naked Guys are gay. I’m surprised to learn that half of them identify as straight.
At the end of the day, I reluctantly put my clothes on, bid the Naked Guys farewell, and begin walking home. Wearing clothes doesn’t feel very different from not wearing clothes; it just seems like a less interesting way of walking down the street.
Different people join the Naked Guys for different reasons. I like being naked because I like to test my own boundaries and the boundaries of those around me. I like to shock people and get a thrill out of breaking taboos.
And the sun feels so nice on my skin.
Take off your clothes and join us! Just remember to put down a towel or some kind of barrier before you sit in a public space.
Never, NEVER ask nudists if they feel cold, unless you’re okay with being the most unoriginal person on the planet. And always ask a nudist before you take a photo.