In Chinatown, it may be the Year of the Tiger, but in the Castro, it's almost always the Year of the Cock. Judging from a walk down Castro Street, cocks are the unofficial mascot. You've got the Sausage Factory (an Italian restaurant named with a wink), Hot Cookie (a bakery that sells chocolate-covered cookie cocks), and Rock Hard (a porn shop full of gigantic, X-rated cocks). To cap it off, the Castro just elected a supervisor named Scott Wiener.
But this year, the neighborhood found out that the male anatomy can still cause a stir when the real-life cocks arrived. In broad daylight. At the plaza on the corner of Market Street, right by the F-line trolley stop. Sometimes flapping down Castro Street. Or hanging out in line for coffee at Starbucks.
These cocks were not metaphorical or ironic in the least bit. They were sometimes more than 60 years old. Or dangling amid red pubic hair. Or cinched with rings, or pierced with metal, or hanging free with nothing on at all. They felt entitled for a reason: The law in San Francisco is more or less on their side. At least, they know it's extremely unlikely they'd ever be prosecuted for walking around in public naked.
The exact genesis of this movement is hazy, but most agree it had something to do with the city opening a high-visibility plaza at Castro and Market last year. Among the lunchers, retirees, and shoppers, naked men showed up, too: A construction supervisor named Barry appeared in his fedora and flip-flops — and nothing else. An unemployed retail manager named Eric finally summoned the guts ("Getting out of the car is the scariest thing") and started reading a book on sunny days. A strapping Brit named CJ Russell with a giant Japanese symbol for "nudity" tattooed on his groin started strolling around in a brimmed cap and running shoes. Woody Miller — yep, real name — started whipping off his kilt in the plaza after his waiter shift at Orphan Andy's and hiking home in the buff. Mickey Smith joined in coyly, draping a string of leaves over his package like an urban Tarzan. Some of the nudists didn't want their full names published so they could, of all things, maintain a degree of privacy.
There's a consistent cast of about 12 nude guys coming and going. Toward the end of summer, George Davis, the "Naked Yoga Guy," suggested they establish the plaza as the city's official clothing-optional space.
The Castro is, of course, no stranger to exhibitionism. Back in the heady '70s and '80s when gay men claimed the neighborhood formerly known as Eureka Valley as their own, guys stood with shirts off and tight Levis sanded at the crotch on "Hibernia Beach," the sidewalk outside the old Hibernia Bank at 18th and Castro streets.
But in 2010, those guys have grown up, settled down, and had babies. Locals have noticed more lesbians and straight couples have moved into the neighborhood with babies of their own. The Castro has gone from edgy to twee and touristy. Strollers have rolled in like an invading army.
One day this summer, Glenn Castro, a gym teacher from the nearby Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy (one of two elementary schools within two blocks of the plaza), approached the trolley stop with 30 day campers. Suddenly, a field trip to Pier 39 seemed a lot less interesting to the schoolkids than a group of naked grownups in the plaza.
One of the campers was the 7-year-old daughter of Terry Bennett, who runs Cliff's Variety hardware shop on Castro, opened by her great-great-grandfather more than 70 years ago. Later that day, Bennett called the city's service line to report the naked men walking down the sidewalk.
"I don't know why they're doing it — shock value or what?" she says from behind her counter at Cliff's recently. "The Castro's a place that's supposed to be for everybody, and if you're excluding the kids, that's not being accepting of everyone."
The Castro, as well as the gay community for whom it is both the literal and symbolic home, is changing. Whereas the fight used to be to come out, today's battles are to fit in — to join the military, get married, and win benefits for your partner — in short, to make the gay community just as normal as the straight folks down the street. So when men start dangling out the bits on a Tuesday afternoon in what is essentially the Castro's front yard, well, the neighbors start to talk.
On a warm November afternoon, an F-line trolley groaned through the plaza as it turned onto Market Street, temporarily eclipsing the sun pouring onto a gathering of naked men. The day's nudist lineup included George Davis (gaunt frame, trimmed bush), Barry (tall, baseball cap, cock ring), Mickey (leaves strung over his twig and berries), and Eric (barrel-chested, hair gelled into a fauxhawk). They are, respectively, a straight yoga guru, a straight construction guy, a straight house painter, and a gay retail manager. It's a safe bet that they would not be sitting at the same table if they were clothed.
The nude guys are a bit of a Rorschach test for the constant stream of people walking through the plaza. One young guy throws his arms in the air to cheer, "Yay! Naked people!" A man in a business suit says into his cellphone, "There's naked people sitting here in San Francisco." An Argentine tourist stops to get his picture taken: "We don't have this in my country!" A cute lesbian also stops for a photo, saying, "I'm allergic to penises!" A salty guy named Fred who has long been annoyed by them shakes Mardi Gras beads: "Do you guys want some pearls to string around your nuts or something?"
Next to the plaza sits the iconic Twin Peaks, the first gay bar in the Castro with gigantic windows so passersby could see the patrons when it opened in 1973. Now, people call it the "Glass Coffin" given its largely white-haired clientele, and these days the real exhibitionists are the naked guys visible on the other side. "It just doesn't faze me anymore," said bartender Dale Thompson, serving drinks to a corporate lawyer and residential architect on a recent night. "I'm not going to throw a blanket over them."