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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."
But there are many who wish someone would. Before long, a young police officer with a crew cut approaches the table of naked men. "I got a complaint, uh, about the nudity," he says in as neutral a tone as possible. "So she wanted me to come and advise you guys first. She doesn't want to sign a complaint right now, but she said if you guys continue it, she'd like to. So, just advising you guys of the possibility."
VIDEO: Watch an interview with nudists George Davis and Rusty Mills.
VIDEO: Go behind the scenes of this week's cover shoot.Watch the creative process and see the shots that didn't make it.
SLIDESHOW:The Castro nudists celebrate Halloween.
The nudists don't seem too worried. Before long, Eric walks up in the buff to join them. Soon, another man with a badge lumbers across the plaza. "There goes our favorite person," Eric says. It was John Fitzinger, a patrol special officer whose beat includes the Castro. Patrol specials mostly look after stores, checking on their security systems or detaining shoplifters until the bona fide cops show up.
From his regular perch on a planter on the side of the plaza, Fitzinger would have a clear view of the nudists if he would turn around. That evening, he kept his back turned.
"They act like it's their absolute right to be walking around naked," he says. "If they want to look at each other's dicks, they should go home and do it. ... The Castro isn't the gay ghetto it used to be." He says one time this summer, a little boy spotted a naked man in front of Starbucks on 18th Street with a Prince Albert cock piercing and started crying: "He wanted to know why his peepee was broken."
Fitzinger says he distracted the kid with a coloring book. There's little more he can do: The only places it's illegal to be fully naked in San Francisco are in venues that serve alcohol (because of the liquor code) and in city parks. According to law enforcement's current interpretation of the penal code, the rest of the city is fair game.
George Davis served as a test case when he was arrested in 2004 on a misdemeanor public nuisance complaint while promoting his Naked Yoga book in the nude on Fisherman's Wharf. District Attorney Kamala Harris' office threw out the charges and announced it would not prosecute mere nudity, absent any lewd conduct or obstruction of traffic. Davis says police have cited him 22 times for public nuisance or indecent exposure, all of which have been thrown out by the district attorney.
"It's just a harassment mechanism," he says. "They just want to get you off the street."
Still, the fact that a group of guys are able to disrobe at the plaza with few problems seems to be an "only in San Francisco" phenomenon. In New York, being naked in public is illegal — no ifs or ands, and definitely no butts. Many California cities have passed antinudity laws, or at least hew to a stricter interpretation of state indecent exposure laws. In Los Angeles, they'd be arrested, said the L.A. sheriff's department spokeswoman Aura Sierra: "No, that's not cool; it's not the thing to do."
At the end of August, San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón issued a bulletin to the entire department that attempted to clear up the enforcement strategy for nudity. He cited the state penal code, explaining that public nudity is illegal only if it is "lewd," defined as intended for sexual gratification, and if people are "offended or annoyed." The courts have ruled that cops cannot be "offended," so a civilian must sign a citizen's arrest card.
If there is no indication of lewd conduct, the memo suggest officers "consider" making arrests for a public nuisance instead, defined in the penal code as "indecent, or offensive to the senses ... so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood." Still, that charge is no easier to enforce, given that a person must sign an arrest card for that, too.