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.

Kimberly Sandie
A naked Rusty Mills sips wine in the Castro.
Kimberly Sandie
A naked Rusty Mills sips wine in the Castro.
Mills and Fishback often hit up nude-friendly bars or stores.
Kimberly Sandie
Mills and Fishback often hit up nude-friendly bars or stores.
Mills even goes shopping in the nude.
Kimberly Sandie
Mills even goes shopping in the nude.
This year, George Davis suggested the plaza at 17th and Castro become the city’s official “clothing-optional space.” On a recent afternoon, Rocky (from left to right), Woody, Rusty, George, and Lloyd let it all hang out.
Kimberly Sandie
This year, George Davis suggested the plaza at 17th and Castro become the city’s official “clothing-optional space.” On a recent afternoon, Rocky (from left to right), Woody, Rusty, George, and Lloyd let it all hang out.
The nudists didn’t wear much of a 
costume for Halloween in the Castro, but the cops mostly left them alone.
Francisco Barradas
The nudists didn’t wear much of a costume for Halloween in the Castro, but the cops mostly left them alone.

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."

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."

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.

George Davis says cops had citizen's arrest cards only about 50 percent of the time when they arrested him in the past. Since the chief's bulletin, he says the police have left him alone. As Fitzinger knows, in the Castro, many call in to complain, but few want to go on the record as a prude. It's gotten to the point where Capt. Greg Corrales of Mission Station, which covers the Castro, advises dispatchers that a cop won't respond if the caller isn't willing to sign a card, because it makes the police look like fools. "People look at the cops expecting them to take some kind of action, and there's no action they can take," he says. "I got much more serious issues to deal with, and if the DA isn't going to prosecute and a citizen's not going to sign a citizen's arrest card, it's not my concern."

That doesn't stop the constant game of cat-and-mouse all over the Castro. Barry, who declines to give his last name to "remain incognito," is one of the straight men of the nude pack. On Halloween weekend, he was approached by some flirtatious women in front of Pottery Barn. "I got a little excited," he recalls — anatomically speaking. Just then, he spotted Sgt. Chuck Limbert, Mission Station's liaison to the gay community, so he squatted to hide the evidence. He says Limbert demanded he stand up. Barry wouldn't. "He said, 'Put something on! Cover it up!'" Barry recalls. "He gave me that dirty look he gives us."

Limbert says he was responding to a complaint. "That, to me, means lewd. If your cock is erect and engorged with blood, you got a problem. That's not a Halloween costume."

One time, Lloyd Fishback – a brooding, lanky building security man by day — refused an officer's order to put on the G-string he was holding, instead plunking it into his hat and plopping it on his head. He claims the officer then wrenched his forearm behind his back as if he were going to cuff him. Fishback lodged a complaint with the Office of Citizen's Complaints about the whole ordeal, but now offers less resistance, such as when Fitzinger demanded he get in his patrol car. "He pretended he was trying to arrest me, so I just played along," Fishback says. There were no charges to press, and he was soon on his way.

Eric was stopped by an officer on Castro Street who asked a passing straight couple: "Don't you think this is inappropriate?" When the couple vacillated, the cop pressed further. "But what if there were children around?" Still, no citizen's arrest there.

Despite facing some resistance, the nudists seem to have no plans to leave their Castro oasis. If anything, they're settling in. The nude guys have now renamed the plaza — after themselves.

The park was officially christened Jane Warner Plaza last month, after the late patrol special officer who covered the Castro beat. When Warner would pass Rusty Mills, the man who first started walking in the Castro nude in 2005, he says she'd say something to the effect of "I wish you'd keep more space between you and me." So the nudists decided to give the plaza a nickname, voting on names such as Bare Square, Nude Crossing, and Freedom Plaza. The Buff Stop won.

"Horrible! Next they'll want a statue of an erect penis there!" Limbert says. "Jane Warner is turning over in her grave."

She doesn't know the half of it. On a recent evening, Mills stood up against one of the planters in the plaza when a man half his age came up and started flirting. At 68, Mills is arguably the fittest of the nudists; he was the NCAA pommel horse champion from Yale in the '60s, and still works out six days a week at Gold's Gym to maintain an Olympian's figure.

"Is it okay if I touch it?" the man asked, referring to Mills' penis.

"Yeah, do; it's fine, as long as we're not under observation from the men in blue," Mills replied, giving a wary 360-degree scan of the plaza.

The younger man stroked Mills' six-pack, too. "Hard stomach," he said.

"I work at it," Mills replied. "They don't respond as nice as I wish they did. ... I have to work like hell to get anything. They used to call me Daddy Long Legs."

"More like Daddy Long Dick."

Barry walked up during this episode and said to a reporter rather apologetically: "This doesn't usually happen."

Mills is the first to admit that "there's an undercurrent of sexuality" when going nude in public. In the mid-'90s, he used to go out in the wee hours of the morning when no one was around, but then made his public debut at the cruising spot on Collingwood a few months later, not to get picked up but to let the cars shine their headlights on him. He started to walk nude through the Castro at night five years ago, with Fishback joining him as a regular companion in 2008. Fishback used to pop a Viagra to keep an erection while walking: "When you got a hard-on in public, it really draws a crowd — picture seekers, women are really digging it when you got a hard-on." But he said he stopped becuase it wasn't working anymore — "I'm not excited" — plus it draws unwanted attention from the cops.

In the last year, other Castro nudists have started emerging during the day. While Mills and Lloyd enjoy sexually charged attention, other nudists say this movement isn't about being sexual at all. Instead, they're out to prove the opposite: that there's nothing shameful or scandalous about the human body, and they theorize about creating a free body culture. (Cops say they'd better accept that argument if some of them weren't using cock rings or chain belts with baubles hanging by their balls: "If it were for the intention of being a pure nudist, they wouldn't be wearing jewelry to draw attention to themselves," Limbert says.) Davis says he does it to meet people, or to simply make his life more interesting: "I'm really an absurdist at heart." One man describes going out naked in public as a second "coming out."

Though several of the guys are straight, no one is opposed to getting the occasional catcall from men in the neighborhood. "You go to someone else's house, you abide by their rules," Mickey explains.

But who, exactly, defines the Castro's rules is changing.

Gay men first started snatching up the neighborhood's affordable Victorian houses after World War II as the former working-class family owners migrated to the suburbs, converting the traditional symbol of the nuclear family into a mostly childless community. In 2000, the Census showed the neighborhood was still whiter, richer, more male, and with fewer kids than the city average. But many believe the 2010 Census results, due to be released over the next three years, will show a Castro with many more families with children.

"In the LGBT world, we do have kids now," says Steve Adams, the president of Merchants of Upper Market and Castro. "I'm open-minded, I'm liberal, but we have kids in the neighborhood. You want to make sure your kids are growing up right and not shocked at certain things, like naked people in a plaza."

Limbert says he no longer considers the Castro predominantly gay. "We've gone through a transition period and are a mixed-use and business district," he says. "We have families, businesses, and tourists that don't appreciate you trying to bring attention to nudity. ... We're already very tolerant in the Castro, and now we're being pushed in another area." With the changing demographics, the Castro is negotiating what it means to be probably the most sex-positive place in the country to raise children.

One night last month, young men plunged a giant inflatable penis out of the window of a Victorian on 18th Street for the amusement of passersby, grabbing it back inside when they spotted a woman with a toddler approaching. Controversy erupted in 2005, when parents complained about a teakwood statue of an Adonis-like man with a gigantic, erect cock in the window of Phantom SF antique store on 18th Street.

Owner Robert Hedric draped a cloth over the offending penis to placate the complainers. Yet, sitting among the chandeliers and nude paintings in his shop on a recent weekday, even he didn't defend the nudists. "I wouldn't consider something like that to be in my showcase window, let's put it that way," he says. His assistant, Carlos, disagrees: "It's to open people's minds. We're so close-minded about nudity in America."

"Even in the middle of the city?" Hedric asks.

That's what troubles Terry Bennett, whose store is just two blocks down the street: "Parents should be able to decide what to expose their children to at what age." She says her daughter will tell her, "Mom, that is so inappropriate. Why don't they have clothes on?"

The nudists know the protect-the-children argument well. It's invoked by law enforcement and leaders of both the Merchants of Upper Market and the Castro and Castro Community Benefit District. Davis once told a social worker in an interview for becoming a foster parent that his home was "clothing optional"; the interview ended soon after. The nudists argue kids aren't harmed by nudity, and mostly read their parents' response: laid-back parents have laid-back kids, and parents who cover their eyes have sensitive ones.

"Kids don't know about sex," said Eric, sitting in the plaza as strollers rolled by. "It's the parents that equate it with something naughty. To [the kids], it's just you don't have any clothes on."

The nudists, even the straight ones, know the Castro is the neighborhood where they'll find the most acceptance, or at least indifference. They keep a mental map of which businesses or even specific employees and bartenders will allow them to enter in the buff. If the manager of one pizza place refuses to serve them when they have only a bandanna covering their loins, they'll just go down to the pizzeria down the street that will.

On Halloween night, a group of the guys entered Bisou French Bistro, a new restaurant near the plaza with pounding pop music and a curved red velvet wall, to take up the French chef on his offer to give them a discount if they'd come in the nude. (Most restaurants and bars usually have the men slip on a G-string, per the liquor code.) As they exited, some patrons gave the nude gang blank stares; others gave them a round of applause.

At times, it seems the neighborhood has come to absorb them as part of the scenery, with the naysayers left to gripe among themselves or make feckless calls to the police. That is, until a Sunday night last month, when a cop car driving down Castro spotted Mills in the buff and made a U-turn.

The lieutenant, new to the precinct, said Mills was under arrest for a public nuisance. Mills argued that the charges wouldn't stick, and two more squad cars soon pulled up. So did John Fitzinger — "standing in the street with a smug expression on his face," Mills says.

The police officer cuffed Mills and put him in the car; Mills persuaded the cop to drive to Hartford Street and retrieve his shorts and garage door opener from a planter. Once at Mission Station, Mills was handcuffed to a metal bench. Twenty minutes passed until a lieutenant told Mills he could leave without a citation if he'd promise to go home. Mills agreed he would — just for that night — and the police even gave him a ride home.

"They're just trying to intimidate me," Mills says. Some nudists are worried that the Castro nudists will draw unwanted scrutiny to nudity in San Francisco, even at events where it's welcomed like Bay to Breakers, Folsom Street Fair, and the World Naked Bike ride.

"I don't want the guys in the plaza to push the [city] into thinking they have to pass an anti-naked ordinance to get rid of them," says Rich Pasco, the founder of the Bay Area Naturists, who usually stick to nude beaches.

Case in point: Berkeley. People's Park had long been a nude-friendly space where a nude theater group named the Xplicit Players put on shows without much complaint. Then Andrew Martinez showed up on UC Berkeley's campus naked in the early '90s, and both the university and the city banned public nudity. For that reason, Mills says he doesn't want to "push things too fast or too hard. The social goal is to disarm the prudish people," not give them more fuel. To better their public image, he's even suggested the nudists start a weekly trash cleanup.

City officials don't seem overly worried about them. At least outgoing Supervisor Bevan Dufty doesn't. Dufty, who has represented the Castro for the past eight years, also happens to be raising his 4-year-old daughter in the neighborhood. The nudists have been out when he regularly sits in the plaza with her to people-watch.

"She's fascinated with penises, so she kind of pointed out there are penises and I said, 'Yep, they are right there,'" he says. "I said they like to have people pay attention to them and are very comfortable being naked." A politician who grooves on a Pride parade float with his daughter on his hip, he says it's a false choice between a family-friendly Castro and a sex-positive one. "It's much more difficult to explain racism, violence, and war," says Dufty, who plans to run for mayor next year. "Explaining to her what a sex toy is will be a walk in the park."

For now, the nudists seem to be moving into the Castro for good. Yet there's always the possibility that it will be just a fad, fading away as the novelty wears off. "I would really like to be married and not do this," Fishback admits.

"I've done it over and over again and it gets to be kind of routine," Mills says. "The heart-pumping excitement isn't there."

Only in San Francisco is the biggest threat to the public nudity movement not the cops, or prudes, or even kids. It's boredom.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.