It’s a surprisingly warm November day in San Francisco and George Davis is doing something he typically does when the sun shines – sitting at the Castro Plaza in the nude.
He is one of about a dozen local nudists who have colonised this small park. Prominent locally, they suddenly gained rapid international exposure this week when the city’s authorities banned them from baring all. But the ban doesn’t concern the 66-year-old. He’s willing to fight for his right to be naked.
“I’ve been arrested 15 times and cited 20 times for being naked in public but I’ve never been convicted,” he said. “I’ve never even been tried because the case is always dropped because the DA knows they will lose.”
Until this week there was no law against public nudity in San Francisco, but that has all changed. The ban is expected to come into effect on 1 February 2013, but nudists such as Davis say they will carry on regardless.
“It has always been this way for me,” Davis explained. “My family, growing up, the bedroom area was always clothing optional and that’s just the way it was. I have two sisters and my parents would walk around naked and it just was not a big deal.
“Then I went to stay with my grandmother in Tennessee and she had been a flapper girl in the 20s. A flapper girl was the 20s equivalent of a hippie, party girl. I went to swimming holes where people were skinny dipping and the hillbillies, you know, they’re not known to be prudish.”
Following his upbringing of nudity and freedom of sexual expression, Davis settled in San Francisco where he became one of the city’s best known real estate agents. For a number of years he was the number one broker for restaurants, bars and nightclub sales. He was married twice and has two daughters, a son and three grandchildren. He is retired now and lives off rent from a few properties he retained.
As a result, he finds time most days to walk the six blocks from his home and disrobe at the Castro plaza.
“It’s more comfortable to be in the nude,” he claims.
“On a warm day, you feel the sun beating over your whole body and you’re unencumbered by clothes and getting the maximum amount of vitamin D you can get. It’s just a better way to be.”
But in recent years nudism has gone from a hobby to an obsession, largely driven by his frustration that people want to restrict his right to be naked in public.
He first discovered that not everyone shared his taste in lack of clothes when, in 2004, he co-wrote a book about naked yoga with his wife.
“I had trouble getting it published and then I had trouble getting it into bookstores,” he said. “I thought, ‘this is strange’, so I decided I would promote the book by going to Fisherman’s Wharf and doing naked yoga there.”
Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s main tourist area. Davis was arrested and cited for indecent exposure. The charge was later withdrawn but not before Reuters news agency picked up the story and sent it all over the world.
Most of the stories suggested that nudists should go to San Francisco where it is legal to do naked yoga in the street.
Davis flung himself into the political side of nudism. He ran for mayor of San Francisco in 2007, declaring that he would make clothing optional in Golden Gate park. He polled about 1% of the vote but he made an impression. Having canvassed in the nude, George Davis is better known than most of his rivals from that campaign.
He has pledged to run in the next district election against Scott Wiener, the area supervisor, who introduced the ban on public nudity.
“What we really want to do is normalise nudity in San Francisco,” he said. “That is the goal. I know people always say this, but it’s true; we were born this way. Why are we being taught shame? Is there something wrong with the human body? If you look at it from a deist perspective, then God made us this way and there is nothing shameful about it. This is how we came into the world and this is how we will meet our maker.
“If you look at it from a Darwinist perspective, you have to ask, what other animal is covering up their body? It just shouldn’t be a big deal.”
He points to the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome where clothing was optional. “Alexander the Great conquered the world with a naked, barefoot army,” he adds. “The indigenous population of San Francisco was nude. All the island cultures in Hawaii and Indonesia and so on, they were all nude.”
The movement to ban nudity in San Francisco is lamented by many, including people who have no intention of taking their clothes off in public. David Campos, one of five city supervisors who opposed the ban, summed up the feeling of many when he said: “Sometimes there’s a little weirdness about how we express ourselves, but that’s a great thing about San Francisco.”
Davis insists that most people in the city support the right to be naked but that religious lobby groups have influenced Wiener.
He also rejects claims from the ban’s supporters that some nudists have been engaging in overtly sexual behaviour.
“I come here most days and it’s just not happening. We have been inundated with a lot of lies. A poll in 2009 showed that 63% of San Franciscans approve of public nudity and I know from speaking to people on street level that most people have no problem with this.”
Some tourists are certainly entertained by the spectacle of naked men on a busy city street. Davis and his friends are often asked to pose for photographs and they willingly oblige.
“Tourists love us,” he said. “I have to be allowed to keep doing this because I have to be here to welcome the tourists.”
Photo: Flickr user Monica’s Dad, creative commons licensed.