SAN FRANCISCO -- Never before have so few fought for the right of so many to wear so little.
Well, it wasn't exactly like Churchill and the Battle of Britain, but the handful of activists opposing a nudity ban in what's arguably the nation's most liberal and libertine city gave it their all and then some.
In the end, the specter of unchecked bareness was too much even for a city where usually anything goes, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 on Tuesday to enact a public nudity ban.
Moments later, boos and a sudden shedding of clothes by aggrieved audience members led to a hastily called recess as naked people loudly and lustily voiced their displeasure.
Gerhardt Clarke, 55, of Oakland wore only a white stocking cap, white socks and white underwear briefs as he shouted about recalling Supervisor Scott Wiener, the ban's author.
Clarke said he's confident he'll be able to keep on going starkers. Activists last week filed a pre-emptive lawsuit to block the city from implementing the ordinance, seeking redress for the right to undress. "This lawsuit will wipe out these fascist clones," Clarke predicted.
Others more soberly assessed what the ban says about a city that prides itself on openness.
"We used to say two men kissing was bad for children to see, but now we've learned better," Taylor Whitfield, 25, clothed, said in the corridor outside. "This is a step backward."
Even a city as comfortable
The supervisors one year ago passed an ordinance requiring nude people to put something -- a towel, or maybe ... a newspaper?!? -- between their bare behinds and seats in public places; it also banned nudity in restaurants.
But outcry from city residents and business owners continued, and so Wiener -- a gay Democrat whose district includes the Castro -- introduced the ordinance to ban exposure of rear ends and genitals on public streets, sidewalks and transit. Naked breasts are still OK, as is nudity for children younger than 5 or for anyone at city-permitted parades, fairs and festivals such as the Folsom Street Fair, Pride parade and Bay to Breakers race.
A first citation would bring a fine of up to $100; a second in the same year would cost up to $200; and a third would bring a fine of up to $500 or could be charged as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Wiener at Tuesday's meeting noted his ordinance is far narrower than the broad ban that's been in effect for decades in the city's parks and port.
"For many years, public nudity has been part of San Francisco. ... For many years it wasn't a big deal, and few people cared," he said, but now it's a constant occurrence in a neighborhood where people live and work. "It's very much a 'Hey, look what I have mentality,' and we're seeing it in some other neighborhoods as well."
Supervisors John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar and Christina Olague opposed the ban. Campos said this shouldn't be a police priority; Olague called the ban "a solution in search of a problem," given that the nudity is limited mostly to the Castro. Avalos screened a short clip from the 1970 film "Catch-22," wherein a soldier's nudity is deemed to pale beside the horrors of war.
A federal judge will decide in January whether to halt the law's Feb. 1 implementation. It probably will be a tough fight for the plaintiffs: The U.S. Supreme Court has held that public nudity bans don't necessarily violate the constitutional right to free speech.
One of the plaintiffs, Gypsy Taub, 43, of Berkeley, stood naked and angry outside City Hall after the vote. "It's not a government, it's a whorehouse," she said. "Money is running the show."
Asked what moneyed interests might want to ban nudity, Taub said it's "a right-wing backlash against the liberties in San Francisco. ... They think we're going to get out of hand if we have freedom to express ourselves."
California state law makes public nudity a misdemeanor only when a person acts lewdly.
But some cities enact stricter ordinances. San Jose bans nudity in public places and even on private property open to public view, for anyone over age 10. In Oakland, it's illegal for anyone to appear in any public place "nude or in any indecent or lewd attire."
Berkeley criminalized public nudity in 1993, though the ordinance had to be tweaked in 1998 -- when a troupe of nude street-theater performers started turning up at protests and other outdoor events -- so officers could charge it as an infraction, like a traffic ticket, rather than as a misdemeanor.
Even so, Officer Jennifer Coats, a Berkeley Police spokeswoman, said her department has had only three arrests and two citations for public nudity since September 2010, all based on citizen complaints.
But some cities don't have stricter ordinances: Santa Cruz doesn't, as some might expect. Nor does one of the Bay Area's most staid suburbs: Danville. But as you also might expect, Danville City Attorney Rob Ewing said, it "hasn't been an issue here.''