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SF's Most Notorious Nudist Stakes Her Claim to History 

Wednesday, Dec 2 2015
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Gypsy Taub was 19 when she arrived in the Combat Zone. It was the fall of 1988. Boston's infamous red light district — a wedge of downtown the city had officially ceded to strip clubs, porn theaters, gay bars, and streetwalkers — was fading but still aptly named; the Combat Zone was a neon wild where people on the fringe fought to survive.

Taub's home was 7,000 miles away, in Soviet Moscow. She'd arrived in Boston hoping to study at MIT. She had no contacts in the city, no résumé, and no professional skills beyond her fluency in Hungarian and English, the latter of which she'd taught herself. She called every restaurant in the Yellow Pages to ask about waitressing jobs, but her lack of a work visa complicated matters since she had to be paid under the table. But in the Combat Zone, a woman looking to work off the books had abundant opportunities if she could dance and didn't mind an audience.

The Naked I, on Washington Street, had a grubby renown among connoisseurs of "obscenely young girls," as a dancer at the nearby Picc-a-dilly Lounge told the Boston Globe in 1979. The club's marquee featured an open eye covering a woman's animated crotch, but inside there was no such censor. All-nude girls danced to Genesis and Kim Carnes and Cat Stevens on two cramped stages, around which men swarmed like silverfish. A writer from the Philadelphia City Paper later eulogized the place as "lousy with drunks and losers and hookers and big ugly bouncers and all manner of human flotsam and jetsam with no teeth and bad breath."

This was where Taub first got naked in public.

"I watched the other girls do all sorts of things on stage, and nobody had a heart attack," she says now. "Nobody died. The customers didn't become disgusted. Everybody seemed happy and nobody suffered."

Although life in the club was good — the husband-and-wife owners didn't demand sexual favors and the bouncers were courteous — Taub wasn't cut out to be a stripper. In addition to tips, the dancers also received a $20 commission every time they persuaded patrons to buy a $100 bottle of champagne, but Taub hated swindling horny men out of their paychecks. In her year at the club, she pocketed only $40 in champagne kickbacks.

She made a "basic" living, enough to afford an apartment. When her family — parents, brother, and sister — immigrated to Boston in 1989, Taub was their breadwinner.

On the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain, Taub received a crash-course in the economics of America's sex industry. Every day between 3 p.m. and midnight, the Combat Zone offered her another lesson: in human appetites and hypocrisy.

"I grew up with all these inhibitions and judgments, but dancing helped me realize that those things were based on bullshit. Being naked doesn't make you bad," Taub says. "It was liberating to learn that."

She learned another lesson, too, one she never forgot: "People pay attention when you're naked."


Almost a quarter century later, on the other side of the country, people were paying attention to Gypsy Taub. In 2012, responding to complaints about a group of dedicated nudists who frequented an outdoor plaza in the Castro, San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed a new city law banning public nudity, with exceptions for permitted events such as the annual Gay Pride parade.

Under Wiener's law, San Franciscans over age five risked a $100 fine if they went au naturel on city streets or sidewalks. A third violation could be considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine and a year in jail.

Wiener's proposal made national headlines and inspired epitaphs for San Francisco's fabled liberalism. Casual public nudity posed a threat to tourists, residents, and shopkeepers alike, Wiener said in his law's defense, while still acknowledging that it was a "lose-lose" piece of legislation. The ban wasn't a referendum on the city's bohemianism but a "quality of life issue," he told Bloomberg, adding, "Listen, did I dream of coming into office and writing legislation with the words 'anal region' in it? No, I didn't."

Outcry from local nudists came from two fronts. One was from recreational nudists — men with cock rings and dicks at perpetual half-mast — who protested Wiener's would-be crackdown by staging a literal bush war at Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro.

This small, bustling patio at the intersection of Market, 17th, and Castro streets had become a de facto nudist colony, in part because it marked the threshold of America's most iconic gay neighborhood. Sexual mores were historically more relaxed there.

Rob Cox, a Castro resident for more than 20 years, says the plaza, a pedestrian-friendly improvement created when the intersection was closed to traffic, was "forced" onto the neighborhood by Bevan Dufty, Wiener's predecessor. Worse, in Cox's opinion, was the city's laissez-faire attitude about policing the more flagrantly sexual nudists who took up residence in the plaza.

He recalls having to brave a"gauntlet of penises" every day — a scourge of two dozen freeballers who were more interested in "exhibitionism" than naturism.

"One day the Castro Theatre was showing The Little Mermaid, so there were all these little kids with their mothers," Cox says, still scandalized. "The neighborhood was intimidated."

Many of the men Cox confronted were from Sacramento, Redwood City, and points east, he claims. They de-robed in San Francisco, and in the Castro specifically, because it is where "anything goes" — and because public nudity was outlawed in their own exurbs.

The other front in the opposition was a band of more freewheeling nudists who weren't content to lounge bare-assed in the sun while City Hall ran roughshod over their First Amendment rights. This cadre dubbed themselves "body freedom activists" and stormed San Francisco like Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, piloting a graffitied shortbus with an anti-GMO bumper sticker and YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL posted in the destination window. They gamboled into Jane Warner Plaza with homemade placards declaring SAINT FRANCIS WAS A NUDIST, NUDE IS NATURAL, and RECALL SCOTT WIENER. They made impassioned speeches into bullhorns while tourists gawked and moralistic locals fumed.

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Jeremy Lybarger

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