Oakland’s grand cabaret-license reform effort began with a similarly grand revelation: the city has some damned old laws. The municipal code pertaining to cabaret clubs was larded with archaic language and references to Vaudeville. It was badly in need of revision, said councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Nancy Nadel, who spearheaded the clean-up effort. Under their tutelage, those laws were updated and brought into the 21st Century. A couple months later, the council eliminated the city’s ban on cross-dressing, also a holdover from yesteryear. But they didn’t go far enough. Closer inspection shows that a large swath of the municipal code — just about everything pertaining to “public morals and welfare” — appears to be nearly a century old. Take Section 9.28, which prohibits the public display of female breasts.
The text deems it a misdemeanor to “expose any portion of either breast below a straight line so drawn that both nipples and all portions of both breasts which have a different pigmentation than that of the main portion of the breasts are below such straight line.” Rough translation: It’s a misdemeanor for a woman to show the sides or bottom of her breast. Thus, just about every form of strip-tease-oriented spectacle, including burlesque, is technically illegal in Oakland. Pasties are illegal if there’s no form of drapery beneath them. But not only that: Some bikinis are illegal. Apparel worn by many riot grrrls and female R&B singers is illegal. The gowns worn by most Academy Award-winning actresses would be illegal.
And that’s not all. The next section of text decrees it a misdemeanor to expose “private parts or buttocks,” or employ “any device or covering which is intended to simulate the private parts or pubic hair …” That means butt-less chaps and ass-cleavage are also illegal. If you see Avril Lavigne loitering in an Oakland bar, please ask her to leave at once.
Given that Oakland is trying to reinvent itself as a destination for nightlife, it might be time to reconsider some of these laws, said Uptown Nightclub owner Larry Trujillo. For the last three years, he’s provided the venue for a popular Monday night burlesque show called Hubba Hubba.
“I would love to be the guy that has the job of enforcing that law,” Trujillo said. “To run around with a little tape measure and ruler to see how much of the breast is exposed — as ridiculous as that law is, that sounds like the best job in the world.”
As it turns out, there is no guy enforcing the law. According to Community & Economic Development Agency manager Scott Miller, any club owner wanting to host adult entertainment would have to vie for a major conditional use permit from the planning department. No one has tried to do that, Miller said.
But Oakland isn’t alone in its prudishness. Hayward has a similarly antiquated adult entertainment ordinance. Berkeley put its regulations into its zoning code — wouldn’t you know it? — but they’re equally draconian. So the culture of sexual repression extends well beyond Oakland City Hall. But there’s a difference in Oakland, which is quickly becoming a hotbed for the burlesque scene. Developers and city boosters are paving the way for more bars, clubs, more performance venues, gay infrastructure, and after-hours spots. Above all, the city government itself is trying to redefine Oakland’s downtown as a nightlife destination. With that in mind, it’s rather contradictory for the city to still have cabaret laws written around the era of Prohibition.
Who knew an outlaw city could be so conservative?