Bare Knuckles and Bare Breasts

Forget talk of a settlement. Bachman Lake homeowners vow to fight their war against bare nipples to the bitter end.

"Praise God that federal Judge Jerry Buchmeyer ruled in favor of the City of Dallas regarding the sexually oriented business ordinance. Pray for the salvation of the topless club owners, the protection of the community from their harmful secondary effects, the men led astray by the lure of these clubs and their families, as well as the young women who dance in the clubs."

But what if Staff, the homeowners and the legions for decency are all wrong? What if there is some arrangement by which the city could achieve peace in our time with the topless clubs, without doing violence to the surrounding area? Given the sheer volatility of the topless club issue, shouldn't City Hall look for some way out?

Meanwhile, Northwest Highway at Webb Chapel Extension is what it is. Standing in the middle of the parking lot outside Baby Dolls topless club in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, Tim Dickey, a leader of the neighborhood types, says, "We are truly the de facto red-light district, and some people want to keep it that way."

Bachman activist Tim Dickey believes the neighborhood is on the verge of victory in a long, bitter war.
Mark Graham
Bachman activist Tim Dickey believes the neighborhood is on the verge of victory in a long, bitter war.
Banker Randy Staff vows he will spend millions of his own money to shut down the clubs.
Mark Graham
Banker Randy Staff vows he will spend millions of his own money to shut down the clubs.

It's possible to believe Dickey's claim that "some people want to keep it that way" without buying into any major conspiracy theories. In fact, a good question for anyone lucky enough not to live near the Bachman Boys Town is why it should be moved. Part of what fuels the bitter rage of the Bachman activists is the impression, drubbed into them by long, harsh experience, that most of the people "around the horseshoe" on the Dallas City Council would just as soon leave the red-light district where it is, rather than risk moving any part of it into their own districts.

At a recent city council candidates forum in Oak Cliff, Dickey asked candidate Dr. Elba Garcia how she felt about the topless clubs around Bachman Lake. Garcia, wife of state Representative and former city council member Domingo Garcia, is running against incumbent Steve Salazar for the District 1 seat in a "dry" area of the city with no topless clubs. Garcia told Dickey she likes things the way they are and doesn't want to stir the pot for fear of bringing topless clubs into her own district.

According to Dickey and others who were present, Dickey followed Garcia out into the parking lot later to press his point. In the conversation that ensued, Dickey urged Garcia to consider changing her position to his own--that is, to support licensing, zoning and court actions designed to put the Bachman clubs out of business--and he told her that he could bring money to her campaign if she agreed.

Some days later in a conversation with the Dallas Observer, Dickey defended the offer as an attempt to create a level playing field between his neighborhood and the topless operators, who have poured thousands into council campaigns in the past.

"I am totally unapologetic," he said. "That's how you get things done, especially when someone seems to be on the fence or not that well-informed."

The problem with that approach may be that it does, to some extent, level the playing field, at least in moral terms, and that's right where the club owners want it. If it's legitimate for the community activists to offer campaign contributions in exchange for support on a specific issue, they ask, why is it automatically naughty for them to do the same? Rather than a holy war between white hats and black hats, the club owners ask, why shouldn't this battle be viewed as a straight-up contest over land use between equally legitimate competitors?

Steven H. Swander, a Fort Worth attorney who has defended a number of club owners on First Amendment issues, argues that most of the larger clubs have managed to continue operating by staying just inside the law or by staying just inside some judge's restraining order, which, he points out, amounts to the same thing.

Swander is a professorial type who speaks carefully and almost winces when he comes to the more colorful details of what obviously is a specialty, the relationship between body parts and free speech. He spiels off the history of clear latex pasties: the court decision that caused the clubs to switch to non-latex pasties in order to change their status to Class A dance halls and escape location limits, followed by a new ordinance in 1997 focusing on the breast beneath the nipple, struck down by the court, thereby allowing clubs to operate with non-flesh-colored pasties as dance halls rather than sexually oriented businesses.

On the one hand, it doesn't seem right that something as simple as sex should be chopped up into such awkward little parts. On the other hand, no matter how embarrassing the debate may be on the surface, fundamental issues of freedom of expression do run at its core, specifically the ability of a man or woman to use the body and bodily expression to convey to an audience the message, "I want to have sex with you."

In footnotes to legal briefs and in reams of scientific research, an entire literature deals with erotic expression and how people say what to whom. In even finer detail--in the area of law Swander can recite--a body of legal opinion deals with specific body parts and what they have to say for themselves. Great legal minds have concurred that a bared nipple says, "Come and get it," while a halter top says something more like, "Let's take the kids to the beach."

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