Why Did Huntington Beach Ban Naturists From a Public Pool They Had Used for Years?

And you drive. Out of Huntington Beach, out of OC, out to where stands the original In-N-Out and its company store, which sells In-N-Out-related T-shirts and hoodies, and maybe you smile to yourself because where you’re headed, you’re not gonna need any of that. Then again, maybe you don’t smile because, you know, Baldwin Park.

And you drive. Out past Ontario Airport, out to Palm Springs’ porch, out to Colton, which asks the question, “Is there ever any reason to go to Colton?” And you know the answer is “Yeah” when folks back where you’re from call you dirty, when government officials ban you from public places because they say you’re a danger to “public safety,” though they’re not very specific at all about which public and what safety, and when anyone asks them to get specific, they say, “Trust me.” And the same people question your rights to be who you are around your own children, calling you, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, well . . . they never say it, but everyone knows what they’re saying, you know, when the city attorney who facilitated kicking you out says you and your kind have “admitted they bring children to these ‘closed environment’ events.”

Yeah, you know.

And you drive. Into Colton until housing gets thinner and street signs announcing mule crossings become more plentiful, and you drive until you see the sign for Olive Dell Ranch—”A Family Nudist Resort”—and you hang a left, drive to the security gate, talk to the guard, wait for the large iron gate to swing open and park among the dusty trailers, lovely scenery and palpable libertarian vibe personified bumper sticker-wise by “I believe in my constitutional right to bare arms . . . and chests and legs and . . .” And finally you’re done driving, and after all that, when you’ve parked your car, you can finally, so far from home, do what you do every day inside of it and take off your clothes.

Because there are getting to be so few places where you can do that outdoors. The people who have come to Olive Dell on this Sunday come from all over Southern California—from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley—to a group called Naturists In the OC (NITOC). Though everyone attending today’s event, the 5K Bare Burro Run, knows what it’s like to see the stunned looks of judgment, to hear the coded tee-hees that say you’re a freak for preferring to live this way. It was the folks of NITOC who made headlines earlier this year when they were banned from reserving and using Huntington Beach’s city gym and indoor pool; the story was quickly picked up and run with by local TV and newspapers along with international news outlets and news websites such as Yahoo, VICE and Huffington Post.

Unfortunately, headlines were pretty much all that many of those news organizations were interested in regarding the story, the opportunity to write such titillating gems as “Gloves Come Off in ‘Bare’ Knuckles Battle Between Huntington Beach, Group of Naturists” (KCBS-TV Channel 2 news website) and “California Nudist Told to Cover Up” (Daily Mail) without digging very deeply into things. For example, while most mentioned that NITOC had been holding events at the gym multiple times per year for eight years, they also reported as fact what city attorney Michael Gates had said when explaining the ban, that there had been “incidents” on top of “complaints” from city employees who worked the events.

There was virtually no mention of the fact that more than six months after the ban was put in place, Gates still has not said what the incidents or complaints were and which city employees complained. In fact, the only city employees who seemed to want to talk were folks who said they really enjoyed working the events, that the naturists were responsible and well-behaved and so much fun that at least one HB employee, after working an event, actually attended a subsequent one as a participant.

That something like this would happen in a city that not only celebrates, but also markets itself on beach culture—Surf City—a culture that celebrates the body, seems odd, especially when you consider that virtually every day—certainly every day in spring and summer—Orange County’s most popular beach, crowned by a statue of a naked surfer, is home to flesh-and-blood ones who regularly use PCH as a changing room, their own naked bodies hidden, sometimes barely and sometimes not at all, by hoisted towels, where women and girls in bikinis somehow present themselves more provocatively than their naked counterparts at Olive Dell.

What is disturbing is that HB’s war against these naturists has been carried out with a kind of Star Chamber efficiency unburdened by actual facts, names, times or events. The accused, NITOC, has never been told what they are actually accused of or who is making the accusations. The reason for the ban has been given at some times as personal preference of employees, at others because of the Kafka-esque unnamed “incidents,” and therefore the naturists are to be excluded in the interest of the Orwellian catch-all that is “public safety”—the language of coups and dystopian teen lit.

What the hell is going on here?

Gates was asked as much on the city’s Facebook page. He couldn’t actually say what was going on, he said; there were issues of public safety and possible litigation and a lot of stuff that didn’t involve facts. But one thing was important, he said: “You have to trust me.”

*     *     *     *     *

When it comes to the NITOC events at the Huntington Beach pool, the public was apparently unaware of the precarious nature of its safety and well-being. That was clear as one speaker after another supporting NITOC came to the microphone at a Jan. 19 City Council meeting to protest the group’s exclusion from the pool back in October. The speakers not only spoke about the benefits of the naturists lifestyle—the absence of body shaming, healthy body image, the fact that it just feels right (you know what they’re talking about)—but also how they had been using the pool for eight years and had never heard a single complaint. They had covered any windows around the pool with paper to make it impossible to look in from outside. They had set up a table at the entrance, checked people in to make sure that no one just wandered in.

Rather than complain about the events, city lifeguards thought of them as a pleasant and easy-paying gig. Indeed, in a 2008 Orange County Register story about how the NITOC had to use the pool because there were so few places they could be naked outside the confines of their homes, then-20-year-old lifeguard Paul Armstrong said the events were so void of problems that he had in fact become bored and decided to join in as a naturist. He got in trouble for that, so the next time one of the events came around, he decided to go as a participant, saying, “Everyone’s just cool.” Whether it was the food the naturists always remembered to bring for the staff or that they cleaned up after themselves and made sure they were out of the pool at or before the designated deadline, apparently a lot of people felt that way.

No one spoke up against them at that January meeting, least of all the council members themselves, who seemed somewhat stunned that this was being discussed at all. The council had no part in banning NITOC; that had come about through the actions of the triumvirate of Gates, city manager Fred Wilson and community-services director Janeen Laudenback, who sent NITOC a letter telling them they would no longer be allowed in the pool because of the city’s public nudity ordinance of 2007.

Allen Baylis knew all about that ordinance. In 2007, the founder and president of NITOC defended Mike Ferreira, a man who “liked to stand around naked and smoke cigarettes and drink beer” at his home at the corner of Second Street and Walnut Avenue. Complaints came, and Ferreira was charged with public indecency. The charges were eventually lessened, but it caused the city to write its own public nudity ordinance. With that, Baylis and other members of NITOC thought it best—and safest—to rent the local gym and pool and take the public out of the equation.

“When you rent the facility, and you stop people at the door and say, ‘You’re not getting in unless you’re a member of our organization or a guest of a member,’ that’s private,” Baylis says.

Though the ponytail down his back may play into some sort of hippie expectation by outsiders, Baylis describes himself as a Goldwater Republican who believes his right to swing his fist ends at the tip of another person’s nose, the kind of man who put himself through law school while working as an airplane mechanic, the kind of lawyer with a healthy distrust of the government whose email signature is a quote from Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief: “Show me the man, and I’ll find you the crime.”

But things with the city had proceeded well, and NITOC was scheduling multiple events each year, usually in the fall and winter. When the Register reporter asked how the swims were being allowed when there was a ban on public nudity, city spokesperson Laurie Payne pretty much echoed Baylis’ own words, saying, “It is not illegal to be nude in a private setting.”

Nevertheless, Gates has said that pressure was building during the time NITOC was using the pool. “The change [in policy] was not sudden—I know some of the naturists think it was,” he says. “This had been evolving over eight years.”

However, Jennifer McGrath, Huntington Beach city attorney from 2002 to 2014, says that there was no such evolution when she held office. “To my knowledge, I didn’t hear about any incidents,” says McGrath, now the city attorney of Merced. “For instance, in my 12 years [as city attorney], I missed only five City Council meetings. During all those meetings, I never had anyone in the neighborhood or anyone in that building come to the podium and complain about that use.”

Gates has said that the change in policy may have come as a shock because his office enforces all laws and doesn’t play “favorites.” But Baylis can’t recall ever meeting McGrath, let alone being a favorite, since there never was any reasons to talk about their use of the pool. McGrath says the reason for that is simple: No laws were being broken.

“This is a situation where a group was renting exclusive use of a public facility, so there’s no laws being broken,” McGrath says. “The law says you can’t be nude on the beach, can’t be nude in a visible place from the public right of way. Nothing like that was going on.”

Though he says he is simply fulfilling his elected duty to enforce the law, Gates is also quick to acknowledge that his action and the letter did not originate with him. “None of this was driven by me,” he says. “It’s been a concern of the community services department for years.”

Those with NITOC knew as much. They say that they’ve been told by those inside Huntington Beach city government—”We have a lot of friends around, you never know who’s a nudist,” Baylis says—that it was Laudenback who pushed for the ban. One could say that Laudenback, whose department oversees staffing of the gym and pool, was simply looking out for her staff, who, she and Gates would claim, complained about having to work the naturist events.

But according to numerous people who worked the event as lifeguards, it was never a problem to get people to work it. Sean Makam worked the event several times. “They were a polite and very friendly group of people from all walks of life,” he says. “Teachers, city officials, university students, just a nice group of people. It was just like any other party. People mostly talked. It was very easy to work. Maybe you have to throw a beach ball back in the pool every now and then—that was about it.”

Their friends inside city government told members of NITOC that Laudenback simply had never liked the event and was looking for someone sympathetic to help her end it, and she found that person in Gates. We, of course, wanted to ask Laudenback about that, so we called her and said we, you know, wanted to ask her about that. She said she’d have to call Gates first and ask what she was allowed to say and what she wasn’t. We don’t know what he told her because she never called us back.

We’re gonna assume she would echo the sentiments of Gates and say this was a question of getting employees to work the event, even though, Makam says, it only required three people to work such an event—”one administrator, two lifeguards”—and that there was never any problem doing that.

Former HB lifeguard Keri Boyd emphasized on the city’s Facebook page that no one was ever forced to work the event. “They don’t schedule you to work these events,” she wrote. “It’s a private event, so it is posted in the office as an extra shift to pick up to earn more mula $$$ . . . It never bothered me when I was working. I never felt like it was a distraction from my job to have people swimming naked. ‘Oh, no, not a boob!’ ‘Oh, no, not a penis!’ ‘Oh, no, not a hairy muff!’ We’ve all seen genitalia before. Just a bunch of nudists doin’ their nudist thang and livin’ their life!”

*     *     *     *     *

Now, let’s be clear about something. When you hear that someone has a problem with nudists, there’s a tendency to say they have a problem with the human body. That’s not true, of course. No one gets freaked out or bans someone from a public pool for showing too much clavicle or displaying a brazen amount of scapula. As Boyd’s post says, this is about penises and vaginas. That’s it. And it’s not just the appearance of them, but what they suggest: sex. Somehow, some people can’t get their mind around the fact that a penis and a vagina can just exist; they assume, if exposed, they will be used.

Never mind the fact that the atmosphere at Olive Dell, while not asexual, does seem to be a good deal more wholesome and fun than one finds on the beach in Huntington. People smile and meet one another’s gaze. They seem happy, and they say it’s a direct effect of being naked, that one is literally more comfortable in their own skin, and that exposing one’s body actually inhibits body shaming, discourages anyone trying to put on airs. As the group motto says, “Body acceptance is the idea. Nude recreation is the way.”

And yet, group members are well aware they will constantly have to explain they are not swingers or molesters. People seem to conveniently forget that the overwhelming number of sexual predators not only come fully dressed, but also usually in some pretty officious duds, i.e., clergy, coaches and teachers. But it’s the mention or suggestion of penises and vaginas that get people worked up and delivered to a dark place where things such as conservative values of personal freedom and responsibility go to die.

And then there’s just stupid things. On the same Facebook thread in which Boyd had urged people to get past their junior-high attitudes, her post was joined by those who were concerned that naked people in a pool were less hygienic than those wearing swimsuits, as if a $20 pair of trunks from Target were some kind of magical block between body and water. Then there were those who, upon learning of the event, said they were concerned that it took place just blocks from a public school; never mind that the events took place in the evening and on the weekend, when no kids are supposed to be at the school. Logic and calendars aside, the concern was that the naturists, their boldness and base urges activated Gremlins-style by water hitting their genitals—you know, like what happens to everyone who takes a shower or bath—would run uncontrollably next door to do their heinous acts.

As silly as it sounds, it’s something Gates has played upon, intimating on that same Facebook thread that something truly diabolical was going on, writing that “the naturists have admitted (even at the last City Council meeting) they bring their children to these ‘closed environment’ events . . .”

Now, we’re gonna give Mr. Gates the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not stupid [Editor’s note: No, actually, Gates is a pendejo; Steve’s just too nice to say that]. Therefore, that comment can only be seen as a cynical attempt to get folks who don’t just want to “trust him” to somehow come to his side by first attempting to make it seem that the children are in some kind of danger by being at these events. If he truly believed that it would be not only his right, but also his duty as city attorney to end the events while they were happening and see that anyone committing a crime was prosecuted.

None of that happened.

Next, when he says that naturists “admitted” bringing their children to the event, it intimates they are acknowledging some wrongdoing. A naturist “admitting” they raise their children in a naturist lifestyle is akin to someone “admitting” they homeschool their child or someone “admitting” they raise their son or daughter a Christian.

It’s this kind of intimation that makes naturists angriest. They tend to take things in stride when dealing with other slights and discrimination, but they find the use of their children against them as gross, as would anyone vaguely or otherwise accused of pimping out their kids.

When asked if he felt the children were in danger, Gates said, “Well, I certainly won’t jump to any conclusions. I don’t want to make any inferences.”

He then went about making some inferences. “I think people need to understand what’s going on there,” he says. “The naturists have come to City Council meetings and made their own statements about what they do there, and my point is saying that and similar things about this situation is that what the naturists say goes on at these events speaks for itself. They’re admitting that. The public and reporters who are trying to understand need to understand the scope of it.”

The scope of it today is that the naturists are out. Their options include suing the city to get back in the pool, though they just might settle for getting a straight answer from someone, anyone at the city.

“They said it was against the law, but it’s not,” Baylis says. “The city attorney told me as much when I met with him. Then they told us it was because they were unable to get volunteers, but that just wasn’t true. So then they said it was ‘incidents’ and ‘complaints,’ but they’ve yet to present us with so much as one of those. They won’t tell us what this is really all about. We have an idea, but we really need to hear from them. We really would like to talk about it and work with them on this.”

Gates, for his part, says the city is interested in working with NITOC also. Pretty much in the way they’ve handled things the past six months. Asked if he could foresee a compromise that would get the NITOC back in the pool, Gates says certainly.

“They’re welcomed to come any time,” he says. “As long as they’re clothed.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *