If you want to lead a nudist lifestyle, there are worse places to do it than Huntington Beach, California. The coastal city in Orange County has nice weather, miles of beachfront, and year-round sunshine.
There's just one catch: The "powers that be" in Southern California aren't exactly pro-nude. Over the years, nude beaches across the region have been stripped of their "clothing-optional" status. In 2007, the city of Huntington Beach passed a public nudity ordinance after too many neighbors complained about a local resident who had been walking around his yard in the buff for all to see.
Now, a Huntington Beach group called Naturists in the OC is up in arms over a recent decision by the city to ban them from holding private skinny-dipping gatherings in the city's municipal pool.
The naturists have used the Huntington Beach City Gym and Pool for their social events for eight years. During the winter months, when a cold breeze rolled in from the Pacific Ocean, the group regularly rented out the pool for social functions. They'd cover up the windows, strip down to their birthday suits, and dive in. City lifeguards—who volunteered for the task—would keep watch, while other attendees would play ping-pong and shoot hoops. Every gathering culminated in a big dinner.
But the regular pool party came to a halt in September when the city manager, Fred Wilson, instituted a new administrative rule prohibiting nudity at city-owned recreation facilities. The city insists that it's simply reinforcing its public nudity laws and protecting the public. But the naturists see this as nothing less than an affront to their rights, and a step back towards a prudish, Victorian way of thinking.
Last week, Naturists in the OC showed up at a City Council meeting, asking the council to consider overturning the ban. Allen Baylis, a member of the group and a practicing lawyer who's been involved in other nudist political issues, said the group is also willing to sue the city.
"We're being discriminated against," Baylis said. "The city will rent that facility to anybody who wishes to rent it for a private event for essentially any purpose. We have as much right to rent that facility as any other group."
Rolf Holbach, president of the Los Angeles-based Southern California Naturist Association, says he revels in being in a natural state with his fellow naturists.
"It breaks down all the social barriers—the psychological barriers that we usually build up between people," he said. "You don't know if you're talking with a brain surgeon or a dog catcher or whoever… There's no barriers between people. You are who you are at a basic human level."
Plus, he added, "it just feels good to swim without clothes."
That's all under threat now. In the document instituting the city's new rule, the city manager's office argued that exposing one's private parts at places like the City Gym and Pool interferes with the public's right to enter the facilities—and also makes it harder for city employees to do their jobs.
"It came down to concerns that were brought to my attention from some of the staff people that worked there about some of the interactions they had out there," Wilson told me. "It's not a discrimination matter. I think it was just a matter of the city wasn't honestly enforcing the rules that we had on our books for the longest time."
City attorney Michael Gates told me he doesn't have anything against the naturists, but he's concerned about what was going on inside the pool and gym during their events. He said that the city ultimately decided to act because there have been some "incidents" at the pool over the years, though he declined to elaborate.
"It's just to protect the public in the first place," Gates said. "It's to protect, actually, the people who attend—frankly, because we don't necessarily know of all the activities that go on in there and don't necessarily approve of all the activities that go on in there, especially if small children end up being invited to come."
The naturists balk at such talk of vague "incidents." They emphasize that their events aren't sexual in any way. In fact, they're wholesome affairs, which families do attend with their kids.
"Kids are natural nudists," said Baylis. "You get out of the tub and the first thing you do is take off running," he added. "That's what kids do."
"Clothing was developed to protect you from the elements, not from each other." — Colleen Baylis
"In my opinion, any parent has a right to raise their kids based on their own beliefs," said Ron Mercer, a board member of the Naturists in the OC. "We're all wired in our mind based on how we were raised. So if you were raised [where] you're going to get offended or something's going to happen and your eyes are going to fall out when you look at a naked body, well, you actually might end up believing that… The kids I've seen raised in a natural environment are open, friendly, very comfortable with their bodies, and so I don't see the problem."
Mercer said the naturists adhere to strict etiquette and behavior rules: There's no alcohol permitted at the gatherings, kids have to attend with their parents, and new members are checked against the Megan's Law registry to make sure they're not sex offenders. He acknowledges that on two occasions in the past, the group had to kick somebody out of a pool party or not invite them back because they were making another attendee uncomfortable. But the naturists say that these were issues they handled themselves, without involving city officials.
To them, this isn't just about having a place to skinny-dip. It's about breaking down stigmas, and encouraging people to think differently about the oft-stigmatized human body.
"Nude is not lewd," said Colleen Baylis, Allen's wife. "We are definitely going backwards in our thoughts into how our bodies actually take care of us. Really, clothing was developed to protect you from the elements, not from each other."
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