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Council Approves Gender-Neutral Public Restrooms

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By Jorge Casuso

April 26, 2023 -- With a 6 to 0 vote by the City Council on Tuesday, Santa Monica became the second city in California, and likely the nation, to require gender-neutral public restrooms in new buildings.

The item -- which came four months after a similar measure sailed through in West Hollywood -- stirred emotions and raised public safety concerns that took some Councilmembers aback.

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Some residents, especially women, worried about shared restroom facilities, a concern that was echoed by at least three Councilmembers before the vote, triggering a swift political backlash.

"I am always and have always been in favor of gender neutral restrooms," said Councilmember Phil Brock, who had expressed concerns before the meeting, then made the motion to approve the measure.

"I, however, also am in favor of women, children and those of any religious persuasion having privacy," Brock said.

Brock said the privacy concerns were addressed by standards required under the ordinance that include locked stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls and a separate area for urinals ("Council Could Require Gender-neutral Public Restrooms in New Buildings," April 18, 2023).

Several Councilmembers were surprised the item was controversial and shocked by the "uninformed" concerns aired after the agenda was released ("Councilmembers Concerned About Gender-Neutral Public Restrooms," April 21, 2023).

"I hadn't heard this was coming forward," said Councilmember Caroline Torosis. "I had no indication this would be anything but a very easy one."

"Folks are saying, 'Oh, we have to understand that men are pigs, and we have to make sure women are okay,' but all the design standards we've seen make sense."

Several Councilmembers said the concerns raised about public safety and cleanliness would be shocking if the issue was race.

"Change sometimes brings about discomfort," said Council member Jesse Zwick. "I think in 5, 10, 15 years we'll be in a different place, and we'll look back and be shocked we're even having this debate."

Mayor Gleam Davis agreed. "This is a civil rights issue," she said. "This is exactly the kind of rhetoric we heard when they were integrating restrooms in the South back in the 1960s."

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who expressed concerns about public safety issues before the vote, said he understood why women would be worried about sharing a restroom with men.

"There are still feelings, concerns and misconceptions, and these feelings are real," de la Torre said. "Most of the concern was really about men. Most of the threats come from men, and that is an unfortunate reality."

Councilmember Christine Parra lamented the push-back against residents and Councilmembers who raised questions about the measure.

"Community groups began to accuse and use rhetoric and name call," Para said. "I think that a better solution would have been, 'Hey, let's talk and let's educate and let's come together.'"

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