The City Council voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance, and associated design standards, requiring that multi-stall, gender neutral public restrooms be incorporated in all newly constructed buildings for which a complete building permit application is submitted to the City on or after July 1, 2023.

The 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Lana Negrete absent, followed a round of intense public comment triggered by statements from several councilmembers that had questioned the safety or usability of gender neutral bathrooms.

Councilmembers Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre and Lana Negrete were all quoted in an online news story prior to the debate that triggered significant outrage. Negrete, who was out of town, released a statement saying she had been grossly misquoted and that the news story presented her opinions in a highly distorted way.

“I support gender neutral bathrooms, period,” she said in her statement.

Brock said his past statements were uninformed but during the discussion he raised questions regarding the safety, cleanliness, legality and environmental impact of the proposal.

“I am always and always have been in favor of gender neutral restrooms,” he said. “I however, I’m also in favor of women, children, and those of any religious persuasion, having privacy.”

De la Torre likened the debate to that of racial justice said he felt it was important to give voice to questions brought forward as sometimes feelings of discomfort are part of the process.

“There are still, you know, feelings, concerns, misinformation, you can call it, but people have these feelings, and it’s real, you know, and it takes time for policies and, and people to get accustomed to the change,” he said.

However he said he fully supported the item and appreciated the testimony from the public.

Public speakers were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea.

Tim Defuria said he agreed with the speakers who were upset at the comments and asked Councilmembers to think about the impact of their statements on the community.

“Imagine you have to use the restroom, but you’re in a building that does not have a restroom labeled with your gender. Imagine that you have to face fear embarrassment, or ridicule whenever you enter public restroom. I’m here for my nine year old niece who recently came out as transgender and often feels this way,” he said.

Defuria was one of several speakers who said non-gendered stalls help a variety of users.

“Providing access to a private, non gendered stall can reduce or even eliminate these burdens. all gender restrooms are facilities that anyone can use regardless of gender,” he said. “They’d benefit many people, including transgender and gender diverse individuals, people who require the use of a caregiver of a different gender, or parents with children of a different gender.”

The Council’s action follows its direction to prioritize, as part of its 2021 State Legislative Platform, policy decisions and regulatory matters that “support legislation that mandates gender neutral multi-stall bathrooms.” In response to this directive, Santa Monica, along with the City of West Hollywood, co-sponsored California Senate Bill 1194 (“SB 1194”), authored by Senator Ben Allen, which provided the authority for cities to establish requirements for new and renovated public toilet facilities to serve all gender identities. SB 1194 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in September, 2022.

“It shouldn’t come as news to anyone that Santa Monica has been on the forefront of LGBTQ inclusion for many decades going as far back for me as I know, as being an early adopter domestic partnership long before the state adopting a formal policy and marriage equality even seemed a possibility,” Christopher Smith, Chief of Staff for the City Manager’s Office and the City’s LGBTQ+ liaison to the community, said. “And that long term commitment and consistent commitment has driven our work within the organization and within the community.”

Councilwoman Caroline Torosis said she appreciated the public support but hadn’t expected the level of pushback the item received.

“I’m, quite frankly shocked and a little bit saddened at the number of of public emails that I’ve received kind of citing and recycling some of these transphobic tropes,” she said.

Councilwoman Christine Parra said she strongly supported the concept and has family within the LGBTQ community.

“And I appreciate the community members that reached out to me right away, to talk to share and to educate me, because that’s we that’s who we are. That’s Santa Monica. We are an inclusive community, and that’s why this item got brought forward,” she said.

Councilman Jesse Zwick said he was initially uninformed on the topic but had expected it to be noncontroversial if people had done any research that showd gender-neutral bathrooms to be safe and beneficial.

“Everyone is entitled to a feeling. And yet, you know, as elected officials, we need to be governed by facts. And I just want to again, thank the community for coming out and helping educate all of us and the greater community.”

Mayor Gleam Davis said the issue was one of civil rights and suggested officials who didn’t know about the subject should refrain from making ill-informed public comments in advance of the discussions.

“Nobody should feel unwelcome or denied access when in need of a restroom,” said Mayor Gleam Davis. “I’m thrilled that we are making strides to better serve people of all genders and gender identities, individuals that require the assistance of a caregiver of a different gender, and parents with children of different genders.”

Key elements of the design standards in the proposed ordinance:

• The entrance to the restroom shall not have a door that will obstruct visual security

• Stalls will be replaced with private water closets enclosed on all sides by partitions

• The door to each water closet shall have a lock controlled by the occupant

• Sinks may be located within the water closet or in an adjacent common area

• Urinals shall be in an area visually separated from the remainder of the facility

• Substitution of a water closet for each urinal shall be permitted provided the number of fixtures installed complies with the minimum number required

The ordinance does not require improvements to existing public restrooms, but does include a provision allowing the voluntary retrofit of existing public restroom facilities.

While in-person comment was vastly in favor of the proposal, there were critics who questioned various elements of gender neutral bathrooms.

Tracie Garacochea, wheelchair user, marathon athlete and WCMX competitor, told the Daily Press, she had concerns over hygiene.

“The gender neutral restrooms have been a nightmare for those of us that use a wheelchair,” she says. “Take my personal experience: I enter the restroom to find a urine soaked floor near the toilet. My wheels on my chair will now get wet and when I transfer to the toilet, my shoes as well. It’s very difficult to avoid. And if someone has left the seat up? This has very rarely happened to me in a ladies room and I have only seen one gender neutral restroom with a urinal.”

The California Plumbing Code requires a minimum number of urinals based on the use and occupancy of a space. The City’s proposed gender neutral public restroom ordinance allows urinals to be substituted with toilets to comply with this requirement. However, exclusion of urinals is not obligatory and overall compliance with the number of required fixtures is ultimately a design choice.

The motion was made by Councilmember Phil Brock, seconded by Councilmember Oscar de la Torre and passed six to zero, Mayor pro Tempore Lana Negrete was absent.

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.