SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council is poised to make existing bans on nude swimming and public indecency gender neutral as part of a larger effort to ensure that the city is more equitable and inclusive.

Proposed ordinance changes on Tuesday’s council agenda would replace male or female with “person” and update the city’s definition of nudity to include the term “a female-identifying person’s breast.”

When the council first discussed the language changes during a workshop last month, references to genitals and breasts prompted uncomfortable pauses, smiles and giggles. Still, councilors showed broad support for making the city more welcoming, putting their intentions in writing and furthering a trend toward greater gender neutrality among Maine municipalities.

“I think doing this will be more inclusive and I don’t necessarily believe that it’s going to change anything that’s happening out in the community,” Councilor Kate Lewis said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

South Portland officials have taken several steps in recent years that are intended to make the city more inclusive, such as establishing a Human Rights Commission, painting crosswalks in rainbow colors and drafting a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, a proposal that’s also before the council Tuesday night.

Other Maine communities are making similar moves toward gender-neutral operations and regulations. Many have changed the centuries-old title Board of Selectmen to Select Board, including Eliot, Kennebunk, Ogunquit, Lyman, Hollis, Topsham and Camden. Machias changed it to Board of Select-People.


Changes like this became easier to make last year when the Legislature passed a bill eliminating antiquated references to aldermen, selectmen and overseers of the poor from Maine statutes.

“People are far more cognizant of making language gender neutral and inclusive,” said Kate Dufour, legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association. She’s also a city councilor in Hallowell, which has taken a comprehensive approach to address equality and diversity in municipal government.

“Communities are approaching it in different ways,” Dufour said. “Some are diving right in. When they review ordinances, they take the time to make sure they’re gender neutral and inclusive. Others are more cautious and address issues as they arise.”

Councilor Jocelyn Leighton sought the changes in South Portland’s nude-swimming ban, which currently states that no “female (shall) appear in a topless bathing suit.” Leighton said she took action after being contacted by a constituent who is nonbinary/gender nonconforming, which means they don’t identify as male or female.

“I think the language for this ordinance needs to change,” Leighton said during the council workshop. “There are more than two genders. Dividing people into two categories is a political choice. It’s not a biological truth. We’re erasing (some) people’s right to be, and that is to simply be human.”

Leighton said she plans to propose additional language changes to address gender and equity issues elsewhere in city ordinances and the city charter, especially related to the mayor’s position.


“A lot of the language there is male-centric,” she said.

Leighton noted that some people who have breasts may not call them breasts, which resulted in the addition of “a female-identifying person’s breast” to the proposed definition of public nudity.

“Whatever someone decides that their body part is, (that’s) what it is,” Leighton said. “That’s what gender affirming is. And that’s what (changing) this language will do.”

Leighton also clarified that the ordinance only applies to people when they are swimming; it doesn’t apply when people are sunbathing at Willard Beach or other public places in the city.

“As it stands now, any person is able to have a top off and be sunbathing,” Leighton said. “It is when one enters the water that this becomes enacted. And there should be no difference. Anybody who identifies as female, who identifies as male, who identifies as nonbinary or trans or gender queer, should have the right to be without a shirt on and enter the water.”

It’s unclear why South Portland has split hairs over what’s appropriate behavior at the water’s edge. Under Maine law, anyone may go topless in public. However, Maine’s indecent conduct statute prohibits anyone from knowingly exposing their genitals in public under circumstances “that are likely to cause affront or alarm.”


Councilor Lewis asked whether the city had received complaints about nude swimming or “exposure.” Municipal staff who attended the Zoom meeting said they weren’t aware of any.

Willard Beach in South Portland. Drew Johnson photo/Press Herald

“I did hear from lifeguards (at Willard Beach) that in the past they had women that took their tops off to sunbathe,” said Kristina Ertzner, the city’s conservation manager. “They didn’t really say anything to them. They just kind of let it go. So, I mean, there has been topless sunbathing in the past, but I don’t think anybody filed a complaint about it.”

No one spoke when the council asked for public comment on Leighton’s proposal.

The proposed ordinance changes are up for a first reading and vote on Tuesday.

The amended ban on nude or topless swimming says: “No person shall swim or bathe in a nude state in the waters of the city which are adjacent to any of the wharves, bridges, streets, railroads, cemeteries, parks or places of public resort in the city. ‘Nude state’ shall mean the showing of a person’s genitals, pubic area, or buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering, or the showing of a female-identifying person’s breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola with less than a fully opaque covering.”

The updated definition of nudity also would apply to the city’s ban on public indecency.

The proposed ban on nude or topless swimming doesn’t address situations when a person who doesn’t identify as a woman enters the water with their breasts fully exposed.

“For those who identify as something other than female, the display of breasts would be permitted,” City Manager Scott Morelli said Friday in a memo to the council.

“Practically speaking, the city does not want to be in the position of asking an individual whether they identify as female or not to determine whether the ordinance applies,” Morelli said. “So our posture will be that anyone exposing their breasts will be treated as if they do not identify as female and are therefore allowed to do so.”

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