Gary Mussell is used to being misunderstood. A practicing nudist for 30 years and currently president of the Southern California Naturist Association (SCNA), the 65-year-old Moorpark resident and father of three has become accustomed to the backhanded compliment he receives when people discover how he spends his free time: “I had no idea you were a nudist,” they say. “You’re such a nice guy.”

It’s understandable in a country where, as Mussell says, “most people don’t take off their clothes in front of another person unless they’re going to have sex.” Though that’s not the case for him — he enjoys the sensation of untrammeled exposure to sun and wind, and the possibility of getting a “Vitamin D high” from that all-over tan — he recognizes that for many people, the idea of going au naturel invokes a host of troublesome issues, including body image, personal values or religion, and even the threat of sexual abuse or assault. And for some, it just seems downright weird.

Mussell appreciates their concerns, but in America, he says, the majority doesn’t get to impose their values on the few. “One of the great strengths of this country is our ability to accept people of other faiths, beliefs and cultures.”

Even the most conservative citizens would likely be hard-pressed to object to their neighbors practicing nudity in the privacy of their own homes. But what if the setting in question is not a private residence, but a public beach, and this particular expression of individual freedom happens to conflict with a county ordinance banning nudity?

Bates Beach, so-called for its proximity to the Bates exit off the 101 freeway, lies just north of the Santa Barbara County line in Carpinteria. The 1,000-yard stretch of shoreline, demarcated by a rusty drainpipe to the south and a curve in the coast to the north, is largely hidden from the road and underused by the local population, Mussell says. Drug dealers and perverts sometimes frequent the area.

It wasn’t always this way, according to the naturist community. Sonya, a deeply tanned Ventura resident who prefers to go by her first name, forms her words slowly and deliberately, the vestige of a stroke. She speaks fondly of the golden age back in the ’80s, when local nudists would gather weekly for volleyball games and cookouts. They picked up trash — “that beach was as clean as this tile,” she says, indicating the floor — and rigorously policed the area, driving away those who came for the wrong reasons.

“The beach people came to be like my family,” she says, surprised to find herself tearing up. “Everything was wonderful.”

That was before local officers started enforcing the anti-nudity ordinance. Santa Barbara County law officially states it is “a public nuisance and unlawful for any person to appear on any beach, park, street or in any other public place … unclothed.” Nevertheless, Bates Beach had managed to maintain a 30-year-long tradition of clothing optional use. Waves of crackdowns by local law enforcement in 1992 and 1999 had briefly discouraged the nudist community, but they eventually returned.

In 2000, the sheriff’s department began enforcing the law in earnest, says Lt. Eric Koopmans, a member of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the Station Commander for the Carpinteria Coastal Park Bureau since last December. Many members of the nudist community believe the effort was instigated by a new homeowner on Rincon Point, who complained daily that the bathers were visible from her home. Plainclothes officers began issuing tickets without warning. In Santa Barbara County, such citations carry a $50 penalty for the first offense and a mandatory court appearance before a judge. Not surprisingly, the population of nude bathers quickly dwindled, then died out altogether.

“It was like losing your home,” Sonya says. “It was very hurtful to us.”

Koopmans says while his department is “obligated to enforce all laws,” banning nude beaches makes sense even if nudists aren’t directly at fault, since the environment often “entice[s] criminal activity for someone else.

“It’s common sense. … We have rapists and predators who will seek out victims in areas where they can find them. Areas where there is nude bathing are perfect areas.”

But that logic, says Mussell, constitutes “a fallacious argument.”

“Every beach has its pervert,” he says. “You go to any beach anywhere on the coast, and there are people misbehaving. We had a community of people who were actively protective of the fact we weren’t wearing clothes.”

Bates has been officially “textile only” for eight years now, but it hardly appears safer. Sonya says the last time she visited the beach, two drunk men approached her where she was sunbathing alone (clothed) and began making provocative comments. They did not retreat until she pulled out her cellphone and pretended to call the police.

“We used to chase those people away,” says Mussell ruefully.

Bates Beach is not alone. Across the state, traditionally nude beaches have come under fire from a public increasingly concerned with the social and moral implications of baring it all.

San Onofre, a state beach just north of Camp Pendleton, has long sustained a tradition of clothing-optional use thanks to the 1972 Cahill Policy, an unofficial guiding principle for state parks that allows nude recreation in historically recognized areas, so long as no private citizens make a formal complaint. Recently Ruth Coleman, the new director of California Parks and Recreation, announced this policy will be rescinded and park rangers will begin issuing citations later this summer.

The decision has sparked an outcry from the nudist community, who have mobilized to fight what they see as one vigilante’s attempt to legislate her own beliefs in defiance of a long-standing public tradition to the contrary.

Tony Wilkinson, a lifelong Republican who rediscovered nudism as an adult after exploring it in college, says objections like Coleman’s are common and tend to follow a familiar pattern. “It’s always expressed in terms of a personal value system which can’t accept social nudity. There’s not much intellectual dialogue you can have with someone like this because it becomes a question of morality.”

The naturist community has begun organizing locally as well. SCNA, the nonprofit social club of which Mussell is president, has formed an offspring organization called the Nude Beach Alliance dedicated to reinstating nude use at Bates Beach. Members have begun a sly campaign to raise awareness among local business owners of their numbers and purchasing power. Armed with fistfuls of $2 bills, naturists use the questions generated by the unusual currency as an opportunity to explain their mission and demonstrate that for a troubled economy, there is profit in numbers.

“We’re trying to say if there were more people down at the beach they’d be buying more hamburgers,” Wilkinson says.

So far, says Ricc Bieber, an activist who has worked to maintain nudist beaches since 1976, “practically everyone has been really positive. They understand the economic consequences.”

Despite this encouragement, groups like SCNA still face opposition from those who insist something must be going on. For the record, SCNA promotes “family-friendly recreation” (“with a difference!”) for its 120 paid members, who range in age from 24 to 95. Prospective members and guests sign a behavior contract, undergo a rigorous screening process, and are checked against the Meghan’s Law database and other sexual offender registries. If a married individual wants to join alone, the uninvolved spouse is always informed. In seven years, they have had only three incidents of inappropriate behavior, and two of them were by women, Mussell says. Still, nudist organizations can’t seem to shake their dueling labels as either a den for perverts and pedophiles or a swinging singles club.

It’s no good, Mussell says, explaining, “there’s a lot more flirting and innuendo done at a clothed cocktail party than at a nudist party. We’re very boring.”

In a secluded backyard high in the Camarillo hills, SCNA’s outdoor party looks something like how you might imagine the Garden of Eden. Adults lounge in lawn chairs and sip margaritas in the buff; a 10 year-old girl with flotation devices strapped to her bare arms and middle darts toward the indoor pool, where a half dozen people tread water in birthday suits instead of swimsuits; and Vivian Weston, a former employee of the now-closed Elysium Fields nudist resort in Topanga Canyon, has jokingly nestled two tiny fuchsia flowers in her pubic area. Everywhere, people of all body shapes and sizes mingle easily, unabashed and unashamed in an environment Wilkinson calls “awesomely tolerant.”  

Nudity, he says, is “magic. It’s so completely freeing. … It’s sort of like returning to the innocence of childhood.”

Paki, a Polynesian woman with aloha tattooed on her chest, raised her children in a clothing-optional home. Her daughter now has children of her own, and brings them to SCNA functions. Now that her oldest granddaughter is approaching puberty, Paki says she hopes she continues to develop the self-confidence she has learned through social nudity. “I want her to stay exposed. I don’t want her to start feeling shy because her body’s changing.”

That seems to be the key to nudism: acceptance — of one’s own body, and those of others. But it also transcends the physical. Bieber observes, “The nudist community in its entirety crosses every political and social strata — color, socioeconomic, everything. We’re sort of a microcosm of how society could be if everybody could just get along.”

Even nudists and non-nudists? Perhaps so. As Wilkinson notes, “We’re all naked under our clothes.”   

For more information, visit SCNA’s Web site at  www.socalnaturist.org. For more information on Bates Beach, go to www.ournudebeachalliance.com.