Everybody into the Pool

Seattle, Washington

Seattle is home to a sizable number of immigrant and refugee women who, like plenty of their neighbors, want to take advantage of the city’s public pools. But many of these women – because of cultural or religious beliefs, or personal preference – can’t swim in a co-ed environment.

Could the city host special swim hours to serve these residents?

That was the question Elizabeth “Tizzy” Bennett posed when she contacted us for help. As program manager at Seattle Children’s Hospital for Everyone Swims, a project funded by the CDC’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) initiative, Tizzy and her colleagues were working to make sure that culturally diverse and low-income groups had equal access to local pools and water recreation.

There’d been single-gender swim programs at a handful of Seattle public pools for almost a decade, but the hours were underwritten as a private rental, financed through grants or donations. While the rentals were well attended, the funding was becoming less stable – so Tizzy and Everyone Swims’ community partners asked Seattle Parks & Recreation to consider taking on the hours as a public program.

The city was reluctant, Tizzy says, despite its express commitment to equity. “They said their understanding was that they couldn’t do it for legal reasons.”

Tizzy wanted to know: Could the city allow gender-specific swim programs at public pools without violating the law?

Legal concerns

Since the pools are public facilities, the single-gender swim proposal raised a number of legal concerns for ChangeLab Solutions to investigate. For one thing, local law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in public accommodations, including recreational facilities. So if a man is denied access to a public pool in Seattle during women-only swim times, he could complain that he is being discriminated against on the basis of his sex.

What’s more, anti-discrimination employment laws prohibit giving jobs only to women to staff gender-specific swim hours. And accommodating religious customs could violate the First Amendment if it appeared the city was endorsing any particular religion.

Quang Dang, a senior staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, researched Tizzy’s question and presented a number of considerations and real-life examples that could pave the way for Seattle to win approval for the proposal. For example, in Portland, a group of Somali women asked the city in 2008 to adopt women-only swim hours, staffed by female lifeguards, to accommodate Muslim women and girls whose customs forbid them from being seen in swimsuits by men.

Portland’s deputy city attorney initially denied that request because employment laws prohibited giving jobs only to women, and the city wanted to avoid violating the First Amendment by being perceived as endorsing a particular faith.

But then a parks bureau manager proposed separate swim sessions for both men and women, regardless of religion, and the city attorneys approved.

Making it happen

The information and ideas ChangeLab Solutions provided helped Tizzy and her colleagues build a case for gender-specific swim hours.

“We talked with Portland and brought them in on a conference call to learn about how it worked and what the challenges were,” Tizzy recalls. “We were able to say to Seattle Parks & Rec, ‘Look, here’s another large parks department that did it.’ “  

She and other stakeholders – in particular, Neighborhood House, a community organization that had a grant to provide single-gender swims – worked to cultivate local champions and mobilize community members around the effort. The city ultimately agreed to a new policy to offer women- and men-only swims at four public pools.

“This is a major policy change for a large city parks department,” Tizzy says. “You can educate all you want, but if you have barriers that people can’t get past, you’re never going to increase access through programs alone. For people who want to be healthy and safe, we’ve created a new opportunity to make that happen in a more sustainable way.”