Adam Spickler, who uses the pronouns he/they, has worked in local government for over a decade.
As some do over the years, Spickler grappled with their evolving identity. But unlike most, this personal inquiry was fast-tracked and made public.
In 2009, Spickler worked in a county building. During this time, they were reevaluating how they relate to gender. Because they were more masculine presenting, various issues arose when they would use the women’s bathrooms.
“It’s ironic that it stemmed from bathroom use because so much of the political issues currently facing the trans community nationwide is around bathrooms,” Spickler says. “But it kind of dawned on me, realizing that I’ve been putting off making a decision for myself, and it wasn’t serving me in a lot of ways, and I was watching it play out in this professional setting.”
Spickler came out to their proactive boss and together they crafted a letter sent out throughout the department to explain Spickler’s name change, including the new pronouns.
In 2009, the discussion around pronoun choice and being non-binary was relatively new. Spickler says they were lucky to have an accepting workplace and that they have friends who underwent a similar transition with more devastating outcomes.
But in 2023, this conversation has hit the mainstream: it’s common to include pronoun choice in email signatures and social media bios, and high-profile celebrities use they/them pronouns.
In recent years, there has been a push to bring inclusive language to the workplace and update policies to reflect modern realities. In 2020, the Supreme Court made the landmark decision that employment discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. In some instances, misgendering or using improper pronouns in workplaces can be considered harassment.
Following this trend, cities and counties are trying to modernize the language in the documents that rule our local political offices. Referred to by different names, some as city charters, some as code of ordinances, these documents are what one official called a local government’s “constitution.” Arguably the most critical city document, the charter outlines the roles and responsibilities of elected officials and city employees and serves as a foundational piece of the legal structure of the city.
But even as local cities try to update their codes and policies to be more inclusive, the constitutions are still littered with outdated gender stereotypes, a living relic of our exclusive past.
Watsonville’s charter uses only masculine pronouns when referencing city officials; Santa Cruz’s uses a combination of gendered pronouns and sometimes inclusive pronouns; Scotts Valley’s uses gendered pronouns and sometimes only masculine pronouns.
For Spickler, who now works as a senior administrative analyst at the county and serves on the Cabrillo Board of Trustees, being misgendered doesn’t send them spiraling. But they know that’s not the case for everyone, and they stress the importance of inclusive language in official government documents.
“I think it’s really important for the government to lead the way to show that these are things that matter and to normalize our having conversations about it,” says Spickler. “I know it’s not an easy thing at times for the government to accomplish, but just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s not right.”
For the past few years, the state has been pressuring local municipalities to make the governing language more inclusive.
In 2017, the state passed the Gender Recognition Act, which updated state codes to
recognize a third gender option on California state-issued documents. The following year, the legislature passed a bill that ensured gender-neutral pronouns and gender-inclusive language when drafting state legislation and called on local governments to use gender-neutral pronouns when drafting policies, regulations and other guidance. But according to Santa Cruz city attorney Tony Condotti, there’s no legal imperative to do so, and it’s ultimately up to a city’s prerogative whether to update to incorporate inclusive language in governing documents.
So far, the county, along with Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz, is implementing a slowly-but-surely approach to updating their city documents, removing gender-specific pronouns in their respective municipal codes as they pass ordinances.
For Scotts Valley, this happens once or twice a year as a new code is added or updated. For Santa Cruz, this happens more frequently every time the council adopts a new ordinance.
But updating a charter falls outside solely elected officials’ authority. The only way to comprehensively update a local government’s constitution to use inclusive language is to bring that issue to the voters.
The last time Santa Cruz amended its charter was last June when the city transitioned to district elections. The new language drafted for this amendment provided a rare opportunity for the city to use gender-neutral language. Still, Condotti says that while the city tries to be thoughtful about pronoun choices, inclusive pronouns weren’t implemented consistently during this amendment.
“We don’t always get it right,” Condotti says. “We overlooked a couple of instances of gender-specific pronouns and didn’t make that change. But it’s been a fairly recent practice to incorporate gender-neutral language into our codes, so our track record isn’t perfect.”
Watsonville is the only local city considering removing gendered pronouns altogether from its constitution and expecting to bring the issue to its voters in the next year. The process would involve creating a committee to advise the council on how to proceed, collecting public input and all the usual effort and time involved in putting issues on the ballot.
“Charters set the foundation of your local government,” says Watsonville city manager Rene Martinez. “Something as straightforward as the use of pronouns, if it makes it more inclusive in our constitution, then that’s the message we’re sending. Utilizing resources is not really the question or issue the way I look at it.”
For Watsonville, though, the issue of updating its charter extends beyond efforts to use more inclusive language. A lot needs to be updated, given the city hasn’t updated its charter since the mid-2000s, says Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Martinez. The trick, he says, will be balancing what to bring to the voters so as not to overwhelm them. For every update and amendment to the charter, the law requires that it be presented as its own measure to voters.
But being inclusive is top on the list for Martinez. He says he wants to take it further than just the pronoun issue and has been wondering if it’s possible to translate the charter to Spanish. Condotti says he doesn’t think the translation would require voter input since that is more of an administrative function and agrees that would signal a more inclusive, thoughtful city.
In terms of whether any legal action could be taken based on pronoun technicalities, Watsonville city attorney Samatha Zutler says she has never seen anything of the sort and doesn’t expect to. Zutler has provided legal advice to cities for most of her career and says the likelihood that legal issues could evolve from the charter because specific rules are restricted to only masculine pronouns is slim.
“I had never seen case law based on that set of circumstances,” Zutler says. In Watsonville’s charter, a provision says all rules that use masculine gender also apply to women.
Cities across California are joining the growing efforts to modernize their constitutions. Just last year, Oakland was one of the latest cities that brought a measure to voters that focused on updating the gendered language in its charter. In November, the measure passed.
Prior to the measure, Oakland had a policy to update the charter through new ordinances, similar to the process that Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley use. But city council members wanted to take their commitment to diversity one step further by updating the charter.
According to Oakland’s city attorney’s office, the updates have already been completed, with the only staff time involved in the process being two attorneys from the city department. But Spickler says they’re sympathetic to the time and diligence that goes into the updating process and that they favor focusing on government documents outside the charters and getting the language right as amendments are made.
Our elected officials are there for a reason; residents trust them, so let them do their job and continue making the charter gender inclusive as new ordinances are added. Bringing it to the voters might just backfire or delay the process.
“Taking every single piece of work that we do at the governmental level and putting it on display for voters and having a vote on every piece of work, I think, is where you start to get into really bad gray areas,” Spickler says. “You vote for your lawmakers. You don’t vote for the work that they do, which is why I wouldn’t advise taking the charters to voters directly. What if the voters decide that, you know, separate but equal makes sense to them? It’s too risky, in my opinion.”