Exclusive: Man Sues All-Women Gym
By EVAN GAHR
Amnon Kent wants to exercise his rights.
After years of alleged harassment by the manager of an all-women gym in Forest Hills that Kent had somehow managed to join he was expelled this February.
Now, Kent is suing the Lucille Roberts chain for discrimination.
His Queens Supreme Court lawsuit, which I reported exclusively for my October 4 Washington Times op-ed, says that Lucille Roberts violated the New York City law that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on gender when they gave him the boot.
"I have a right to be there," he insists. "Why should I leave?"
The 67-year-old Israeli immigrant told me that, "I feel slighted as a man because of the discrimination."
How can all-women gyms even operate in this egalitarian age of ours?
If you thought gender segregation country is largely over--the Augusta National Golf Club finally took women members last year and the storied New York Athletic Club and Virginia Military Institute were both long ago ordered by the Supreme Court to admit women--you're wrong.
Operating in a legal no man's land, Lucille Roberts and similar clubs nationwide exclude men to attract women. Its website says that, "we are ladies only because we believe women should be comfortable working out . . . without feeling self-conscious."
"I think these clubs should be challenged because they are illegal," says veteran civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel.
It is rather peculiar that New York City, particularly the Human Rights Commission, did not shut down Lucille Roberts years ago.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of course, happily tells businesses to prohibit large sugary drinks, smoking or anything else that offends his particular sensitivities. But gyms that flagrantly violate the law to exclude men are fine and dandy--provided, of course, that they don't serve their members 20 oz. Cokes.
Yes, some women probably do feel uncomfortable exercising in the presence of men.
Of course, it's a safe bet that there are many heterosexual men who feel uncomfortable being naked in a locker room with gay men. Suppose to win this obvious market niche, an ambitious businessman opened up a health club for heterosexuals only.
The Heterofitness Center?
How long would it take for the City to shut that down in the face of citywide opprobrium that would ensue?
This is not a random hypothetical.
For years, the primary argument of opponents of allowing gays to serve openly in the military would make heterosexuals feel uncomfortable, especially in cramped barracks and shared bathroom facilities.
With the ending of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, Congress, the American people and even military leaders have soundly rejected this argument.
And feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who once helped a man sue his way into a women-only gym in Studio City, California, told this reporter that argument is dangerous. "If we allow privacy to be an exception to the civil rights laws it [would] render the laws meaningless."
Any group, she explains, could then claim a privacy right to exclude whoever makes them feel uncomfortable from public accommodations or the workplace.
No wonder that the privacy argument has been rejected by most courts and local human rights commissions all across the country when men try to join all-women clubs.
But New York City is a different story. I know this first hand.
When I applied for membership at the East 42nd Street Lucille Roberts in 2010 the three women behind the reception desk looked at me with the mixture of horror and surprise that you might have expected if Osama Bin Laden had strolled in and asked to join. Finally, one of them regained enough composure to explain it was a "corporate decision" that men are not allowed to join.
Instead, I filed a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission. Lucille Roberts argued that the right to privacy was also a right to discriminate.
In what civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel calls pure "political correctness" Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling personally dismissed my complaint without explanation.
Amnon Kent, a 67-year-old Israeli immigrant, initially had better luck with Lucille Roberts. In 2005, Kent joined the Forest Hills branch near his apartment after the manager first said his kind were not welcome there.
He said what's good for the goose is good for the gander of either gender.
"I said, 'look it's discrimination. If you allow women into men's clubs, you should allow men into women's clubs.'"
"I reminded her of the case of the New York Athletic Club [taking women] and Gloria Allred [joining the all-male Friars Club in New York City]," Kent recalled.
So he became a Lucille Roberts man.
Although surrounded by scantily clad women Kent says the only thing he wanted to pick up at the gym were weights. "I went there to work out. That was my only motive."
He says women patrons were quizzical but friendly.
Working out at night usually three times per week, Kent pumped iron and also used the treadmill.
He says that club manager Elaine Rodriguez, citing complaints from women, repeatedly pressured him to leave.
But he refused.
She told him they didn't want men at the club, according to the lawsuit.
At one point, she claimed Kent told a woman who was exercising "Move over, bitch."
Really? Does anyone even talk like that anymore?
Kent says the harassment of him escalated after the New York Post did a story about him.
Kent says he was unfailing polite to everyone at the gym. But maybe he did make a small number of women feel uncomfortable. "99.9% the of women didn't care. But it doesn't matter what they feel. It's the law. Look at Friar's the clubs. I'm sure they didn't want [Gloria Allred] there. It goes both ways."
Kevin Roberts, who helps run his late mother's health club empire that will not have him as a member, even showed up at the Queens club one day and tried to get him out. "He said, 'you're still here?' I said, 'Yeah I'm still here.' He said 'I know who you are.'"
Kent says Roberts told him Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women were complaining about him and offered him $250 to quit. No deal. Kent said he wanted more money and Roberts told him to call him.
But he never did.
Kevin Roberts did not respond to a request for comment.
The receptionist at the Lucille Roberts club in Forest Hills said Elaine Rodriguez, the club manager, had no comment.
Kent was finally expelled in February by club manager Elaine Rodriguez. She told Kent too many women were complaining about him.
"I said, 'all these claims are phony,'" Kent recalls. "I'm going to have to sue you. You're throwing me out because I'm a male."
Victims of discrimination in New York can seek legal redress without a lawyer by filing a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission. The Commission can order a business to end a practice it deems discriminatory and pay the victim or victims monetary damages.
But Kent says the New York City Human Rights Commission refused to take his case. He says a staff lawyer told him, "I'm sorry we can't help you."
Rebuffed by the HRC, Kent found a civil rights lawyer to take his case.
He sued Lucille Roberts in Queens Supreme Court this summer for violating New York City Human Rights law.
Kent is seeking re-instatement to the club and a trial by jury.
In its response to the lawsuit last month, Lucille Roberts says Kent was expelled for non-discriminatory reasons. Specifically, that he violated his membership agreement.
Why is Kent so determined to exercise where he is not wanted?
"I want fairness. If a woman can join a man's club then a man should be able to join a woman's club."
But Phyllis Chessler, one of the pioneering feminists of the 1970s and herself a former Lucille Roberts member, says Kent is wrong to equate all-women gyms with places such formerly all-male bastions as Augusta National Gulf Club, New York Athletic Club and Harvard Club.
"This guy sounds a bit for tit for tat. You took away my opportunity so I'm going to make you uncomfortable. Women were not integrating male gyms. They were integrating male bastions of power where there were network and career opportunities."
Chessler suggested that Gloria Allred is a money hungry publicity hound for representing a man who wanted to join an all-women club. "Oh, Gloria. She'll take any case that gives her money or gets in her the papers.
Allred responds that, "I don't believe that I have ever met or spoken with Ms. Chessler or that she has ever visited my law firm. She is obviously not aware of the thousands of clients whom we have represented over the last 37 years in which we have practiced law and that we have won more women's rights victories for minorities, e.g. the gay and lesbian community, than any other private law firm in the nation. We believe in equal rights for all which would include equal rights for men.
Evan Gahr was a press critic for the late New York Post editorial page editor Eric Breindel.
Former Washington Post and New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove dubbed Gahr a "Washington gadfly" in one of the many items he did on his scoops.