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GAHR: Should men get a peek in gyms for women?

- - Thursday, October 3, 2013

Even if you think that men are hopelessly lecherous creatures — inclined to mistake every StairMaster for a bar stool — is that a sufficient reason to prohibit them from exercising around the ladies?

All-women gyms in the Washington area and across the country think so. Operating in a legal no man's land, these fitness facilities exclude anyone with a Y chromosome to draw women who are uneasy exercising around guys.

If you thought gender segregation in this country is largely over — the Augusta National Golf Club finally took female members last year and the Virginia Military Institute was long ago ordered by the Supreme Court to admit women — you are wrong.

The Women's Club, a gym and day spa in Chantilly, is abundantly clear that men need not apply. "Every aspect of the Women's Club has been designed to support a woman's health goals and lifestyle," its website says. "Our programs and memberships are personalized to fit perfectly every different woman, one-to-one.

"The Women's Club has been the health and fitness center choice of discriminating women for over 22 years." Discriminating indeed.

Excluding men is a shrewd marketing strategy, but it is also blatantly illegal. Local and state human rights ordinances expressly prohibit discrimination in public accommodations based on gender. Norm Siegel, a veteran civil libertarian lawyer, told me, "I think these clubs should be challenged because they are illegal." It is testament to political correctness that these clubs still operate.

Consider New York. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, of course, gleefully tells businesses to prohibit whatever offends his pristine sensitivities. 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.

Despite the acquiescence by city officials, Lucille Roberts, a New York-based chain and one of the industry pioneers, faces a new legal peril: It was recently sued by a man for discrimination. "I want fairness," says retired day trader Amnon Kent.

Mr. Kent told this reporter, "If a woman can join a man's club, then a man should be able to join a woman's club."

Lucille Roberts officials would not comment.

But when challenged legally, all-women clubs claim the "privacy interest" of women justifies excluding men. Exercising around men undoubtedly creeps some women out.

However, many heterosexual men feel uncomfortable naked in a locker room with gay men. Suppose to win this market niche, an ambitious businessman opened up a health club for heterosexuals only? The Heterofitness Center? How long would it take for the government authorities to shut it down when widespread outrage ensued?

This is not a random hypothetical. For years, the primary argument of opponents of allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military was that they would make heterosexuals feel uncomfortable, especially in cramped barracks and shared bathroom facilities. With "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" now history, Congress, the American people and military leaders soundly rejected that argument.

Feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who once helped a man sue his way into a women-only gym in Studio City, Calif., tells me that allowing a privacy exception to civil rights laws would render the laws meaningless. Ms. Allred, the first female member of the Friars Club in New York, explains that any group could then claim a privacy right to exclude from public accommodations or the workplace members of whichever gender or racial group makes them feel uncomfortable. No wonder most courts and local human rights commissions have rejected the privacy argument from all-women clubs faced with men who want to join.

There have been some exceptions. In Virginia, where one of the most distinguished military academies in the country was forced to abandon more than a hundred years of tradition and accept women, state officials have rejected complaints by men against all-women gyms. Also, the New York City Human Rights Commission has refused to help men who want to break down gender segregation.

Mr. Kent, an Israeli immigrant, did manage to muscle his way into a Lucille Roberts club in Queens, N.Y. In 2005, he was allowed to join after he convinced the manager, Elaine Rodriguez, that she could not legally exclude him.

Although surrounded by scantily clad women, Mr. 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."

In February, Ms. Rodriguez kicked him out, citing female members' complaints. Mr. Kent, who denies bothering any women, sued Lucille Roberts this summer. He wants to rejoin the club. Phyllis Chessler, a noted feminist and former Lucille Roberts member, says Mr. Kent is really just spiteful. "This guy sounds a bit for tit for tat. 'You took away my opportunity [to have all-male clubs] so I'm going to make you uncomfortable.'"

Mr. Kent's case is a good reminder that civil rights law should be enforced equally. Otherwise, it loses its moral authority. As Martin Luther King famously said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Of course, if King were alive today, these gyms would not let him join.

Evan Gahr is a New York-based writer.