HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Supreme Court wrestled Wednesday with the issues of sexual discrimination, differences between women and men and even the definition of gender while hearing arguments over whether fitness clubs can have women-only exercise areas.
The case has raised many thorny questions. Should women be protected from the ogling of men they believe are objectifying them? Do women-only workout areas discriminate against men who have to wait in line to use equipment in the general public area? What about women whose religions bar them from exercising with men?
Should lesbian women be barred from the women-only areas because they might objectify women? And what about transgender people?
“This case is really tough for us because we have to deal with these things,” Chief Justice Richard Robinson said. “There’s cultural overlays, there’s all kinds of things involved in this instead of just plain statutory interpretation.”
The definition of gender has become more complex, Robinson added, saying he wasn’t sure what exactly it means now as it pertains to law.
“I’m beginning to wonder: is this ambiguous because we know more now about those things than when the (gender discrimination) statute was written?” he asked.
The court made no decision Wednesday and a ruling is expected in several months.
Challenges to women-only workout areas have arisen in other states. Some lawsuits challenging such areas have been successful, but several states including Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey have changed their gender discrimination laws to exclude fitness clubs.
The Connecticut case involves two men who complained about women-only exercise areas at two gyms — an Edge Fitness club in Stratford and a Club Fitness in Bloomfield. They claimed the areas were discriminatory against men under state law, and they had to wait to use the exercise equipment available to them while equipment was unoccupied in the women’s spot.
Connecticut specifically exempts bathrooms, sleeping areas and locker rooms from gender discrimination laws, which do not mention female-only workout areas.
The complaints went before the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and a hearing officer ruled the women-only areas did not violate state discrimination laws. In an unusual move, the commission appealed its own officer’s decision to Superior Court, where Judge John Cordani upheld the officer’s ruling last year. The commission then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Superior Court case included expert testimony on how women feel sexually objectified when exercising alongside men. In a survey of 374 female Edge Fitness members taken by an academic researcher who testified for the gym chain, 96% of them said they used the women-only work area and 71% did so for privacy reasons. Nearly 69% said they felt more comfortable in the women-only area.
A host of organizations filed briefs with the state Supreme Court. Those opposed to women-only workout areas included the American Civil Liberties Union and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD.
A lawyer for GLAD wrote that creating a new “gender privacy” exemption to the discrimination laws could result in unintended consequences, such as allowing gender-based exclusion at other businesses. GLAD’s brief also said such exemptions have been used to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Several groups supported female-only exercise places.
Lawyers for the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut wrote such spaces are important for women whose religious beliefs bar them from exercising in front of men — a position supported by several other religious groups named in the brief.
Michael Roberts, a lawyer for the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, argued before the Supreme Court that state gender discrimination laws do not specifically exempt women-only workout areas, and gyms could address women’s concerns about being objectified or feeling uncomfortable by enacting sexual harassment policies for members.
Some of the justices asked on Wednesday whether the state legislature should take up the issue and decide whether to add an exemption for female-only exercise areas.
Justice Christine Keller asked lawyers for the gyms if women had the right to their own workout areas, should they be entitled to their own spaces at other businesses and public places as well? Should women get their own areas in bars and public swimming pools to avoid being hit on and objectified, she asked.
James Shea, a lawyer for Edge Fitness, told the justices that gyms, unlike other places like public swimming pools and beaches, are male-dominated locations where women-only areas are needed.
“It’s simply a function of being in the presence of men,” he said. “When they are exercising, when they are stretching and taking positions and poses, they feel the judgment. They feel the observation. And that’s what gives rise to the objectification.”