UPDATE: City still reviewing complaint of anti-gay discrimination against Baylor-owned gym

The city of Dallas is in “the final stages” of reviewing an allegation of anti-gay discrimination against the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, a city official told Instant Tea this week.

Gay Dallas resident Alan Rodriguez filed a complaint in January against the Fitness Center, after the popular East Dallas gym refused to offer a family membership to Rodriguez and his longtime partner.

Rodriguez’s complaint was filed under a Dallas ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations. Rodriguez said he has declined an offer from the city’s Fair Housing Office, which handles discrimination complaints, to enter arbitration.

“I don’t know that there’s any room to compromise,” Rodriguez said. “There’s not middle ground to reach to.”

In a letter he penned to a Baylor executive before filing the complaint, Rodriguez accused the Fitness Center of “draconian and bigoted practices” that are “unthinkable in 2011.”

In response to Rodriguez’s email, the Baylor executive confirmed that the Fitness Center offers family memberships only “to a husband and wife pursuant to the Texas law definition of marriage.” Baylor’s attorneys reportedly are arguing that the Fitness Center is a private health club and not a public accommodation.

Jennifer Coleman, senior vice president of consumer affairs for the Baylor Health Care System, declined further comment this week.

Beverly Davis, director of the Fair Housing Office, said she is unsure when officials will decide whether to prosecute Rodriguez’s complaint.

“All I can tell you is that it’s in the final stages of review,” Davis said. “I wish I could give you a definite date, but right now I don’t have a definite date.”

Rodriguez’s complaint is one of more than 50 that have been filed under the nondiscrimination ordinance since it took effect in 2002. However, none of the complaints has ever been prosecuted by the city. Each violation of the ordinance punishable by a fine of up to $500.

—  John Wright

In 9 years, 53 complaints of anti-gay discrimination in Dallas, but 0 prosecutions

A total of 53 complaints have been filed under a nine-year-old Dallas ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the city has never taken one of the complaints to court.

The city released statistics on the complaints to Dallas Voice this week in response to a request under the Texas Public information Act.

A city ordinance passed in 2002 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. The definition of sexual orientation includes gender identity. Each violation of the ordinance is punishable by a maximum $500 fine.

The statistics from the city show that 49 of the 53 complaints have been closed, while four are pending.

In 32 of the 49 closed cases, or almost two-thirds, the City Attorney’s Office determined that there was no cause to prosecute. Here is a breakdown of the other dispositions:

• Five of the complaints were dismissed because they were non-jurisdictional, meaning they occurred outside the city or involved an entity that is exempt from the ordinance.

• Five of the cases were resolved by “conciliation,” or mediation.

• Four of the complaints were withdrawn, after the city says they were resolved to the parties’ mutual satisfaction.

• In three of the cases, the complainant was uncooperative.

Two city councilmembers, Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano, have said they’re reviewing the city’s handling of complaints under the ordinance. Hunt and Medrano launched their investigation in response to a letter from Resource Center Dallas questioning why no complaint has ever been prosecuted.

RCD’s letter, in turn, was prompted by Dallas Voice reports about a discrimination complaint against the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, which refuses to sell family memberships to same-sex couples.

The complaint against the Fitness Center is still pending, as is one filed against the Dallas Morning News for refusing to publish same-sex wedding announcements.

—  John Wright

Hunt, Medrano say they’re investigating city’s handling of anti-LGBT discrimination complaints

Dallas City Councilwomen Pauline Medrano, left, and Angela Hunt

Council members respond to letter from Resource Center Dallas questioning why no cases have been prosecuted in 9 years

JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

Two Dallas council members said this week they’re investigating the city’s handling of complaints under a 2002 ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Councilwomen Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano announced their investigation in response to a Jan. 31 letter from Resource Center Dallas, questioning why the city hasn’t prosecuted any complaints in the nine years since the ordinance took effect.

Resource Center Dallas’ letter came in the wake of Dallas Voice reports about a discrimination complaint filed against the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, an East Dallas gym that refuses to sell family memberships to same-sex couples.

Hunt said she’s “deeply troubled” by the Tom Landry Fitness Center’s policy and has asked city officials to keep her posted on their investigation of the complaint.

“We’ve also requested that the city attorneys look into each of the 40 complaints that have been filed since 2002 and investigate why none has been prosecuted,” Hunt said. “They anticipate that their analysis should be finished within a couple of weeks and I will be taking a very close look at this.”

Medrano said she’s working with both the City Attorney’s Office and the Fair Housing Office, which is charged with investigating discrimination complaints before turning them over to the City Attorney’s Office for review — and possible prosecution.

“Each of their offices will make a list of the files, including the names of the complainants, the date of the complaint and what the discrimination involved — i.e. housing or employment, etc. — and how the complaint was resolved,” Medrano said. “The lists will be then be reconciled to make sure we have located and reviewed all the complaints. So I’m hoping to get that list, and when I do I definitely will share it.”

Councilwoman Delia Jasso, who also received a copy of the letter from Resource Center Dallas, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Dallas Voice filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act this week seeking statistics on the number of complaints that have been filed under the ordinance and their dispositions.

A 2008 investigation by the newspaper determined that at the time, there had been 33 complaints filed under the ordinance. In 22 of those cases, the City Attorney’s Office determined that there was no cause to prosecute. Of the other 11 cases, three were successfully resolved through mediation; three people withdrew their complaints after signing statements indicating that defendants had taken actions necessary to address their concerns; five complaints were found to be nonjurisdictional, meaning the incidents occurred outside city limits or defendants were exempt from the ordinance; and in one case the party filing the complaint couldn’t be located.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. The definition of sexual orientation includes gender identity and expression. Each violation of the ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Beverly Davis, director of the Fair Housing Office, said this week that while her office was still working to compile statistics, she believes there have been roughly 50 complaints filed under the ordinance since 2002.

“We do everything we can when we get a complaint to make sure that the ordinance is enforced and that individual rights are protected as outlined in the ordinance,” Davis said. “It’s something that we take very, very seriously.”

Rafael McDonell, who drafted Resource Center Dallas’ letter to Hunt, Medrano and Jasso, said this week he was pleased to hear they are looking into the matter.

“It’s encouraging that they’re going back and putting these cases under a microscope,” he said. “Our concern is just based on statistics, there would be at least a couple of cases they would have moved on. The fact that they’re going to review all of them and make sure they didn’t miss something is a good thing.”

Other Texas cities with bans on discrimination against LGBT people, including Austin and Fort Worth, also have human rights commissions.

“I think the commission over in Fort Worth has been really strong in terms of how they have led on not just LGBT issues, but all human rights issues, and it would be great to have something like that here in Dallas,” McDonnell said. “Ultimately what I hope comes out of this process is a strong commitment to using the nondiscrimination policy to its best end. Policies are only as good as how they’re carried out.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Resource Center Dallas calls for investigation of city’s handling of gay discrimination complaints

Resource Center Dallas is calling on the city to investigate whether the intent of its ordinance prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination is being honored.

In a letter today to three city council members, Resource Center’s Rafael McDonnell points to Dallas Voice reports saying that in the nine years since the ordinance was passed, more than 40 complaints have been filed, but none has ever been prosecuted.

McDonnell’s letter to Councilwomen Angela Hunt, Delia Jasso and Pauline Medrano was triggered by reports on this blog last week about anti-gay discrimination by the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, which has repeatedly refused to sell family memberships to same-sex couples.

The city ordinance, passed in 2002, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. Gender identity is included in the definition of sexual orientation under the ordinance. Each violation of the ordinance is punishable by a maximum $500 fine.

A Dallas Voice investigation in 2008 concluded that at the time, 33 complaints had been filed under the ordinance. In 22 of those cases, the City Attorney’s Office determined that there was no cause to prosecute.

Of the other 11 cases, three were successfully resolved through mediation; three people withdrew their complaints after signing statements indicating that defendants had taken actions necessary to address their concerns; five complaints were found to be nonjurisdictional, meaning the incidents occurred outside city limits or defendants were exempt from the ordinance; and in one case the party filing the complaint couldn’t be located.

Here’s the full text of McDonnell’s letter:

Dear Councilmembers Jasso, Medrano and Hunt,

As you three know, Dallas is one of a handful of cities in Texas that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy. Resource Center Dallas is proud to be in a city offering such protections. We assume that you, like us, are disturbed by last week’s stories on the Dallas Voice’s blog.

The Voice reported that a gay couple who recently moved to Dallas sought to join Baylor’s Tom Landry Center under the family membership program. The couple was advised that Baylor only offers family members to people who are married as defined by Texas law. There is no same-gender alternative, which, to us, is monetized discrimination.

The Voice’s blog also reported that since the ordinance became law in 2002, more than 40 complaints have been filed. Yet, shockingly, the City has not prosecuted one of those complaints. Is this correct? Are complaints being resolved through mediation, settlements, or are the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people filing these grievances walking away empty-handed?

We write to ask for your help. We would like for you to call for an investigation of whether or not the intention of the ordinance is being honored. As we know you will agree, enacting an ordinance is only the first step in addressing discriminatory practices. The critical second step is its enforcement. From the Voice’s reporting, it sounds like the ordinance we all worked so hard to put in place may not be as effective as we thought.

Sincerely,

Rafael McDonnell
Strategic Communications and Programs Manager, Resource Center Dallas

—  John Wright

More on the anti-gay Baylor Health Care System

OK, so if anything I should be working on my Super Bowl centerpiece story for next week’s Voice right now, but I felt compelled to provide an update on the situation involving the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center given the comment thread below.

Today I spoke with Beverly Davis, a very sweet woman who’s in charge of the city of Dallas’ Fair Housing Office, which investigates complaints under the sexual orientation nondiscrimination ordinance.

Davis explained that her office did not, as alleged, advise Steven Johnson to withdraw his complaint against the Fitness Center last year because the Fitness Center is considered exempt from the ordinance as a “private club.”

Davis, whom I trust, said the city never got a chance to determine whether the ordinance applies to the Fitness Center, because Johnson withdrew the complaint voluntarily and on his own before the investigation began. (I have my suspicions as to why Johnson chose to withdraw the complaint, but I won’t get into that here.)

So, no determination has been made about whether the ordinance applies to the Fitness Center. And again, there is no specific mention in the ordinance of an exemption for “private clubs.” Furthermore, the exemption for religious organizations should not apply because despite any affiliations the Fitness Center is not engaged in religious activities.

Alan Rodriguez, another gay man who was discriminated against by the Fitness Center, says he plans to file a complaint on Monday.

Which, I think, is a good thing.

After all, what’s the point of having the ordinance if you’re not going to attempt to use it? Filing a complaint will force the city to investigate, and it will undoubtedly force Baylor to get its attorneys involved. And at some point, they may start to wonder whether all this is really worth it to defend some backward-ass policy that probably loses money for the Fitness Center.

The city may offer mediation to Baylor and a chance to change the policy. If Baylor refuses, the City Attorney’s Office will decide whether there is cause to prosecute. If they choose not to prosecute, it becomes a City Council issue. These cases shouldn’t be decided by the City Attorney’s Office; they should be decided by judges and juries. Again, in the nine years since the ordinance was passed, there have been more than 40 complaints filed, and not one has ever been prosecuted by the city.

Granted, even if the city were to prosecute a case successfully, it’s only a maximum $500 fine per violation. But that’s not the point.

—  John Wright

OUTRAGE: Baylor Health Care System confirms that it doesn’t consider your family a family

Jennifer Coleman

Jennifer Coleman, senior vice president of consumer affairs for the Baylor Health Care System, has yet to respond to our request for comment from Wednesday about the Tom Landry Fitness Center’s policy of blatantly discriminating against same-sex couples.

However, Coleman did respond to a letter from Alan Rodriguez, the gay East Dallas resident who’s planning to file a discrimination complaint against the Baylor-owned Fitness Center for refusing to sell a family membership to him and his partner of 10 years.

“Thank you for your e-mail and phone call,” Coleman wrote in an e-mail to Rodriguez, which he provided to Instant Tea. “The Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center offers, and will continue to offer, a family discount to a husband and wife pursuant to the Texas law definition of marriage. The fitness center is a private membership health club that is open to all applicants who meet membership criteria that are non-discriminatory. The fitness center has and welcomes a diverse membership.”

We’ve heard several people in the LGBT community comment that if the Fitness Center wants to discriminate against same-sex couples, people should simply take their money and memberships elsewhere.

And while this is certainly true, there are a few other problems: One, the Baylor Health Care System operates a dozen medical facilities in North Texas alone, which is downright scary in light of this policy; and two, the city of Dallas has an ordinance that prohibits this type of discrimination — in the same way that state and federal law prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of things like race.

Unfortunately, the city doesn’t seem to want to enforce the ordinance. As we’ve said repeatedly, more than 40 c0mplaints have been filed since the ordinance passed in 2002, but not one has every been prosecuted by the city.

Steven Johnson, a gay man who filed a discrimination complaint against the Tom Landry Fitness Center last year, says he withdrew it after city officials advised him that the gym is exempt from the ordinance because it’s a private club.

But that’s a bunch of bullshit. The ordinance provides no exception for private clubs.

We’ve been playing phone tag with Beverly Davis of the city’s Fair Housing Office, which is charged with investigating complaints under the ordinance, to find out whether it’s true that officials advised Johnson to withdraw his complaint.

We’ll let you know when we get in touch with Davis and/or Coleman.

In case you’re wondering, Coleman can be reached by e-mail at jennifco@BaylorHealth.edu.

—  John Wright

Dallas gym won't allow family membership for gay couple that's been together 23 years

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A gay Dallas man claims the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center refused to allow him to add his longtime partner to his gym membership, a possible violation of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

Steven Johnson said he’s been with his partner, Roland Crago, for 23 years. Johnson, who works in advertising at The Dallas Morning News, said he tried to add Crago to his gym membership after Crago recently got a job downtown. Now Johnson is calling on the LGBT community to boycott the gym at 411 N. Washington St. in Dallas, which is owned by Baylor University Medical Center.

“I have been going there for the last eight months,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Today I tried to add Roland to my membership — only to learn that they do not accept domestic partners as part of their benefits. I have had numerous health clubs … and all of them have accepted us as family members. So add Tom Landry Fitness Center to your list with Exxon and all the other companies we can not support with our dollars.”

Johnson said gyms where he and Crago have had family memberships in the past include LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness.

Phil Tyne, director of the Tom Landry Fitness Center, said he would look into the matter but seemed to confirm Johnson’s statements.

“We can’t put him on as a spouse if they’re not a married couple,” Tyne said.

Asked whether a same-sex partner could be added as a general family member, Tyne said, “I don’t’ think so.”

Beverly Davis, director of Dallas’ Fair Housing Office, said she’s unsure whether such a policy violates the nondiscrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations.

But Davis, who oversees the office that investigates complaints under the ordinance, added that she was surprised that a gym in Dallas wouldn’t allow domestic partner memberships.

“It is so common these days to have different family arrangements,” Davis said. “It would seem to me that most people who are in that business ought to be accustomed to that by now, and would easily make an accommodation to recognize that you have all different kinds of families now.”

Johnson said even though he canceled his membership, he’ll have to continue paying for it until September. He said he planned to contact the Fair Housing Office to file a complaint against the gym.

—  John Wright