Same-Sex Semantics


SAN FRANCISCO — The recent California Supreme Court ruling that all businesses must offer equal privileges and benefits to married couples and registered domestic partners won't change the way that Jill Kinney does business. That's because the co-founder of Club One in San Francisco has been offering the same membership discounts to same-sex couples and married couples since she and her husband started the club chain 15 years ago.

In August, the California Supreme Court ruled 5-1 that California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which provides protection from discrimination by businesses based on sex, race, color or religion, extends to registered domestic partners. The ruling only applies to business dealings that have occurred since the new domestic partners law took effect on Jan. 1, 2005. About 29,000 couples are registered as domestic partners with the California Secretary of State and receive similar benefits to married couples (see sidebar on page 80). While the majority of the domestic partners are gay and lesbian couples, unmarried heterosexual couples with at least one person above the age of 62 years old are also eligible to register.

To Kinney, the court ruling is 20 years overdue.

“We're in San Francisco, and it's unheard of to try to ignore the gay members,” she said. “We have clubs throughout California, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find a club without a discrimination policy. I think it's something that's been in practice for quite some time.”

However, not all clubs have as broad a definition of “couple” or “family” as Club One.

One year ago, a California health club denied Barbara Cox, a professor at the California Western School of Law, and her partner a family membership discount even though they were registered domestic partners and lived in the same household.

And the recent court ruling stemmed from a case involving the Bernardo Heights Country Club, which told B. Birgit Koebke she could not extend her country club privileges to her female partner, Kendall French, even though the country club provided membership discounts to unmarried heterosexual couples and married couples.

Justice Carlos R. Moreno, who wrote the majority decision in the court case, said, “While creating a family friendly environment may be a legitimate business interest, that policy is not served when a business discriminates against the domestic partner of one of its members. Rather, by so doing, the business violates the policy favoring domestic partnerships which, like the policy favoring marriage, seeks to promote families as well as reduce discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.”

Fitness facilities in California that don't already comply with the court's ruling have two choices — begin offering the same discounts and privileges to registered domestic partners or stop offering these benefits altogether, said Ann Feyerherm, professor of organization and management at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.

“Any member who was involved in a registered domestic partnership could bring a claim against [a non-complying] club and probably win,” she said. “It would be a fairly convincing case because courts rely on precedent.”

Health clubs can request proof of same sex partner registration when signing up members, but Kinney advises against it.

“That would be like asking one of your married couples to show their marriage license,” she said.

Besides, Cox said, domestic partners don't carry around their registrations anymore than married couples carry around their marriage licenses.

“Having to come out every time that you join an organization or ask to be treated the same is stressful,” she said. “Clubs should clearly state their policy and make sure their employees are comfortable with it. The easier you make it, the more you'll make it feel like a place that's welcoming.”

A Matter of Business

Several business owners in California are upset with the recent Supreme Court decision, said Randy Thommason, organizer of and president of the Campaign for Children and Families.

“It completely changes the values and environment of a business,” he said about the court ruling. “The country club wanted to uphold marriage as a standard and promote a family friendly environment, but the government said you can't treat marriage any differently than non-marriage. This intolerant court decision will spread across the nation and attack the conscience of health clubs and country clubs nationwide unless it's reversed.”

Thommason's organization plans to secure 598,000 signatures to put the Voters' Right to Protect Marriage Initiative on the California ballot in 2006. This constitutional amendment would define marriage as only between a man and a woman, abort the rights of marriage to unmarried persons, prevent the government from abolishing marriage and prevent the government from forcing private entities to award marriage rights to unmarried persons, he said.

“This really is an issue of private property rights,” said Thommason. “Health clubs are private property and belong to the members. The government has no business to make them undermine marriage. When the government is forcing a new type of social belief on a business, it's clobbering that business with an iron fist.”

Membership Policies

The California ruling could cause a ripple effect nationwide, said Jon Davidson, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case and legal director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. This could be especially true in states that recognize domestic partnerships, same-sex marriages or civil unions, such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Hawaii.

Some national fitness chains, such as 24 Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym and LA Fitness, already make no distinction between same-sex partners and married couples when it comes to memberships. Other national or regional chains are faced with a significant decision — only change their membership policies in California or modify them nationwide. To make this choice, clubs must take a close look at their mission statement, Feyerherm said.

“They could legally do something different for their other clubs, but the question is, do they want to?” she said. “I believe the mission of most clubs is to encourage people's well being and fitness. One could conclude that the more the merrier, and fitness should be for everyone.”

Eighty-nine percent of health clubs offer membership discounts to families, couples and/or married couples, according to a recent survey of International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) members. While “couples” isn't defined, IHRSA does advise club operators to make sure their membership policies don't violate local, state or federal anti-discrimination laws.

Offering membership discounts based on common residency rather than marital status is an increasingly common way clubs are accommodating members without getting political.

The Sawmill Club, which has five large, multisport clubs in the suburban New York area, simply requires one thing for a family membership discount: a single billing address. This requirement accommodates the changing face of families, which now may include same-sex partners with children or single parents.

“We are not in the business of what legally constitutes a family,” said Rick Beusman of the Sawmill Club. “We've stayed clear of that and try to be as welcoming as possible.”

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco welcomes people from all faiths and backgrounds and doesn't define a fitness center membership by gender but rather by household, said Julie Berlin, member relations manager.

“We don't talk about families and the definition of a family,” she said. “It's not our business to decide people's relationship and who can be fit or not fit. We want everyone to have healthy lives. I don't see the value in thinking small. We all want to increase our membership, and we can't do that until we increase our minds.”

The YMCAs and YWCAs don't have a corporate-wide policy regarding membership discounts for same-sex partners, but many of the Ys and YWs have a two-adult-per-household policy, which includes same-sex relationships. The YWCA of Minneapolis has been defining membership by households for as long as Sue Doos, director of the YWCA of Minneapolis, can remember, she said.

The YMCA of Los Angeles also views a family as any two adults living in the same household regardless of gender, said Catherine Herrold of the YMCA. “It's just a matter of financial dependence for defining a family,” she said.

Some for-profit clubs also operate under a similar policy. The Powerhouse Gym in San Diego has openly welcomed same-sex couples since day one, said Ernest Berrones, general manager. The club's couple membership applies to married couples, roommates or same-sex partners. Powerhouse's membership forms have spaces for a “spouse” or “family member” and request new members show their driver's license or a recent bill to prove that they live at the same address. He estimates that about 85 percent of his 700 members are gay, and the 8,050-square-foot club is located in a predominately gay community. Regardless of where a club is located, however, owners who try to limit their business to a certain category of people are shooting themselves in the foot, he said.

“If two males, two females or roommates want to sign up together, what's the difference?,” he said. “If you're basing it on your personal beliefs, then you're not in it for the business.”

The Desoto Athletic Club in Southhaven, MS, changed its membership structure five years ago from “family” memberships to individual add-ons. The club still doesn't allow college roommates to receive a couple's discount, but it does now allow same-sex partners to receive discounts — if they ask, said Jason Orman, club director. Same-sex couples must show driver's licenses with the same address and reveal that their relationship is more than that of roommates to get the discount. One of the partners must sign his or her name in the line reserved for “spouse.”

Despite some clubs changing their membership policies, others are sticking with traditional requirements for spousal discounts. Court South, which consists of three clubs in Knoxville, TN, defines a “couple” as a husband and a wife, denying discounts to same-sex partners. Owner Joe Hollingsworth said his clubs look to the Tennessee state law when setting up its membership structure. He described his clubs as “multipurpose, family friendly businesses.”

“We're very pro family as defined by the Tennessee law,” he said. “[This recent ruling] makes me appreciate why I don't live in California.”

The Northwest YMCA in Muncie, IN, looks to Indiana law and IRS guidelines for its policy. Indiana law states that a family or household member is “a person who is dating or has dated and/or a person who is engaged or was engaged in a sexual relationship.” The IRS defines a family as spouses, siblings, ancestors and lineal descendants.

The Muncie Y denied a mother of three and her domestic partner a family membership in January 2004 because they didn't fit into these definitions of a family. The Y told the woman that she and the three children could buy a family membership while her partner could purchase an individual membership. Martin Fink, president and CEO of the Muncie Y, said while his facility was accepting of all lifestyles, his facility's policy was in place to prevent people from getting an unfair discount and taking advantage of the system. A family membership costs $90 and covers spouses and children while an individual adult membership costs $60. Fink was unavailable for an interview, but in the Ball State Daily News, he said he'd be willing to change the policy to better serve the community.

“It's not set in stone,” he said in the article. “We will change with the times.”

Getting with the Ruling

California clubs that aren't offering the same discounts to domestic partners as married couples need to make a change immediately, Feyerherm said.

“Most people are just finding out this, and as they become more aware of this ruling, they'll start inquiring about the policies at their health club,” she said. “If they're not treated with the same privileges as a married couple, then they'll start challenging the club's policies.”

No matter where club owners stand on this issue, the California ruling could affect clubs nationwide, which means that more facilities could be taking a closer look at their membership policies and how they define a “family.”

Same-Sex Legislation Across the Nation

In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which says no state is required to honor same sex marriages performed in another state. It also seeks to restrict how marriage may be defined or interpreted under federal law to “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” Many states have passed both a statute and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Fourteen states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and four states, 60 cities and the District of Columbia offer partner registries. Massachusetts is the only state to recognize same-sex marriage, and Vermont has a marriage equivalent called civil unions. For more information about the legislation in your state, visit

Steps to Take

If you operate a club or non-profit fitness facility in California, follow these tips to modify your membership policies to welcome same-sex couples. If you're a California club owner and don't agree with the ruling, stop providing any discount to married couples or unmarried partners immediately. Even if you don't work in the Golden State, you can still take club owners' advice to modify your membership policies.

  • Make sure your membership policies do not violate state and local anti-discrimination laws.

  • Change your membership structure from “families” and “couples” to “two adults living at the same address,” which would apply to both married couples and same-sex partners.

  • Revise your membership contracts by changing the wording from “spouse” to “spouse or domestic partner,” “adult” or member 1 and member 2.

  • Train your sales staff on your policies regarding membership discounts for partners as well as married couples. Make sure your employees can talk about how your club is non-discriminatory and offers discounts to domestic partners in their conversations with new members.

  • Make it clear in your promotional materials and Web site that you welcome same-sex couples.

  • While clubs in California can request a copy of a potential member's domestic partnership registration, other states don't have this requirement. If you need proof of a civil union or partnership, also ask your married couples to show their marriage license or don't ask for either altogether.

Differences Between Domestic Partner Registration and Legal Marriage Registration

Same-sex couples can register as domestic partners in California by completing a registration form and paying a $10 fee. To be eligible for a domestic partnership, same-sex couples must be 18 or older, not be related and not be married or part of another domestic partnership.

Domestic Partner Registration Legal Marriage
1. Simple, notarized form registration 1. License required
2. No ceremony 2. No ceremony required
3. Mailed to the Office of Vital Records 3. License officiated by clergy, court, or justice of the peace
4. Conveys some rights 4. Conveys hundreds of rights
5. Not a true next-of-kin 5. A true next-of-kin
6. Must cohabit 6. Can live apart
7. Must share finances 7. Not required to share finances
8. No recognition of status by other states 8. Recognition of status by other states
9. No federal recognition 9. Federal recognition
10. Ended by mailing a termination form 10. Divorce laws apply
Source: Partners Task Force

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