Transgender plaintiffs sue gay club for barring them

By Paul Schindler

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 19 in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, three plaintiffs, including two transgendered women, charge that on at least three occasions this year, Splash Bar New York, a gay establishment at 50 West 17th Street, denied or attempted to deny entry to women on Saturday evenings, which the club promotes as men’s night.

The suit names the bar, owner Brian Landeche and Aaron Tanner, a party promoter who manages the Saturday evening parties, as defendants.

The plaintiffs — Allanah Starr and Gia Cardenas, both identified in the lawsuit as transsexual, and Lisa Coleman, who was born female — allege that each was in the company of gay male friends on separate Saturday evenings but was told by bouncers that while their male friends could enter the club, they were barred. Starr and Coleman say that they were never able to gain entry, while Cardenas argued her right to access and finally entered “against the bouncer’s explicit instructions.”

Starr alleges that she specifically asked whether a private party was going on and was told no and that the bouncer conceded that the door policy was “probably” against the law. The plaintiffs’ attorneys, Michael D. Silverman, of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, and Douglas T. Schwarz and Jessica S. Boar, of Bingham McCutchen, have argued that the city’s Human Rights Law specifically bars discrimination based on sex at places of public accommodation. Starr said she brought her concerns to the attention of Landeche and Tanner, but was rebuffed. The lawsuit says that in a March e-mail message, Landeche wrote, “Women are welcomed every night, except Saturday.” It also alleges that the Splash Web site at times has conveyed essentially the same message.

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against Splash, barring the door policy, and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to attorney fees and expenses.

For Splash’s part, the bar’s attorney, Thomas D. Shanahan, who himself has litigated a number of high-profile transgender discrimination claims, on July 18 wrote to plaintiffs’ attorney Silverman, “We do not believe there is merit to the allegations…. As we have previously stated, it is not currently and has never been the policy or practice of S.B.N.Y., to discriminate against any group based upon any human trait or characteristic.”

In the same letter, Shanahan suggested that Splash will be aggressive in challenging the charges against them. After noting that the club has eight transgendered employees, hosts a Sunday evening party, Trannyshack, with transgendered performers, and donates considerable money and in-kind support to the L.G.B.T. community, Shanahan stated that the plaintiffs might “have serious credibility issues” in court.

Shanahan’s letter then goes on to point out that Starr hosts a rival party to Trannyshack called Trannylicious, which has a variable admission price based on gender, and which has a Web site promising “lap dances and a ‘private room.’ ” Referring to Starr and Cardenas, Shanahan wrote, “Both of your clients are admitted ‘porn stars.’ ” The attorney closed the letter by alleging that Silverman refused to discuss his clients’ allegations unless the bar offered each of the plaintiffs $10,000 in “compensatory” damages, a condition he termed a “shakedown.”

When Silverman learned that the Shanahan letter had been made available to Gay City News, a sister newspaper of The Villager, his response was sharp.

“My reaction was that it was despicable,” Silverman said about the letter. “There is nothing in the Human Rights Law that [says] because one has ever been engaged in sex work that they are not subject to the protection of the civil rights laws. We have reached a dark day when the bar that caters to L.G.BT. folks is using sex as a weapon. I don’t know if there is a specific sexual history profile of customers of Splash Bar. But traditionally there has been a tolerance in the wider L.G.B.T. community for sexual diversity.”

Silverman said that he and his co-counsel were aware that Starr has worked in the sex industry, explaining that while some people who do that work enjoy it, others do it out of necessity. Starr, he said, faced limited options given the discrimination she faced from her family, in education and in employment.

Silverman said that Shanahan was wrong in identifying Cardenas as a co-worker with Starr in the Trannylicious parties. The Gia Darling advertised on Starr’s Web site is not in fact Cardenas, he said.

Further, he argued, the Trannyshack and Trannylicious parties are not competing venues — the Splash parties feature transgendered performers entertaining gay men, he said, while Starr’s gatherings are intended to reach a primarily trans audience.

While terming Shanahan’s characterization of the $10,000 settlement demand “absolutely inaccurate,” Silverman acknowledged that along with the insistence that Splash suspend any discriminatory door policy and institute training for it employees, he had specified $10,000 in damages as a starting point for discussion.

Silverman conceded that if Starr were to charge a differential cover charge based on gender for her parties, that would also run afoul of the city Human Rights Law, but said he was unsure of the facts on that question.

“It may be the case that there is differential rate,” he said.