A transgender woman says that she plans to seek legal recourse after she was denied use of the women’s locker room and showers at a local health club. But the owner of MAC Fitness says that he was simply responding to members’ concerns when he asked the woman to use the gym’s unisex bathroom.
The controversy comes as the topic of transgender rights takes a turn in the national spotlight following the passage of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and onetime Olympic superstar Bruce Jenner’s very public transition to Caitlin Jenner.
Candace Teetsel is a 56-year-old former Marine and Kingston resident who’s been transitioning from male to female under medical supervision since 2002. Her driver’s license lists her as female and she’s in the process of changing the gender on her military discharge papers and birth certificate.
But Teetsel said that her status as a woman was challenged when she tried to join MAC Fitness in Kingston Plaza. Teetsel said that she had joined the club in 2013 under Medicaid’s “Silver Sneakers” program for seniors. Teetsel said that she discussed transgender issues with MAC Fitness co-owner Holly Schuler at the time and was reassured.
“She said they had had experiences with transgender people in the past and there were a couple of issues,” said Teetsel. “But she said I could just go about my business and be discreet. She had no problem with me using the women’s locker room.”
Teetsel said she opted to change at home rather than use the women’s locker room and says she never used the showers at the health club. Eventually, she said, she stopped going to the gym altogether.
Teetsel said she returned to the club earlier this year following knee surgery. This time, she said, Schuler advised her that there had been some complaints from women during her previous membership. Schuler, she said, offered her a limited membership on the condition that she stay out of the women’s locker room, showers or sauna.
“I said no, absolutely not,” said Teetsel. “If I have to lay out $400 for an annual membership, why should I be limited to certain things? To me, that’s discrimination?”
But MAC Fitness co-owner Lyle Schuler said that the club made every reasonable effort to accommodate Teetsel while also respecting other members’ desire for privacy. Schuler said that Teetsel’s first membership at the gym had generated a number of complaints. Contrary to Teetsel’s account, Schuler said that she had in fact used the women’s facilities at the club, and her presence in the locker room had caused discomfort among some members.
“In any situation where a majority of our members’ enjoyment is compromised, whether it’s dropping weights or making too much noise or an issue with how someone is dressed, we handle it personally,” said Schuler.
Schuler said when she returned to the club this year, Teetsel was offered a membership on the condition that she use a unisex bathroom on the premises to change. Teetsel, he said, rejected the compromise. Schuler added that the club had made similar accommodations for other transgender people in the past and never had an issue.
“Every effort was made to accommodate her and work around some of the member complaints,” said Schuler. “But this is such a new issue, we don’t have a whole handbook or policy about [transgender people] as of yet.”
Angelina Vail-Bouros, 54, is a transgender woman, chairwoman of the Mid-Hudson Valley Transgender Association and a MAC Fitness member. Vail-Bouros said she began attending the gym before her transition and continues to work out there regularly. Vail-Bouros said that staff at the health club had been entirely supportive during and after the transition process. Vail-Bouros said she uses the club’s unisex bathroom to change in order to avoid discomfiting fellow patrons, noting that she uses women’s bathroom facilities in other public places. She said the particular intimacy of a locker room poses a trickier issue.
“You have to be sensitive to people’s feelings. A lot of people, especially around here have not been exposed to transgender people,” said Vail-Bouros. “When you’re naked in a shower room, and you’re not fully, physically transitioned, it can be a problem.”
Teetsel, though said, that her treatment by MAC fitness amounted to transgender discrimination. She said she has contacted an attorney and is planning to file complaints with the Ulster County and City of Kingston human rights commissions.
But transgender rights remain in flux in New York State. According to Fred Mayo, president of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center, there are no specific protections extended to transgender people under state anti-discrimination law. (State education law forbids discrimination against transgender students and teachers.) Some municipalities have passed their own ordinances to ban transgender discrimination, but Ulster County and Kingston are not among them.
Mayo likened the discomfort some people feel sharing a bathroom with transgender individuals to discomfort with gay couple publicly expressing affection. The solution, he said, is more education, visibility and awareness of transgender issues. Mayo said he hoped more public facilities would follow the lead of college campuses where unisex bathrooms are becoming the norm.
“I can appreciate and empathize [with Schuler’s dilemma], change is hard for people, it was hard for people to adjust to gay and lesbian people walking around holding hands and kissing,” said Mayo. “But we don’t need to stop and wait, we need to move forward because of how painful and difficult these situations are for so many transgender people.”
For Teetsel, that pain and difficulty has been a lifelong struggle. Teetsel likened her feelings of undressing in a male locker room to any other woman stripped naked in a roomful of men. Being denied the use of women’s facilities she said, feels like a denial of her very being.
“I felt like I was being punished for being the person that God created,” said Teetsel. “I want to be treated like anybody else because I’m a human being before I’m anything else.”