The state of California is suing an El Cajon gym over allegations that it denied a transgender woman access to the women’s locker room there for almost a year.

The state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which enforces state civil rights laws, sued Crunch Fitness on Jamacha Road in mid-April, alleging intentional discrimination against Christynne Wood “on the basis of her sex, specifically her gender identity and gender expression.”

Wood, 61, said the gym management declined her requests to use the women’s locker room for nearly a year beginning in September 2016. She filed a complaint with the state, which started an administrative case to address the matter in April 2017.

Mediation failed, and last month the state sued the El Cajon gym and John Romeo, one of its owners.

Wood said that even though the gym ultimately granted her access to the women’s facility in September, the suit was “terribly necessary.”

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“What happens when the next transgender man or woman shows up and doesn’t have access to the awesome resources that were available to me?” Wood said in an interview.

She said she “never paraded around naked” in either locker room and dressed in private stalls.

The suit states that in early 2017, she asked if could use the women’s facility, but was told no when she said she had not had “sex-reassignment surgery.” She was also told that one of the owners was not comfortable with her using the women’s area.

A representative from the Crunch Fitness location in El Cajon said the gym “respect(s) the rights of all our members, and we live by the philosophy of no judgments, and we would be happy next week to talk to the media regarding this matter.”

Crunch Fitness’ corporate offices, located in New York, provided the following statement: “Our philosophy at Crunch is ‘no judgments,’ and we promote positive body image and self-esteem in a fun atmosphere. All of our gyms are committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment for all members. The club from which the complaint arose is an independently owned and operated franchise and we cannot speak to the circumstance of the allegations.”

Access for transgender people to sex-segregated facilities has become a national flash point. In 2016, North Carolina passed a law that included a requirement that people use the restroom of their gender at birth. The following year, the state repealed a portion of that bill, including the bathroom requirement, after the NCAA and other groups said it would boycott the state because of the measure.

According to the lawsuit, Wood is entitled to $264,000 under the law — a minimum of $4,000 for each of the 66 times she used the gym but was not able to use the women’s locker room from September 2016 to mid-September 2017.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Wood, through her private attorneys, filed a request to join the state’s lawsuit against the gym.

ACLU attorney Amanda Goad said the move to join in the suit is to get “justice for Christynne Wood, and protection for future Crunch Fitness gym members and trans folks in all sorts of other contexts.” She said the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act has been interpreted to give people the right to use facilities appropriate to their gender identity.

“Trans women are women, and they are to be treated as such,” Goad said.

Wood has been a member of Crunch Fitness for 11 years, joining shortly after she underwent angioplasty surgery. She said she went on to lose 144 pounds, and credits the gym — water aerobics in particular — with helping her lose weight.

Wood started her transition from male to female in 2016, and continued to use the men’s locker room. The suit alleges that in September of that year, a man walked up to her in the locker room, said “Hello, man,” smiled and grabbed his genitals. Wood fled, feeling threatened.

“You are kind of vulnerable when you are in the locker room,” Wood said. “It should be a place where you should be relatively at peace.”

The lawsuit states that Wood reported the incident immediately. In response, she was told that she should be able to use the women’s locker room if she presented the gym with a doctor’s note. She did so before the end of the month. The note stated it was important that Wood be able to use the women’s locker room.

A few days later, one of the gym owners reportedly said Wood could use the “platinum” men’s locker room, reserved for members who pay for the premium area, the suit said.

Wood said that she used that locker room, and that friends escorted her through the men’s locker room so she could safely access the more secluded area.

In February 2017, she legally changed her name and gender. She took the decree from the San Diego County Superior Court to the gym, and asked if she could use the women’s facility. The suit states that she was asked whether she’d had “sex-reassignment surgery” and was denied her request when she said she had not.

Wood took her complaint to the state in April 2017.

The state’s lawsuit alleges that in September, Wood was dressing in the men’s platinum locker room when a man sat down next to her and mumbled an expletive and a slur regarding sexuality.

Wood notified the gym of the incident on Sept. 14. The following day, the management began to allow her to use the women’s locker room.

In February, mediation between the state and the gym failed. The state filed the civil suit in April.

Kevin Kish is the director of the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which brought the suit. He said Wednesday that Wood’s case is not an isolated incident.

“It’s a thing a lot of people are confused about, but it’s clear under the law,” he said.

Kish also said the law does not allow people to ask for a doctor’s note or proof of medical intervention, whether it be surgical or hormones or something else.

Kish said he understands that some people are uncomfortable with sharing a sex-segregated facility such as a locker room with a transgender person. But he said the reality is that transgender people find themselves in danger.

“We are balancing discomfort with danger,” he said. “This case is an illustration of that.”

Wood said she is still subjected to occasional rudeness in the women’s locker room, “but at least I am no longer afraid.”

Aside from monetary damages for Wood, the state wants the court to order the gym to cease any discrimination against Wood or other members on the basis of sex, and allow her and other members to use the sex-segregated locker rooms with which the person identifies.

The state also wants the gym to post the court’s orders and provide at least two hours of civil rights training to employees.

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(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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