Harassment is a persistent, daily limitation on women’s lives in Connecticut, and it has no place anywhere, including gyms. When women work out at gyms in our state, they should be able to do so without facing harassment from other patrons. Gyms have a responsibility to create spaces free from harassment by addressing it head-on, but some have instead created women-only workout zones that do not address the underlying problem of harassment.
In this friend of the court brief, we argue that the Connecticut Supreme Court shouldn’t create an exception to public accommodations laws forbidding sex discrimination for certain groups of people working out at gyms. Instead of undermining our state’s anti-discrimination laws by creating a new carve-out, the Court should require gyms to stop patrons from harassing women.
At the heart of this case are two women-only workout zones at two gym chains in Connecticut. A lower court ruling created an exception to Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws by deciding there is an implied right to privacy even in workout spaces that are otherwise open to all patrons.
This exception to Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws, however, could open the door to further discrimination against cisgender women and transgender people. By allowing an exception to the state law preventing discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity and expression, there is a risk that it could inadvertently create further discrimination against women, such as by allowing gyms to institute men’s-only workout zones. By suggesting that working out in front of others implicates “gender privacy,” the court also runs the risk of inviting future harm to the anti-discrimination law’s protections for transgender people, because it would lend credence to the same arguments for discrimination that other courts have rejected in cases seeking to prevent trans people from using restrooms in accordance with their gender identities. Exercise in a gym in front of other patrons — of any sex — is also not very private; if it were, the workout areas would be reserved for one-at-a-time use.
Creating women-only zones in businesses like gyms also presents women as the problem, by suggesting that their very presence is too tempting for men to avoid harassing them, instead of addressing the real issue of men harassing women in public spaces. The courts should not euphemize harassment as a privacy problem. Instead of deciding that women have a right to privacy from being seen in a public space like a gym, the courts should stand up for women’s rights to be free from sexual harassment by other patrons, in ways that don’t involve carving out exceptions to Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws. Gyms, for instance, could be required to create codes of conduct and strict zero-tolerance policies for harassment, training staff on harassment prevention, and educating patrons on bystander intervention. They could also create a more welcoming space by hiring more women trainers and featuring women athletes and patrons in their promotional materials and newsletters.
The way to prevent men from harassing women in public spaces is to create measures to stop harassment, not to create exceptions to our state’s anti-discrimination law that implicate women as the problem.