Can a sports club define what makes a family?When Will Trinkle signed up for a family membership at the Roanoke Athletic Club, he was looking forward to bringing his 2-year-old son, Oliver Trinkle-Granados, to the pool. A real-estate agent, he even relocated his office to be closer to the club. He filled out the application in front of a club employee, paid an application fee and handed over his credit card for the monthly dues, and got his membership card and one for Oliver's other dad, Trinkle's partner Juan Granados.
But about a week later, Trinkle was told that his membership had been invalidated. The club had made a big mistake in accepting the application, he says the manager told him, and the club's parent company, Carilion Clinic, did not recognize his household as a family. Furthermore, "Carilion Clinic and RAC were really going to tighten up their procedures and application so that no gay couple would ever get in again on a family membership," the manager allegedly said.
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"It was actually like somebody punched us in the stomach," Trinkle told ABC 13 News. "It's from a place we couldn't imagine that there would be this kind of discrimination." He is suing the club, not for discrimination, but for breach of contract.
"The underlying case is a contract case," he told The Roanoke Times. "The primary focus of the case is for this family to have the opportunities that other families have, and to have the contract that was signed be enforced."
Trinkle's case has caught the attention of plenty of people. Roanoke native and Appalachian blogger Mark Lynn Ferguson, who is not related to or connected with Trinkle or Granados, was so struck by the case that he launched a petition on Change.org recently, calling on the club and Carilion to "treat all families with respect" and to honor the membership agreement they originally made with the Trinkle-Granados family. His petition already has nearly 50,000 signatures.
"Folks in Roanoke are good-hearted and fair-minded, so I was just horrified when I heard how Carilion treated this family," said Ferguson, who told Yahoo! Shine that he decided to start the petition after reading about the case online. "I've seen signatures [on his petition] from people in Roanoke and people in Rome, and they're all delivering the same message: There's just not room enough in the world for this kind of discrimination."
He says that while he's never had a club membership cancelled, he has experienced discrimination as a gay man. "That's happened in Roanoke, it's happened in Washington, D.C, it's happened in Boston, Massachusetts," he says. "It's really a global problem that we all need to address."
According to the Roanoke Athletic Club's handbook, "Family membership includes husband, wife and children under the age of 21." Furthermore, "RAC/BAC reserves the right to request birth or marriage certificates if deemed necessary. In regards to a family membership, should there be any questions of qualification, current VA state law will be applied," the handbook states. It's unclear what was added in order to "tighten up" the policy.
But while Virginia state law explicitly defines marriage as between a man and a woman and does not recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, it does not offer a specific definition of family that would exclude same-sex parents.
"Our family membership at the Y has been no problem for the last two years," Trinkle told The Roanoke Times.
According to his lawsuit, Trinkle was up-front about the fact that he was in a same-sex relationship, and the employee who watched him fill out the application and accepted it specifically told him that the second membership card was "for Juan." But the club manager later said it was all a big misunderstanding: The employee thought Juan's name was "Joan," the manager insisted, or maybe "Juanita." The club has refused to refund the $50 initiation fee and the $112 monthly membership dues that Trinkle had already paid.
"It is because we are two men that have a child," Trinkle said.
The couple could apply for two individual memberships instead but, since the Roanoke Athletic Club's policy is that children must be part of a family membership, unless Trinkle and Granados' family is recognized as such, their toddler is banned from swimming at the club. Trinkle's lawsuit alleges that unmarried heterosexual couples with children have been allowed to get family memberships in the past, as have heterosexual single parents. Ironically, on its company website, Carilion pledges to treat patients "in a safe, abuse-free environment without discrimination as to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or source of payment."
An employee at the Roanoke Athletic Club directed calls to Carilion spokesperson Eric Earnhart, who did not immediately return a call for comment on Thursday.UPDATE: Late Thursday night, with the number of signatures on Ferguson's petition topping 150,000, Carillion Clinic announced on its Facebook page that it would be changing its family membership policy to include the Trinkle-Granados family.
"We are pleased to announce that we have expanded our Family Membership into a new Household Membership," Carilion Vice President Bud Grey wrote. The company defines a household as "A primary member and up to one additional household member that permanently lives in the household, and any of their dependent children under the age of 22 who also reside in the household on a permanent basis."
“Carilion Clinic did the absolute right thing here,” said Ferguson in a statement on Friday. “Hopefully, more private clubs will follow the leadership of the Carilion Clinic and change their policies as well.”
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