Disturbing the Piss
You are at a formal event, in heels and a sequined gown, when nature calls.
Does the fact that you have a penis prevent you from using the ladies' room?
Not in Denver, it shouldn't. But apparently it's easier to dance backward in a tight dress and high heels than it is to correctly interpret laws concerning matters of gender.
And the setup at Denver's Red Lion this March seemed particularly conducive to confusion. On the same Saturday night, in adjacent ballrooms, the hotel had booked a bridal shower, a truckers' convention and the annual King of Hearts gathering of the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire--essentially a fancy cross-dress ball hosted by the gay philanthropic organization.
Scheduled to be presented to the Emperor and Empress of the Court were several members of Denver's Gender Identity Center: transsexuals, who are not to be confused with transvestites--although there were certainly plenty of those in the King of Hearts crowd (and who knows how many at the truckers' dinner).
One GIC guest--let's call her Terry--had just entered the ballroom and stopped by her table when she noticed she'd broken a nail. She borrowed some nail glue and retired to a nearby restroom to make repairs.
"What a pretty dress," she remembers the matron on duty there remarking. And it was: a pink knee-length number, cut deep to display plenty of cleavage. Which Terry has. But she also has a penis, which, although not particularly relevant to the life she's been leading for the past few years, seemed quite on point to hotel security.
As Terry exited the restroom, her makeup refreshed and every hair in place, a security guard asked her to hand over her ID. Opening her evening bag, Terry pulled it out, along with a letter she always carries. Written by her therapist, it explains that Terry is a transsexual and has been living full-time as a woman for over two years.
The guard was not impressed. She could be arrested for using the women's room, he told her, and he took Terry to a room already occupied by Laura, another colleague from the Gender Identity Center. Like Terry, Laura had an ID that listed her gender as "M" even though she dresses as a woman and looks like a woman and considers herself a woman.
Forty minutes later the hotel's head of security finally arrived, with a Denver police officer in tow. The cop ogled her decolletage, Terry says, listened to "a whole bunch of lies," asked a few questions--including whether the pair were prostitutes ("Excuse me," Terry points out, "then I would have been in the men's room.")--and ticketed them both for disturbing the peace. After that, the guard paraded the women through the ballroom to get their belongings and then, Terry says, "escorted us off the property and told us never to come back."
They were, however, supposed to show up in court in mid-April if they wanted to fight their tickets. And Terry certainly did. "I've never had this kind of problem with the legal system before," she says. Even though she'd been charged with a misdemeanor that carried no more than a $50 fine, this was a matter of principle. Really, when she needed to use a bathroom, what choice did she have? Since January 1994, she's been living full-time as a female--even if she has yet to make the final cut. "I cannot go in the men's room," she says. "I haven't in over two years." And she was certainly not about to start when the men's room was likely to be filled with truckers. For that matter, you could hardly blame the drag queens if they, too, were reluctant that evening to walk into the men's room, hike up their ballgowns and use the urinals.
The Imperial Court usually holds its balls at the Regency Denver, where hotel management knows to set aside certain bathrooms for certain events. One year the King of Hearts ball successfully shared a night--but not restrooms--with a Knights of York gathering; another year a hundred transsexuals rubbed elbows with members of the Colorado Tourism Board. But this time the Regency wasn't available for the March party, and the Court moved to the Red Lion. If there were any special bathroom instructions there, Terry and Laura say, they weren't told of them.
Ticket in hand, Terry called the city's Office of Anti-Discrimination but was told that the Denver ordinance prohibiting discrimination does not extend to transsexuals; the Denver City Attorney's office said there was nothing it could do until her April 18 arraignment. In the meantime, though, the hotel agreed not to press charges, and Terry herself got a new ID that identified her sex as "F."
(Ironically, the policy that made it possible for Terry to do so had been instituted just eight days before the King of Hearts ball. Until March 1, in order to have the sex changed on a Colorado ID, an applicant had to present a letter from a surgeon declaring that the actual sex-change surgery had been performed. But in response to a Boulder transsexual's two-year campaign, the Colorado Attorney General's office, in concert with the Department of Motor Vehicles, recently determined that a transgendered person can switch her (or his) sexual identification if she simply has a letter from a medical doctor or psychiatrist stating that she has been living full-time in that gender role.)
At her arraignment in Denver County Court, Terry pleaded not guilty--and then, armed with her new ID, pleaded her case to the city attorney, who dropped the charges. But Laura, whose arraignment was scheduled for the next day, was not as lucky: She was assigned a different city attorney, who took one look at the transgender letter from Laura's therapist and asked that the case be continued. It was, until last Friday.
That gave the ACLU enough time to get involved and determine that the disturbing-the-peace-ordinance wasn't applicable to anyone quietly using any bathroom. Not surprisingly, those charges, too, were dropped.
But the city may still have been caught with its pants down. Although the anti-discrimination office says the ordinance's definition of sexual orientation as "heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality" rules out transsexuals as a protected class, the ordinance also specifically prohibits any discrimination because of gender. And that, says gender counselor Dana Cicotello, opens the door. "'Gender' is not the same as 'sex,'" she says. "It is not a redundant word. 'Sex' is between your legs; 'gender' is between your ears and in your heart."
And no matter what's between your legs, nature calls.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.