Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Steve Horner fights for his right to be wrong.

We need a resource, we need an advocate," pleaded one man. "I don't need another white lady taking down my info," pleaded one woman. At two Denver forums hosted by the Colorado Division of Civil Rights last week, the sad stories and angry accusations spilled well beyond the allotted time. Stories about banks refusing loans because the applicants were black, about cops pulling over cars because the drivers looked Mexican. Accusations that the division itself is not taking these stories seriously.

But no one complained about being refused admission to a ladies'-night event.

Too bad, because I was waiting to see what these crowds would have made of Steve Horner, the anti-ladies'-night crusader who has buried the division in complaints.

At the forum in Five Points on July 27, veteran employee Joseph Baker mentioned the division's "understaffing constraints." I'd heard from Baker not long before, because he'd been assigned the thankless task of acting as conciliator on the initial complaint that Horner had filed against Westword. Baker's letter of July 9, sent to both Horner and Westword, was short and to the point: "Efforts to resolve the above-captioned charge by conciliation were unsuccessful. I have referred this case file to the Director for review.... We are always willing to discuss revolving charges by conciliation. Therefore, should you wish to pursue conciliation efforts on this charge, feel free to contact our Director."

A few days after that letter arrived, I got a call from Horner, then living in Mankato, Minnesota. He wasn't sure there'd even been any conciliation efforts in the case, he told me.

There had been, but they were short and very to the point, too. "I believe you told the conciliator that you'd drop the charge against us for $7,000, and for $20,000, you'd promise not to tell anyone else how to file complaints against Westword," I told Horner. Baker had relayed that offer to our lawyer, and we'd told him no deal.

Actually, what we'd told our lawyer was that the alleged conciliatory offer sounded like extortion – particularly when we already had a legal ruling on our side.

"If I was black or gay or a poor white girl, I'd be in court right now," Horner said. Wrong again. As the African-American and Latino speakers at those public forums could tell Horner, no matter what the color of the complainant, that's an incredibly rosy timetable for a state agency short-staffed by budget cuts even before Horner's recent missives started flying in from Minnesota. A division already so overworked that it hasn't filed the required annual report in a dozen years.

But Horner's right about one thing: There's been no cozy kumbaya session at the Division of Civil Rights, no attempt to come to a meeting of the minds, unlikely as that might be. And despite Baker's suggestion that Westword "feel free" to contact Steve Chavez, the division director has sent word that he can't talk with me about the specifics of this case.

If he could, here's what I'd tell him:

Steve Horner landed in Denver exactly three years ago, bringing with him his long-running campaign against ladies' nights, one that had already earned him both headlines and thirty days behind bars in Minnesota. He promptly filed a complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, claiming that the Proof nightclub had discriminated against him when he was refused free admission at one of the club's popular ladies' nights (popular particularly with men, who liked the abundance of liquored-up ladies) and angling for the $500 that state law allows for each proven case of discrimination. He then urged the media to cover the case, sending missives like this classic addressed to Westword in December 2006: "I know you couldn't care less about the civil rights of a bold, testosterone-laden he-man like me having my civil rights ripped out from beneath me."

I cared enough about his muscular prose to buy Horner a drink at a local bar, where we met for an interview and talked about an upcoming Daily Show segment, in which the crusader compared himself to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus. As thanks, Horner later filed lawsuits against both the bar (which, yes, had a ladies' night) and Westword, charging that by printing an ad for another ladies' night, we'd discriminated against him. By now, he was fighting his war against ladies' nights on two fronts: While he continued to file complaints with the Division of Civil Rights, he was also filing lawsuits in Denver County Court, where he called one judge who ruled against him "a pussy-whipped farthead."

In August 2007, Horner got his half-day in court before Judge Brian Campbell – who, after an interminable morning, tossed out Horner's complaint against Westword, citing Colorado state statute 24-34-6012, "which provides that it is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for any person, directly or refuse, withhold from, deny to any individual or group because of disability, race, etcetera, etcetera. The plaintiff says that the defendant 'indirectly' through its advertising or its accepting of advertising contributes to the discriminatory practice of ladies' night. I don't read the word 'indirectly' in that fashion....

"I don't think that you indirectly discriminate when you take advertisements from organizations that practice, shall we say, gender discrimination.... Going on to what I consider to be discrimination in advertising, that's covered by part 7, and as everybody admits, that has no applicability to the defendant in this action. That has applicability to people who practice discrimination, advertising themselves, not to the carriers of the message."

As everybody admits, that is, but the Colorado Division of Civil Rights. Last fall, Horner finally got around to filing a complaint against Westword there, claiming that by publishing a La Bohème ladies'-night ad in June 2008, the paper had discriminated against him. And in a decision issued in February, the division said that Horner had probable cause for his complaint – despite the fact that, the year before, the division had cited Campbell's Westword determination in deciding that the Denver Newspaper Agency had not discriminated against Horner when it ran an ad in the Denver Post for a ladies' night.

In other words, the Colorado Division of Civil Rights has a double standard on double standards.

Citing that earlier DNA decision, we appealed the February ruling – but have yet to hear from the division. Instead, we've received only the July 9 letter noting that efforts at "conciliation were unsuccessful."

As the dozens of people who testified before Chavez at last week's public forums know, justice moves slowly. Horner does not. From his home in Minnesota — where it was impossible to determine whether a Colorado business would extend a ladies'-night deal to a male (which is how the Colorado Rockies resolved an earlier Horner complaint) — he continued to file complaint after complaint with the Division of Civil Rights. Complaints against wine shops for holding ladies-only wine tastings. Complaints against bars for holding ladies-only nights. And complaints against Westword not just for publishing ads for such events, but now also for writing about Horner's complaints, in columns that include "blatant attacks on my character," he charged. "I believe this to be in retaliation for previous charges of discrimination that I have filed."

Or perhaps, like a certain "bold, testosterone-laden he-man," we were simply exercising our own rights — our First Amendment rights.

Rather than paying so much attention to mail from Minnesota (on the advice of the Colorado Attorney General's Office, the civil rights division is dealing with out-of-state complaints the same way it deals with in-state complaints), Colorado might want to look to New Jersey, where the legislature is considering a bill that would allow bars to once again offer ladies' nights, which were technically prohibited by a ruling of that state's Division of Civil Rights back in 2004 — although many New Jersey clubs continue to offer them. "It's just one of these absurd over-regulatory efforts," says state senator Tom Kean Jr., the bill's sponsor. "It just shows where the bureaucracy has gone too far."

Last week, our lawyer sent another letter to the division: "We do not understand why the CCRD seriously considers interpreting the law in a way that appears to permit anyone who reads a ladies'-night advertisement in a newspaper to assert a charge with the CCRD. Yet that interpretation has led to a flood of charges from people who not only are not injured, but have not even set foot in the advertisers' establishment. Ultimately, it trivializes important civil rights principles."

The people who attended last week's civil rights forums could certainly tell that to Steve Horner. And they may get their chance. Fair warning, barkeeps: He's back in Colorado.

For more on the decade-long gap in Division of Civil Rights reports, read Wake-Up Call on the Latest Word blog. Contact the author at [email protected].

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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