“Transphobia is like god,” says Amanda Lepore. “It works in mysterious ways.” The go-go-dancing transsexual venus has been compared to everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Gypsy Rose Lee, but the most on-target comparison these days would be a more creatively attired Norma Rae. Lepore, along with friend and fellow postoperative transsexual Sophia “La Mar” Munoz, Munoz was fired from the Twilo nightclub on February 2 of last year. The two are now on their way to the New York State Supreme Court as plaintiffs under protections afforded them by the New York City Human Rights Ordinance. Their lawsuit alleges Twilo manager Mike Bindra called Munoz on an evening she was to perform with Lepore and dismissed them both, explaining that Twilo was replacing them with “real” or “biological girls.”
“I know that there were certain problems while they were there. It’s my understanding that those problems led to their termination,” says Twilo counsel Brian Gardner, who can’t be more specific due to the pending litigation. (As of press time, Twilo’s counsel had not formally responded to the summons.) Bindra refused comment, but Twilo general manager Ted Oehmke—who’s only been with the club for three months—says that the dismissal “was performance-related. It had nothing to do at all with the fact that they’re transgender.” Gardner adds, “This club does not discriminate. It’s our opinion that there are no charges that will be sustainable, especially discrimination charges, because [Twilo] has such a diverse clientele and it made its reputation having a diverse clientele, and by diverse I mean gay, straight, whatever gender identity you have.”
When Gardner blends sexual orientation and gender identity, it’s illustrative of just how confusing things can get under current state law. While New York is still far more progressive than most states, it is still an “employ at will” state, meaning an employer reserves the right to hire or fire for any reason. Certain classes of people are guaranteed the right to challenge the “at will” clause under the New York City Human Rights Ordinance. Transgender people are not explicitly listed in the statute, but judges have inferred protection for them by combining the extant gender and sexual-orientation categories to come up with gender identity.
This scenario has held up twice: once in the New York Supreme Court in 1995 with Maffei v. Koleatone Industry, and again in the Southern District New York Court in 1996 with Rentos v. OCE Office Systems. But lack of explicit protection still means that transgender people come up against a built-in motion to dismiss before they ever see a courtroom in a discrimination case.
“It is a striking irony that this case is going to court at the same time the transgendered rights bill is coming up for public hearing in the City Council,” says Pauline Park, cofounder of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA). The transgender rights bill, or Initiative Number 751, would amend the local law to include transgender discrimination protection. (NYAGRA plans a demonstration protesting Twilo’s “transgender-phobic discriminatory employment practices,” in Park’s words, in front of the club on Saturday night.)
751 also includes the revolutionary subdivision 23, which defines gender as “actual or perceived sex,” including “gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression whether or not that gender identity is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to the person at birth.” The inclusion of gender identity makes the traditional distinction of pre- or post-op decidedly old-school.
“The remedial purpose of the human rights statute is to eliminate all forms of discrimination as it exists today in this great cosmopolitan city,” says Thomas Shanahan, counsel for Lepore and Munoz. “But if it doesn’t include everybody, it doesn’t have any meaning. Judges have extended the definition, but Initiative 751 will codify that definition.”
Lepore sums up her Twilo job description: “To dress up, look freaky and flashy and over the top, and to dance.” Oehmke adds, “They would wear fairly skimpy costumes and it was just to add to the color and flavor of the evening. Sometimes they added a little bit too much color and flavor.” And their measure for success? “The raise,” Munoz says. She and Lepore maintain that they both received a pay hike just three weeks before they were fired. Shanahan argues, “The raise they were given three weeks prior to termination corroborates the satisfactory job performance.”
But former Twilo promoter Marc Berkley asks, “If you’re changing the kind of party you’re doing, or if you’re now hiring a new promoter and they’re doing something that’s totally heterosexual and they now want regular female dancers, why aren’t they allowed to do that? The crowd has changed, he’s got a much different crowd on Fridays. It’s a much younger, much ravier crowd.” As for clubs keeping up with the frenetic pace of their own trend-driven culture, Oehmke says, “We’re always cycling people through here. We change the lighting, we change the decor, and we change dancers. . . . It’s a very small business, really; it’s pretty informal.”
Lepore is no stranger to the fickle winds of clubland. “We’ve worked in every club in the city, and a lot of times they don’t want us, they decide they want something straighter. It’s fine, but they still treat us as women, or as human beings.” Munoz adds, “We worked at Webster Hall for a long time and one day they said, ‘We don’t want a gay party up there anymore because it’s not good for our image.’ We were fine with that. They don’t say, ‘We don’t want you up here because you’re transsexual.’ ”
State Senator Thomas K. Duane calls the Twilo incident “disgusting and reprehensible,” and has sent a letter to president/secretary of Stuart Cromwell, Inc., the corporation that does business as Twilo. The letter demands immediate resolution of the supreme court case and sensitivity training put in place for all club employees. Scott Melvin, a legislative aide of Duane’s, says, “Sure, Twilo is denying the charge, but the club’s behavior, as in the past, has been less than lackluster, including hiding OD’s in the basement during police actions. That kind of behavior would absolutely put this charge in the realm of the possible.” Duane adds, “Twilo is not a good corporate citizen, even in terms of cooperating with the police and community boards.”
Oehmke rebuts, “We have had absolutely no problems in the last two years with the community boards or anything like that.” But Officer Robert Cusick, who handles community affairs for the 10th Precinct in which Twilo resides, corroborates Duane’s accusations. From a confiscated security tape, Cusick says, “We saw them dragging the OD’s around from room to room, trying to avoid us.” He also points out that approximately 15 charges were issued early on the morning of March 24, including citations for the sale of alcohol to a minor, unlicensed security, and forged ID.
Twilo’s standing in the community becomes relevant as this case is sure to boil down to credibility: Bindra’s word against Munoz’s. As to the dancers being replaced with “real” or “biological girls,” Shanahan explains, “The bottom line is, he told them they were letting them go based upon the fact that they were transsexuals and that they wanted to hire biological women to replace them. We intend on showing that they did hire biological women to replace them and that’s against the law.”
Both girls self-identify a bit to the left of biological women—if they didn’t, in fact, then Shanahan might have a more clear-cut case. Munoz calls herself “third sex,” while Lepore says, “Sometimes I get called a drag queen and I’ll be naked. It just seems stupid to me. Obviously, I’m very draggy, but so are a lot of other women—Dolly Parton looks just as extreme as I do. How could you have breasts and a pussy and be a drag queen?”