Attitudes die hard, as columnist shows

My turn

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2000

As a long-term member of the Legislature I have grown hardened to most columnists who attack proposed legislation. To respond to these attacks is often viewed as defensive and the perception is that the author of the piece has exposed some fatal weakness or motivation in sponsoring such a bill.

Warren Wiley's recent column attacking gender-based health clubs is a different creature. His feigned outrage is masked in the type of sophomoric humor that illustrates, better than any sponsor statement, exactly why such legislation is necessary.

Under a decision by the Alaska Human Rights Commission, it is unlawful for places of public accommodation to deny access based on sex. Health clubs are not referenced in statute as a place of accommodation. My bill will clarify the law and allow for gender-based health facilities based on the Alaska Constitution's right to privacy.

I will not recount Mr. Wiley's numerous attempts at humor targeted at a quote from a proponent of my bill who wants the freedom to exercise in an environment free from being "groped by intruding eyes."

In fairness, I will mention the only semi-factual statement Wiley made, ``[that] men have been fighting for 30 years to get women admitted to their private secret clubs...''

In fact, the battle to open up ``clubs'' and other places of accommodation has been going on for many years on the basis of equal protection - because for too long many of these places denied membership based on gender and/or race. Under equal protection provisions in both the U.S. and Alaska Constitutions there is no compelling reason to discriminate based on these grounds.

So why is it so important to enact a law that would allow for gender-based health facilities? Because in some cases there are very valid privacy reasons to separate the sexes, especially where the equal protection concerns are nominal at best.

No one can deny the need for health facilities. No reasonable person would want to discourage a person from attending such a place - to maintain his or her health or to improve it. Nor could any reasonable person deny that health clubs have come to fill a social niche.

People attend health clubs to get or stay healthy - to look good and to feel better about themselves. It is also undeniably true that many people who make the commitment to join a health club are not happy about how they look. They do not go there voluntarily to join in the more social aspects of these places. They are understandably self-conscious about how they look and how society's emphasis on our physical looks craves voyeuristic eyes and invites social condemnation for anything less than physical perfection.

In his column, Wiley repeatedly attacks a person who supports my bill in order ``to be free to stretch, run and bike in an area where I don't have to worry about being groped by intruding eyes.'' He then quotes a ``Juneau contact'' who makes the asinine comment that ``One of the first things you learn as a male is that females who worry most about being groped, by `intruding eyes' or otherwise, are the ones least likely to draw that much attention.''

Wiley qualifies using this comment by writing, ``I report his remark only to give balance to the story. I do not necessarily agree with him.''

I thank Mr. Wiley for including this statement by one of his ``Juneau contacts'' because there is no better way that he could have illustrated why the right to privacy makes this bill necessary.

It is the most pernicious example of the types of attitudes to stalk the insecurities we have about our looks. Most of us do not think this way. People can be self-conscious about their bodies for a variety of reasons Mr. Wiley never touched on. I hope he will give this matter further thought.

Sen. Drue Pearce is president of the Alaska Senate.

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