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How Men Are Suing Women-Only Events in California for Discrimination — And Winning

This past Mother’s Day, lawyer Alfred “Al” Rava celebrated an anniversary. It had been 12 years since he went to an Oakland Athletics game and was denied a hat given out to women in celebration of women with breast cancer and mothers.

In May 2006, the Oakland A’s hosted a Race for A Cure 5k, raising money for breast cancer research and supporting survivors. The first 7500 women to attend the game that day were given a commemorative reversible plaid sun hat from Macy’s. Rava, whose own mother died of breast cancer, sued the baseball team for gender discrimination, and after a judge found the case worthy of trial, the team eventually settled with Rava, awarding him $510,000.

But this would be just one of Rava’s attempts to benefit from women-focused fundraisers, events, or opportunities. It was strategic, and laid the groundwork for a cottage industry in California where men like Rava weaponize a certain state law to go after the disenfranchised and get rich doing so.

It’s a strategy that could begin spreading across the United States if unchecked.

How To Get Rich Off Minorities

Since 2003, the San Diego-based Rava has been making hundreds of thousands of dollars targeting women-focused organizations, events, and businesses by alleging they are discriminating against white, straight men.

Rava first sued seven San Diego nightclubs and bars that offered ladies’ night discounts to women patrons. Since then, Rava has spent no shortage of time suing spaces and events that relegate something specific to women only, filing on behalf of himself and sometimes, other cisgender men.

In each of his complaints, Rava utilizes a 1959 California law called The Unruh Civil Rights Act. The Act decrees that “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments” shall be offered to “all persons.”

Rava, who would only agree to be interviewed via email, says he has prosecuted “300 Unruh Civil Rights Act discrimination cases” in his career, claiming he’s been “very fortunate” to do so “in [his] long fight against businesses that unlawfully treat consumers unequally.”

The Unruh Act was an expanded version of the state’s expansion of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which required “full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” California created its own more liberal original public accommodations law in 1897 in the name of “preventing arbitrary discrimination and promoting justice.”

And the expansion of this legislation was initially used to help protect queers in the state.

In a 1951 Stoumen v. Reilly case, the court found that the Black Cat, later famous as the site of a pre-Stonewall protest in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, was allowed to keep its liquor license, which was originally suspended because of the bar’s largely gay patronage. The court found that the license should be reinstated, as “mere proof of [homosexual] patronage, without proof of immoral or illegal acts on the premises” was not enough to keep the bar from serving gay patrons.

This case, among others, led the state to amend the statute in 1959, expanding it to include all businesses and establishments, including non-profits. In 1985, two pivotal cases also informed the use of the Unruh Act as it pertains to gender discrimination — and helped form it to the weapon that Rava wields today.

In the case of Isbister v. Boys’ Club of Santa Cruz, the California Supreme Court found that the Boys’ Club was in violation of the Act by denying membership to girls. That same year, the Court also ruled on Koire v. Metro Car Wash, where they decided that ladies’ nights, sex-based discounts, specials at bars, or other business establishments represented sex stereotyping and, therefore, were illegal under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.

In 2003, Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown signed the the Gender Nondiscrimination Act (AB 887), clarifying that “sex” included gender. That would be the same year Rava began filing his gender discrimination lawsuits. In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Civil Rights Act of 2005 (AB 1400) into law, specifying that discrimination was also not allowed based on a patron’s gender identity, sexual orientation, and marital status. In these attempts to help protect those who are the most discriminated against, the state government might have also given men like Rava an opening to use the law against them.

“The Man Tax”

The pattern of alleging discrimination against men in his complaints suggests Rava and his clients are actively pursuing women’s-only events solely in order to use the law to their advantage – thus targeting them specifically, and even maliciously. But Rava denies this, despite being listed as a member and secretary of the men’s rights group, the National Coalition for Men, on their website.

The NCM’s website says the group is “dedicated to the removal of harmful gender based stereotypes, especially as they impact boys, men, their families and those who love them,” and includes a video on “Rape Hysteria” as well as the promotion of a book called How To Avoid ‘Getting Screwed’ When Getting Laid by fellow member and lawyer RK Hendrick.

Rava says he doesn’t believe that women, LGBTQs, and people of color are any less marginalized than cisgender, heterosexual men like himself and his clients.

“Every group is marginalized, including the groups you omitted from your list of marginalized groups, and those two groups are white people and men,” he tells INTO. “In my discrimination practice, I have found that by far it is men who have been marginalized by businesses such as Ladies Get Paid.”

In 2017, Rava filed suit against the women-focused business and entrepreneurial group, Ladies Get Paid, after his client, Rich Allison, attempted to attend an event that was for women only. Ladies Get Paid is just shy of two years old — with regional chapters in 18 cities and more than 20,000 members worldwide actively participating in an online Slack forum, and many showing up for in-person events.

Claire Wasserman, a queer woman who lives in New York with her partner, said she was inspired to start Ladies Get Paid because there wasn’t any other space for women to discuss the wage and leadership gap, as well as other disparities that set them apart from cisgender males in the workplace.

“We are female identifying and non binary identifying only because the whole thing has been predicated on making people feel very comfortable to speak candidly,” Wasserman tells INTO. “I felt like there was no progress that we could make if we were bullshitting each other, and I wanted people to say how much they made and the tough stuff and the sexual harassment stuff they were experiencing. I felt like if we had men in the room, it just wouldn’t happen — no way.”

In Rava’s complaint against Ladies Get Paid, he describes how his “heterosexual male” client, Allison, purchased a ticket to an event called “Ladies Get Drinks” from Eventbrite. Allison showed up to the event at the Red Door restaurant in San Diego, ticket in hand, and was told that he could not enter because he was a man. Although he was eventually allowed inside, Allison was not provided the same discounted drink that the women attending the events received.

Rava argues that Allison was forced to pay a “Man Tax” on drinks and services, referencing the 1985 Koire v. Metro Car Wash case in his suit.

Recentering And Taking Back Space

Rava and the men he has represented in several cases like the one brought against Wasserman and Ladies Get Paid are suing under the guise of a law that in theory should be used, in part, to aid in gender parity as it relates to women who have long been left out of the centuries-old boys club. In more recent years, Rava has also sued comic Iliza Shlesinger for her “Girls Night In” comedy show and the women’s networking group Chic CEO.

“All Chic CEO is trying to do is provide women with the information they need to get a business started,” CHIC founder Stephanie Burns told Mother Jones. “Just because we help women, doesn’t mean we hurt men.”

Rava also sent a letter to San Diego’s city attorney on behalf of Allison, protesting the Girls Empowerment Camp, a free two-day camp for young girls to learn about careers in fire service and other public safety agencies. Allison claimed his 17-year-old son wanted to attend, but was unable to sign up. Rava sent a letter to the city of San Diego saying the camp violated both state and federal anti-discrimination statutes. Though organizers claim they had no record of his signing up, and also that the camp was full at the time of his alleged attempts, the event was eventually cancelled.

“I was really upset,” 14-year-old Alexandra Mondragon told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “My mom told me what happened and I was kind of sad and a little bit angry because this guy is taking away a camp for so many girls that they have already signed up for and registered for… I feel this is really taking away from female empowerment.”

A few defendants who have been sued by Rava and went to trial have won against Rava.

One was the owner of a Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles, who Rava sued in 2012 for offering discounted rates for women as part of a campaign to promote breast cancer awareness. The trial court decided that because the promotion benefitted breast cancer survivors and research, and women are proven to be more susceptible to breast cancer (“with men comprising less than one percent of those annually diagnosed with breast cancer”), the Club was justified. Rava’s claims, they found, were “not supported by the interpretation of, or policy behind, the [Unruh] Act.”

Nonetheless, Wasserman’s lawyer advised her to settle with Rava. Having created her business and seen firsthand how much other women have enjoyed the conversations and opportunities afforded them by Ladies Get Paid, Wasserman wasn’t ready to give her business and all of her money to a lawsuit. She wanted to fight, but is now looking to make other women aware of how California’s anti-discrimination laws can be used against women and other minorities.

She already had to let her only one full-time employee go and is now raising money to recoup what she paid in legal fees in a fundraising campaign. Ladies Get Paid has a strong, encouraging community of women who don’t want to lose what they’ve built, especially not to someone like Rava, who, in a 2017 op-ed for Law.com likened the Women’s Leaders Awards to being placed in the “special education curriculum for attorneys.”

“He’s just using the facts that fit into the law that exists in order to make a point, and that point is way bigger than the hat,” says Los Angeles-based lawyer Emily Rubenstein, who sees a lot of men’s rights activists in her work as a divorce attorney. “It’s basically caused fear into these groups and forced them into submission. The only choice is to fundraise for the chance that they may be sued or fundamentally change how they do what they do.”

What’s most important to Wasserman now—besides keeping Ladies Get Paid alive—is alerting those looking to carve out space for minority and otherwise oppressed groups that could have benefited from the very legislation that’s being used to put them out of business. She’s concerned that even drawing attention to the case could put these gatherings in danger but believes it’s a necessary conversation to have.

“I need women to understand that doing this kind of work, coming together in a room, talking about money, talking about power is way bigger than they know; it’s way more political than they know,” she says.

So how can businesses and other events navigate this kind of legislation that seems to hurt as much as help them? Instead of telling cis men they aren’t allowed inside, or aren’t privy to certain offers or discounts, owners and organizers can encourage and prioritize women’s voices, letting participants know that the event is centered around a specific experience.

“If you can get around the motivations by welcoming men but having strict rules that do apply to everyone, that can weaken [Rava’s] case,” Rubenstein says. “There are benefits to having men out in the world who are well-versed [in women’s issues] if they actually pay attention.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Rava and his clients are looking for an education.

“It wasn’t about the hat to this guy,” Rubenstein says. “The guy could have bought a breast cancer hat online for probably $22 and given to the cause. It’s not about the hat.”

The reality is that in California, women-only spaces cannot legally exist without the threat of a lawsuit from the likes of Rava. That’s unfortunate, Wasserman says, as she knows from experience how powerful those spaces can be.

“Being that statistically women speak up less if there are men in the room—I mean, we would feel judged,” she says. “So to me it was a no brainer that it should be female-identifying only. I never, ever, ever thought that this could be breaking the law. I just was so focused on the merit of [Ladies Get Paid].”

“Clearly we need this,” she continues, “so it was like, ‘How could it be bad?’”

 

Trish Bendix

Trish Bendix is the Managing Editor of INTO.

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