Ivey Gardner remembers that Sunday in May as like any other day.
The 23-year-old went to the gym before going out with friends. They were planning to go to the mall or maybe the square in Leesburg, located on the outskirts of Orlando in central Florida. Known for its annual watermelon festival, the tourist-friendly town is enveloped by a constellation of picturesque lakes. She intended to get a tan in the locker room beds at the nearby Planet Fitness while she waited for a friend to get off work.
What happened instead would change her life forever, Gardner tells INTO.
While Gardner, who is transgender, was putting on makeup in the locker room, she says a woman approached her and began screaming that she didn’t belong in the women’s facilities. In a series of insults allegedly hurled at Gardner, the woman called her a “man” and a “clown.”
“Why are you putting on makeup?” Gardner remembers her saying. “You’re not fooling anyone. No one thinks that you’re a woman.”
Although Gardner says she attempted to ignore the abuse, it didn’t stop.
“I’m going to tell everyone what’s in here,” the woman allegedly screamed at her. “I’m going to tell everyone there’s this thing with a penis in the locker room.”
This was a first for Gardner. Despite the fact that 70 percent of trans people say they have been verbally assaulted or attacked while using the bathroom at some point in their lives, she claims she never had an issue like this before. Sometimes other women had avoided her, but up until two and a half months ago, Gardner counted herself as one of the lucky 30 percent.
Believing that what she was experiencing was criminal sexual harassment, Gardner finished putting on her makeup and went to the front desk to ask them to call the police. Instead she called 911 herself and went out to the parking lot to get the woman’s license plate number.
But by the time they got there, Gardner began having a severe panic attack. When authorities arrived at the scene, they called an ambulance to take her to the hospital — where she was reportedly treated for three days.
After her release, Gardner considered taking the matter to civil court but didn’t have money for an attorney. Instead she decided to move on.
Gardner says she was prepared to do that until a couple weeks ago. While she was on her lunch break at a local college where she is taking cosmetology classes, Gardner went to her locker to check her phone and discovered a torrent of text messages informing her she was all over the news.
The right-wing law firm Liberty Counsel had sent a letter to Planet Fitness alleging that the national fitness chain discriminated against the woman — referred to as “Mrs. H” — by revoking her membership following the episode.
“Planet Fitness must immediately reinstate Mrs. H’s membership and make changes to its membership and locker room policies to prevent blatant sex-based harassment by males in the women’s lockers and restrooms,” Liberty Counsel claimed in a July 12 letter sent to Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau.
As part of its “No Judgment” policy, Planet Fitness allows customers to access facilities “based on their sincere self-reported gender identity.”
Liberty Counsel has demanded that Planet Fitness either overturn those guidelines by limiting locker room access on the basis of “biological sex” or post “prominent” notices in all of its gym locations that customers “may encounter members of the opposite sex in areas traditionally reserved for single-sex use.”
The anti-LGBTQ hate group, which famously defended Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in court, initially demanded Planet Fitness respond to the order by July 31. They later granted an extension to August 10. If the company does not cave to their demands before that date, Liberty Counsel is threatening to pursue a lawsuit against Planet Fitness for violating the woman’s “civil rights.”
Gardner says that letter has been a huge weight on her. Since it was made public last month, she has cried almost every day.
“Ever since I came out as trans, my life has gotten harder,” Gardner claims in a phone interview. “It’s been a rollercoaster of high and low emotion. Some days I feel on top of the world, and there’s other days where I feel grotesque—like I’m ugly and hideous. For someone to personify all the anxieties I have about myself and throw them in my face, it was definitely a hard situation to go through.”
“Now that I have been made into this monster, it’s hard on my soul and my heart to continue on living,” she adds.
Gardner claims Liberty Counsel’s letter completely misrepresents what happened that day. For instance, the complaint alleges Gardner was merely “pretending to apply makeup” — citing as evidence that it took her nearly an hour to do so.
While Gardner does not dispute that she spent a long time in the locker room, she explains that makeup application is “starkly different” for cis and trans women. The average cisgender woman might take around 15-20 minutes reapplying makeup after the gym to feel comfortable going about their day, but for someone so early in their transition, it’s not a quick process.
“For me, it entails doing beard cover,” Gardner says. “You have to lay that foundation down. My base, even if I’m not doing anything else, takes 20 to 25 minutes. So you’re doing foundation, then you’re doing powder, contouring, and eyebrows, which takes about 10-15 minutes.”
“I was doing my eyes that day, and that takes a good 20 minutes,” she continues. “It adds up.”
Another aspect of the letter Gardner finds troubling is the allegation that she “exposed [her] naked body” to a second woman in the locker room. In the entire time that she has been a member of Planet Fitness, Gardner claims she has only showered at the facility once. She wore her bathing suit.
While Liberty Counsel alleges she was flaunting her appearance due to a misogynistic “fetish,” that assertion is based on a debunked myth that trans people exploit public facilities to prey on women and children.
In addition, Gardner says that characterization doesn’t describe her relationship with her body.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the way I look,” she claims. “I’m not on hormones, I haven’t had any surgeries, and I’m very dysphoric about certain things on my face and my body. I’m not where I wanted to be in my transition. I definitely didn’t want to be in the public eye at the stage I am.”
The reason Gardner is coming forward now — despite the discomfort of putting herself out there — is because she says so few people have been willing to tell her side of the story.
After the Liberty Counsel letter began circulating the web last month, Gardner’s photos and her birth name were splashed all over news sites and right-wing blogs while “Mrs. H” was granted privacy. On The Blaze, Breitbart, The Christian Post, and World News Daily, commenters called Gardner a “freak” and “mentally unstable.” Meanwhile, a Fox News segment debating the complaint likened her to a predator.
Friends reached out to publications that had covered the story and begged them to interview her. Prior to this story, just one outlet responded: the Orlando news channel WFTV.
Denying Gardner the opportunity to speak, she says, has allowed Liberty Counsel to continue spreading “numerous lies” about what took place that day. For instance, when the local ABC affiliate aired an earlier segment about the complaint, WFTV interviewed the woman under the condition of anonymity. She claimed she was unaware Gardner was transgender until her membership was revoked.
Gardner says that claim is false.
“She made multiple remarks about my ‘trying to appear as a woman,’” Gardner alleges. “If she didn’t know I was trans, I don’t know why she would make remarks like that.”
What keeps Gardner going through this ordeal is the support of her family and community. Her mother, who suffers from severe anxiety, drove on the highway for the first time in years to make sure she could get to her WFTV interview. Friends have donated $245 on GoFundMe to get her a lawyer. It’s a small sum, but every dollar gets her a step closer to justice.
Every single attorney she has approached has, thus far, been unwilling to help. Gardner calls around to law firms in the central Florida area every single day to get them to look at the case, and no one will touch it.
Gardner is going to keep calling until someone listens.
As Liberty Counsel’s suit against Planet Fitness is likely to move forward after a similar case against Planet Fitness in Michigan was allowed to proceed, she feels she doesn’t have a choice.
“I would love to not be in the circumstance I am now, but that wasn’t my decision to make,” Gardner says. “It was made for me. This woman refuses to be named in any publication she’s gone to but has chosen to put my name out there. She made the decision to put me in the public eye.”