Virginia athletic club lets gay family join, but still won't call them that

The Roanoke Athletic Club in Virginia changed its “Family Membership” policy this week after two men filed a lawsuit against RAC. While the policy now extends to all familly structures, by changing the name to “households” RAC is still refusing to recognize them as families.

In late May, partners Will Trinkle and Juan Granados applied for Family Membership with RAC so they and their two-year-old son Oliver could access the club’s pool during the summer. Though their application was initially approved, RAC revoked their family membership just days later. RAC explained that it was trying to align with Virginia state law, which does not recognize civil unions or marriage for couples who are gay, and thus would not recognize Will, Juan, and Oliver as a family.

Trinkle was told by a company representative that RAC would be “‘tightening policies’ so no families like us would ever ‘get as far’ as we had.”

"We couldn't imagine this kind of discrimination," said Trinkle.

Will and Juan, in turn, filed a law suit against RAC, claiming breach of contract and violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. A petition was launched on their behalf as well, and garnered close to 180,000 signatures in just a few days.

Responding to the lawsuit and backlash from the public, RAC, which is owned by Carilion Clinic, has made a change. Its Family Membership has been nominally changed to “Household Membership.” According to Carilion Clinic Vice President Bud Grey: “A household consists of a primary member and up to one additional household member that permanently lives in the household, and any of their dependent children under the age of 22 who also reside in the household on a permanent basis.”

The change in policy, he said in the company’s announcement, is “in recognition of the many contemporary households.”

Will’s lawyer, John Fishwick, said about the new Household Membership, “This is the primary reason that the case brought and that’s been achieved,” and added, “Will is very pleased.”

While a more inclusive policy is now in place, the situation is far from resolved. Will and Juan told WLS 10, their local NBC affiliate, “We will see how we are received there [RAC]. There is obviously some error of bigotry and discrimination that we hope is not there anymore. We hope they see that is the right way to go."

WLS 10 also calls out RAC for evading conversation about discrimination against their LGBT members, naming the phrase “contemporary household” is code for “same sex, gay, or homosexual,” allowing RAC to move forward “without ever mentioning the phrases.”

Along with WLS 10, the story has been covered by other local news outlets, including The Roanoke Times, Richmond Times-Dispatch, ABC 13 WSET-TV, CBS 6 WTVR, and WDBJ 7. By and large, these outlets have overlooked RAC’s glaring sidestep of a key issue: that the club still does not think that Will, Juan, and Oliver are a family.

It is often said that policies of any kind are most effective when they reflect a change in attitude. In refusing to acknowledge that not all families consist of “a husband, a wife, and dependents” (the language used in their Family Membership guidelines), RAC and Carilion have not displayed a change in attitude about what makes a family; rather, they have only changed the number of people who can access their facilities at a discounted rate.

In the Columnists & Blogs section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, columnist Michael Paul Williams did call out RAC for this discrimination. Williams also contrasts RAC’s Household Membership (as well as a similar household membership at Virginia’s American Family Fitness) with the YMCA of Greater Richmond, which welcomes “any two adults in the household and dependent children” to acquire family membership.

The one-word difference may seem slight, but the sentiment behind it is heavy. GLAAD calls on these local news outlets to accurately and thoroughly report on RAC’s treatment of and attitudes towards LGBT families. Without acknowledging the club’s lingering discrimination against non-traditional families, and by not calling the RAC out on overt sidestepping of a main issue at hand, the general public is not being given the whole story and the RAC will continue to treat LGBT families differently.