Equinox Gym Faces Lawsuit Over Gay Sex

by Arielle Chavkin

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday January 10, 2007

Touring an Equinox gym is like stepping into a new era of fitness. The latest in exercise technology sits atop light wood paneled floors and buff personal trainers circle the area, available for a hefty fee. "Chicuinox," as it's often called, offers everything from a full-service spa to a juice bar. And apparently more services than that-too many for former janitors who claim that they were "exposed to inappropriate, lewd, embarrassing and humiliating sexual behavior and activities occurring in the showers, saunas, steam and [men's] locker rooms."

According to the six janitors, who have filed a lawsuit against their former bosses, the men's locker areas at five different Equinox locations-Columbus Circle, TriBeCa, East 63rd Street, Wall Street, and Greenwich Avenue in the Vilalge-had become a meetingplace for gay men to "get together" and do what some fit gay men do when they get together in a relatively secluded place wearing little more than towels. The maintenance workers complain that they were then left cleaning up after the men.

Fed up with the work environment, they allege that they went to their bosses seeking managerial protection. Unfortunately for them, however, they say they were left on their own to clean bodily fluids and handle the towels that contained them. According to their lawyer, Peter Kurshan, his clients were concerned about the "potential health issues."

"These were not isolated incidents where it happened once and then not again for weeks or months," Kurshan was quoted saying in the New York Post. "This was a continuous course of behavior that my clients were to be cleaning up afte...This is just inappropriate for maintenance workers to be exposed to and for the club to let this continue."

The lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified monetary damages, is the culmination of three years of ignored complaints. The managers of the gyms in question would not respond to numerous requests for comment on the lawsuit. Public relations representatives didn't return phone calls. However, the higher echelons of Equinox have presented a remarkably, if not predictably, calm and composed reaction to the accusations-at least, in their public statements.

Scott Rosen, the COO of Equinox Fitness, labeled the claims "frivolous," and added that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration dismissed the allegations as "being without merit. It's just not an issue," he told the Daily News. Kurshan counters that only one of his clients' claims was investigated by the EEOC. Furthermore, he stated that he remains unaware of any OSHA review conducted regarding his clients.

While this situation seems inflammatory at best, it isn't the first time that locker room sex has been an issue for New York gyms.

It's an open secret that most gyms in Manhattan have a disproportionately large gay membership. Nor is it exactly unknown that some of these men have been known to dally with each other in the showers, steam rooms or saunas. The Chelsea Gym, which was probably the first and best-known "luxury" gay-oriented gym in the city, had a steam room that was so notorious that, when the gym finally succumbed to rising rents, one of the local gay newspapers published an article in which then-City Counilman Tom Duane proposed preserving the room as a monument to gay sexuality. The article was satirical and Duane never made any such proposal. But the fact that several people took it seriously points to how widespread the gym's reputation.

Most gyms have signs posted in the wet area specifically stating that members who misbehave (using that word or similar language) will have their memberships terminated. How to interpret that, and how strictly the gym's management chooses to enforce it, however, varies widely; even within the same gym chain, enforcement may vary.

'having sex in public is against the law. When a business knows that it's going on, it's their responsibility to make it stop.'

Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of Outsports.com and a former New York Blade reporter, made a formal complaint to David Barton gym in Chelsea, claiming that they encouraged sexual behavior. Upon first joining the gym, Zeigler specifically asked if sex in the locker room was allowed. A salesperson assured him that it wasn't. "I shouldn't have been surprised that, when I took a shower there after my first workout, I saw that about six inches of space -floor to ceiling-had been left open between each shower stall," he wrote in a Blade opinion piece in December 2004. "Sure enough, it took only a couple weeks before the first person peered through the opening to watch me shower. The next time, a penis came through."

Another David Barton member, Carlos Sosa, sued the gym in 2005 for reimbursement of his membership fees and $25,000 for emotional distress. Sosa's lawyer, Brian Kennedy, claimed that the suit had nothing to do with the fact that Sosa is heterosexual but rather, it was a matter of a contractual dispute.

"It's not a straight or gay thing," Kennedy told the Blade. "I've asked a lot of gay friends what they think about this and they agree: it's a matter of hygiene. They want to take a shower and not worry about what is on the seat." Kennedy claimed that though his client requested his membership fee back repeatedly, and even sent a certified letter, the company refused to let him out of his contract.

Both Zeigler and Sosa maintain that repeated complaints to management were routinely ignored.

So what does Ziegler, outspoken on this issue, think about the lawsuit filed against Equinox? "The fact of the matter is that having sex in public is against the law, and I think that when a business knows that it's going on, it's their responsibility to make it stop. The Roxy and other bars are closed for drug use, and though the owners aren't doing it, they're responsible."

Assuming that Equinox locker rooms are, as the maintenance workers claim, site of gay male sex, wouldn't it then make sense to handle the illegality quietly? Perhaps by compensating the janitors or denying continued memberships to those men involved, rather than potentially facing the wrath of the government?

According to Ziegler, maybe not. "The government in New York City has a long history of turning a blind eye to illegal activity like this. They do a couple busts to look good, but its clear from their record that they aren't interested."

If as Ziegler claims, the legal repercussions are slim to nil, Equinox and other gyms may, in fact, even benefit from the publicity, he adds. "If I was a gym owner and I was getting business because my gym was known to be a meetingplace for gay men, and that the government wasn't going to do anything, of course I wouldn't make much of a fuss." Ziegler says.

Meanwhile, all six maintenance workers involved in the lawsuit against Equinox are now out of work, "having left in protest of this situation." Whether they're cleaning up the mess or simply don't want to be a part of it, those who don't fall in line are left on their own to deal with the consequences-if, in fact, that is the only reason why they left their positions. Kurshan told the Post that the janitors "left in part in protest of this situation." The question that needs to be decided is how large a part, if any, the bodily fluids played in their decision to leave the upscale gym chain.

A graduate of Tufts University, Arielle Chavkin is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.