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Sunday, April 03, 2005

ACLU: Health center 'smears' lesbian pair

Community - Planet Out
Planet Out
ACLU: Health center 'smears' lesbian pair

Fri Mar 4, 8:33 PM ET

Ann Rostow, PlanetOut Network

SUMMARY: The ACLU has accused a health center of retaliating against a lesbian couple because the two women are suing the center for discrimination.

Representatives of the Charles T. Sitrin Health Care Center in Utica, N.Y., are allegedly accusing two lesbians of "inappropriate behavior" at their facility. The charges, widely reported on local radio and television, were made in response to a discrimination lawsuit filed by the ACLU on Feb. 24 after the couple was "dismissed" from the center's swimming program, apparently on account of their sexual orientation.

The ACLU fired off an angry press release on Friday, lambasting the center for making "wild accusations" in a "ham-fisted attempt to distract the public from the Sitrin Center's own disgraceful behavior."

Louise Bizzari and Barbara Hackett are life partners in their 50s and 60s, respectively. Not only was there no inappropriate behavior at poolside, ACLU spokespeople say, but many of the friends they made at the center never even knew the women were lesbians until they were summarily told not to return.

The dispute began after Bizzari called Sitrin's director of clinical rehabilitative services, Jackie Warmuth, in order to arrange to use the center's therapeutic pools. Bizzari, who had been misdiagnosed with cancer and severely disabled by nine years of cancer treatment, was under doctor's orders to get into shape for future surgery. When Warmuth learned Bizzari planned to use her domestic partner insurance policy to pay for therapy, Warmuth told her the insurance was unacceptable. She also declined Bizzari's offer to pay her own way.

Subsequently, Bizzari and Hackett signed up for an inexpensive wellness program that included use of the pools. But when Warmuth later learned the women were using the facility, she had them "dismissed" from the center in January, calling Bizzari and her partner "faggots" as a parting gesture.

Now, according to the ACLU, local radio shows are disparaging the women. Their friends have called them dozens of times to report hearing slanderous accusations. After appearing on the local news, Barbara Hackett was called "pervert" as she walked down the street in this small upstate town.

Utica's Channel 10 news ran the text of a quote from Rosemary Bonacci, Sitrin's director of communications, who said Bizzari was kicked out "solely based on her inappropriate conduct in the facility and her sexual orientation was not a factor." According to the ACLU, Sitrin has also suggested the women were kissing at the pool, a "ludicrous" statement that "only proves the Sitrin Center's discrimination against the gay community."

"We know that there are people out there who support Barbara and Louise and are outraged at the way they've been treated ... and we urge those members of the community to speak out publicly against the Sitrin Center's behavior," wrote the civil libertarians. "Our plaintiffs have been through enough without the Sitrin Center adding insult to injury through such base, incendiary tactics."

The ACLU's lawsuit was brought in state court, under New York's sexual orientation nondiscrimination act. That law prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, housing and in public accommodations like the Sitrin Center. A hearing on the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled later this month.

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