Transgender woman in fight to use restrooms

She's asked state to rule whether bar's exclusion policy is discrimination

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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photoVancouver transgender woman Norma Ballhorn has been fighting for the right to use the ladies restroom at three local bars. She filed a complaint against Legends Food & Fun Monday with the State Human Rights Commission for refusing her service after she tried to use the ladies restroom and said she is considering filing against Ice House and 3 Monkeys Pub.

(/The Columbian)

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Vancouver resident Norma Ballhorn has worked hard to become a woman. She takes a concoction of hormones, changed her name from "Norman" to "Norma," updated her driver's license to reflect her female identity and wears clothing with feminine embellishments, such as butterfly sleeves. But Ballhorn, 56, still isn't allowed to use the ladies room at three Clark County bars, she said.

"They're using their right to refuse service to discriminate against me," Ballhorn said.

She filed a complaint Monday against Legends Food & Fun with the State Human Rights Commission. She said she is considering filing complaints against Icehouse Bar & Grill and 3 Monkeys Pub on the same grounds.

"I'm trying to give them a chance to talk to me, give them information and maybe change their minds about me," she said of Icehouse and 3 Monkeys.

Laura Lindstrand, a commission policy analyst, said the commission has received the complaint and assigned an investigator to it. Investigations typically take four to 12 months, she said.

While law doesn't specifically address transgender use of public restrooms, the commission's interpretation of the state's freedom-from-discrimination law is that businesses are required to allow a person to use the restroom of the sex he or she identifies with, Lindstrand said.

Ballhorn said she enjoys going to the bars to socialize ever since she was divorced from her wife of 32 years.

"I just like to have a beer and visit with other people because I live all by myself in a 29-foot fifth-wheel," she said.

Ballhorn, a retired ironworker and Vietnam veteran, said she filed a complaint against Legends after a bartender told her to leave. Ballhorn was banned from returning to the bar after attempting to use the ladies room and getting into an argument with the bar's owner over the issue, said Legends bartender Cathy Botkin.

Botkin said women complained about Ballhorn's being in the restroom because Ballhorn has not yet had a sex-change operation.

3 Monkey manager Joel Sweeten said he also asked Ballhorn not to use the ladies room because women customers told him it made them uncomfortable.

"My policy is, when ladies tell me they don't want him in there, I don't let him in," Sweeten said. "My concern for the women's safety is more important."

When Ballhorn returned to Legends on Aug. 27, the bartender called law enforcement. Two Clark County sheriff's deputies showed up and told Ballhorn that if she didn't leave, she would be charged with criminal trespassing, Ballhorn said.

Botkin said Ballhorn was welcome in the bar as long as she didn't use the ladies room and as long as Ballhorn didn't act aggressively when employees asked her not to use the ladies room.

"I love everybody for who they are," Botkin said. "We had no problem with serving him before."

Sgt. Fred Neiman, sheriff's spokesman, said he couldn't comment on Ballhorn's account of deputies' intervention at Legends because he had no information about it. There also was no police report, as the call didn't result in an arrest. However, the agency is reviewing its policy to ensure no one's civil liberties are violated.

"We will be reviewing our policy, as we do with all of our policies and all of our practices as issues come up in the community, references, decisions and new laws," Neiman said. When that review is completed, the sheriff's department will email out a memo that each staff member is required to sign electronically.

He said sheriff's department is committed to "treat everyone with respect."

Cases like Ballhorn's are relatively rare.

Out of the 1,024 complaints the Human Rights Commission received in 2011-2012, 126, or 12.3 percent, concerned "public accommodations," such as public restrooms, Lindstrand said. Of those 126, just 13 were related to gender-identity issues, she said.

That's part of the difficulty in knowing how to respond to such cases, Neiman said.

"It's an evolving issue, something we haven't dealt with on a usual basis," Neiman said. "I've been (at the sheriff's office) for 33 years, and I can't recall this issue coming up before."

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.