Transgender woman alleges discrimination by some Belly Up staff members

A transgender woman says she was shocked and embarrassed last week when she came out of the women’s restroom during a concert at the Belly Up Tavern, and a venue employee admonished her that she had to use the bathroom corresponding with the gender on her driver’s license.

“It was like public shaming for me,” said Nataliya Holmes, 46, of Imperial Beach, who was at the music venue in Solana Beach to see a performance of the group Vaud and the Villains, on Thursday, March 23. “When that occurs in society it affects all of us. None of us want to live in a society where people are treated discriminatorily.”

Holmes said she then asked to speak to the manager, whom she identified as Jeff Keeping, who affirmed what the staff member had told her.

Kevin Kish, director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which enforces state anti-discrimination laws, said that if the exchange happened in the way Holmes described, “it’s a very clear, straightforward violation of state law. There’s really no ambiguity at all.”

In California, said Kish, the Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, which includes businesses, and the categories of protected characteristics include gender identity and gender expression, as well as race, religion, sex, disability, ancestry, age, marital status or sexual orientation.

“Nothing in the law says that a person has to use the bathroom based on their driver’s license, so requiring it is a straightforward violation. You don’t have to look a certain way or dress a certain way. The driver’s license is frankly irrelevant,” Kish said.

Keeping, the Belly Up’s general manager, did not grant an interview or answer specific questions regarding Holmes’ account of the incident. However, in response to a reporter’s email inquiry, he wrote, “Anyone who knows the Belly Up Tavern is aware of our commitment to the community. In our Venue we are conscience (sic) of the security, safety and rights of all of our patrons and we act accordingly.”

Holmes said she does not know what prompted the staff member to approach her as she left the restroom. She said she looks older than 21, and had not been asked to show her ID when she entered the venue. She believes the Belly Up employees were “profiling me as transgender.”

“As a transgender individual in San Diego, I am aware there will be discrimination in different places, but I never would have expected a major music venue would have been discriminatory toward a transgender person,” she said.

After the incident, Holmes said she contacted Solana Beach Mayor Mike Nichols, who referred her to City Attorney Johanna N. Canlas, who in turn provided contact information for DFEH. Neither Nichols nor Canlas responded to a request for comment as of press-time.

Holmes said she and her wife requested, and received, a refund for their tickets to the concert, and left the venue. Holmes said she plans to file a complaint with DFEH.

If Holmes does so, said Kish, the agency will interview her to determine if it has jurisdiction over the alleged violation. If so, the agency would then investigate.

If the violation is substantiated, DFEH would attempt to mediate a resolution, which could involve working with the Belly Up to train its employees on requirements of state law, with the goal of ensuring that such incidents do not occur in the future.

In the case of a lack of cooperation when a violation is determined, said Kish, DFEH could file a lawsuit seeking compliance.

Kish suggested that one way to avoid such issues is for establishments, when possible, to have unisex bathrooms. Unisex restrooms are also convenient for people with children, or those with disabilities, he said.

Holmes said she had recently been to a concert at a San Diego venue with unisex restrooms, which “makes it obvious that I’m welcome there and nobody’s going to give me any problem.”

As to the issue of safety and security in restrooms, Kish said that if a person is harassing others, action can be taken whether the person is transgender or not, and it would not be a civil rights violation.

“The reality is the people who are not safe in bathrooms are transgender people,” Kish said, because they can be subject to harassment.

Holmes said she wants the Belly Up to admit its mistake.

“I want them to take public responsibility for their actions and to change their policy. I want them to be a welcoming environment,” she said. “The point is to make people understand, we’re just people like anybody else. I live my life no differently than anyone else, why should I be singled out?”

The band Vaud and the Villains issued the following statement about the alleged incident:

“As a show, we are proud of our tremendously broad and diverse fanbase. Our message of acceptance is evident in our performances. Maybe that is why Nataliya brought this situation to us, and we are glad she did. We would not hesitate to abstain from playing a venue if we knew they maintained a policy that discriminated against anyone. We all thrive in communities where we feel safe and accepted. And we believe that music does more to heal and unite than to divide. When we relayed this incident and our concerns to the Belly Up, they assured us that they do not have any policy that discriminates against anyone, period. We feel given our relationship with the Belly Up and the fact that they seem eager to resolve the matter, that there is hope for a satisfying conclusion here. No one should be made to feel “less than” but in this time of change, it is important to understand and to allow that there will be mistakes and to give those people a chance to fix them. That is how we all conquer this...together and with empathy and compassion.”