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Bureau of Labor and Industries investigates after hangout closes doors to transgender customers

By Philip Ellefson
On October 25, 2012

For senior Connor Reiten, the Twilight Room Annex is a nice place to spend a low-key evening. And he was never bothered by other customers there, including the Rose City T-Girls, a group of transgender women who used to frequent the bar. He said they were polite customers.

"The one time I saw them they seemed to keep to themselves," Reiten said.

But now that the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) has investigated the owner of the bar for complaints of discrimination against the T-Girls, it might not matter how polite they were.

An investigation by the Civil Rights Division of BOLI earlier this month found substantial evidence that Christopher Penner, the owner of the Twilight Room Annex, has discriminated against transgender patrons of the bar.

The bar, which was formerly known as the Portsmouth Club or the P Club, is on Lombard next to the Twilight Room, a bar popular among UP students. For two years, the T-Girls went to the Twilight Room Annex every Friday night.

In July, Penner asked the T-Girls to stop patronizing the bar because he felt they were driving customers away. According to the BOLI claim against Penner, he left a message on one of the T-Girls' phones.

"People think that A, we're a tranny bar, or B, we're a gay bar," Penner said on the voicemail. "We are neither. People are not coming in because they just don't want to be here on a Friday night now."

Shortly after Penner notified the T-Girls, it was brought to the attention of Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. Avakian filed a commissioner's complaint to have the bar investigated on charges of discrimination.

"I do think it's important for people to know when discrimination occurs and that there's someone out there who is standing up for them," Avakian said.

Now that the investigation is complete, the case will move to a BOLI prosecution unit, which will decide whether or not to send the case to a judge for a hearing.

According to Bob Estabrook, communications director for BOLI, the damages will be filed along with the formal charges against the Twilight Room Annex. These may include fines and an order for the bar to change its policy and hold mandatory training for all workers.

The T-Girls are a group of transgender women, people who identify as women but were assigned male at birth. The BOLI investigation report said some of the T-Girls have undergone sex reassignment surgery, while others normally identify as men but sometimes dress as women.

According to the BOLI investigation, Penner has hired gay and lesbian employees. He also hired a transgender male but referred to this worker as a woman despite being asked to stop, the investigation said.

Under Oregon law, discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression is unlawful. Gender identity and expression are a sub-class of sexual orientation that protects transgender people.

Beth Allen, the lawyer representing the T-Girls, said the transgender community faces particular obstacles. But because of the message left on the T-Girl's phone, Allen said it should be easy to prove discrimination occurred.

"It's unusual to have a case with a smoking gun. Lawyers talk about wanting a smoking gun," Allen said. "This is one of those cases, and it makes our job a lot easier."

In the meantime, Allen said boycotting is the best way for customers of the Twilight Room Annex to support the T-Girls.

"It's important that students who have patronized the P Club understand that money does talk," Allen said. "If they feel that discrimination is wrong, then they should not spend money at the P Club."

Avakian said it is important to remember that the case in ongoing.

"Nobody has been found guilty of anything yet," Avakian said. "The P Club is gonna have their opportunity to present their dissent."

Penner denies that he discriminated against transgender patrons and said the Twilight Room Annex is an LGBTQ-friendly bar.

"We have always been a gay, lesbian, transgender-friendly bar. We're not a homophobic bar in any way, shape or form," Penner said. "If I had any problem with transgender people, why would I let them come to my bar for two years?"

But Penner did admit that he was concerned about the success of his business. Penner said sales dropped 25 percent since the T-Girls began frequenting the bar.

"They were hurting business," Penner said. They started coming in about two years go, and we were having good Friday nights in here. When they showed up, it was no big deal. But after two years, they pretty much took over the bar."

Penner also said that his manager and bartenders had received complaints from other customers about the T-Girls using the women's restroom.

"I don't know how many women would want to go into a restroom where there are a bunch of guys, sometimes heterosexual guys, dressed up as women," Penner said.

Though the investigation is complete, Penner said it was one-sided. He provided BOLI a list of people to talk to, but he said none of those people were contacted for the investigation.

Penner plans to settle the case outside of the potential BOLI hearing. He said he called BOLI to ask how to settle, and that they have not yet returned his call.

Reiten and senior Kelsey Varce, who sometimes go to the Twilight Room Annex, said the discrimination case was surprising. They also said that it was probably bad for the Twilight Room Annex's business.

"After this discriminatory issue, it makes people not want to go," Varce said.

According to Reiten, the Twilight Room is said to have gained popularity among UP students several decades by being tolerant of minorities. The owner offered to serve African American basketball players when other bars would not let them in.

The Twilight Room is owned by Penner's father, and Penner said he helps run his father's business.

Reiten noted the irony in the current situation and said he won't support the Twilight Room Annex with his business.

"The T-Room gained popularity with students by being more accepting of minorities," Reiten said. "Now the P Club is going against those ideas."

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