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Same-sex gyms should play fair

In days of yore, when the late, lamented Equal Rights Amendment was slogging through state legislatures, there was always some opponent around to warn that "if we have an ERA, we'll have to have unisex toilets."

This prospect never really alarmed me since I had - I blush to confess - grown up in a household with a unisex toilet.Nevertheless, the issue of privacy and equality - segregation and integration - has never quite disappeared. In the '80s we had all those controversies about male locker rooms and female sportscasters. Now in the late '90s, we have a controversy about women's health clubs and public accommodations.

Across the country there are about 2,000 all-women fitness facilities with about 2 million members. For the most part, women have gone about their single-sex sweating with no legal sweat.

But in Massachusetts, James J. Foster, a patent lawyer, sued Healthworks for banning him and his entire gender from their three-story place of business. It's not clear whether Foster considers himself a civil rights hero or a backlash bearer. But either way, Foster took his case to the Massachusetts Superior Court.

There the health club defended its position with the locker room argument. Healthworks based its case on privacy, arguing that many women choose an all-female club because they are uncomfortable or downright intimidated exercising with men. In addition, some are victims of abuse and others have religious constrictions about coed activities.

The Massachusetts court ruled, however, that "exercising, an activity performed before numerous other people in full exercise attire," did not constitute a private event.

Before Foster could batter down the doors of Healthworks and claim a victory for his gender, the Legislature passed a bill. It amended the law to allow an exception for same-sex fitness facilities established to promote health.

The theory this time was that women who couldn't work out alone would quit working out altogether. Thus we need separate clubs for equal health.

It is this bill, just signed into law by the governor, that surely will be tested against the state's equal rights amendment.

Now I do understand the unself-conscious joys of exercising without the jocks. I would personally prefer to join "Weight Training with the Wimps."

Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that many of the original sex-discrimination cases used men to win the benefits of gender equity. Now the public claims in favor of re-segregation are often made in the name of helping women.

But it seems to me that you cannot argue that women have the right to equal access on the links, but that no boys are allowed on our exercise turf. Why should this business be exempt from public accommodation laws and not hotels, restaurants or men's bars? If you can have single-sex members, what about a single-sex work force? The fitness floor is a slippery slope.

The rationalization for the law, that women are so intimidated we'd endanger our health rather than do leg lifts with men, is equally troubling. We can't have a public policy based again on the legal argument that men are all potential leering abusers and women are all so fragile they need to be protected by the state - even while they're doing Nautilus.

The resurgent desire for all-women spaces may come from the unhappy experience of many women who have found over the years that coed turf is still run according to male rules.

I'd like to see what would happen if the women's health clubs changed nothing but the admissions and the plumbing. What would happen if a few good men played on our turf for a change? Maybe, just maybe, we'd all get stronger.

The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.