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State hears discrimination complaint against 'men-only' Key West resort

Island House in Key West hosted the June 2, 2022, Pride kickoff party.
Key West Business Guild
The Island House resort hosted Key West's Pride kickoff party on June 2, 2022.

A Florida Keys woman alleges that Island House, a decades-old resort in Key West's Old Town, discriminates againstcisgender women, transgender people and those who identify as non-binary by keeping a men-only policy for patrons.

Amina Chaudhry, 38, of Cudjoe Key, filed her civil rights complaint last June against the resort with the Florida Commission on Human Rights.

During two days of commission hearings this week, the resort's owner and attorneys defended Island House, saying its business does not discriminate against anyone based on sex or gender.

"Island House is not ‘men-only,'" said attorney Wayne LaRue Smith, of Key West, who represents Island House, in an interview with WLRN. “For 20 years, there’s an ongoing record of women staying on the premises. It absolutely targets its advertising to men. We don’t have a 'gaydar' detector at the door.”

Not so, argues Chaudhry, who said she has tried to book a room with Island House only to be denied because she's a woman.

"We did ask, again the front desk staff, how do we book a room?" Chaudhry testified during the two−day hearing. "How do we apply for membership, how do we purchase a guest pass? The answers to all were, women cannot do those."

Following the hearing, Florida Administrative Law Judge John G. Van Laningham, who is based in Tallahassee, said he may issue a ruling within the next month but said his decision will be limited to Chaudhry's personal complaint.

"This isn't an action to enforce the anti-discrimination laws," Van Laningham said. "Rather, this case is about whether this particular petitioner was damaged or injured by a discriminatory practice that was applied to her in a particular instance. And that's a narrower issue."

Florida Administrative Law Judge John G. Van Langingham presides over a hearing held virtually on Monday, April 24, 2023, over a complaint that the Island House resort in Key West discriminates against women and other people. Island House staff and the resort's attorneys deny any wrongdoing.
Florida Administrative Law Judge John G. Van Langingham presides over a hearing held virtually on Monday, April 24, 2023, over a complaint that the Island House resort in Key West discriminates against women and other people. Island House staff and the resort's attorneys deny any wrongdoing.

'Sanctuary for all men'

Island House, a decades-old resort located on a corner of Key West's Old Town, advertises as an "all male," clothing-optional vacation destination.

"We truly are a sanctuary for all men," according to its website, which is filled with photos of men gathering for drinks, pool time and amenities such as the 24-hour gym, restaurant and outdoor hot tub.

Under the subhead of "All Male," is the line, "Gay, straight, FTM, bisexual, married, single, coupled, in an open relationship or totally monogamous, all men are welcome here."

There are some male-only areas, such as the locker room or showers, but that is because it's a clothing optional resort, and guests and staff have a right to privacy, said Smith, the resort's attorney.

“You can go to Island House but you’re not going to be in the shower taking a shower with men,” Smith said.

Chaudhry and resort staff have clashed in the past.

The resort staff said they asked Chaudhry to leave in June 2022 because she was disrupting a Pride Week party — a yearly event at which Island House welcomes all genders to kick off the LGBTQ celebration in Key West. Once the party wraps up, it's tradition for Island House staff to ask women to leave.

Chaudhry had brought fliers printed with legal definitions of discrimination at "places of public accommodation." The flier's headline is, "Want gender equity at Key West Pride?"

Island House staff said Chaudhry was making a scene and was escorted off the property by uniformed Key West police officers they said were hired as security for the party. Chaudhry has been banned from Island House because of her behavior that night, the resort's attorney said.

“She was distributing fliers uninvited, engaging people in a diatribe about her view on the Island House," Smith said.

"I was protesting because they wouldn't serve me," Chaudhry told WLRN.

Chaudhry represented herself at the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, in videoconference sessions held over Zoom. She questioned and cross-examined witnesses, including Island House Assistant General Manager John Michael Murray, and listened to arguments that her claim wasn't credible.

"Is it Island House policy to not book accommodations or rooms to women?" Island House's attorney Ashley Sybesma asked Murray, 69.

"Absolutely not," Murray replied.

Sybesma then asked, "Have you ever trained an island house employee to not book a room to a woman?

Murray said, "That has never happened."

Island House policies are based on the constitutional right for bodily privacy for guests and employees at a place where nudity is allowed, the resort's attorneys said.

“The Island House really endeavors to be a resort that’s a safe space for gay men to be gay,” Smith said, after the hearing wrapped up Tuesday. "Everyone has a constitutionally-protected right to choose who may not view your partially or unclothed body.”

Van Laningham, the administrative law judge, said that while testimony during the hearings touched on issues, "like right to privacy and broader issues concerning whether a clothing optional gay men's resource is permissible," those issues are beyond the scope of the proceedings.

State officials have "police powers" to raise issues concerning discrimination, Van Laningham said.

"And apparently the state has not done so, and that's not what we're here to do," he said.

Gwen Filosa covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. She has been reporting from the island chain for over a decade, from Cuban landings and the workforce housing crisis, to the oddities and charms of the Keys.
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