A Denver man has launched a boycott of a bar that caters to the LGBT community because he believes the establishment’s ID verification policy discriminates against gender nonconforming individuals and is in violation of the state’s public accommodation laws.
Vito Marzano, 27, was denied entry to The Denver Wrangler at 1700 Logan St., Aug. 31 because managers said his appearance did not match his Colorado’s driver’s license, and they could not verify who he was and whether he was of legal drinking age.
Marzano was wearing a dress, makeup and a black wig. The driver’s license photo he provided the bar shows him with a beard and auburn hair. An assistant manager explained the bar’s appearance-matching ID policy and told Marzano he could not be served.
Marzano left the bar but returned shortly after with the intent to videotape a second attempt to gain entry.
Marzano, in an interview with Out Front, said he has consulted with lawyers and is considering filing a complaint with Colorado’s civil rights division that handles civil disputes surrounding discrimination.
“I want people in Denver to know discrimination is not acceptable,” Marzano said. “I don’t care if it’s a bar or a Wendy’s.”
Phil Newland, The Wrangler’s general manager, said his bar is in compliance with both the state’s liquor and nondiscrimination laws, and his policies are consistently enforced.
“I don’t think my current policy has to do with gender identity,” said Newland. “My current policy is (about) how you walk into my club. How can we, as a business, establish you are who you say you are (and) that you are of age to be in the club? That’s all my policy states.”
At odds are two state laws and how they should intersect.
One law forbids bars to sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 21. If a tavern or restaurant is ticketed for violating the law, owners can face thousands of dollars in fines and will be required to close its doors on either a Friday or Saturday — traditionally busy days in the hospitality industry.
The state does not explicitly outline how bars like the Wrangler should verify a person’s age. Providing a state issued identification card such as a drivers license is not required under law; each business is left to develop its own age verification policy in light of the penalties if anyone under the age of 21 is served alcohol.
The second law forbids businesses that offer goods and services like hotels or retail stores from discriminating against anyone’s actual or perceived gender identity or expression.
A pamphlet provided to Out Front from Colorado’s Civil Rights Division defines gender identity as a person’s innate sense of their own gender, and defines gender expression as an external appearance, including characteristics or behaviors that are typically associated with a specific gender.
While gender identity and expression have been debated and defined in academic terms for decades, they are relatively new to the general vernacular and laws of Colorado. Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws were only amended in 2008 to provide protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In academic literature, transgender is often an umbrella term that can include gender queer people, but they’re often different people,” said Metropolitan State University of Denver assistant professor of psychology Anna Ropp. “It’s a complicated issue. Who defines gender? Who defines sex? Those are good questions.”
A widely accepted definition of gender is an individual’s manifestation of their biological sex, Ropp said. Individuals define their gender based on society norms, family and friends and that person’s individual definition could be very narrow or broad, like in Marzano’s case. He defined his personal style of dress as “gender queer,” sometimes carries a purse, but seldom dresses completely in women’s clothing or wears a wig.
Marzano said he often patronized the Wrangler dressed in traditional men’s clothes prior to Aug. 31. He insists the Wrangler’s door staff and management could tell he was the person photographed in his driver’s license, but they chose not let him in because he didn’t conform to the cultural definition of what a man should look like.
“I looked exactly like my ID, just with foundation on,” he said.
But Newland stands by the bar’s policy and said his staff is instructed to turn away anyone who does not have an ID or does not appear to match the photo, even regular patrons on a first name basis with the bartenders — or the bartenders themselves.
“Consistency is the only way we can enforce our policies,” he said. “My staff knows they better have their ID on them if they want to drink here.”
One industry leader who spoke with Out Front said the situation was perplexing.
“You don’t want to risk losing your liquor license, but we don’t endorse discrimination in any way,” said Pete Meersman, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “If one of my members called me and asked, I’d probably tell them to err on the side of not serving that person.”
Meersman suggested representatives from Colorado’s civil rights division and liquor board come together and issue guidance.
Newland said he reached out to several regulatory agencies before and after the altercation with Marzano and found little help.
That could change if Marzano proceeds with an official complaint to the state. If the state were to investigate and issue a ruling, it would be one of just a handful of rulings regarding the state’s definition of gender discrimination.
This summer, the same state agency released a landmark ruling in the instance of a Fountain-Fort Carson school district restricting access to a public bathroom to a transgender student. The state said the school created a hostile environment for 6-year-old Coy Mathis when they forbid her from using the same girls restroom as her classmates.
“Mr. Marzano should expect to prove the stated reason the bar wouldn’t let him in simply wasn’t true and was a reason to discriminate against him because he was in drag,” said the Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, a New York nonprofit that assisted the Mathis family in their complaint.
Newland points out his bar isn’t forbidding trans men and women from entering his establishment and said he has several trans customers.
However, Marzano said the policy sets up a class system of gender — some, he said, can’t afford to fully transition, and some don’t want to.
Marzano wants the policy changed: “I’m fine never going back to the bar. What I want to see is nobody else going through what I went through that night.”
And the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado agrees.
“A bar can ask for ID to ensure that a patron is over 21, and the bar may need to assure itself that the photograph is indeed the patron presenting it, but that neither requires nor justifies the policy that has been challenged here,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director here. “If a bar does indeed have a policy of excluding persons whose gender expression doesn’t match their ID, that’s not only silly, but it also effectively discriminates against transgender persons, in violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.”
The Wrangler is prepared to defend its policy.
“I’m here every day for a meeting, to sit down and talk to people,” Newland said. “We are not transphobic. (The policy) is not discriminatory, it’s consistent.”