Kicked out of the club: a lesbian couple maintain that a New York health center booted them out because of their sexual orientation

Ann Rostow

Louise Bizzari, a registered nurse from Utica, N.Y., is not just fighting for pride, principle, and the right to use a heated swimming pool. She is literally fighting for her life.

Last year, the 55-year-old Bizzari set off on a painstaking effort to get back on her feet after years of a disabling illness. But she ran into a brick wall when the staff of the Charles T. Sitrin Health Care Center abruptly dismissed her from a public wellness program, for reasons that to the American Civil Liberties Union look suspiciously like a strong case of homophobia on the part of a Sitrin director. Sexual orientation–based discrimination was outlawed in the Empire State in December 2002, so on February 24 the ACLU filed suit against the Sitrin Center on behalf of Bizzari and her partner of over 25 years, Barbara Hackett.

“I was stunned,” Bizzari says. “And I said, ‘Please give me a reason why I’m being dismissed and not able to swim.’ And to this day I don’t have a reason.”

Bizzari’s plight began in 1994 when she was misdiagnosed with cancer and wound up spending nearly a decade in bed when doctors failed to treat her for her actual malady, osteoarthritis, according to the ACLU’s complaint. Year after year she suffered under a cure that was worse than her disease, taking steroids and other drugs that eventually left her obese, unable to move, and dependent on her life partner.

Then in 2003, Bizzari underwent gastric bypass surgery and took her first steps on the slow road back to mobility. Under doctors’ orders to get some kind of exercise, Bizzari’s only option was to find a pool. Moving around was still extremely difficult, and after years of being bedridden she tired easily.

Fortunately, the nearby Sitrin Center offered aquatic therapy and rehabilitation services. Bizzari called the center, made an appointment with a physical therapist, and also telephoned Jackie Warmuth, the director of clinical rehabilitation services for the center.

Thanks to Hackett’s domestic-partner benefits, Bizzari was insured under Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield. When Warmuth heard the specifics, however, she told Bizzari that this kind of policy was unacceptable. Bizzari then offered to pay the costs of therapy out of her own pocket, but Warmuth speculated that she would not be able to afford the fees.

Soon after, Warmuth’s off-putting behavior became moot when the women discovered that the center’s heated pool was accessible under an inexpensive family plan. In the early summer of 2004 the couple signed up for Sitrin’s wellness program, and the problem was solved.

Or so it seemed at the time.

Life went smoothly for the next six months. Bizzari felt as if she was making progress, and in December she and Hackett traveled to a specialist surgery center in St. Louis to evaluate Bizzari’s candidacy for an operation to treat her leg, foot, and ankle problems. There the doctors encouraged her to keep up the swimming, and they scheduled another evaluation for summer.

But that winter a dispute with a lifeguard apparently alerted Warmuth to the fact that Bizzari and Hackett had joined the pool program. On January 3, Warmuth phoned their house, spoke to Hackett, and told them not to return. When Bizzari called back, Warmuth said she heard that the couple had not been coming to the pool on a regular basis.

“I said that was the furthest thing from the truth,” Bizzari recalls, “and I went into this story of how badly I needed to swim, how badly I needed to reach my goal to have this surgery.”

Warmuth said, “Oh,” and the conversation ended, leading Bizzari to believe that some strange misunderstanding had been resolved.

When she went to the pool around 6 the next evening, however, she learned otherwise. No sooner had she appeared in the hallway than Warmuth confronted her and ordered her to leave the facility. According to the ACLU’s complaint, the director told Bizzari that she and her partner were “faggots” before summoning police, who eventually oversaw Bizzari’s exit from the center.

The Sitrin Center has so far denied every accusation and even lobbed a few of its own. Bizzari and Hackett were dismissed not because they were gay but “based on threats made against staff and against the facility,” a spokeswoman said in late February. In a response to the suit, the center’s lawyers say the couple “failed to follow [the center’s] policies and procedures.”

But the details of this rationale are left to the imagination, and as far as Bizzari is concerned, she and Hacker have never been given the slightest explanation for the expulsion.

Meanwhile, Bizzari’s health has declined, and the publicity has made life tough in their small town. After the news broke, one of the Roman Catholic parish-loners at their local church tried to bar them from their usual pew, and others around them refused to shake their hands at Mass. “They turned away just like we were lepers,” Bizzari says. “It was awful.”

As of press time the women have not determined what further legal route, if any, they will take. According to the ACLU, the case now proceeds to the discovery phase, where presumably the Sitrin Center will have a chance to fill in the blanks.

Rostow is a senior writer for TXT Newsmagazine.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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