Figure skaters forced from Berkeley rink
by Jim Provenzano
Two gay male figure skaters are suing a Berkeley ice rink after one of its managers demanded that they get off the ice simply because, they say, they were holding hands while practicing their routine.
Allen Lessik and John Manzon-Santos, both of San Francisco, said they were twice told to leave the rink at the Berkeley Iceland rink by manager Monte Tiedemann.
The first incident happened when they were practicing in April 2005 at the Berkeley Iceland rink, located at 2727 Milvia Street.
"We had been skating there for over a year," said Lessik. "[Tiedemann] had been there only twice when we were skating. Then he kicked us out. He told us to stop and we did, even though there were male-female couples skating."
Manzon-Santos said that Tiedemann said the pair "presented a liability, even though there were other pairs on the ice at the time." Those couples, however, were men with women. "We ended up going back for almost 10 months without incident," said Manzon-Santos.
On February 4, 2006, while Tiedemann was coaching another skater, he again confronted Lessik and Manzon-Santos.
When Tiedemann confronted them the second time, there were few people on the ice, mostly more advanced skaters who knew how to avoid a collision. But Manzon-Santos said that Tiedemann walked onto the ice without skates, and yelled, "I can't have you skate together."
"He was adamant, and referenced the last time he kicked us out," said Manzon-Santos. "He was menacing, like we had done something wrong. We didn't feel like we were presenting any danger."
Lessik then told Tiedemann that his outrage seemed to have more to do with homophobia, and that they would file a complaint. Manzon-Santos said that Tiedemann then shouted, "Bring 'em on."
"Words were exchanged, but we needed to put the ice time in, so we practiced without touching," said Manzon-Santos. Even after they did so, Tiedemann demanded they get off the ice, and told the two that they could get a refund at the cashier's desk.
Tiedemann and his wife Karen work with Ice Mystique, which is described as a nonprofit group that "works to teach skating to young people and to encourage participation in team, synchronized skating." Tiedemann did not return calls for an interview.
Lessik and Manzon-Santos are being represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Homophobia in Sports Project.
Helen Carroll, sports project coordinator for NCLR, said the suit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court late last week against Tiedemann and the rink's owners, the East Bay Iceland Corporation, which also owns rinks in Dublin and Belmont.
Carroll said that Lessik and Manzon-Santos had not had any problems with any other staff members or skaters at the rink. "In fact," Carroll said, "they were trading tips with other male/female couples. There had been no problem with anybody else."
Asked if she saw any irony in such an incident happening in the often-considered ultra-liberal city of Berkeley, Carroll said, "If this is happening in Berkeley, it could happen anywhere. Part of it is there's discrimination everywhere. You've really got to make sure people understand that this shouldn't take place."
Whether the case may result in financial compensation is not known, though Carroll said that might happen. She is also concerned that the rink's staff be made to understand that men should be allowed to skate together just like any other pairs who practice at the rink.
"We're looking at training and policy," she said. "We just kind of want to get a conversation. [Lessik and Manzon-Santos] felt that talking with the manager was not the way to go. They felt intimidated."
Along with assistance from NCLR, the skaters have enlisted the pro bono services of the Palo Alto law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich, & Rosati.
NCLR has represented other athletes. It previously filed a lawsuit on behalf of Andrea Zimbardi, a University of Florida athlete who was dismissed from her softball team for being a lesbian, and former Penn State basketball player Jennifer Harris, who although not a lesbian, was forced off that university's team by coach Rene Portland. Zimbardi's case was settled, and sensitivity training enacted for the university's entire athletic department staff.
On Tuesday, April 18, NCLR announced that Penn State concluded that Portland discriminated against Harris by creating a hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment. As a result of its internal investigation, the university issued Portland a written reprimand and warned her that she will be dismissed from her post if her discriminatory behavior continues. She must also pay a $10,000 fine. NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell was critical of the university's action, saying it amounted to Portland receiving a slap on the wrist.
"The consequences faced by Rene Portland are insulting and inadequate," Kendell said in a statement.
Harris said she was "disappointed" in the result.
Carroll, who has long dealt with many cases of antigay discrimination in athletics, said she believes this is the first time gay figure skaters have filed a discrimination lawsuit.
The suit addresses a California Department of Housing and Employment law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing or public facilities. "The court will determine if the compliant falls under their jurisdiction," said Lessik.
In addition to allegations of homophobia, part of the skaters' problem is finding a suitable and welcoming rink for their preparations for this year's Gay Games, to be held July 15-22 in Chicago, which, Lessik, said, "is one of few venues where we can skate. If it wasn't for the Gay Games, we wouldn't be doing this."
Lessik met Manzon-Santos in 2002 at Gay Games VI, held in Sydney, Australia, where the two men competed in solo figure skating events. Lessik won two silver medals, and Manzon-Santos won two golds.
Same-sex figure skating has a history of other controversies. Included for the first time at the 1994 Gay Games IV in New York City, the sport suffered an officiating snafu in 1998 when the Dutch hosts of Gay Games V failed to get a waiver from the International Skating Union to allow sanctioned competition for same-sex male and female pairs.
That problem was resolved for the sixth Gay Games when the Sydney hosts chose the International Skating Institute as its sanctioning body. Chicago's Games will also receive sanctioning from the ISI, which allows couples competitions for pairs of any gender. Montreal's OutGames, to be held a week after Chicago's Games this summer, is said to be sanctioned by the Canadian Figure Skating Union.
Performing opportunities for male or female couples outside such events are practically nonexistent. One exception is a local exhibition event produced by SkateOut and gay figure skater Thom Mullins at Yerba Buena Ice Rink. Mullins will produce the 2006 SkateOut Challenge Cup May 26-28.
Lessik and Manzon-Santos have been occasionally practicing at the Yerba Buena rink, at an Oakland rink, and at rink in Redwood City, where their coach, Billy Kheir, also trains other students. But finding space and time to practice without numerous other skaters on the ice is difficult to find at these much busier rinks.
Both men have fulltime jobs as well. Lessik is the regional director of American Friends Service Committee, and Manzon-Santos is the executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center.
With solo victories among their accomplishments (Lessik has competed successfully at other adult figure skating competitions), Manzon-Santos and Lessik decided to start training for couples competition almost two years ago.
"One thing that inspired us was watching two men skate," said Manzon-Santos. "People talk about some male figure skaters being gay, but there are so few images of two men skating together. At our level, it's still revolutionary."
The two men also want to expand their skating repertoire. They've been training in singles skating with Angelo D'Agostino, who, with former partner Don Corbiell, was one of the talented pairs skaters at Amsterdam's Gay Games V.
Other problems at rink
The lawsuit isn't the only problem facing East Bay Iceland. According to the rink's Web site, they "are proud to provide our customers with affordable recreation in a clean, safe and well-maintained facility."
But the rink is actually up for sale, and may face closure if a buyer is not found. Part of the problem is that the rink's owners cannot afford to install new ice refrigeration equipment mandated by the city of Berkeley. The 66-year-old property is listed at $6.45 million by Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services.
Berkeley city officials extended the rink's permit in February, but it expires this month. East Bay Iceland Inc. general manager Jay Wescott was quoted in the Berkeley Daily Planet as estimating the cost of a new cooling system as up to $500,000.
A 2004 audit conducted by the city of Berkeley found the rink to be in violation of 36 regulations. The most serious problem is the release of ammonia from the antiquated cooling system, which Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief David Orth, in a letter to the rink's owners, cited as "a distinct hazard to life or property."
The rink leaked 33 pounds of ammonia in June 2003. The rink's staff never called the fire department, but firefighters at a nearby fire station smelled the gas, and responded. Orth said that the cause of the leak was a faulty valve that had been replaced without city permits. A larger ammonia leak caused problems in 1998.
In 1996, the rink was sued by a figure skater who was injured in an on-ice practice accident. One skater cut her arm when she collided with another skater who was practicing a backward spiral.
Manzon-Santos said that he hopes the lawsuit will allow them back on the ice in Berkeley. "Denying us this resource has a chilling effect on our training," he added.
"We think that in the Bay Area that we're immune to this," said Lessik, who added that same-sex pairs skating "is still very transgressive."
Read more columns at www.sportscomplex.org.