When John Fulton picked up the phone and heard a man's voice in June of 2006, he didn't quite know what to make of it.
Mr. Fulton had just advertised his new women-only gym in St. Catharines, Ont., and was offering a special introductory rate to attract members.
"I'm thinking, 'It's a guy who wants the women's price,' so I just kind of wrote it off as a guy who misunderstood the price plan," Mr. Fulton said. "And two days later, a woman shows up."
The middle-aged woman with the man's voice, among other unseen attributes, turned out to be a transsexual who had yet to undergo the surgical transformation from male to female.
And now, her request to join the gym has landed Mr. Fulton before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
"I never said no, I never turned the guy down," Mr. Fulton said of the woman's request yesterday, on his way to Toronto for what would be an unsuccessful mediation hearing designed to head off a full-scale inquiry before the tribunal. "I just said, 'I don't know.' "
It's not the first time an Ontario gym owner has been taken to the tribunal by a preoperative transsexual; in 2005, Michaela Reid was turned away at the Exclusively Women's Fitness Centre in Guelph, but won an undisclosed settlement at a similar mediation session.
Mr. Fulton, however, has chosen to fight on the grounds that he never refused the woman membership, but was still exploring his legal rights and obligations when, just a week after the woman's visit, he received a letter from her lawyer demanding a written apology and a cash settlement. She filed a human rights complaint a few weeks later.
"I will be a homeless person, living in the street and eating out of a gutter, before they get a penny out of me," Mr. Fulton said after yesterday's fruitless mediation, which ended short of its scheduled three hours. "I'm stubborn, and I feel like I'm being pushed around by these people."
The Ontario Human Rights Code forbids discrimination or harassment based on sex, which includes issues of gender identity.
The code does not distinguish between transsexuals who are at different stages of transition, said Afroze Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
"I think the important thing to remember there is how they identify themselves; what their sense is, that they are living as a man or living as a woman," Ms. Edwards said. "Regardless of whether they're preop or postop, it's their lived gender that's important."
Mr. Fulton, however, cited a section in the same rights code which allows service providers to restrict access to facilities "to persons of the same sex on the ground of public decency." And to his mind, the display of male genitalia, even on someone who self-identifies as a woman, could be construed as indecent by other women at his gym.
"I had just opened a women's club to segregate the women so that they'd have their own private space," he said, adding that the same woman who lodged the complaint would be more than welcome today, because she has since had her male genitalia removed.
"For 10 of the last 15 years, I've been the title sponsor for the AIDS walk in St. Catharines, and I've dealt with gays, lesbians, transsexuals, straight, whatever," Mr. Fulton added. "So I'm a very liberal, open-minded person and I wanted to look at this, at what we could do."
However, the lawyer's letter asking for money, followed by the rights complaint, put him on the defensive, and now he's dug in his heels.
In Michaela Reid's case, a settlement allowed her to return to the gym that had initially turned her away.
In an interview yesterday, Ms. Reid said she didn't have "a single issue" with anyone else, despite her male genitals, for two key reasons: The gym had private shower stalls, and before she left them, she would always wrap herself in a towel and keep it on while putting on her underwear.
"I agree there has to be some respect for the other ladies," Ms. Reid said. "I think they could work it out quite simply."
After yesterday's failed attempt at mediation, Mr. Fulton has his doubts about that, much as he might wish his troubles away.
"I'm probably screwed here," he said.