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Gay couple sues club for spouse privileges

SAN DIEGO -- B. Birgit Koebke golfs alone because no one at her country club will play with her. She hits the links late in the day to avoid running into hostile club members.

If a group of golfers happens to be ahead of her, they don't let her play through.

"I just sit there and wait," she says. "They've made it impossible for me to enjoy the club."

Koebke, a 47-year-old television sales executive, is a longtime member of the Bernardo Heights Country Club. She is also lesbian, and her extended drive to win club golfing privileges for her partner of 12 years, Kendall French, has turned other members against her.

Koebke hopes the California Supreme Court will rule that the state's civil rights laws require the club to offer French, her state-registered domestic partner, the same benefits afforded to spouses.

Bernardo Heights maintains that state law allows it to limit such privileges to married couples.

John Shiner, the club's attorney, says the club simply wishes "to make a distinction between those who are legally married and those who are not married." The club's position, he says, "has absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation."

Koebke joined Bernardo Heights in 1986 and began inviting French to golf there in the early '90s. A member's spouse or children may golf for free, but guests must pay a $70 fee and can play only six times a year.

"She's not my guest," Koebke says. "She's part of my family."

Koebke suggested several compromises, such as creating a "significant others" category. The club's board of directors rejected the idea.

The club suggested French buy her own membership (current price: $9,500) -- an invitation she finds insulting.

"Tell me," French says, "how many of the other members are willing to pay double for their household?"

In 2001, Koebke sued. A judge dismissed the case in 2002. But last March, an appeals court partially overturned the ruling, ordering the trial court to consider evidence the club treated some unmarried heterosexual couples as spouses. (The club denies it has knowingly done that. It says that if such a thing happened, it was because the club was misled or did not know the couple was unmarried.)

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the larger question of whether Koebke has a case under California's civil rights law. No date has been set for the arguments.

Several club members declined to discuss the case. The club counsel sent a letter to members in 2001 asking them not to comment publicly.

Nationwide, country clubs are divided over how to treat same-sex and unmarried couples, with about a third offering at least some benefits, according to Andrew Fortin, spokesman for the National Club Association, a Washington trade group of about 1,000 organizations.

Many, he says, are waiting to see what happens with Koebke's case.

A similar conflict has unfolded in Atlanta, where the city Human Relations Commission ruled in January that the Druid Hills Golf Club violated the city's antidiscrimination ordinance by refusing spousal benefits to two gay couples.

At Bernardo Heights, Judy Stillman says she and her husband enjoyed golfing with Koebke when they joined about three years ago, not knowing about the conflict.

But after their first game, she says, "quite a few people told us that if we ever played golf with her again, we wouldn't have a friend in the club."

"My answer to that was we wouldn't want to consider having them as friends anyway," she says. She and her husband quit the club.

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