Transgender woman alleges N.C. beach club forced her to resign membership

by Conswella Bennett

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday July 7, 2010

Summers have become bittersweet for Rachael Gieschen.

July 4 walks along the beach with picnic lunches, games and a much-anticipated firework display to culminate the day's activities were all Gieschen family traditions at the Hanover Seaside Club in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. And for as long as Gieschen can remember, she and her family spent weekends, holidays and summers at the shore.

"I've been going there since I was born," she fondly recalled. "It was our home away from home."

This tradition, however, came to an end last year.

The private club Gieschen's German grandfather and his brothers helped to create in the late 1890's denied the 69-year-old retired Air Force veteran membership after she informed its board of directors she had transitioned from a man into a woman.

Although she began the process in 2007, Gieschen admitted she felt something was different when she was a young child. As she grew older, however, she suppressed her desire to live her life as a woman. Gieschen served in the Air Force for 23 years. She married twice and raised five children.

"It was almost 60 years of hiding, my life was like a revolving stage-you go around, and you come out as a different character," said Gieschen.

Gieschen told EDGE she is now the happiest she has ever been in her life. And she just wants to be allowed to go back to the Club-the place she said she created her own memories with her family. Two of her children are still members with her grandchildren.

She wrote a letter to the Club's board to let them know about her transition, but she said she received a less than warm reception when she visited on Oct. 5, 2008. Gieschen said long-time friends and acquaintances gave her the cold shoulder. And she ate her lunch in silence.

"The reception was cold," recalled Gieschen. "Nobody talked to me."

Members were aware of who she once was.

"I just had on a wig and make up. Being 6'2, it's kind of hard to miss me," Gieschen added as she described how she had anticipated a cool reception. "I didn't expect not to be spoken to."

This visit was to be her last.

Gieschen received a letter dated May 28, 2009, from the Club's board of directors that informed her she should resign her membership.

"First it is clear that this new phase of your life means a lot to you, and we hope that it is all that you hope for... We also appreciate your recognition of some of the difficulties now raised by your membership, as reflected in your letter," read the letter. "We believe that your reminiscences from your youth, portraying the Club as your "home away from home" and your "private island," well exemplifies the feelings our members have had for the Club as their private getaway, right up to the present. Appropriately, the board must always consider whether members will continue to feel comfortable and at home at the Club."

That letter also referenced her Oct. 2008 visit; saying members expressed agitation and discomfort.

Another concern was the use of locker rooms.

The letter stated members would be uncomfortable regardless of which locker rooms or restrooms were used.

"In view of the physical limitations of the club, we do not see how this problem can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction," wrote Mike Lewis, president of the Club's board.

Gieschen was given the opportunity to meet with the board privately to discuss the matter. She made a request in writing and met with board members on July 23, 2009.

During that time, she unsuccessfully tried to get board members to meet with her and her therapist. And despite her pleas and arguments, the board informed her in an Aug. 14, 2009, letter it was in the best interest of the Club to cancel her membership for the reasons stated in the previous correspondence.

The board also added two sentences to the Club's rules in April, 2009, that said "members acknowledge that this is a family friendly Club with an entrenched tradition of creating a comfortable environment for its members." In addition, the new regulation also stated "members shall not engage in inappropriate, disruptive or offensive behavior."

Ironically, one of Gieschen's younger sisters is on the Club's board. Others are those with whom Gieschen grew up and often played on the beach.

Gieschen said her sister does not support her decision to transition.

"She is not a happy camper with my decision," she said.

Two of Gieschen's five children are not speaking to her, but she regularly visits her other three and their grandchildren.

She has no immediate plans to sue the Club, but Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, continues to work with Gieschen as she considers her options.

"Rachel's preference is to work this out amicably," Silverman told EDGE. "Our hope is that the Club will reconsider... We do believe that this can be resolved fairly. The response has to be just give Rachel a chance. She's the same person. The wrapping may have changed, but the inside is the same."

Silverman sees this as an opportunity to teach an important lesson - to learn to deal with differences. And Gieschen agrees.

"They remember the old me," she said of the Club members. "They don't know the new me. I'm still the same. I want them to see I'm the same person they knew five or six years ago. It's time to do the right thing and reinstate my membership. I'm hoping the Club will do the right thing."

A lawyer representing the Club declined to comment on Gieschen's allegations.