The Women’s Beer Forum, hosted by Los Angeles-based Eagle Rock Brewery, is the latest victim in a long line of so-called “gender-based discrimination” lawsuits initiated by various men’s rights activists (MRAs), who are lashing out events and promotions designed for women.
According to its GoFundMe page, the monthly meetup—started by Eagle Rock co-founder Ting Su—was created in March 2011 after Su witnessed women get “pigeonholed by their male counterparts into drinking only specific beer styles. And when women asked me (a fellow woman behind the bar) about beer-style recommendations," Su continues, "some men would interject by sharing what they thought women should drink. After seeing this so frequently I felt compelled to create an environment that was less male-dominated than anything else in the beer world.”
The group’s overall goal was “to serve as an educational platform for more women interested in learning about beer, tasting through different beer styles, and being with a community of other women who enjoy good beer.” In short, it was a group created to serve as a counterbalance to a culture in which roughly 70 percent of craft beer drinkers are men.
It's far from the only group with this goal; the national women’s organization Pink Boots Society, with over a thousand members across North America, was also designed to “assist, inspire and encourage women beer industry professionals to advance their careers through education.”
Aggressive exclusionary tactics to keep men out were never used, Su says. In fact, men often participated and even presented at the meetups in the past. But in November 2017, a self-described MRA contacted Eagle Rock Brewery regarding the upcoming forum and was told it was for women only. That’s when the threats began.
“He then proceeded to demand thousands of dollars from us, while also threatening a discrimination complaint through the government if we refused to pay. Since he had never purchased admission through our online sales portal, we were unaware about his request to attend the Women’s Beer Forum. We apologized about the miscommunication and offered him an opportunity to learn about the same flight of beers provided at the event for the same ticket price. He declined the educational opportunity and instead filed a claim through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH),” explains Su on the GoFundMe page.
At the advice of her attorney, Su declined to name the activist. However, public court records and other media reports identify the man as Steve Frye, who once sued Donald Trump for being sexist against men.
After several months of limbo, the DFEH decided there was “reasonable cause” for a lawsuit and that the case would be pursued in the courts. Su’s only other option? Pay a settlement.
“We would have lost the company otherwise,” Su says in a phone call with MUNCHIES. “But I’m not OK settling and walking away.”
This type of targeted extortion is more common than one might think. There are men who fashion themselves into “career plaintiffs” who specifically seek out women-only events and groups in order to threaten and blackmail them for financial gain. One San Diego man has singlehandedly filed over 25 lawsuits claiming gender discrimination, and there are a number of men’s-rights-focused law firms who solely focus on these types of cases.
Some would argue that the merits of specific cases are irrelevant, because it’s impossible for a group that is currently and historically in a more powerful overall position than the disenfranchised group they’re attacking to be discriminated against in a meaningful way. (Or as Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler’s character on Parks and Recreation) explained it: “You’re ridiculous and men’s rights is nothing.”) But that hasn't prevented these lawsuits from being propagated, and that they haven't created legal trouble for those entangled.
Laura Ulrich is president of the Pink Boots Society and longtime brewer at Escondido-based Stone Brewing Company. She, too, has had first-hand experience with MRAs infiltrating women-only beer groups.
“We had to ‘legally’ allow men if they purchased a ticket to come to the event, [and] we had two dudes show up to one," she wrote over email. "A women asked a question, I tried to answer it and one of the guys who bought a ticket interjected—tried to correct me, then tried to continue to explain to the women. I was so livid.”
In 1997, Hooters got slapped with a lawsuit claiming gender discrimination for its practice of only hiring female servers, but managed to use a little-known legal loophole to not only avoid fines, but to continue the practice. The chain successfully argued that being a woman was a “bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business or enterprise."
However, this loophole doesn’t extend to most women-only groups and events. And when faced with oddly worded laws open to antiquated interpretation, settlement is often the best-case option for most businesses.
In California, a common MRA tactic is to quote the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which claims that:
All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, citizenship, primary language, or immigration status are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.
While that’s fundamentally good protection for disenfranchised groups, MRAs have twisted the law to suit their own needs.
But in the case of Eagle Rock and the Women’s Beer Forum, there’s a bit of a silver lining. On October 16, 2018, the group launched its GoFundMe in order to help defray the legal expenses and settlement costs. Less than 24 hours later, it had surpassed the $10,000 goal, and that number is still rising.
“This has been so incredibly hard on us,” admits Su. But the experience hasn’t diminished her resolve; if anything, it’s spurred her to continue her inclusionary work in the beer world. “There are trolls out there who are going to try to exploit the system and legislation as it exists currently. How do we keep him from going on to the next company, the next women’s group? It would be awesome to put this past us and move on, but we worked so hard to build the community we have. To be a part of a community means that you have to work to protect it.”
With the excess funds they raise, Su plans to work with attorneys in order to change the law as it currently stands. “In these types of situations, [especially] where it’s a well-known MRA… it’s baffling as to why the government would sponsor the extortion of small businesses,” she says. She also plans to educate other businesses in the beer industry about the danger of these predators and offer advice on how to navigate potential pitfalls.
The fight against these frivolous lawsuits from MRAs is far from over. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the larger culture of toxic masculinity that makes safe spaces so crucial isn’t going anywhere, either.
“Groups like the Women’s Beer Forum are important, because women don’t always feel like they can ask questions, or speak their minds in mixed social settings,” explains Ulrich. “It’s not like we are gathering and plotting the demise of men! It’s not about the men. It’s just women wanting to enjoy beer without the men trying to mansplain it to or for them.”