ASHEVILLE, N.C. (CN) - A married couple claim in a class action that YMCAs, which advertise themselves as safe for families, with "Christian values," are actually "brothels" for homosexual men "cruising" for sexual relationships, who subject members to unwanted advances.
In his complaint in Buncombe County Court, Michael Keister claims he is one of many YMCA members who were victims of sexual assault and unwanted advances at YMCA facilities.
Keister and his wife, Susan Lewis-Keister, sued the National Council of the Young Men's Christian Association of the United States of America dba YMCA of the USA, YMCA of Western North Carolina and five North Carolina YMCA centers.
In a second complaint
, Keister seeks damages for negligence and infliction of emotional distress from YMCA of Western North Carolina.
In the class action, Keister, of Asheville, says he decided to buy gym memberships for his family at the local YMCA "because of the YMCA's image as a safe place for families and children and as [a] place that champions Christian values, such as decency, kindness, and fairness."
But Keister says the YMCA misleads customers through its marketing campaigns, cultivating a false image of places with "high ethical standards and Christian values," when in fact they tolerate "cruising" for homosexual relationships and allow members to be subjected to unwanted sexual advances.
"In spring 2009, the image of the YMCA as a safe and protected environment came crashing down for plaintiffs on several separate visits to the facility," the complaint states.
"After renewing his membership at the facility, Keister experienced his first, in what would eventually become a series of unwanted sexual advances and activity taking place at the Asheville YMCA facility.
"Keister was showering in the men's locker rooms showers when two men entered the shower area together from the pool. As Keister stood there, only feet away, the shorter of the two men lathered up the other man and began to fondle the taller man's genitals. The showers were open and visible to anyone in the locker room.
"When the men noticed the shocked look on Keister's face, the shorter man replied. 'What?', with a menacing tone that made it seem as if Keister was the one who was acting inappropriately.
"'What?!' Keister responded, 'Not appropriate.' 'It's just not appropriate.'
"Unsettled by what he was seeing, Keister left the shower area immediately, got dressed, and reported the incident to the front desk.
"The employee responded, 'We are aware of this behavior and we're taking steps to address it. You're not the first to complain.' The employee assured Keister that it would not happen again.
"Shortly after this incident, Keister returned to the Asheville YMCA only to be subjected to yet another inappropriate incident.
"This time Keister was in the steam room. As members were coming and going, Keister sat alone on the upper deck with his elbows on his thighs and looking down at the floor.
"When the room had cleared of all but one patron, the man sitting across the room began to clear his throat as if he were trying to get Keister's attention.
"When Keister looked up at the man, the man revealed his erect penis to Keister and began masturbating energetically while staring at Keister.
"Keister left the steam room immediately and reported the incident to a female manager on duty, determined to get answers.
"Like the employee before her, the YMCA's manager's response surprised Keister. She acknowledged that the YMCA has had a problem with public sex acts in the men's locker room for years. She assured him that the YMCA would take immediate steps to address the issue and that it was safe for him to continue to use the facilities.
"Having received this assurance from management, Keister relied on this reassurance and continued to make use of the facility.
"A short time later, after a workout, Keister entered the sauna. No one else was in the sauna when Keister entered.
"Soon, another man entered the sauna and sat down while Keister was reading a newspaper.
"Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, the man reached over and firmly grabbed Keister's penis, yanking on it, and would not let it go.
"Shocked, Keister grabbed the man's arm, pried the man's hand off his penis and yelled in disbelief.
"The man ran out of the sauna.
"Still in shock from what happened, Keister tried to collect himself and chase after the man. He went into the dressing area but could not locate him."
Keister says that after these incidents, he questioned whether it was safe to bring his 3-year-old son to the YMCA.
He says he reported the sexual assault to the facility's new manager, who assured Keister he would take steps to eliminate the problem.
But Keister says the YMCA failed to take any real action.
"Later, Keister returned to the YMCA to ascertain what measures, if any, had been taken," the complaint states. "The sole corrective action he observed was a sign in the men's locker room prohibiting inappropriate behavior. On his final visit to the downtown Asheville YMCA center locker room, a man propositioned Mr. Keister for a New Year's Eve date."
Keister says former YMCA employees confirmed that YMCA management takes a "soft approach" to dealing with such inappropriate conduct.
He says many other members have been the victims of unwanted sexual advances at YMCA facilities.
According to the complaint, the YMCA has long tolerated cruising - defined as the "search in public places for a sex partner" - at its facilities and has done nothing to prevent it.
"In the time following these incidents, Keister was troubled by the way the YMCA discounted his complaints," the complaint states. "Unable to comprehend the organization's apparent lack of concern about the assault and its lack of urgency in addressing his complaints, plaintiff investigated further. In doing so, Keister discovered that the Y-WNC is a microcosm of pervasive cruising at YMCAs nationwide. Indeed the Y-USA and its subordinate organizations have turned a blind eye towards cruising for decades and have harbored such illicit behavior, which has now become even more prolific at YMCAs nationwide with the advent of the Internet and social networking websites.
"The YMCA is widely acclaimed nationwide as one of the top cruising spots for men. As the YMCA knows, men who are seeking to 'cruise' and have sex in YMCA locker rooms, steam baths and saunas post advertisements around the country on the popular website www.craigslist.com ('Craigslist') and other Internet sites daily. There are countless personal ads listed for men seeking men with whom to engage in sex and other sexually explicit activities at the YMCA. The content of such ads, some of which contain some of the most indecent images on the web, confirms that 'cruising' and public sex is a daily occurrence at YMCAs in North Carolina and around the country."
Keister says the practice is so pervasive that many other websites, two of which he names in the complaint, are dedicated to describing the layout of various YMCAs and giving instructions on how to best pursue sexual activity there.
"There is a published list of instructions on how to effectively cruise at the YMCA," the complaint states. "On Cruising Gays, for example, it is recommended that cruisers 'start stroking in the sauna or shower and look for a response.' In addition, Cruising Gays recommends that at YMCAs, cruisers 'go in the sauna with just your towel wrapped around you, shift yourself around a few times to see if.' Cruisers also are advised to '[w]ait for a guy to check you out and grab your dick.'"
Keister claims that many of the "cruising" ads are posted on websites catering to the general public, and feature "YMCA" in ad titles.
The complaint lists several Craigslist posts that advertise cruising activities at YMCA centers, in graphic terms.
Keister says the YMCA is not only aware about the activities taking place at its facilities, it tacitly promotes them.
The complaint states: "Upon information and belief, YMCAs around the country and in North Carolina, in particular, are currently being used as brothels for cruising, with the YMCA's knowledge and implicit consent. This poses inordinate and unforeseen risks to the YMCA's non-cruising members and guests.
"Notwithstanding, the YMCA continues to represent to plaintiff and the public at large that the YMCA 'promote[s] high ethical standards and Christian values' and 'programs provide a healthy and safe environment for families to share experiences, improve relationships, and communicate on a different level.'
"Such claims are misleading, incomplete, and deceptive. The YMCA has a long history and awareness of cruising and its 'soft approach' and tacit approval of cruising is putting its members, guests, and consumers in harm's way."
Keister adds: "Fundamentally, members, such as plaintiffs, and their families cannot engage in routine lavatory behavior at YMCAs without 'cruising' men assuming they are signaling a desire for sex. Patrons are unknowingly answering 'yes' to solicitations for sexual interaction with strangers while being oblivious to the fact that the question is being posed to them. Its patrons thus are the unwitting targets and victims of sexual crimes, such as the ones suffered by plaintiff Keister."
The Keisters seek class certification, restitution, and compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract. And they want the YMCA to stop the wrongful conduct.
The Keisters are represented by Paul Capua of Boone, N.C.
YMCA Chief Operating Officer John Mikos did not return requests for comment.