Donation to Rove-tied group sparks Gold's Gym revolt

Four Bay Area gyms will leave the brand in response to big donations by the chain's owner to anti-gay candidates

Published October 25, 2010 9:19PM (EDT)

(UPDATED)Four Gold's Gyms franchises in the San Francisco Bay Area will leave the Gold's brand after 22 years following the revelation that the owner of Gold's gave $2 million to American Crossroads, the conservative outfit that is funding candidates who are unfriendly to gay rights.

"Our contracts started 22 years ago. We're one of the first franchisees for Gold's Gym. We can't get out over night, but we will be out of it," Don Dickerson,  director of operations for Gold's in the Bay Area, told Salon, adding that the bulk of the gyms' business comes from the LGBT community.

"It took us by as much surprise as it did everyone else," Dickerson said of the donations by billionaire Robert Rowling, whose company, TRT Holdings, owns Gold's, to the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads. A petition has been circulating in the gay blogosphere protesting the donations to Crossroads.

Dickerson said leaving the Gold's brand may cause financial hardship for the Bay Area gyms because being part of the Gold's network allows members to work out at Gold's franchises around the country. Nevertheless, once the Bay Area gyms' contract is up with Gold's in September 2012, they will be leaving the brand. In the meantime, they will donate a sum equivalent to their Gold's franchise fees to LGBT charities.

Alex Kattar, a Gold's instructor in the Bay Area, told Salon he was worried about the gyms' public image after the news of the Crossroads donation got around. "As a member of the LGBT community, I was frustrated beyond being offended," he said. "I was shocked at the fact that nobody thinks of the reprecussions that these donations have. Most of our staff if not everybody is gay."

As we mentioned earlier, this sort of controversy is exactly why rich donors (especially those associated with public companies) value the anonymity provided by some outside groups.

A spokesman at Gold's headquarters has not returned calls.(SEE UPDATE BELOW)

Here's a note from Dickerson that has been posted at the gyms in the San Francisco area:

Dear Gold's Gym Members,

In response to the donation to American Crossroads from Robert Rowling, the CEO of TRT holdings, Gold's Gym San Francisco Bay Area would like to make you aware of the following:

We are a local, family run business of 4 gyms. A large percentage of our employees and members are from the LGBT community. Our company works tirelessly to support the LGBT community with financial donations to almost every major local LGBT charity. We are sponsors of the Academy of Friends, Folsom Street Fair, ALCS Riders, SF AIDS Foundation, PAWS, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center, Maitri, SF PRIDE and many, many more.

Gold's Gym San Francisco has long been a pillar of the gay community. We will continue to be. It is very unfortunate that the CEO of TRT holdings has chosen this course of action. We do not support it in any way. Our original contractual obligations to Gold's Gym International were signed over 22 years ago and TRT holdings is just the latest in a series of ownership groups that has presided over Gold's Gym.

Our company has worked for over twenty years to support our LGBT staff, members and community in everyway possible and we will continue to.

We were as surprised by Mr. Rowling's action as anyone but because our company believes in and lives up to the ideals of equality for all we are going to take the following actions:

1: Our contractual obligation with Gold's Gym expires on September 15th, 2012 and on or prior to that date (our legal counsel is reviewing our options) we will leave the Gold's Gym brand. It is a major initiative to create a new brand and leave Gold's Gym which has been our identity for over 20 years but we will begin that process today. 

2: For every dollar we pay Gold's Gym in franchise fees we will donate an equal or greater amount to LGBT charities. While we donate much more than this to charities and community groups that support the LGBT community we want to make a commitment to match or exceed this amount until our relationship with Gold's Gym can be severed.

3: Our management and staff will continue to support LGBT causes in every way possible and we will use our business as a platform to fight for change and equality for everyone. We have always taken great pride in being a leader in the LGBT community and we will continue to.


Thank you,

Don Dickerson

Director of Operations

Gold's Gym Bay Area


UPDATE: Dave Reiseman, spokesman for Gold's Gym International, sends along this statement distancing the company from Rowling and stressing to the LGBT community that "our sole purpose as an organization is to help people reach their fitness goals." The whole thing:

For more than 45 years, Gold's Gym has been welcoming and accepting of members from all walks of life. Diversity is a core part of the Gold's Gym tradition and we have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind. We are proud to have a large and dedicated base of LGBT members in our gyms...and value our strong ties with the LGBT community. In addition, we are proud of our employees and franchisees around the world who are part of the LGBT community and who go to work every day to help people achieve their fitness goals.

Gold's Gym did not make a donation to American Crossroads (or any other political organization) and in no way supports anti-gay causes. Quite the contrary, the Gold’s Gym family has been strong supporters of the LGBT community over the years. This includes supporting PRIDE events, sponsoring LGBT media outlets and donating to various LGBT charities in the communities we serve.

Gold's Gym is a non-political organization and our member's dues are not used to fund political candidates. Bob Rowling, the CEO of our ownership group, TRT Holdings, made a private donation completely independent from (and not on behalf of) Gold's Gym.

It is important to note that most Gold’s Gyms around the country are independently owned and operated by franchisees. They are hard working small business owners who embrace and accept members from all walks of life.

We hope that our friends and long time members of the LBGT community understand that our sole purpose as an organization is to help people reach their fitness goals. Tens of thousands of dedicated employees go to work every day across the country for this very reason. They will continue to do so for the LGBT community and all of the other diverse communities we serve.


By Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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