Denver Press Club cancels ‘Cancel This’

DENVER, COLORADO, September 20, 2023

The Denver Press Club’s board of directors has voted to ban me from membership.

Had the board accepted me as a member, they would’ve been bound to honor their written agreement to host an event entitled, “Cancel This: Nina Paley and Corinna Cohn Talk Gender.”

It’s rare for anyone to be denied membership in the press club. I’m told I was rejected because admitting me would’ve compromised the club’s integrity.

But first, the backstory.

Founded in 1867 and incorporated in 1877, the Denver Press Club regularly produced popular minstrel shows in which local press personalities performed in blackface to raise money for the club. A published history of the club describes a show in 1907:

“After a series of skits, songs, and dances, the Denver Press Club minstrels provided local jokes and sallies… The press club event was the first black-face performance by amateurs on the local theater stage. As the Denver Republican reported, ‘Certainly no one but the most captious critic could find room for complaint….’”

Source: https://www.amazon.com/DENVER-PRESS-CLUB-Printers-Bohemians/dp/198453321

One such minstrel performance in 1920 helped raise $3,000 to pay off the mortgage on the property at 1330 Glenarm Place where the clubhouse stands today.

The club’s history book tells us about high standards for members:

“Occasionally, club member behavior was brought to the attention of the board. Gene Cervi was cited for ‘incidents of bad conduct’ including throwing glassware and sandwiches, spattering guests of the club with broken glassware, abuse of the stewards and use of profanity in the presence of women. The board designated him as ‘persona non grata’ at the club until his behavior was in accord as a gentleman, and until he apologized…. The letter of reprimand was never sent, and the board unanimously decided to table the matter.”

I cannot hold a candle to Gene Cervi despite my use of profanity in the presence of women.

Speaking of which. The club grudgingly allowed women to become members starting in the 1970s. Until then, clubmen enjoyed “stag shows,” screenings of pornographic films, and naked female “entertainers” in their clubhouse.

Members still fondly boast of creative ways in which the club has disobeyed liquor laws over the years. Police officers were given free run of the club in exchange for looking the other way in the 1930s, for instance.

To flout a state law that prohibited serving alcohol on election day, the club disguised booze by serving it in coffee mugs. The club’s history book notes: “The press club tradition began in 1906 and was never questioned, despite the large number of lawyers and judges who were members.” This tradition continued until the club was busted for serving illegal drinks in 1978.

The club’s more recent reputation is for mere irrelevance. On a tour of the building, the club’s executive director assured me that, not long ago, an organization promoting the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs hosted a private after-hours party at the clubhouse. It was a blast.

In other words, the club is old but somehow strangely cool, comfortable for some people yet repulsive to others, like a pair of Gene Cervi’s loafers.

The board says I don’t belong. I don’t disagree.

Besides, I’m a troublemaker since way back.

Twenty years ago, I launched a blog called RockyWatch in which I lambasted the now-extinct Rocky Mountain News for its uncritical, dishonest support of the U.S. war in Iraq.

In one blog post, I pointed out instances of plagiarism in a Rocky editorial. The offending journalist lost his job.

I forgot about this incident until a week ago when I was trying to figure out why so-called newsfolk were flinging defamatory denunciations in my direction like spitballs in a high-school cafeteria.

I recall, too, that the Rocky Mountain News retaliated against me by printing an article revealing that I was in a lesbian relationship with the executive director of Denver City Council. The article referred to us as “strange bedfellows.”

I’m not kidding. She and I met when I handed her an open-records request. She’s no longer a public servant — and is no longer alive — so now I can confirm the Rocky’s darkest suspicions. Our pillow talk was, indeed, all about municipal policymaking.

But the blog post that drew the most outrage from Denver press people was something I wrote near the end of the “citizen journalism” heyday in the late 2000s.

Professional journalists, I wrote, should not presume they’re on the right side of history. After all, local newspapers stoked anti-Chinese resentment, firing up a white mob to attack Denver’s Chinatown in 1880. Amid the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver in the 1920s, prominent news editors and reporters were proud Klansmen. But now, the press wants to whitewash this history and pretend people of their profession have always been brave-but-flawed truthtellers.

Point is, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and antisemitism die hard in American institutions, including the press. It’s naive to think these sentiments will ever be eradicated from local newsrooms.

Which brings us to gender.

Sorry, this part reads like an affidavit.

On August 21, 2023, I was hunting for a small, private venue in downtown Denver for a mixer. The Denver Press Club building seemed to fit the bill. It could accommodate 50 to 100 guests, serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and was available for rental on the evening of Thursday, November 2nd.

On August 22nd, in an email exchange with the club’s executive director, I described the event I planned to host: an evening mixer where everyone is welcome to engage in honest and open discussion about free speech and gender identity. I said Nina Paley and Corinna Cohn, hosts of the Heterodorx Podcast, would speak at the event.

The executive director replied, “Got it. All good.” He told me I needed to join the club to rent the venue. Further, my membership would need to be approved by the board.

On August 22nd, in good faith, I submitted my membership application online, paid my dues, and obtained a receipt for payment.

My application, including a link to my online bio, was received and reviewed by someone at the club on August 23rd.

My next contact with the club was on August 28th when the executive director emailed to ask, “Any update?” We made a plan to meet at the club later that week.

On August 31st, with a reasonable expectation that the mixer would be happening at the Denver Press Club, I toured the building. During the tour, the club’s executive director generously proposed that the club would host the mixer as a club-sponsored event open to members and guests.

On September 1st, the executive director and I exchanged enthusiastic email messages confirming this arrangement. In my message, I wrote:

“As I mentioned, Nina and Corinna are not politically partisan and are not courting controversy. However, the topic of gender identity elicits strong opinions and poses challenges regarding free speech. I’m hoping this event can be an opportunity for civil, in-person conversation (rather than online flamethrowing.)”

On September 2nd, the executive director abruptly informed me by email:

“After some research about the program, Does Free Speech Have a Gender Identity and the speakers, we have decided the Denver Press Club is not the right fit. I am sorry, but we will not be able to host your event.”

On September 5th, I asked the board of directors via email:

“Have Nina Paley, Corinna Cohn, and I been banned from the Denver Press Club? What aspect of free speech or gender identity is ‘not the right fit’ for your institution? Please reply with a public statement.”

On September 7th, the executive director left me a voicemail message saying the board had met. My conditional membership would be up for approval at the end of September. He added: “We’ve agreed that as a member you have every right as a member to host an event at the club.” He said he would reserve November 2nd for my event and send me information about fees for club usage.

We exchanged messages agreeing to meet at our earliest opportunity — September 12th — to finalize arrangements.

On September 8th, Nina Paley tweeted an announcement of the event on X.

On September 11th, Marianne Goodland, president of the press club, emailed me: “Could you please contact Ms. Paley and let her know that we have not yet approved this event so her promotion of it on X is premature?”

I responded by email, explaining that the executive director and I would be meeting the next day to finalize arrangements. The board president said she would be there.

And she was. At the end of our 45-minute meeting, I asked Goodland for a public statement to share regarding our discussion. She declined to provide one. Goodland told me, “You can say what you want.” What follows is a general, subjective summary rather than the transcript.

The meeting began cordially.

I arrived at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place, at 3:30 p.m. on September 12, 2023. Present were Marianne Goodland, press club president, and Alby Segall, the club’s executive director.

We sat at a round table near the front windows. Goodland was on my left, Segall on my right. I sat facing the windows with my back to the bar.

We talked about the Colorado governor’s tendency to say “transitioned” instead of “fired;” several people had “transitioned” out of his administration.

I mentioned the word “detransition.” Neither Goodland nor Segall had heard it before. They were unfamiliar with the concept of people who had pursued so-called sex-change drugs and surgeries but later regretted these interventions and sought care to help remedy the results.

This is why we need to talk about gender medicalization, I said, because people aren’t getting the whole story. Worse, there’s a concerted effort to stifle discussion about detransition.

Segall wanted to know: If Paley and Cohn are not transphobes, why do people online accuse them of transphobia?

As I tried to answer, I became aware that the club’s junior bartender was standing behind me as I spoke. Eventually, he sat down across the table from me. He accused me of lying to the club. I had discredited myself by using unethical tactics to trick the club into agreeing to host Paley and Cohn, he claimed.

Specifically, he cited my statement that Paley and Cohn “are not courting controversy.” He accused them of manufacturing and profiting from controversy, and accused me of trying to conceal this “fact.”

He vowed to write a letter to the board and solicit signatures of support from other club members to bar me from the club on account of my manipulative mendacity.

I was taken aback by his vehemence. Also, I was baffled. Hadn’t anyone at the club done minimal due diligence and simply Googled Paley and Cohn sometime between August 22nd, when I explicitly stated that I wished to host them at the club, and August 31st, when the executive director offered to sponsor the event?

I wrote in good faith on September 1st that Paley and Cohn “are not courting controversy.” In my view, they speak plainly about matters that have become controversial for reasons beyond their control.

For example, Paley has been famously excoriated for saying, “Women don’t have penises.” Only in the past few years has this view become controversial in some quarters. Most people regard it as a statement of the obvious.

The young bartender expressed concern that allowing Paley and Cohn to speak at the club would alienate young journalists who are the future of the club.

If people can’t express dissenting views on important topics of the day at the club, I asked, what future does the club have?

Near the end of our exchange, he said: It’s like you don’t believe transwomen are women.

Yes, exactly. Why must anyone be compelled to believe this? And why can’t we talk about this in your clubhouse?

At one point, the young man compared Paley, Cohn, and me to a radical fringe sect of Judaism. I leaned forward and put my face in my hands. I wanted to ask, Are you calling us a bunch of crazy Jews? Instead, I asked, “Are you referencing Nina’s Judaism?”

I did not say this to him at the time, but I’m saying it now. Look, when you’re 25, you’re prone to think, say, and do stupid things. Maybe you feel you’re taking a principled stand. Or maybe you mistake your contempt for righteousness. Regardless, our meeting convinced me of one thing above all: I will never drink anything you pour.

On September 13th, I sent a message to Goodland and Segall:

“Thank you for meeting with me yesterday. We have an agreement for use of the press club facility, an agreement upon which I have relied. The event will proceed as planned. Promotional materials will remain in circulation.”

On September 14th, Goodland sent me a message:

“I regret to inform you your membership has been denied by the board. The club’s policy is that only members have usage of the building, so your event cannot be held here.”

I expect nothing better from the Denver Press Club.

Freedom of association for thee…

I added this coda on October 27, 2023.

For years now, women have been told we must be inclusive. We must lower our personal boundaries and accept as women all men who say they are women. We must include male athletes in competition against female athletes. We must accept men in private areas such as women’s bathrooms and dressing rooms. Through law and institutional policy, women-only groups and spaces are disappearing. And we’re supposed to shut up about it.

Not even lesbians are allowed to draw women-only boundaries. Instead, organizations that once advocated for lesbian rights now insist that a lesbian is anyone who claims to be a lesbian, including men.

In this context, it’s great that the Denver Press Club is allowed and proud to draw boundaries. To say, no, we don’t want to associate with this person and that group of people. To put their fingers in their ears and chant, “Transwomen are women,” contrary facts be damned.

The press club can exclude people from membership and still enjoy nonprofit status, federal tax benefits, and government grants. Women, girls, mothers, and lesbians — collectively and individually — ought to have and exercise the same freedom of association.

And, of course, the show will go on. Cancel This: Nina Paley and Corinna Cohn Talk Gender is slated as the finale to the Genspect conference in Denver on November 5, 2023.