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Photograph by Chris Revell

Swing Politics: Deena Luce, owner of the Forum, says she's been targeted "like a witch hunt" by city officials in Gilroy for operating her weekend sex club for consenting adults, a quiet and private affair which she says generated no complaints for nine years.

Erogenous Zones

After three tries at operating her decade-old swingers' club in quiet anonymity in South County, Forum owner Deena Luce says, she's out. Too many weirdos.

By Loren Stein

GALLOPING up and down the wide-open pastures, three horses rear and buck and nip at each other playfully. It's a bucolic scene, where low-slung ranch houses dot an unpaved street, set against the gently rising mountains behind Gilroy.

Despite the serenity, there's an ominous foreboding in the air. Each house has a prominently displayed "No Trespassing" sign tacked onto its front gate. Neighbors warily scan for newcomers, scrambling to write down license plate numbers of every car that enters their territory--and especially those cars that have pulled out of the parking lot of a salmon-colored adobe-style house that stands empty every day and most nights.

There's a war going on here.

"The climate of hatred is really frightening to me," says Deena Luce, who rents the house on 2670 Dryden Ave., in northeast unincorporated Gilroy. "To be honest, people are most freaked out about what they don't know, what they imagine is happening."

Luce is the owner of the Forum Adult Social Club, a members-only adult swingers' club that she has run for the last nine years. The Forum is reputed to be one of the premier swingers' clubs in California and among the top three on the West Coast. People from all over the Bay Area and California pay $40 to $60 in "donations" to mingle, talk, watch a paid entertainer, dance to a DJ and, if they feel like it, have sex, with their partners or with other willing participants.

Friday nights are for singles and couples; Saturday nights are reserved for couples only. Drugs are forbidden, and liquor is not served, but members can bring liquor, if they stay within bounds (drunkenness is not allowed). Condoms are distributed freely. Members are prescreened (women especially are asked if they're coming of their own free will), and all are asked to abide by a set of rules. These include: respect all women and their relationships; always ask before touching anyone; keep voyeurism at a distance; wait to be invited to join a situation or you can discreetly ask. Harassment or bad behavior is not tolerated. Luce, who hosts the parties but says she does not participate sexually, will personally call the police if a guest is out of line.

An average of 80 to 100 people show up to party from 9pm to 3am on a typical weekend night, says Luce, most of them middle- to upper-middle-class white professionals, including lawyers, doctors, business owners, off-duty cops and high school principals. Most are in their 30s and 40s, and all are heterosexual, although bisexual women are common.

Five open bedrooms, one of which has a hot tub, are filled with sheeted mattresses. Only one bedroom has a lockable door. There's a built-in corner where people can have sex standing up; one bedroom features a bench partitioned by a veil to aid voyeurism. The place is clean and well scrubbed, with simple, stripped-down décor. Ample parking is provided out back on the 10-acre lot.

After joining a swing club in 1993, Luce, now 46 (she's an interior designer and an ophthalmology technician by trade), decided to open her own, with a specific focus: to create a safe environment for women to have sex. "I wanted a place for single women to have a casual encounter and not put her life at risk--where she's not going to hotel room, or not going to his place or bringing a guy to her place," she says. "I thought that providing a place where women could explore their sexuality at the same level men always have is a great idea."

"I'm just a normal person like everyone else," says one Forum participant named Diane, 37, who works for the federal government in San Jose. A club member for seven years (she's gone as a single and with her husband), she says the draw is a friendly and safe erotic atmosphere. "All the time I've been there I've never felt I was in situation that was uncomfortable. As a woman, it's a very safe place. I've never seen one problem, which is why it's been so successful." She adds, "[Outsiders] think [that members] are all rowdy people who get tanked and have wild, unprotected sex, that they're lowlifes. In reality, there's doctors and lawyers and everything in between."

Luce, who lives in Los Banos and was married for five years, operated the club under the radar for nine and a half years out of two locations in Morgan Hill. (The most recent location was just outside Morgan Hill in unincorporated Santa Clara County.) No problems, no hassles with law enforcement or city or county officials--just a thriving, if somewhat unconventional, homegrown business.

Then, she says, her landlords decided they wanted to open their own swingers' club, which they've now done, and Luce pulled up stakes. On Aug. 16, she set up shop in her first location in a rural section of Gilroy, a house on 5400 Monterey Road within the city's boundaries. And that's when the trouble started.

Editorial Indignation

The local newspapers, The Pinnacle and The Gilroy Dispatch, saw a juicy, salacious story in their own backyard and broadcast Luce's move from Morgan Hill to the conservative, family-oriented town of Gilroy, setting off alarm bells for residents and city officials.

For the past six months, Deena Luce and the Forum have been front page news in Gilroy--the subject of a relentless parade of news articles, indignant editorials and angry letters. To be sure, there have also been the reasoned opinions or rebuttals; The Pinnacle even ran a boosterish profile when the Forum first came to town.

The nub of the discussion: Can Gilroy tolerate a depraved sex club of degenerates that offends morals and corrupts children and flouts the principles of good, clean living? The answer was, by and large, a resounding no.

A sample of headlines from the Dispatch: "Sex Club Lands, Neighbors Angry"; "Sex Club Told to Hit the Road"; "Turning up the Heat on Sex Club; Sex Club Halloween Bash Over, Now it's Adios."

With the flames fanned by the local papers and concerned neighbors up in arms, local elected officials were all too happy to chime in. They had their constituents to protect, after all.

One small problem: sex clubs are legal in California, say lawyers. So city officials took another route. Luce was slapped with more than 20 city citations between Aug. 16 and Nov. 2 for operating a commercial enterprise in an area zoned for open space. (Luce, for her part, says she believed it was zoned commercial because other businesses operated in the area, including one that was operating at the site when she took over. She also noted that the city's general plan called for the land to be converted to commercial.)

Luce--who contended at the time that she ran a private club, not a business--was also cited for operating without a business license. When she applied for a business license, she was turned down. In September, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge refused the city's request to put a temporary restraining order on the club that would have forced its immediate closure.

"We need to walk the talk," said Gilroy Councilmember Charles Morales, as reported in the Pinnacle. "This type of thing brings a criminal element into our community."

In October, the City Council went to extreme measures. It passed by unanimous vote an emergency ordinance that prohibited all sexual-encounter establishments in any zoning district of the city. (It does not ban adult businesses such as adult bookstores or movie theaters, only establishments where sexual acts occur.) City attorney Linda Callon was reported by the Pinnacle to have told the City Council that sexual-encounter establishments do not have First Amendment protection.

"Unless they violate a specific ordinance, swingers' clubs are absolutely legal in the U.S.," counters San Jose attorney Kevin Hutcheson, who represents Luce in her legal dispute with the city of Gilroy.

"The government doesn't have the right to regulate what you do within the closed confines of a private social club as long as it's consensual and doesn't violate existing health and safety codes, such as those related to public spas." Adds Hutcheson: "I believe the City Council and city elected officials latched onto this issue and played it for political gain. It's a conservative community. They thought they could gain brownie points."

Luce's neighbor on Monterey Avenue, Ted Uchida, owner of the Zen Flower Garden, asked Gilroy Mayor Tom Springer to come out and help him take photographs of the Forum and his own business property. "Since they've [the Forum] come here, we've become a laughing stock--people knowing we're next to a sex club," Uchida told the Dispatch. (Luce put up a fence to make sure club members did not use Uchida's access road.)

When the story broke in August that the Forum was coming to town, Mayor Tom Springer said he came back from vacation to find 60 messages from irate residents asking what in the world was going on. "No one cares what people are doing in the privacy of their own homes, but when you start doing it in a public manner and flaunting it and having an impact on neighbors, that's why we have zoning laws and need to step in and start protecting neighborhoods," says Springer.

Neighbors, he says, found condoms lying on the ground and "all kinds of remnants of the night's activities. ... This type of thing you expect to see in big cities but don't expect to see in the suburbs where people are trying to raise children and trying to provide a moral family-oriented environment."

Adds Springer, "Some people are fixated on the fact that others are paying for sexual activities; it makes for good press. But until it comes into your own backyard, you don't think about it."

Effectively ousted from Gilroy in December, Luce moved from within the city's boundaries to her present location on Dryden Avenue in the unincorporated section of town. And then even more trouble flared up, and this time, it got personal.

Fear and Loathing

From the Forum's first week of operation on Dryden Avenue, neighbors took matters into their own hands. About 80 of them organized, held meetings with county officials, hired an attorney as well as a private investigator to investigate members' backgrounds. (Rumor has it they've begun building a private lawsuit charging Luce with nuisance and devaluation of their property.) They videotaped, photographed and shouted at club members as they entered and left the club, writing down each car's license plate number, according to Luce, other sources and newspaper accounts.

They rented a large neon sign to broadcast flashing messages that alternatively trumpeted "Deena, get your club out of our neighborhood" and "Richard, does Mary know you're here?" among others. One message, says Luce, named two of the children of one Forum staff member, asking, "What would your kids think?"

"I called the sheriff and said, 'Using names--isn't that harassment?'" says Luce. "They said it's a civil matter. [But] this is bordering on a hate crime. They're trying to intimidate us and provoke us into a fight, but we're not going to take the bait, we're not violent."

She adds, "People need to stick up for their rights. If we don't they will automatically take them away. ... It's all about sex. If we were having a 4-H meeting here, no one would care."

The neighbors complain of loud music and noise at night, too many cars and an unsafe environment for their families. (Neighbor Mike Dausend, who has been repeatedly quoted in local papers, refused to comment to Metro.) Mike Salinas, who lives next door to the Forum, reportedly told the Pinnacle during one night watch, "Nobody's backing down; we're getting stronger and stronger. We're going to beat these people; they will not win"; and "Something is going to get out of hand here. We'll see if we can nip this thing in the bud before innocent people get hurt. I only see bad coming out of this. Blood will be spilled."

But county sheriffs, who have increased their patrols of the street since the Forum opened, have issued no citations on their watch, says deputy Terrance Helm of the Santa Clara County sheriff's office. "There's been no pattern of folks doing bad things, no pattern of behavior specific to the club," says Helm. "Our presence is known; they try to be good neighbors."

Helm adds, "There's been pressure from the community to get the thing shut down, but they have due process like any other business. Neighbors are protesting, and they have a right to do protest. People want their neighborhood safe."

A Feb. 6 editorial in the Dispatch reads, "The club's neighbors, frustrated by the slow pace of removing Luce and her cronies, have resorted to videotaping customers as they arrive for a night of hedonism, in hopes of shaming them away. It shouldn't have come to this." It also says that Luce is "thumbing her nose at authorities" and suggests that the city attorney contact the IRS to audit Luce "to make sure that every penny of the club's revenue has been properly accounted for."

In its latest salvo, county officials informed Luce on Feb. 12 that she is illegally operating her business on land zoned for agriculture. Her landlord, Ilyas Absar, was issued a citation for improper zoning and threatened with legal sanctions. Breaking a three-year lease, Absar gave Luce a three-day quit notice shortly thereafter.

Jim Lanz, zoning investigator for south Santa Clara County, issued the citation (he lives a block away from the club). He says, "I don't personally have a problem with [the club], to be honest. Does this type of activity attract undesirable people in your neighborhood? I don't think that it does."

The swingers' sex club problem landed squarely in county Supervisor Don Gage's lap. In a nutshell, he says, the county got complaints and they had to respond. "They are in an area where they shouldn't be and they need to go," he says, adding that Luce should set up shop in a commercial area.

Noting that the club is protected by the First Amendment, he says, "No, I don't like them there, and our only recourse is that because they violated the zoning ordinance, we can ask them to leave. ... Folks are afraid--cars in the middle of the night, loud music, a lot of strange people walking around." Gage says he was "shocked" when he learned that the club had been operating for years in the county near Morgan Hill. "I never heard word one."

Regardless, he says, "Most people living in an unincorporated area are out there because they want serenity, no streetlights, no traffic, and want to enjoy their surroundings. And there's probably a little more emphasis because what people are doing the neighbors think is immoral."

Less Is Moral

Luce has just had her last swinger's weekend at the Dryden Avenue house. She's not sure if she's going to try to open another club again, but she says she'll be hosting dance parties at the Hyatt Rickeys in Palo Alto for club members. She plans to write a book about her experience and may start an adults-only hotel. She's also gearing up to sue the county for selective prosecution and sue her landlord for breaking her lease.

As far as her tangle with the city of Gilroy, a settlement was reached late last week. The city is dismissing all charges against Luce. Luce, in turn, agrees to pay $1,500 in fines, obey the laws of the city and promises not to sue the city, says her attorney Kevin Hutcheson.

"I did not see any of this coming," Luce says, leaning over a table in her club last week. "I had no idea this would have happened; I've been doing it for nine years with no problems." She adds, "They're burning me at the stake."

Should Luce have known better? Some people speculate that she should have picked the place to make her stand with a little more forethought. "What totally blows me away is that after her experience with the city of Gilroy, Luce--as the operator of the business--could move five to six miles away, not make any inquiries of the local jurisdiction and assume everything was cool right after what she just went through for the last three months, being cited every weekend and hauled into court," says zoning investigator Lanz. "After all that to move into essentially the same neighborhood blows me away--I can't fathom a reasonable business person taking this kind of action."

"A lot of clubs have great goals and aspirations without thinking about the legalities," says Bob Hannaford, a board member with the International Lifestyle Association, a national trade group for alternative lifestyle businesses. "No one in the country can apply for a use permit for a swingers' club because no such thing exists."

In the United States, some 30 clubs have been shut down in the last two years or are in litigation, he says. "People say it's illegal because, just because it has to be ... but in every legal case I've seen, the court has sided with the club. A technicality is always used to justify the ends to the means."

Well, says Los Altos-based attorney Tony Langorio, who's representing Luce in her action against the county, "I think we've got a bunch of good moralists down there. ... It's just too politically unpopular to let it continue." Even if Luce won her legal case to stay on Dryden (Langorio says he's examined the zoning ordinances and thinks the county is on weak grounds), he adds, "She'd still have such antagonistic neighbors it makes the game not worth the candle. ... All those ordinances and statutes put in place 20 years ago to protect sexual freedoms and privacy were supposed to herald a new era. But I'm afraid in certain areas of Santa Clara County, it just isn't permitted."

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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