In 2011, Ting Su, the co-founder of Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles, launched a monthly event for women interested in beer. The aim was to balance out the overwhelmingly male and white beer world, where, Su said, men often feel entitled to interject their own opinions when women customers asked women bartenders, like her, for recommendations. The Women’s Beer Forum was a space where the women would outnumber the men while discussing craft beer, a rarity.
But in November 2017, as Su tells Eater, a man emailed Eagle Rock’s general information line asking for a spot at the ticketed forum. A staff member mistakenly told the man that the event was for women only (in fact, men have attended before), and even after he was offered access to a future women’s beer event, the man ultimately filed a discrimination claim through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the entity in charge of enforcing California’s civil rights laws.
The man is Steve Frye, a men’s rights activist, or MRA, who is hardly a stranger to filing discrimination cases against California businesses and, at one point, Donald Trump. In 2011, Frye sued one of Trump’s golf courses because it offered a 25 percent discount to “ladies” for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
It’s just one of dozens of other lawsuits he’s filed for ladies’ night specials or deals for women. Men’s rights activists believe that society is actually sexist against men, and Frye has perfected the subculture’s favorite way to target what they see as a society that is sexist against men: suing businesses and organizations that incentivize women to go there.
And in many of these types of cases, the defendants end up settling due to the high cost of legal fees. Su made the difficult decision to settle in order to protect her brewery from bankruptcy, despite the fact that she believed in the Women’s Beer Forum and wanted to defend it in court.
She currently has a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $16,000 of the original $10,000 ask, but the money isn’t all for legal fees and the settlement: She’s aiming to raise awareness for small businesses and women’s groups to protect themselves against lawsuits from men’s rights activists. And, as she told Eater, she wants to “elicit some form of change at the legislative level to minimize the exploitation of the Unruh Act [a California law against discrimination by sex, race, and other factors] by career plaintiffs so that the small businesses and women’s groups don’t continually get targeted for these cases.”
Men’s rights activists have their own law firm that has grown out of the subculture. The National Coalition for Men, a San Diego-based organization made of volunteer lawyers with 29 chapters around America, Israel, Canada, and Kenya, focuses on divorce, custody, and paternity issues, but also often use the Unruh Act to file suits against businesses that run diversity scholarships or women’s networking events.
The tactic is similar to how some so-called free speech advocates file defamation suits against anyone who speaks out against them. Right-wing Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, who achieved notoriety in 2016 for publicly refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns, has now filed two lawsuits against Wilfrid Laurier University over the ways a professor there has described him. He also threatened to sue Cornell University professor Kate Manne for her comments about him in an interview with Vox’s Sean Illing back in June.
This weaponization of the law against the very philosophy that one claims to champion is a case study in irony. For MRAs, it’s able-bodied, white, cis, heterosexual men using civil rights legislation — which is enacted to walk back the country’s history of viewing the rights of able-bodied, white, cis, heterosexual men as more important than others — to penalize the very kinds of people these laws were meant to protect. And for free speech advocates, it’s policing any discourse they don’t agree with.
MRAs have an inherently reactionary philosophy; the subculture arose out of anger toward a society that they feel has become too open, too welcoming, too equal. When the law is set up to protect all people regardless of their demographic, these kinds of bad-faith actors are able to twist laws designed to help correct imbalances to try to undermine their existence.
And if the rising interest in men’s rights activism and its adjacent ideologies — incels, the alt-right, white supremacists — is any indication, these kinds of lawsuits are likely to only become more common.