Going "stag" sounds so old-fashioned — boys night out, sans the gals.
But it’s not so outdated in certain Rotary clubs in the Brandon suburbs and still rural Plant City. There, the decades-old no-women-allowed tradition of the yearly stag Wild Game Dinner lives on, despite controversy.
If you are unfamiliar, Rotary is a service club with more than a million members worldwide that espouses principles like being fair to all and building goodwill and friendship. Local Rotarians hold meetings, hand out giant checks, build Habitat houses, put in volunteer hours at Metropolitan Ministries and get elbow-deep in river clean-ups.
And in two clubs in Plant City and Brandon, they host yearly no-dames-allowed fundraising dinners where real men eat real food like boar burgers and venison, baked beans and corn on the cob. I’m told there’s been moose, gator and rattlesnake. Beer and maybe whisky reportedly get sipped and cigars smoked. But I found no eyewitness accounts of anything with the potential to give delicate ladies the vapors.
And wait — there are women present at least for the Brandon event, where female Rotarians work checking people in and such.
Chris Ingram — a conservative TV and radio commentator and notably also a man — was president of the Rotary Club of Tampa when a female member pointed out these events and was bothered by the exclusion. He brought up the stag dinners to his board and got permission to ask the clubs to stop. The clubs declined. Next was a proposal to go to the district level to begin the process of banning any discrimination, including gender, race and religion.
But as Ingram saw it, the proposal got delayed by those who prefer not to rattle cages and failed.
A member of Rotary clubs for 19 years, he has resigned. He says he has three daughters he’d like to be able to look in the eye.
Now I hope all of this does not leave the impression that hordes of women are picketing for the right to gnaw on an elk rib alongside the fellas. This is more about the stubborn message that men are in charge and there are places women do not belong. If you think that battle’s done and won, remember that women currently earn about 80 cents for every dollar paid a man.
And it’s not the boys going out for beers — it’s an official club function excluding a significant segment of the population. These dinners have in the past been called power events for politicians and business leaders. Just the male ones, I guess.
Some very nice women in Rotary were willing to talk to me about this, including the two who are — surprise — presidents of the clubs that host stag dinners. They said these are strong fund raisers steeped in tradition — making nearly $90,000 in Brandon and more than $100,000 in Plant City. "It’s not intended to be anything exclusionary — it’s guys hanging with guys," says Rotary Club of Brandon president Debbie Meegan.
Winnie Marvel, who was district governor during this dust-up, says the clubs tell her changing the events would end their success. She is not against language preventing discrimination. But she thinks sometimes you get more when you "shine a light" on something and move forward rather than force change.
Is no-girls-allowed outdated and discriminatory?
In some corners of Hillsborough County, apparently not just yet.