August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

To Denise Wells, it was a case of necessity, not civil disobedience. All evening she had been trying to get into the ladies’ room at the Summit, Houston’s 17,064-seat sports arena, where she had gone to see country and western singer George Strait. Earlier Wells had left her $125 third-row seat, only to turn back when she found a line of 30 women outside the nearest rest room. When she ventured out again the line was even longer, but by then, says the 33-year-old legal assistant, “I was desperate.” Spotting a young man escorting his girlfriend into the men’s room, she followed them and slipped into a stall. “I felt kind of funny,” Wells admits, but she covered her exit with a joke, announcing to the men at the urinals, “I put the seat back up, guys, just the way you like it.”

The “guys” had no objection, but a Houston policeman, who was leaving ahead of her, turned and grabbed Wells’s arm and issued her a citation, informing her that she had violated a city ordinance forbidding anyone to use a rest room designated for members of the opposite sex. Escorted from the arena, Wells stood crying as she waited for a cab. “It was so humiliating,” she says. “If my mother wasn’t already dead, this would have killed her.”

Since the Houston Post reported her July 7 arrest, Wells, who intends to challenge a possible $200 fine in court, has become a symbol in the battle for equal rest room rights. Police insist they were merely enforcing a 1972 law—common in many cities—that was primarily intended to keep men out of women’s rest rooms. But women are also cited under the ordinance, since until 1985 city plumbing codes required extra toilets for males in facilities like the Summit, where it was presumed men would outnumber women.

There have been jokes at Wells’s expense—one radio station offered to rent her a portable potty for Strait’s next concert—but a Post poll shows that most people support her. “Many women have had to duck into the men’s room,” says city council member Christin Hartung. “I have. I hope the judge will be lenient.”

Wells’s lawyer, Valorie Davenport, who is also her sister, says leniency won’t be necessary since her client didn’t break the law. The ordinance prohibits anyone from entering a bathroom for members of the opposite sex “in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.” No problem, says Davenport: “Denise did it in a manner calculated to go to the rest room.”

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