The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A trans woman reportedly undressed in a spa. Customers said they were ‘traumatized,’ and a protest ensued.


A previous version of this story, relying on information from a source, reported the transgender woman’s use of the spa as fact. The source now says they do not know whether a transgender woman actually used the spa or if the complaint was a stunt. This story has been updated.

A famous spa in Los Angeles’s Koreatown became the latest site in the battle over transgender rights last week, drawing attention from conservative commentators nationwide. A week after a customer confronted spa staffers about a transgender woman apparently disrobing in the spa’s women’s section, protests over the situation turned violent.

It is unclear whether a transgender woman actually used the spa. The person has not been publicly identified.

Shortly after the confrontation at Wi Spa and days before the protest, the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a case on bathroom discrimination marked a win for transgender people across the nation.

Those against gender-inclusive public facilities have long cited safety and privacy concerns, saying these accommodations could open the door for predators to enter spaces such as restrooms and changing rooms. A 2018 study from the Williams Institute, a research center focused on sexual-orientation and gender-identity law and public policy, found no link between gender-inclusive policies and safety risks.

But the crescendo to the violence over the weekend began with the same bathroom bill talking point: How can people be sure someone identifies as the gender they say?

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The initial confrontation between an upset customer and spa staff happened after a transgender woman — who has not been publicly identified — reportedly used the side of the spa reserved for women. In one video, a person who identifies herself as the spa’s manager asks whether the transgender woman did anything specifically inappropriate, and an upset customer replies that the person’s genitalia was exposed in the women’s section of the spa.

“She was within the women’s section, which, you know, is exactly where she should be,” said Jae Red Rose, an organizer for San Diego Trans Pride.

The spa’s Facebook page warns that “modesty must be checked at the door, as no clothing is worn in these gender-separated areas.” Two customers said they — and two girls who were present — were “traumatized” after seeing the transgender woman’s genitals.

Women-only spaces should be protected, said Zac Boyer, manager of programs and outreach for the central Ohio-based LGBTQ organization Stonewall Columbus, but that doesn’t mean all women have the same genitals.

“If you don’t want your child to see a variety of bodies, don’t take them to naked spaces,” Boyer said.

Conservative commentator Ian Miles Cheong tweeted a thread of videos that contain strong language and feature a customer at Wi Spa repeatedly asking an employee why a “man” was allowed into the women’s section.

A bystander asks the customer whether she’s talking about a transgender person, to which she replies: “There is no such thing as transgender.”

A spa employee defended the transgender woman’s use of the facilities, telling the customer that she could leave if she was uncomfortable.

In a statement, Wi Spa cited a section of California law that makes it illegal for businesses to discriminate against transgender and other gender-nonconforming people. The spa said it does not tolerate harassment or lewd conduct from any customers.

“Like many other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles contains a transgender population, some of whom enjoy visiting a spa,” the statement said. “Wi Spa strives to follow the law and meet the needs and safety of all of its customers.”

Protesters who said they were defending women’s and children’s rights rallied against the business’s decision Saturday, but were seemingly outnumbered by dozens of black-clad counterprotesters who attempted to chase them off.

Video shot by a Twitter user who self-identified as an advocacy journalist shows a man wearing an American flag bandanna pulling a gun out of a backpack. When the person filming asks what he grabbed, the man replies: “Something to shoot you with.”

Other video from the scene shows a man in a plaid shirt hitting a filmmaker in the back of the head with what appears to be a pipe.

Both the man with the gun and the man with the pipe were with the group that said it was rallying for women’s and children’s rights.

Some footage shows demonstrators wearing shirts and carrying signs with homophobic slogans and phrases such as “Save the children” — a rallying cry associated with QAnon, a sprawling set of claims that has coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers, incited violence and been designated a domestic terrorism threat.

Police wearing tactical gear declared the demonstration an unlawful assembly after the groups clashed, CBS Los Angeles reported.

At least one person who was assaulted was transported to a medical facility, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson told NBC. The spa’s story has been featured on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and splashed across right-wing journalist Andy Ngo’s Twitter feed.

The customer who confronted spa staffers about the transgender woman said in an Instagram video that she would not attend the protest because she heard that antifa would be there and was concerned for her safety. Antifa is a loosely knit group of far-left activists. She did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment.

Several transgender women have posted about receiving death threats since the initial Wi Spa confrontation.

The popular 24-hour spa, which is reportedly a hot spot for celebrities, closed during the protest Saturday.

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In another video posted to Instagram, two customers repeatedly asked how spa employees could determine someone’s gender. When they were told that it depends on how the person identifies, they asked what happens if someone lies.

“It’s not discrimination, it’s an impostor,” one customer said. “You cannot identify an impostor? Someone faking to be a woman just because they feel like they want to call themselves a woman?”

Another woman in the video vowed to protect little girls “in Jesus’s name.”

Transgender people and advocates say the real threat is that transgender women will be assaulted over situations like the one at Wi Spa.

“It’s not safe for trans women to go into male spaces, and to be forced into those areas puts them at risk,” nonbinary author Dianna Anderson said. “The bigger threat here is that trans women will be assaulted over this stuff.”

Harassment and violence in gendered spaces are common for people whose gender presentation is not considered feminine or masculine enough, Anderson said.

Researchers found that transgender youths face higher physical and sexual assault risks when they are unable to use the bathroom of their choice. More than 12 percent of transgender people surveyed in 2015 reported being harassed or attacked in a bathroom.

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