When California resident Riya Suising was in town on business late last year, she decided to go to Spa World in Centreville.
As a Chinese-American and a marathon runner, Suising frequently attends spas and is well-versed in the Asian spa culture of communal bathing pools.
“Korean spas, with communal baths, are the best, as they have warm/hot Jacuzzis and cold baths,” she said. “ As a marathon runner, going into a cold bath is one of the best recovery methods after a hard workout, and I often alternate between the cold and hot baths to improve circulation. I know that other athletes also like the Korean spas for this reason.”
Spa World, which opened in 2008, has these types of Korean communal baths, segregated by gender.
While relaxing in the female bathing pool late last year, Suising said a Spa World manager approached her and asked her to leave the establishment.
“They told me that I was not welcome there and to leave because I looked a little different,” she said. “Let’s say I am a member of the LGBT population.”
Suising said she was told by the spa management that five spa customers had lodged complaints about her presence. Suising said she is very tall and muscular and has very broad shoulders, which may distinguish her from natural-born females, but that otherwise her gender presentation is very feminine. “None of the complaints, as they were described to me, referenced my genitalia in any way,” she said.“I can’t believe that they would discriminate based on physical appearance. I was not doing anything but keeping to myself.”
After leaving, Suising filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
“I was mortified,” she said. “It was obvious that this business discriminates against any ‘abnormal appearing’ persons, specifically against LGBT people, and likely against anyone else not appearing up to their standards.”
The Better Business Bureau opened an investigation, and on Jan. 28, Spa World representative Sang Lee responded to the BBB in writing by stating “It is our policy to not accept any kinds of abnormal sexual oriented customers to our facility such as homosexuals, or transgender(s).”
The Spa World written reply goes on to say that the spa stands by this policy for the sake of young children who utilize the facility. “Also, for the safety and the comfort of young children at Spa World, we strongly forbid any abnormal sexual behaviors and orientation in our facility. Despite the controversial issue of homosexuality and transgender, it is our policy to not accept them,” Lee wrote. Lee did not return calls seeking further comment.
When she received it, Suising said she could not believe the response.
“In California, this would be illegal,” she said. “I am not sure exactly what the state of LGBT equality is in Virginia, but I hope it is more progressive than this.”
But according to one local political action group, it is not.
Rishi Awatramani is communications director for The Virginia New Majority, an Alexandria-based political action group that claims it is a unifying voice for “all people of the Commonwealth of Virginia, particularly African-Americans, immigrants, progressive whites, youth, women and the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered community.
“There is nothing in the Virginia or the Fairfax County code that protects gender expression or sexual orientation discrimination,” he said. “It is kind of unbelievable, but true.”
Suising said she is not seeking any financial compensation and does not plan to file any legal actions against the spa, but said she would like an apology, and ultimately says she wants people to know that what happened to her is a form of discrimination that needs to be addressed nationwide.
“This has happened to me a few times before in other parts of the country, and perhaps I am pushing the boundaries of this type of discrimination, but I am not purposely looking for controversy. That is not my goal. I too, think it is correct to prohibit ‘abnormal sexual behavior’ in a public place, but a transgendered person just being there, behaving appropriately like any other customer should not count as such.”