Spa World Policy Remains Muddy

Centreville venue posts statement on Facebook, but confusion persists

Spa World, the suburban Centreville, Va., Korean-style spa at the center of a public-relations storm in recent days following news surfacing of a November incident in which it asked a patron, Riya Suising, to leave due to complaints of her perceived gender identity, posted a statement on Facebook Wednesday in an attempt to further clarify its policy regarding LGBT patrons.

Unfortunately for the business, the March 6 statement repeats confusing language it has previously used. As a result, the statement has fallen short of being the last word on the matter.

Suising says she agreed to leave the spa after obtaining a refund, though later filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Metro Washington, D.C. and Eastern Pennsylvania. The BBB undertook an investigation into the incident, at which point it asked Spa World about any policy regarding LGBT patrons. Spa World’s CEO and president, Sang Lee, issued a written statement that, among other things, called homosexuality ”abnormal,” seemed to imply that LGBT people are more likely than others to engage in licentious behavior, and stated that the spa would not accept LGBT patrons.

The story of the incident and the spa’s response to the investigation broke Feb. 22 on FairfaxTimes.com. But a week later, March 1, the story gained traction in social media, prompting outrage from the area’s LGBT community, a significant portion of Spa World’s customer base.

Local residents – gay and straight alike – shared the story via Facebook, tweeted statements criticizing Spa World and posted negative reviews on the business’s Yelp page. Several patrons told Metro Weekly that they had received refunds from the discount-offers website Groupon, which had offered special packages for Spa World day passes. Activists also launched various petitions urging the business to change its policies.

On Monday, March 4, a spa spokesman told Metro Weekly that the business does not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. A different spokesman also told the Washington City Paper that the confusion over the spa’s policy was due to a miscommunication stemming from a Korean-English language barrier.

In its March 6 statement, Spa World reiterated its apology to Suising for asking her to leave and attributed its earlier response to the BBB to the aforementioned language barrier.

”To state our policy, Spa World do not discriminate against any groups, and we never will,” said Lee, writing on behalf of the spa. ”Also, Spa World do not discriminate against the LGBT community nor have we ever in the past. What we do is to enforce a very strict policy of prohibiting public obscenities and misbehavior in the facility. … We want to clarify that we never discriminate [against] our customers based on gender, sexual orientation, race or physical appearance; however we have rights to demand customers to leave our facility by breaking our policy of misbehavior in the facility.”

Within hours of its posting, Spa World’s Facebook page received hundreds of comments, with some continuing to criticize the business for implying Suising was engaging in some sort of misbehavior, and others supporting the spa by saying that the LGBT community was complaining too much, some making derogatory comments about LGBT people, and others charging that Suising has male genitalia.

Suising herself responded to the spa’s post by thanking the spa for trying to clarify its policy. But she also pointed out that the latest apology statement included seemingly contradictory statements.

”Yes, you did apologize many times, including directly to me during my visit,” Suising wrote. ”But the apology was for the inconvenience of removing me due to customer complaints. By your policy you state that you will remove customers due to inappropriate behavior. Please clarify what inappropriate behavior I demonstrated during my visit.”

Suising also stated that she did not believe she behaved inappropriately, pointing out that she did show her ID to management at the time of the incident to prove she is female.

”Your recent statement to Mike Conneen of WJLA-TV on March 2 said, ‘When [Conneen] asked Mr. Lee how he would handle the same situation if it happened again he said, ”He would still ask Suising to leave, but if she refused, he’d allow her to stay,””’ Suising pointed out. ”This sounds like I would still be asked to leave again if other customers complained about my appearance, which seems to contradict your policy of removal due to inappropriate behavior. Actually, I would consider customers disparaging other customers about their appearance to be a form of harassment or inappropriate behavior.”

Neither Virginia law nor Fairfax County codes offer protections for LGBT people in public accommodations based on either sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Groups like LGBT-rights organization Equality Virginia and the progressive Virginia New Majority have used the Spa World incident to call on state and local politicians to provide nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in employment, credit, housing and public accommodations.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com