The Naked Truth

The controversy over Spa World and LGBT customers is an opportunity to make a statement about discrimination in Virginia

Whether it’s because of ancient locker-room nightmares or present day fluctuations in my weight, I have body issues. A few years ago, when I was at my maximum weight (a number I am totally not telling you) I realized that those issues were causing me a real problem: I was so unnerved by the idea of being nude in a gym locker room it kept me from actually using the gym.

Not wanting to spend money on therapy sessions to dig down to the roots of this particular mental issue, I chose the cheaper route: I bit the bullet and started getting naked.

It was during this period that I made my first trek out to Spa World, the Korean spa in Centreville renowned for offering the most relaxation you can find short of lounging on fluffy clouds held aloft by unicorns. It’s also, to American eyes, stark raving naked. I’m not going to go into some long explanation of cultural differences, but I’ll note that Spa World offers a corporate membership package for ”business owners who often entertain guests.”

While I’m sticking to lunch and happy hour to conduct my business entertainment needs, I found that Spa World’s relaxing nature lived up to its reputation: lounging around the different stations of the bade pool, a body scrub so thorough it removes anything not attached directly to bone, a full-body massage that leaves you feeling melted.

So, yes, I was taken aback when I first saw word that Spa World had become the focus of a Better Business Bureau complaint for forcing a transgender woman to leave, a sudden reminder that even amid all the relaxation and smiling faces you’re still in Virginia where it remains legal to discriminate against LGBT people.

When I’ve been at Spa World, I’ve seen that it’s fairly diverse for what is at heart a traditionally Asian business: local Korean and Vietnamese families with kids in tow, bunches of European travelers, and a lot of gay guys. Despite raised eyebrows and a handful of Craigslist ads, it’s not a huge gay pick-up place. The worst behavior by gays that I’ve seen is a couple of bears who hogged one of the bade pool stations for half an hour. My mother-in-law goes there often for pedicures and foot massages, which I can’t say about any other place of business in which I’ve been naked over the past 20 years or so. So I take Spa World at face value when they talk about being a ”family” place.

And I’m willing to cut a little slack to Spa World when it says that some of the offensive language used in their response to the BBB complaint — ”any kinds of abnormal sexual oriented customers to our facility such as homosexuals, or transgender(s)” — was a problem of translation, because I know from dealing with my own family that English as a second language can genuinely create confusion.

But even as Spa World has publicly followed up on the incident by saying that it does not discriminate against LGBT people, its spokesperson raised my antennae by saying, ”If anybody acts inappropriately, sexually or morally, we reserve the right to ask them to leave.” I understand kicking out people for inappropriate sexual behavior; I’d just like to know how they define ”morally” inappropriate. If it sounds like a loophole, it often is a loophole.

I hope that Spa World does the right thing by apologizing to the woman they kicked out and creating a formal nondiscrimination policy. Given Virginia’s lack of protections for us — a ridiculous second-class citizenship given that when taken separately from the state NoVa is a very LGBT-friendly place — it would be a good example for other local businesses.

And seeing the welcome mat fully extended, I can get back to relaxing.

Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. He can be reached at sbugg@MetroWeekly.com. Follow him on Twitter @seanbugg.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.