Spa World Controversy Still Simmering

Activists call for statewide LGBT protections, want spa to issue official nondiscrimination statement

By John Riley
Published on March 5, 2013, 3:34pm | Comments

A Korean-style spa in Centreville, Va., popular with many D.C.-area residents, including members of the LGBT community, continues to receive heat from activists who feel the spa has much further to go than a recent statement of nondiscrimination and miscommunication if it's to atone for an incident in which a woman was asked to leave the venue, allegedly due to her perceived gender identity.

According to a story posted Feb. 22 on FairfaxTimes.com, the woman, Riya Suising, who identifies as a member of the LGBT community, said that the spa staff asked her to leave because they had received complaints regarding her presence in the female locker room. After receiving a refund of her money, Suising filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which opened an investigation into Spa World's policies regarding LGBT patrons. During that investigation, Spa World made what many perceive to be anti-LGBT comments that included calling homosexuality ''abnormal'' and saying spa would not accept LGBT patrons.

By March 1, the story gained traction on social media, prompting outrage among some patrons. Local residents shared the story via Facebook, tweeted statements criticizing Spa World and posted negative reviews on the business's Yelp page. Several customers also told Metro Weekly that, following the controversy, they had asked for and received refunds from the discount-offers website Groupon, which had offered special packages for day passes to Spa World.

Activists also launched at least four different online petitions urging Spa World to change its policies. One such petition, appearing on SignOn.org, a petition site affiliated with the online progressive organizing community MoveOn.org, started by Jessie Posilkin of D.C. in conjunction with the progressive organization Virginia New Majority, called for Spa World to issue a formal apology to Suising and post a nondiscrimination statement on its website. As of Tuesday, Posilkin's petition had garnered nearly 900 signatures.

On Monday, a spokesman for Spa World clarified that despite the spa's initial written response to the BBB in which it said gay and transgender customers were not welcome, the spa does not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender and welcomes LGBT people as patrons.

''We don't discriminate against anyone,'' Spa World spokesman Tim Cho told Metro Weekly. ''If anybody acts inappropriately, sexually or morally, we reserve the right to ask them to leave. But we don't discriminate against anyone in terms of gender or sexual orientation.

Cho's statement followed comments Spa World manager James Lee had given to the Washington City Paper saying the written response to the BBB was meant to communicate that sexual activity is not permitted at the spa, but was complicated by a miscommunication stemming from a ''Korean-English'' language barrier.

Following the clarification of Spa World's policy, Groupon issued a statement defending Spa World and chalking up the weekend controversy to a misunderstanding due to miscommunication.

''This was literally a situation where intent was lost in translation,'' Groupon spokeswoman Julie Mossler told Metro Weekly. ''Groupon does not tolerate any form of discrimination by our merchants or customers, and the management of Spa World has reassured us that they welcome all patrons. We're confident Groupon customers can have a respectful, satisfactory experience in the future and thus will continue to work with Spa World.''

Groupon did not respond to a follow-up email from Metro Weekly asking if Groupon would continue offering refunds for Spa World packages if customers were still offended.

But for Posilkin and others, Spa World's attempts to rehabilitate its image by clarifying its policy don't go far enough.

''We found their statement on Facebook and Twitter calling the outrage 'ignorant comments' just one of many signs that they don't quite get the level and severity of their mistake,'' Posilkin, a past patron, wrote in an email to Metro Weekly, referring to comments posted by the business over the weekend. ''There's talk of an action at Spa World this weekend unless Spa World posts a public nondiscrimination statement and issues an apology to Riya.''

Posilkin told Metro Weekly that the form that action might take had not yet been decided.

''This incident isn't over until [Spa World] institute[s] a formal policy of nondiscrimination based on gender identity and sexuality,'' Rishi Awatramani, Virginia New Majority's organizing director, said in a statement. ''But Spa World's behavior is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Until our local and statewide politicians commit themselves to protecting people of all genders and sexual orientations from discrimination, businesses like Spa World will not be accountable to Virginia residents. Our state and county politicians must take action.''

Equality Virginia, the state's primary LGBT-advocacy organization had previously entered the fray by circulating a petition urging Spa World to change its policy. But even after the clarification from the spa, Equality Virginia used the incident to emphasize Virginia's lack of legal protections for LGBT people.

''While Spa World has informally stated an intent not to discriminate again, we hope they will take the next step in adopting a formal policy protecting their LGBT customers,'' James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. ''As consumers, we decide with our wallet to support businesses that support us. As citizens, we must use this as an opportunity to urge Virginia's lawmakers to work towards protections in public accommodations, employment and housing to make the Commonwealth a friendlier place to live and do business.''