The Battle of Wi Spa

The latest clash over trans rights shows the civil rights paradigm has its limitations

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Over the weekend, a protest turned violent for the second time outside Wi Spa in Los Angeles, which has been at the center of controversy over the (alleged) presence of a transgender customer with a penis in a female-only area that has nudity. The protests on behalf of women-only spaces have drawn a weird coalition of radical feminists (not my favorite folks) and radical right-wingers including QAnon types (ditto). But the mainstream liberal and progressive response to this incident has been a frustrating combination of diversionary tactics, gaslighting, and dogma that a few years ago would have been seen as a parody of “political correctness gone mad”: Don’t want to see male genitalia in your all-female space in a spa? Don’t look—or deal with it!

First, the story. It started with a two-part video posted on Instagram on June 24 in which a social media user who goes by “cubanaangel” confronts spa staff about “a man with a penis” “exposing himself” to women and young girls. She is told that “if they identify as female,” the person is permitted to use the women’s section and that “under the law, we cannot discriminate against gender identity.” (Wi Spa has gender-segregated saunas where guests are asked not to wear any clothing.)

There is no question that, especially toward the end of the second video, “cubanaangel” comes off as … shall we say … eccentric. She films herself marching down to the locker room in search of the penis haver, ranting about “the blood of Jesus” and the “wild and lying spirit” (at least I think that’s what she says).

The prevailing opinion on the progressive side right now is that the incident was a “hoax from a weird Christian extremist.” This claim originates with the Los Angeles Blade, an LGBTQ website which ran an article on July 7 titled, “Alleged Trans incident at upscale LA Spa may have been staged.” According to the article:

There is increasing doubt among law enforcement and staff at the Wi Spa whether there was ever was a transgender person there to begin with. Anonymous sources within the LAPD tell the Blade they have been unable to find any corroborating evidence that there was a transgender person present on that day.

Similarly, a source at the Spa told the Blade there’s no record of any of its usual transgender clients on its appointments guest list on the day in question. Treatment at the Spa is by appointment only, and most of its transgender clients are well known to the staff.

Several other factors cast doubt on the veracity of the claims in the video. Cubaangel’s Instagram account is almost exclusively Christian memes, which begs the question why she chose to go to a spa well known for being LGBTQ friendly. During Cubaangel’s video, no transgender person can be seen, and no other witnesses have come forward to confirm the allegations made. It’s also not the first time Wi Spa has been targeted for catering to transgender people. After the alleged, unconfirmed incident, Wi Spa was deluged with 1-star Yelp! and Trip Advisor reviews.

But these are not very convincing arguments. The LAPD has made no other public statements about investigating the case. The only source is anonymous. And it’s not clear what the LAPD could do in any case: since it’s perfectly legal for a female-identifying penis owner to use a women-only nude facility under California law, no crime was committed even if that person was there.

The anonymous source at the spa does not definitively say that no such person was present, only that none of the establishment’s usual trans clients had a booking for that day. (By the way, the author is also anonymous, so that’s a triple.) The claim that it was suspicious for a conservative Christian to go to a spa “known for being LBGTQ friendly” rests on a single two-year-old, one-line Yelp review. As for no other witnesses, the videos do show at least two, possibly three other women complaining about the disrobed transgender person in the women’s section, demanding a refund and saying they won’t be back. They don’t seem to know “cubanaangel,” so it’s unlikely they’re working in tandem. As for the fact that Wi Spa had a review on TripAdvisor in 2018 complaining about a naked transgender individual with a “male organ” using the women’s showers (and being very conspicuous about it), I’m not sure what that’s supposed to prove. (It could certainly be taken to confirm that such things can be an issue at the spa!) If the suggestion is that Wi Spa is being targeted for right-wing (or “TERF”) harassment for being trans-inclusive, two complaints in three years doesn’t seem like much of a campaign.

Ironically, after working so hard to prove that there was no exposed penis in the women’s section, the Blade article turns around and suggests that maybe there was—but it probably belonged to an anti-trans provocateur, not an actual trans person. It’s rather like that famous “kettle parable” in which a man accused by his neighbor of returning a borrowed kettle in damaged condition protests that (1) he returned the kettle in one piece, (2) it was already damaged when he borrowed it, and (3) he never borrowed it anyway.

Despite this confusing spin, Slate picked up the “hoax” narrative two days later. Its article, using the Blade story as its only source, was headlined, “Violence Over a Transphobic Hoax Shows the Danger of Underestimating Anti-Trans Hate” and subtitled, “Police suspect the viral L.A. Wi Spa video is fake—but it still got two people stabbed.”

Somewhat tangentially: The article notes that the protest at Wi Spa “included a contingent of violent extremists from the far right” and “the two stabbing victims were attacked by an anti-trans protester.” (One of the victims was a fellow protester, stabbed by mistake.) But it never mentions that it was very likely Antifa counter-protesters who initiated the violence. Footage of “black bloc” activists beating, kicking, and chasing protesters, in one case hitting a (non-violent) man in the face with a skateboard, can be easily found on Twitter. (Yes, from right-wing accounts, but no one has suggested that the videos are doctored.)

But back to the incident itself. The Slate piece uses its own version of “kettle logic,” which can be summed up as: (1) The allegations of a penis owner being in the women-only nude section are totally not true! (2) Actually, a penis owner had every right to be in the women-only nude section.

The argument for (2) basically goes like this: Trans women are women, so of course a trans woman has every right to be in the women-only nude section. Nudity? What’s the problem? After all, there are plenty of other nude women there; this one just happens to have slightly different anatomy. Don’t like it, don’t look. If nudity offends you, don’t go to a nude facility. Male nudity? It’s not male nudity, since the naked person is a woman.

That was the position almost universally taken by online progressives. And some of the arguments were pretty startling. Here, for instance, is British feminist Laurie Penny responding to a mother of a 15-year-old girl who asked how Penny thought her daughter would feel—and what she should do—if “someone with a penis” undressed next to her in a women’s changing room:

Transgender activist, writer, and YouTuber Zinnia Jones struck a similar note.

Another representative take came from zine publisher Carta Monir:

This is what I mean by “gaslighting”: claims that an anatomically male body in an area reserved for naked women is self-evidently just a different kind of female body, perhaps one that is “displeasing aesthetically” to some people—as if a penis and testicles were no different than a large belly or a surgical scar. (I can assure Carta Monir that there are plenty of male bodies I find quite pleasing aesthetically, but still don’t want to see in a women-only nude sauna!) I generally wince at the political uses of the word “gaslighting,” often employed to mean simply “using facts or arguments that contradict my view of reality”—but seemingly logical statements that ignore obvious truths about the human experience as we know it really do have that crazy-making quality. It’s a bit like, say, responding to someone’s grief over a 90-year-old parent’s death from Covid-19 by wondering why the death of a person several years past average life expectancy should be treated like a tragedy. I’m not suggesting that the trauma of losing a parent is comparable to seeing exposed male anatomy in the women’s sauna or locker room; but in both cases, there’s a sense of being expected to labor at rational explanations for the blindingly obvious.

In this case, the obvious truth is that expectations of bodily privacy are universally sex-based, even if the specifics vary greatly from one culture to another. Some cultures have co-ed nude hot tubs or saunas, though the widespread notion that mixed-sex nudity is considered perfectly normal in enlightened Europe and it’s only us Americans who have puritanical hang-ups about these things is too simplistic. (Nude saunas and hot tubs are typically co-ed in Germany but, interestingly enough, sex-segregated in progressive Sweden; in France, Italy, and Spain, such facilities require bathing suits.)

It’s noteworthy that in debates on the use of public bathrooms by transgender people in accordance with their gender identity, the typical argument is that bathroom stalls offer privacy and no one checks people’s genitals when they enter a bathroom. Yet when it comes to locker rooms, showers, or saunas, we seem to have smoothly segued from “Who cares if there’s a person with a penis in the next stall? You can’t see it anyway!” to “Who cares if there’s a naked person with a penis sitting, showering, or strolling right in front of you? Just look away! Or, if you’re such a dinosaur that it bothers you, go somewhere else!”

Of course, as people have pointed out, California’s human rights legislation requires access to sex-segregated spaces to be based on gender identity, so if you’re a woman in California, you currently do not have the option of going somewhere else. You cannot find a nude sauna, locker room, or communal shower at the gym that bars female-identified people with male anatomy, because that would be illegal.

Is this a problem? Sometimes it is, and not just for conservative Christians. An article in LA Magazine about the Wi Spa controversy included this interesting tidbit:

As it happens, Wi Spa isn’t the only similar space that’s had to balance accommodating both cis customers and trans customers in various stages of their transitions. A rep for Century Day and Night Spa on Olympic Boulevard recalls a similar situation just before the pandemic shut them down in spring 2020 in which a trans woman (“with everything reflected female on her driver’s license”) caused an uproar among cis gender female clients by exposing male genitals in the female pools and lockers. “[She] wouldn’t really use the spas, [she] just sat at the corner of the pool with [her] feet in the water and [her] legs spread or took front-facing showers,” the rep recalls. “People began to feel uncomfortable. It became very disruptive.” When the spa finally confronted her, she was adamant that the spa should attempt to normalize young girls and women viewing male genitalia.

The article doesn’t mention how the situation was resolved, but it’s not clear the person could be legally ejected under California law (after all, it’s not as if they’d kick out a cisgender woman for being too conspicuously naked in the showers and the pool).

The Daily Mail also reported on another woman, identified only as Anita, who attended the Wi Spa protest and described a bad experience at the spa a year ago. (The Daily Mail, a tabloid with distinct right-wing leanings, may not be the world’s most reliable source, but it sounds like they did their due diligence in this case; according to the article, “Anita shared with Uber and credit card receipts evidencing her trip to the spa in January 2020, and an email she wrote to managers complaining about the incident in the days after.”)

Anita, a millennial daughter of Hispanic immigrants and a self-described Democrat, said that she brought her six-year-old daughter to the spa’s nude area—which is not “adult” but family-oriented, with mothers, grandmothers, and young girls often using the hot tubs together in the Korean tradition. Everything was fine until a trio of new customers showed up—one of them with intact male anatomy and a beard, or at least visible stubble. Anita described the three as “privileged, white, progressive-type people” with an “aggressive attitude” and said that the trans person seemed to be “[a]lmost enjoying” the visible shock and discomfort of the female customers.

Anita, who was able to shield her daughter and get her out of the tub before she could see anything, said that the staff was sympathetic but told her they couldn’t do anything except give her two free passes for another visit.

“Another woman came up to me in the locker room and told me the staff asked [the trans woman] to cover up but [they] refused.”

Anita said after she complained, the staff that day started warning customers there was a “pre-op trans woman” in the women's section.

Anita also says that when she called the police to report the incident, the first two cops she spoke to were sympathetic and told her she probably had grounds for a complaint of indecent exposure; the third, however, would not take the report and told her she was to blame for taking her daughter into such an environment.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of transgender people are mindful of other people’s comfort levels as well as their own. If nothing else, they want to “pass,” which means that the last thing they want is to draw attention to their anatomy if it is unaltered. But then there are the jerks. Or the exhibitionists and sexual fetishists. Or the ideologues who want to “re-educate” people and normalize the idea that a woman can have a penis and testicles.

It’s difficult to say how often these situations occur. I don’t think it’s an epidemic. But “It only happens occasionally” is not an acceptable way to hand-wave any other form of sexual violation. And yes, if Anita’s story is true, I do think that she experienced a low-level form of sexual violation—compounded by impunity for the offender. If an “ordinary” flasher exposed himself to Anita and her daughter, say, in a shopping mall, she could quickly flag down security and have him escorted out. When a transgender penis owner subjects them to the sight of a penis, it’s up to her to get out.

After the protest, the Los Angeles Times weighed in with an editorial on the Wi Spa situation that attempted to strike a balanced note, praising gains in transgender acceptance but noting that “recognition of basic rights for one group” may cause “clashes with other groups that have been marginalized or disempowered.” This text is so remarkable that it deserves to be extensively quoted.

There is no doubt that Wi Spa did the right thing in defending the right of a transgender customer to be nude in the women’s area, even though the sight of male-appearing genitalia discomfited at least one female customer, who complained at the front desk. As a public-serving business, Wi Spa had to follow California law forbidding discrimination against transgender people. …

At the same time, that doesn’t make everyone who feels uncomfortable in such scenarios a bigot. There are women who have been through personal experiences such as sexual assault who might find such a situation intimidating. It could go against the convictions and traditions of observant Muslims and Jews, who have a conservative or orthodox interpretation of gender norms and might themselves feel marginalized for their traditionalist beliefs. …

Everyone—transgender customers, members of every faith, and women who are upset by the sight of penises—has the right to use the spa and other public accommodations. It just happens that in this case, the public accommodation also includes nudity.

But no one has an absolute right to feel comfortable all the time. People have a right to use the spa, but that doesn’t include with it a guarantee that they all will feel at ease with everything they see. They might prefer a spa where a certain amount of body covering is required.

There is reason to think that a lot of the hullabaloo over these situations will ease over time. Young people are far more comfortable with the idea of shared spaces for people of all gender identities and sexes. …

This doesn’t solve the issue of where offended people go if they want a group experience in keeping with their religious traditions. It shouldn’t be impossible for that to happen, considering the strong constitutional protections in this country for freedom of religion. Future U.S. Supreme Court rulings might well grant faith-based groups the right to set up spas and other accommodations that are in keeping with their beliefs. …

In the meantime, customers of public-serving businesses should be prepared to share space with the public, in all our forms, varieties and customs. Anti-discrimination laws stand for the principle that all are welcome, whether we are comfortable or not.

This editorial says a great deal about the state of mainstream liberal culture right now. Note, for instance, that to the Los Angeles Times’s editorialists, clashes of rights matter only if they involve “marginalized or disempowered” groups; the “privileged” majority is not even an afterthought. Thus, sexual assault survivors have a valid claim, though it’s unclear whether the Times envisions any kind of remedy for them; but women—or, for that matter, men—who simply have conventional attitudes about privacy and sexual distinctions just need to get over their hang-ups, “comfortable or not.” Conservative Muslims and Jews merit at least some consideration; the “traditionalist beliefs” of conservative Christians don’t rate a mention.

It is also notable that the Times never suggests that transgender customers with intact anatomy should subject themselves to any inconvenience at all to accommodate those unenlightened folks who feel that “single-sex space” = “no penises in the women’s hot tub.” Maybe those trans customers could reconcile themselves to “bodily covering,” or use specially designated trans-friendly areas or designated hours. Another possible solution is “all-gender” spaces, which are totally fine for those comfortable with nudity in a mixed environment.

The problem is, once you’ve enshrined the principle that “trans women are women, trans men are men” based on self-identification—with no qualifying clauses or situational exceptions—and that gender identity confers a civil right to use single-sex spaces designated for the gender you identify with, then any talk of compromise or accommodation becomes impossible. Zealots like ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio even object to terms like “male-bodied” or “biological male,” insisting that a trans woman “has a female body” and “is biologically female” despite having “some characteristics that may be typical of a different gender.”

This is how you end up with the absurd proposition that a person with a penis and testicles in a women’s locker room or sauna is no different from a black person in a majority-white locker room or sauna: if you’re are bothered by this person’s presence, then it’s up to you to find a way to deal with that. In fact, strictly speaking, even warning female customers on their way in that there’s a “pre-op” transgender person using the women’s facilities can be seen as discriminatory: isn’t that just like warning white customers that there’s a black or Latina woman in the locker room?

Maybe this means that the civil rights paradigm is flawed (at least in some cases) when it comes to transgender rights. Maybe these problems require more flexible thinking—say, along the lines of disability rights, where the standard is not identical treatment but reasonable accommodation.

For now, it looks like this issue will continue to serve as ammunition for the right and the left will continue to play into the right’s hands. The protest outside Wi Spa was dumb, especially since the spa seems to be doing its best to follow the law and accommodate everyone. (Challenging the law—not to repeal it but to modify it—is a better bet.) But even dumber is the progressive and liberal response to concerns about naked male-bodied people in single-sex women’s spaces, which amounts to “close your eyes and think of social justice.”

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