Transgender rights put Koreatown spa in culture war crosshairs

Wi Spa in Koreatown became the battleground over transgender rights after the business’ policy to allow transgender women to use women’s facilities sparked uproad among far-right activists. Photo by Ron Gilbert/Flickr.

Koreatown’s Wi Spa has been a popular destination for self-care over the years. But now the Korean American-owned business is the latest battleground in the culture wars — after a video went viral suggesting a transgender patron was admitted to a women-only section of the spa. 

Some far-right media outlets seized on the footage, prompting protesters, including members of the Proud Boys, to rally at the K-Town spa. Clashes with counter-protestors defending the business ensued for about two weeks. Some say the LAPD used excessive force during the altercations to disperse demonstrators.

The violent protest and loud scuffles became scary for Koreatown residents, including Jenny Seon who lives a block from Wi Spa.

“There's been a lot on the news. In the community chat rooms, [users are] talking about the issue. There are lots of concerns from community members.”

Seon, a legal services provider who works with immigrant communities, says some of her clients are employed by Wi Spa, and the recent developments were stressful for them. “There are people outside, and there are police outside. For their safety, that's never a good situation to be around.”

She says the spa workers, who are now finally making a living following months without income due to pandemic closures, are feeling anxious. “The recent events really do affect the business, and that [could] create more layoffs and less working opportunities.”

After the aforementioned video made the rounds in conservative media outlets, including Fox News and Breitbart, far-right activists in tactical gear and pro-Trump t-shirts reportedly crowded the area of Wilsire and Rampart. Police say they found no evidence to support the claim that a transgender person exposed herself inside the spa. 

Seon thinks it’s “silly” that those activists chose a Korean spa — something traditional and typically mundane enjoyed by families and friends — as their protest site. The K-Town resident also feels frustrated that the violent demonstrations tainted the spa’s reputation of being a family-friendly place. “I feel angry that a small business is being targeted by people from the outside, not really understanding the community members.”

For a Korean American who witnessed her immigrant community making progress over the years, Seon says it pains her to see K-Town in the cultural crossfire. 

“Over the course of the decade, I've seen Koreatown becoming diverse, with businesses embracing trans-inclusive and queer-friendly policies. But when outside forces come in and bring such negative attention, it has an impact on a national scale. I just feel like this is a huge step backwards.”

Seon also says that for countless Korean Americans who lost their businesses and properties during the 1992 LA uprising, the chaos unfolding now may bring back bad memories. “Any sort of loud noises like gunshots and police presence are triggering.”

Korean Americans, mostly recent immigrants, had to do some soul-searching following the 1992 riots to seek a path forward while younger community members had to learn from their parents’ or grandparents’ experience, according to Seon. 

“I see that the older generation is also trying to unpack the things in the past and move on. And the younger generation has the benefit of not living through it, but learning from what the generations before had gone through.”

But the long-time K-Town resident says she’s proud that her Korean American community, which was accused of being discriminatory toward communities of color in the 90s, has become more accepting and tolerant. She hopes that Wi Spa can serve as an example of growth and change. 

“Every April in Koreatown, they remember the uprising. Younger folks are trying to understand the conflict, learn from the past, and figure out a way forward. … I think it's just an example of how people can change and embrace and learn.”

Seon remains hopeful that despite the chaos that rattled the neighborhood, Korean spa fans will eventually return to K-Town and support immigrant-owned businesses in the area. “I believe our community members do support these local businesses and what they're standing up against.”

Meanwhile, Wi Spa says it adheres to the state’s anti-discrimination guidelines and allows transgender women to use women’s facilities. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, the spa explained, “Like many other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles contains a transgender population, some of whom enjoy visiting a spa,” adding that the business “strives to meet the needs and safety of all of its customers.”