Riya Suising is a business owner, a certified massage therapist and a marathon runner who lives in Palo Alto, California. She’s also a transgender woman.
After long runs, she said she often goes to spas to improve circulation and recover from tough workouts. But while visiting the Washington region late last year, her relaxing day at a local spa ended abruptly and she says "unfairly," when customers and staff accused her of being a man in the women's locker room.
Spa World is a Korean-owned, 24-hour facility, located in a Centreville, VA strip mall. Suising later complained about her experience at Spa World to the Better Business Bureau. It's the company's response to that complaint - which has activists feeling steamed.
Suising spoke with ABC7's Mike Conneen via Skype. "(A female staff member) called me a man because she said I had strong muscle tone. I'm not bulky but I am athletic because I'm an athlete... I work out. I try to stay fit. And maybe because I have slightly wider shoulders than other people," she said. "So based on that, (the staff member) asked me to leave."
When her gender was questioned by the staffer, Suising said, "I showed her my driver's license with the female gender marker and I said 'I think I belong here' and she says 'I'm sorry, I still need to ask you to leave.'"
Spa World's owner, Sang Lee, said he does not allow intoxicated customers or inappropriate sexual behavior but he acknowledges Suising never misbehaved in any way.
"You know, she looked like a man. However, I checked her I.D. It said female. Surprising. But still, it is true," he said.
Lee said he gave her a full refund and apologized several times. "I told her 'Look, I had a couple of complaints from my customers, I had to respect that.'" He said a female manager even hugged her goodbye and she appeared happy when she walked out.
Suising recalls it differently. "I think it was tense situation. I think no one was happy there," she said. She said she decided to leave and try to resolve the issue afterwards "in a more diplomatic discussion."
In January, Suising filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
Spa World responded to the BBB in writing:
"It is our policy to not accept any kinds of abnormal sexual oriented customers to our facility such as homosexuals, or transgender. We strongly enforce this policy for the safety and the comfort for our customers, and also to promote a healthy reputation for our business. Spa World accepts family-oriented customers many times with young children. Also, for the safety and the comfort for young children at Spa World, we strongly forbid any abnormal sexual behaviors and orientation in our facility. Despite the controversial issue of homosexuality and transgender, it is our policy to not accept them."
But Lee said that statement is not true at all. "This is a free facility, anybody is welcome here to try to have a good time," he said.
Lee claims a new employee -- an accountant -- wrote the statement to the BBB while he was out of town. Lee said the statement was inaccurate because of a language barrier. "This one simple vocabulary, he misused it. Instead of 'misbehaving,' he said 'sexual orientation.'"
But Spa World customers are not so sure. Many were shocked to learn a transgender woman was told to leave.
One Arlington woman requested that her name not be used. "I am really disturbed by hearing that. And I think twice about going in. My brother is gay. And I don't really don't appreciate a place being discriminatory against homosexual or transgender people," she said.
When asked how he would handle the same situation if it happened again, Lee said, "Same scenario? I would ask her to leave just like the same way. If not, I can't do anything. If she doesn't agree -- if she doesn't agree with me, of leaving the facility because of the complaints of others, I cannot force it. She has to stay."
Lee said the accountant who wrote to the BBB had not been disciplined, but he was corrected for making "a mistake."
Suising said she is still waiting for a full explanation and an apology. She said she would not go back to Spa World, but she hopes the management will provide some internal training on this issue.
Gay rights activists said this story underscores the need for laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
"There is no law requiring public accommodations for LGBT Virginians -- statewide or in Fairfax County where this happened," said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. "This should be unacceptable in 2013. Our state shouldn't be allowing this to happen."