IF YOU WERE to stick a pin in a map at the precise location of the culture war’s current epicenter—the exact coordinates where the armies of wokedom and the forces of Trumpism are locked in their most heated battle—the unlikely spot you’d land on would be the corner of Wilshire and South Rampart boulevards, just east of K-Town. To be even more precise, a place called Wi Spa.
Up until last summer, this upscale Korean bathhouse was mostly known to locals for its mineral salt massages and vitamin C facials. But one day last June, events unfolded here—and we’ll get to all the sordid details in just a bit, including who exposed his (or was it her?) penis to whom—that captured the national spotlight (Tucker Carlson certainly noticed) and triggered a series of Portland-like protests and counterprotests involving everyone from Antifa to militant trans activists to a preacher who once prayed at the White House with Donald Trump, ultimately leading to pitched battles in the streets, shattered storefronts, and scores of arrests.
Some of the specifics of the triggering event are still in dispute, including the gender of the person at the center of the uproar—a 52-year-old convicted sex offender named Darren Agee Merager, a martyr to some, a pervert to others, and to just about everyone else, a Chauncey Gardiner-like figure who seems to have blundered into one of the most fraught and controversial social arguments of our time: namely, what defines gender. Like a cultural Rorschach test, both sides of this battle have been constructing diametrically opposed narratives by cherry-picking details that best fit their agendas. What really happened in that Korean bathhouse? Was it transphobia or indecent exposure? The answer depends entirely on where your political loyalties lie and which facts you choose to believe.
But beyond cultural tribalism, this case cuts right to the bone of the trans debate, and not in vague and theoretical terms, but in a real, intensely personal, and in-your-face sense. After all, it’s one thing to support trans rights by posting a pink-and-blue flag on Facebook. It’s quite another to ask that women undress in a locker room next to a person with a penis.
OF COURSE, FACTS are not always the same thing as truth, but as best as Los Angeles can make out, here they are: On June 23, at around 9:30 p.m., Merager showed up at the front desk of Wi Spa and presumably presented a driver’s license indicating that its holder was female. After paying the $30 fee and filling out some paperwork—including a disclaimer advising customers to expect nudity inside—the Wi Spa clerk handed Merager a day pass for the women’s locker room and facilities.
Soon after arriving, Merager stripped naked and took a dip in the women’s hot tub, located next to the women’s locker room. That’s when the trouble started. Another patron, a Black Hispanic female named Cubana Angel, was heard shouting from the jacuzzi area as another customer, an elderly Chinese woman, alerted the women in the locker room that trouble was afoot. “Miss Johnson is about,” is how she delicately put it.
Within a few minutes, a small crowd of upset women and girls, wearing terry-cloth robes and shower shoes, fled the lockers and assembled at the front desk, where they complained to the attendant that “a man” had infiltrated the women’s area and was exposing “himself” in front of them. One woman who had brought her young daughter to the spa told the clerk it was the first time her child had seen a penis.
Much of the ruckus at the front desk was caught on cell-phone video, which the next day, June 24, was posted on Cubana Angel’s Instagram feed. The footage showed the masked spa worker behind a plexiglass plate explaining to the irate crowd that the spa cannot legally discriminate against a trans woman.
“So, it’s OK for a man to go into the women’s section, show his penis around the other women—young little girls, underage—in your spa?” Angel’s angry voice can be heard on the video. “Wi Spa condones that—is that what you’re saying?” When the clerk attempts to answer, stating something about “sexual orientation,” Angel grows even more agitated. “What orientation?” she interrupts, all but shouting. “I see a dick! It lets me know he’s a man. He’s a man. He is a man. He is not no female.”
A woman confronted the staff at the Wi Spa in Los Angeles after a man walked into the women's section with his genitals hanging out in front of girls. He identified as a "woman." The employees said he had a right to do that. The employees say that it's the law.
Part 1 pic.twitter.com/m1VbU0WU6A
— Ian Miles Cheong @ stillgray.substack.com (@stillgray) June 27, 2021
Within 24 hours, Angel’s video went viral, spreading to other platforms as the online hoi polloi—as well as some boldface names—began arguing over the incident. “I was killing time on Twitter, which I guess is redundant, and I saw a tweet from Patricia Arquette,” recalls Bennet Kelley, a Santa Monica lawyer who just happened to be relaxing at the spa on July 23 and witnessed the disturbance at the front desk. “And Arquette is saying that [the Angel video] is a hoax. And I’m like, ‘Um, no, it wasn’t a hoax. I was there.’ So I uploaded that it wasn’t a hoax, and my tweet goes viral, too. And suddenly people are saying that I’m lying, that I’m part of the oppression, and that I’m anti-trans. It was all just so strange.”
Arquette wasn’t the only one suggesting a hoax. In the days that followed, numerous news outlets—The Guardian, the L.A. Times, Slate, Insider—published pieces speculating that it was all a right-wing prank designed to stir up trouble for the trans community. The Los Angeles Blade, a local LGBTQ paper, went so far as to run an anonymous piece quoting an anonymous source claiming it was all a fraud. On the other side of the ideological chasm, the conservative media eagerly pounced on the story, believing every bit of it and even making up some facts, to boot. On June 28, Carlson aired a segment on the Wi Spa incident—the first of seven Fox News reports on the controversy that would run over the following week—expressing outrage that “a biological male” had entered what he incorrectly described as Wi Spa’s “female kids’ section.”
In any case, on June 29, a blogger named Jairo Rodriguez—a young, gay, anti-vaxxer Republican in Los Angeles with a small but devoted IG following—called for an “Anti-Pervert Protest” in front of Wi Spa for the following Saturday, July 3. In response, Southern California Antifa called for a counterprotest. “We ask all activists who are able to come out to join us this Saturday as we show that L.A. has no tolerance for transphobia,” the left-wing organization posted on Twitter. “SMASH TRANSPHOBIA. SMASH FASCISM.”
There was smashing, all right, starting with Rodriguez. Video of the event shows him being knocked to the ground and pummeled by the black-clad Antifa forces after he tried to pepper spray them when they attempted to pull down his anti-trans sign. Other videos of the rally show a group of mostly Hispanic evangelicals in “Trust Jesus” T-shirts being shoved and sucker punched by the Antifa counterprotesters, who vastly outnumbered the anti-trans contingent. At around 11 a.m., reinforcements for Rodriguez’s side arrived as members of the white nationalist Proud Boys started showing up. But, like so much with this story, the battle lines became blurry. One of the Proud Boys mistakenly confused a reporter from Newsmax, a right-wing, Trump-supporting outlet, for an Antifa agitator (the reporter was dressed in black) and clubbed him with a metal pipe. Another protester was stabbed during the mayhem, although it’s unclear which side of the melee the victim was on.
The mayhem went on for hours. Police made no arrests.
As it turned out, the July 3 event was a mere dress rehearsal for a second rally—“Round 2 Wi Spa Anti Pedophilia Protest,” the far-right dubbed it—which took place on July 17. This time, the bathhouse was shuttered and surrounded by a line of police officers, but Antifa still managed to spray graffiti throughout the three blocks around the spa. About 500 of them turned up, far outnumbering the anti-trans group, but both sides were equally keyed up. There were also some gay activists waving pride flags and dancing to war drums in the street.
But when riot-cop reinforcements arrived and began mobilizing on Wilshire, the protest exploded. The police were bombarded by smoke bombs and pellet-gun ammunition as protesters spit and screamed in officers’ faces and charged their lines with a six-foot flagpole streaming a transgender banner. (One protester in a pink wig pushed a female cop while calling her a “traitor bitch.”) In response, police fired 40-millimeter projectiles and beanbag rounds at the crowd. More than 40 arrests were made that day, and the authorities confiscated an armory’s worth of weapons, including knives, pepper spray, and stun guns.
“I’ve seen police on horseback trample peaceful people and beat them with batons,” says a longtime Act Up veteran who was at the July 17 protest. “That was not the case here.”
AND NOW, AS BEST as Los Angeles can make out, here is the truth: Pretty much every person in this story is not entirely who they appear to be. Take, for starters, Jairo Rodriguez. Yes, he’s the young, gay Republican who called for the first Wi Spa anti-trans rally. But up until last May, just a few months before the protest, Rodriguez had been taken in by [email protected] Coalition’s H.O.P.E. House under the name of Sarah. Before that, he was also a resident of a trans-housing unit at the L.A. LGBT Youth Center in Hollywood, where he was known to sometimes wear a woman’s wig. Then there’s Cubana Angel, the Wi Spa client who posted the cell-phone video that lit the fuse for the whole conflagration. That’s not her real name. As of this writing, nobody has yet figured out her true identity.
Up until the Wi Spa incident, Angel’s Instagram feed projected an image of pious Christianity with a touch of aspirational liberalism (older posts called for justice in the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor). Since the incident, though, she’s been transformed into a steely-eyed and self-styled “avenging angel” who holds fiery press conferences alongside her new spiritual advisor, Marc Little, the ultraconservative pastor who once prayed with Donald Trump in the White House Cabinet Room and declared him, in front of news cameras, “the best American president since Abraham Lincoln.” (Little is filing suit to overturn California law permitting trans people to use the bathroom of their gender identity.)
Then, of course, there’s Darren Merager himself—or herself, depending on what you believe—the Jacuzzi bather behind all the rioting and mayhem. Six-foot-two and 200 pounds, with shoulder-length brown hair, until recently Merager was identifying as a male, at least according to acquaintances.
“He was masculine. A normal dude, hair in a ponytail, well-dressed in a shirt and tie or in sweats with Rolexes and a gold bracelet— the tasteful kind that isn’t too showy and looks expensive,” says Jay Nieto, a former associate. “And he could talk his way out of anything.”
Well, almost anything. Merager has a long, checkered history with law enforcement, going back to the early ’90s, including a three-year sentence for vehicle theft. Merager escaped from prison in 1995, spent a couple months on the lam, was captured, and has been in and out of jail pretty much ever since. Arguably, Merager’s most dramatic caper was a 2012 heist at the Santa Monica home of a prominent bond trader in which Merager made off with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare wines, luxury wristwatches, and paintings by famous artists like Piet Mondrian. For that crime, Merager got four years. Merager’s former friend Nieto ended up serving three months after allowing Merager to stash some of the stolen paintings at his East Pasadena auto business.
But Merager’s past offenses have included considerably less glamorous escapades. In 2003, there was an arrest for indecent exposure after being caught without pants and masturbating while peering into the window of an 85-year-old Arcadia woman (police found baby lotion, a flashlight, a knife, and Leatherman pliers among Merager’s possessions). There was another indecent exposure bust in 2018 at a United Oil gas station in Burbank, where witnesses say Merager was wearing fishnet stockings with no underwear. And yet another in 2019, in which Merager allegedly exposed himself to children at the West Hollywood Aquatics Center. And although Merager wasn’t arrested for it, there was a 2019 incident in Arlington Heights that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Wi Spa event.
“This person had a female driver’s license and satisfied all the appropriate identification corresponding to gender identity,” recalls a manager at Century Day & Night Spa, where Merager is said to have caused an uproar by revealing genitalia in the women’s swimming pool. “Everything was fine [until] this person was inside and her male genitals were on full display. She was asked to cover up but refused. She said she had every right to be as nude as anyone else. It got very heated—a lot of raised voices in the women’s spa. When it spilled over into the lobby and the office, I had to intervene and ask the person to leave.”
Technically, Merager was correct: it is illegal to discriminate against transgender people. But the Century Spa manager was right too; he was merely trying to protect clients
from being subjected to a gratuitous display of Merager’s private parts.
But the question itself raises a much bigger issue: how to decide who is legally transgender and who is merely pretending, say, as a pretext for flashing in a women’s swimming pool or locker room? What are the legal standards for male and female? Right now, the answer to that question remains somewhat murky.
Once upon a time, before gender-affirming surgery, it was an easier call to make. Cubana Angel neatly summed up the old litmus test in her Instagram video: “I see a dick. It lets me know he’s a man.” But the culture—and California law—has evolved its thinking on gender identity so radically over the last half decade or so, surgery and genitalia are no longer relevant to the discussion. Just five years ago, California required a note from a doctor or licensed therapist in order to update one’s gender on a birth certificate or driver’s license. Today, state law demands only self-attestation. In other words, if you identify as transgender, legally you are.
That’s been a difficult transition for some folks to make. Dave Chappelle devoted a huge chunk of his recent controversial Netflix special to working out his issues—to put it generously—over today’s new gender norms. Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has had some problems with it too; she’s been vilified by the trans community as a TERF—a trans-exclusionary radical feminist—for her adherence to antique notions that gender is a “biological fact.” More to the point, the criminal justice system has been tied in knots over this you-are-what-you-believe standard of gender identification, especially when it comes to cases like Merager’s. According to the letter of the law, Merager absolutely has every right to be as nude as anybody else in Wi Spa’s women’s Jacuzzi, unless prosecutors can prove Merager was fraudulently posing as a trans woman. And how exactly does one go about doing that?
Still, they’re apparently trying. On August 30, after Angel and several others who were at Wi Spa on June 23 filed complaints with the LAPD’s Rampart Division, a warrant for Merager’s arrest was issued, charging Merager with five felony counts of indecent exposure. So far, the police have had no luck apprehending the fugitive, although, in September, one of Merager’s family members was stopped by police cruisers with helicopter support in Monterey Park in what was apparently a case of mistaken identity.
Since the warrant was issued, Merager has popped up for only a pair of public appearances, inside the pages of the New York Post, in exclusive interviews with conservative media figure Andy Ngo, who—irony upon irony—just happens to be the one right-wing journalist despised most by Antifa, the same radical-left group that
was rioting outside Wi Spa in defense of Merager’s right to get nude in a women’s Jaccuzi.
“I don’t have a small penis,” Merager told Ngo, making the argument that the women in the hot tub assumed Merager’s penis was erect, which is what triggered the uproar at Wi Spa. “What if you used the men’s room and someone said they don’t like the size or shape of your penis? That’s what they’re doing.”
“If there was a theme to our conversations,” Ngo tells Los Angeles,
“it was that she’s the victim.”
OVER THE PAST couple of months, the battle over Wi Spa seems to have simmered down, at least for the
time being. The last protest outside the bathhouse was on July 31, in support of Merager, billed as the “Queerpocalypse Takeover for Trans Rights.” A trans musician performed songs for a smattering of supporters. It was an entirely peaceful event, as the right-wing anti-trans groups didn’t show up this time. They were busy that day in Anaheim, protesting mask mandates at Disneyland.
The owner of Wi Spa, David Whang, of Rancho Palos Verdes, is still receiving death threats and other harassing emails—one of the reasons he declined to comment for this story—but is determined to keep his business running. At this writing, the doors remain open for mineral salt massages and vitamin C facials, as well as nude dips in the Jacuzzi.
But the fallout from the summer riots continues to choke the ongoing debate over trans rights, which is unfortunate. Because nobody on either side of these riotous protests comes out of the fight any better for it. Certainly not the right-wingers, but not the self-proclaimed trans allies, either, particularly those holding up Darren Merager as a poster child for their cause.
“You’d think after getting arrested a bunch of times, she’d just change in a stall,” offers a lonely voice of reason, Bamby Salcedo, president and CEO of [email protected] Coalition, the largest trans-led organization in L.A. “Any person with any type of reason would think, ‘Maybe I’ll try to do things differently.’” Salcedo herself is a regular at Wi Spa. She’s disrobed in the locker room where Merager caused such chaos. She’s never had a problem. “I go there three times a year,” she says. “I’ve never even seen any other trans people there.”
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