Darren Merager, the transgender spa goer at the red-hot center of a row at a Korean bathhouse that became a flashpoint in the trans rights debate when it led to weeks of unrest in the summer of 2021, appeared in court on Jan. 9, facing five felony counts of indecent exposure.
Exactly what transpired in Wi Spa on the night Merager’s actions, leading to riots on two separate Saturdays when his—or was it her?—exposed penis was seen by a locker room full of women, will soon be litigated in court. Four women and a minor girl came forward, with the woman who filmed a complaint video at Wi Spa later alleging that Merager’s penis was partially erect at the time; Merager adamantly denies the claims.
The firestorm was launched from the Koreatown-adjacent spa in June 2021 and set off weeks of skirmishes and a national debate over trans rights, ultimately leading to pitched battles between political militants in the streets around Wi Spa and scores of arrests.
For a case that triggered a series of Portland-like protests and counter-protests involving “SoCal Antifa,” militant trans activists, Bakersfield Proud Boys, Merager’s most recent Jan. 9 court hearing felt anticlimactic.
Merager, who blundered into one of the most fraught and controversial social arguments of our time—what defines gender?—was led into a West Side courtroom in handcuffs and gave a wave to a woman in a leopard print coat, seated in the gallery.
From the third row, in cat-eye glasses and seated in a roller walker, the defendant’s 78-year-old mother, Brenda Merager, waved back. The widow and her companion, Paul, were the only supporters to show up.
Brenda Merager, an Alabama native, gave a prescient warning in 2022 to her child, who she refers to as her son, when he tried to hide out at her home in Riverside County,
“You can’t stay here because they’ll pick you up,” she told Darren, telling LAMag that as recently as November, there were “15 policemen in my front and back yard at 2 to 3 different times. I have been very angry,” she added, “All they do is pester him.”
What does Brenda Merager think of the ongoing controversy? During her conversation with LAMag, she reveals that she was unaware that since 2019, her 53-year-old son has carried a California Driver’s License that lists Darren’s gender as female.
“A woman should be a woman. And a man should be a man,” she says, peering through her cat-eye frames, “I believe in the old-fashioned way of doing it,” she laughs amicably, “You know, this world has just changed so much. And it has a lot of effect on younger people.”
Besides, her son would never “put off” his penis, she asserts, and to introduce a note of levity, adds, “I’d wring his neck if it came to that.”
On December 11, after 15 months on the lam, Darren Merager was arrested in San Diego after being stopped near Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and Genesee Avenue for speeding and operating a vehicle—to wit, a Cadillac Escalade—with no valid license.
Officers soon learned that Merager had two open warrants for indecent exposure in Los Angeles—one for the incident at Wi Spa and another for a similar exposure at the West Hollywood Aquatic Center in 2019—so they scooped up the fugitive.
Since a December 13 transfer from San Diego to L.A., Merager claims to have been placed in solitary quarters for 4 weeks but now, after a mental health designation was given, is still kept apart from the general prison population—separated from both men and women. Merager has been held in a specially designated unit, which includes transgender women, on the ninth floor of Men’s Central Jail.
So, Merager’s situation in the prison mirrors very much his situation in Wi Spa. Once again, the law and the argument around gender identity meet head-on.
“Why am I in solitary confinement, if we have California state law [saying] that we are our gender identity?” Merager rhetorically asked LAMag from prison after the hearing. “Legal gender identification should be recognized in the community and in jail.”
Following Merager’s not-guilty pleas, bail was set at $350,000.
Weeks after the hearing, Brenda Merager told LAMag she had been sending care packages to Darren but had been unable to contact her son in the weeks after the hearing. She said that it has been a trying time as she struggled with a heart condition.
“I understand what Darren’s doing. But I don’t want him hurt in this situation.” she laments while speaking of the current legal predicament, “I’m for Darren, that’s his life.”
“He should have a good attorney,” she added, skeptical of the public defender she says has no time to visit her son. She then expressed incredulity over California’s Self-ID gender laws: “It’s just come up lately; this whole I’m transgender this, that and the other,” then went on to say she believes her son is confused.
Furthermore, the inmate’s mother is convinced the D.A. is blowing this whole controversy way out of proportion. Who has bail set at $350,000 for an alleged flashing incident, anyway? Paul, her companion, says he’s convinced that conservative media figures Tucker Carlson and Andy Ngo unfairly exaggerated the threat that Darren poses to society.
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 that week—expressing outrage that “a biological male” had entered what he incorrectly described as Wi Spa’s “female kids’ section.”
Then in New York Post reports on September 2 and 17, Andy Ngo broke the story of Merager’s identity as the Wi Spa suspect. He also reported on Merager’s long, checkered history with law enforcement, dating back to the early 90s and including a conviction for indecent exposure in 2003.
In 2003, Merager was arrested for indecent exposure after being caught without pants and masturbating while peering into the window of an 85-year-old Arcadia woman.
“He did his time,” Brenda Merager says of her son’s criminal past, which has amounted to dozens of cases in the Los Angeles Criminal Court system over the last three decades.
Darren Merager’s next court date has been scheduled for Feb. 7, according to L.A. County Sheriff’s Office records.
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