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‘A nightmare scenario’: how an anti-trans Instagram post led to violence in the streets

Posted at Jul 29, 2021

On 24 June, a woman claimed on Instagram that a Korean spa in Los Angeles had allowed a “man” to expose himself to women and girls in the women’s section.

The unsubstantiated allegations about Wi Spa in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood quickly spread from social media to rightwing forums to far-right news sites to Fox News, and were distorted by anti-transgender groups across multiple countries.

The massive media attention resulted in two weekends of chaotic rallies in LA this month, in which anti-trans and trans-rights protesters fought in the streets, and women carrying “protect female spaces” signs paraded alongside members of the far-right Proud Boys. Trans counter-protesters and their supporters described being Maced, stabbed and chased by rightwing demonstrators, as well as injured by police.

The episode, experts said, offered a case study in how viral misinformation can result in violence, and provided clear evidence of the links between anti-trans and far-right movements, including QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believe that a cabal of elite pedophiles is manipulating the American government.

Trans rights protesters told the Guardian they were assaulted by both rightwing activists and the police at the 3 July protest. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/Shutterstock

The events also highlighted the abuse that trans people face, even in one of America’s most queer-friendly cities, with multiple trans women telling the Guardian about the violence and harassment they experienced both in the streets and on social media for attending the counter-protests.

“You think LA is so progressive for trans rights,” said Khloe Rios-Wyatt, a local trans organizer. “But clearly, we haven’t really acquired the protections necessary for our community. We continue to be harassed and assaulted just for being transgender in a public space.”

A viral claim spreads and ‘mutates’

On 24 June, an Instagram user with the name @CubanaAngel posted footage of herself inside the lobby of Wi Spa loudly confronting numerous staff members about a “man” who was naked in front of women and girls.

In her video, an employee tried to explain that the spa cannot discriminate based on gender identity. A male customer walking by asked the woman filming if the customer she encountered was, in fact, a trans person. The woman filming, along with another woman complaining to staff, responded with transphobic language, denying that trans women exist, suggesting that the person was a “pervert”, and saying they would be defending women and girls “in Jesus’s name”.

It is unclear whether a trans woman was actually present.

There was no footage of anyone inside the changing room and no other witnesses have since spoken out to corroborate the account. A local LGBTQ+ paper reported that a spa employee said there were no trans patrons with appointments that day, leading some to question whether the incident was staged. An LA police department (LAPD) spokesperson initially told the Guardian in early July that the police were not investigating the spa incident because “there was no crime reported”. On 26 July, after news outlets had highlighted questions about the initial allegations the month before, LAPD said the department was now investigating “a report of an indecent exposure at a spa” on 23 June.

In California, businesses have long been required to let trans patrons use facilities that match their gender. The spa, where customers are often naked, has not confirmed whether a trans customer was present, and has repeatedly defended its policies as simply in compliance with California’s non-discrimination law.

“Like many other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles contains a transgender population, some of whom enjoy visiting a spa,” the spa said in a statement to the Guardian. “Wi Spa strives to meet the needs and safety of all of its customers, and does not tolerate harassment or lewd conduct by any customer, regardless of their sex, gender, or other characteristic.”

It’s unclear who “Cubana Angel” is. She did not respond to multiple inquiries. Her social media page features frequent Bible quotes and, since the Wi Spa video, transphobic content. In September 2020, she posted that no pastor “can support same sex marriage, homosexuality, transgender, abortion and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Protesters gather in front of Wi Spa in support of transgender rights. Photograph: Jill Connelly/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

The woman recently held a press conference alongside a prominent conservative pastor and Trump supporter, Marc Little, calling for the state to repeal anti-discrimination protections for trans people. On her website, she asks supporters to sign up for her email list and back her campaign “to challenge California’s law and politicians who fail to protect women and little girls”.

Little told the Guardian in an email that “multiple women” had filed police reports in the past week about “indecent exposure” at Wi Spa, but did not provide further details about the women or make them available for interviews. He declined to answer questions about Cubana Angel’s identity or her original allegations, saying, “everyone, especially women and children, has a privacy right and the right to be safe in public spaces, like showers and bathrooms”.

An LAPD spokesperson reiterated this week that it was only investigating one incident at Wi Spa.

‘They smear trans people as predators’

Cubana Angel’s original Wi Spa Instagram video quickly went viral on Twitter and Facebook, shared by accounts and pages with names such as “Conservative Update”, “Latino Exit From the Democratic Party” and “Women for Trump”, according to data from CrowdTangle, an analytics tool.

Rightwing sites presented the woman’s claims as fact, and in several cases used a misleading screenshot of a male customer as a main photo, falsely implying he was the trans woman.

“It was clear this was getting out of hand, because this story was not only unconfirmed, but it was evolving and mutating and being presented in a dishonest way,” said Emily Moro, a researcher with UK-based group Trans Safety Network, who tracks anti-trans hate and monitored the spread of the story.

A counter protester at Wi Spa on 3 July holds a sign that says ‘Trans women are women’. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/Shutterstock

In one week, Fox discussed Wi Spa in six segments, said Brennan Suen, LGBTQ program director at Media Matters, which tracks rightwing media. The host Tucker Carlson repeated, without evidence, that a “man” was naked in the “female kids section” of the spa. Another host warned that what happened at Wi Spa will occur “all across the land”.

“It fits this very specific formula where Fox seizes on a local story and blows it up,” said Suen, whose research found that Fox had run 86 segments on trans people in Biden’s first two months in office.

The video was also shared by feminists who advocate against trans-inclusive policies – sometimes referred to as gender critical feminists, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists (Terfs). Moro documented a flurry of posts on Ovarit (a site for users banned from Reddit due to transphobia) and Mumsnet (a platform for UK mothers, which has attracted anti-trans feminists).

An “LGB” group in Canada – part of a fringe movement of lesbian, gay and bisexual people who argue against trans rights – claimed with no evidence that the Wi Spa video raised concerns about pedophilia.

“Those who oppose trans people have tried a lot of different tactics in order to make us seem scary,” said Julia Serano, a trans author and feminist activist. Serano has recently documented how the contemporary “moral panic” against trans people has deep roots in multiple conservative movements that historically spread baseless claims about threats to women and children. That includes segregationists (who argued that integrating bathrooms would endanger white women), and anti-gay activists (who claimed that passing gay rights would allow “homosexuals” and “child molesters” to “recruit” children).

The anti-trans protesters marching towards Wi Spa on 17 July chanted, “Save our children”, a slogan taken up by QAnon conspiracy theorists, and carried signs demanding “Arrest all the pedos”.

Police form a line as they prepare to confront the protest at Wi Spa on 3 July. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/Shutterstock

There has been a recent rise in false accusations of grooming and pedophilia against trans people, Serano said, noting the growing overlap between anti-trans groups and the QAnon conspiracy narrative about a cabal of powerful leftwing pedophiles: “It’s like they are trying to lay the foundation for just smearing all trans people as child sexual predators.” Research has repeatedly found no evidence that laws mandating trans-inclusive bathrooms and locker rooms lead to violence.

Over the past four years, conspiracy theories about pedophilia have repeatedly resulted in violence, from the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy, which ended with an armed man invading a local pizza restaurant in DC, to the central role of QAnon conspiracists in the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol.

Wi Spa’s Facebook page was bombarded with angry comments, which labeled the spa “evil” and warned, “Keep your mothers and daughters safe and avoid this place.”

By late June, a site that monitors rightwing extremists had flagged plans for an in-person “Anti-Pervert Protest” in Los Angeles on 3 July, right in front of Wi Spa. “Women are being traumatized,” the flyer warned. “And Wi Spa has taken no action!”

An online mob: false claims and threats

As media coverage of the Wi Spa video went viral and sparked baseless claims about pedophilia, Precious Child, a trans activist in Los Angeles, was named on social media as the alleged perpetrator in the spa incident, despite saying she had never actually been to Wi Spa.

Precious, a musician and protest livestreamer who lives in LA, encouraged people to attend a counter-protest in front of Wi Spa to support trans rights. Within a day of that post, she said, found herself being targeted with a torrent of violent threats.

A local anti-vaxx activist known for participating in a protest that temporarily shut down one of Los Angeles’s largest vaccination sites posted a photograph of Precious on Instagram, she said, labeling her a “vile monster trans” who wanted to expose herself “in the ladies’ rooms of spas”, and noting that Precious would be attending a counter-protest that coming weekend.

Other social media users appear to have interpreted the post as meaning that Precious was the original trans woman that “Cubana Angel” had complained about, and slurs and threats of violence started pouring in. “All paedophiles must get capital punishment,” one user wrote. Another sent Precious an image of a rifle with the message, “Dirty piece of shit predator.”

Precious Child said she faced online attacks from US patriot militia types; general Trump supporters; and anti-trans activists in England, Germany and Australia. Photograph: Jessica Pons/The Guardian

Precious said that the hundreds of comments calling her “pedo” and accusing her of being a pedophile were especially painful to her, because she is a survivor of child sexual abuse.

“That’s a really serious accusation, that deserves serious attention, and to casually call someone that off of a viral video … it’s irresponsible to actual victims of pedophilia,” she said.

As the false narrative about her spread, Precious said, she started to see bursts of comment activity from distinct groups around the world: US patriot militia types; general Trump supporters; anti-trans activists in England, Germany and Australia.

Within days, Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers were explicitly identifying Precious as the perpetrator in the alleged scandal.

“This is the person identified as having exposed ‘her’ penis to children at the Wi Spa,” a rightwing account known for misinformation posted to nearly 300,000 followers, along with photos of Precious’s face.

When another user said that the identification of Precious as the trans woman at Wi Spa had been “debunked”, the account responded, “Show me. I’ll delete if so.”

Other local trans women were also targeted online after tweeting about the counter-protest. In early July, Jamie Penn, a trans woman and neighborhood political representative in Koreatown, tweeted her gratitude to the anarchists who had showed up in support of trans rights. A prominent rightwing account shared her comment, calling her a communist, deadnaming her (posting her old name), and saying she supported anti-fascist violence, resulting in ongoing harassment and half a dozen death threats, Penn said.

Violence in the streets

The online conflicts eventually spilled into the streets, with two protests around Wi Spa this month resulting in multiple violent assaults.

The chaotic nature of both protests and lack of arrests after the first protest has made it difficult to assess which parties were responsible for some of the assaults captured on film. Trans rights protesters told the Guardian they were assaulted by both rightwing activists and the police.

Alejandro Garcia said he came to the protest because he has a close friend who is trans and who was the victim of a serious hate crime. He said he was stabbed in the leg multiple times, after he tried to intervene in an attack on another person. The man who stabbed him was a white man in his late 40s, wearing all black with a helmet, goggles and a face mask, and a patch or sticker that read “Patriot”, Garcia said.

The Los Angeles police department is facing criticism from protesters who say police should have made arrests at the 3 July event. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/Shutterstock

Marie Dumouch, a 20-year-old French woman who came to both demonstrations to film and interview participants, said she was surrounded by rightwing demonstrators and bear-sprayed in the face during the 17 July protest: “I got called a pedo lover and a bitch.”

Dumouch, whose partner is a trans woman, said it was “ironic” to see women carrying women’s rights signs marching alongside the two men in tactical gear who assaulted her: “The whole discourse is about making women safe and making women not get sexually assaulted or assaulted by weird men. And I felt unsafe, and I was assaulted by weird men.”

And Precious, the trans musician who faced a wave of online attacks, said she was Maced twice at the 3 July protest and punched in the face, and that she fought back to defend herself. At the second protest, Precious said she was forced to flee from far-right activists as the demonstration grew increasingly chaotic.

Penn, the local Koreatown activist, said that she also had to run away from a group of anti-trans activists that day, and that she only escaped because “someone drove by and recognized me and let me hop in their van”.

Rightwing activists and media figures have blamed the violence around Wi Spa on anti-fascist activists, many initially highlighting an image of a bloodied rightwing woman who they said had been stabbed at the first protest. However, Vishal Singh, an independent journalist and activist who covers Los Angeles protests, shared video that appears to show that the injured woman had been accidentally stabbed by a protester on her own side.

Multiple videos showed anti-trans protesters, including several women, being surrounded by angry crowds screaming at them to go home.

Gaye Chapman, the owner of AfterEllen, a site for lesbian and bi women that has been criticized by other queer publications for transphobic content, told the Guardian that she wasn’t physically hurt, but that she was surrounded by a crowd screaming at her and another gender-critical feminist friend to “Go home, transphobes.” She said that she was shoved, her phone pushed out of her hand and she was doused in water.

Khloe Rios-Wyatt, president of Alianza Translatinx, said it was traumatizing when trans people are kicked out of public spaces just because of who they are. Photograph: Jessica Pons/The Guardian

“It was just like a regular day on Twitter, only it was real life,” said Chapman, who said she was representing only her own views. She and another gender-critical feminist who attended the Wi Spa protests described themselves as center-left and leftwing. Other women who showed up were more conservative. One woman who carried a sign that said “Women’s rights matter,” has posted pro-Trump and anti-feminism messages on Instagram.

Journalists covering the demonstrations described being confronted and attacked as they tried to document what was happening.

A Los Angeles freelance journalist, Eric Levai, said his phone and backpack with camera equipment were stolen by counter-protesters on 17 July, who seemed to be angry at him for taking a photograph that might have included the license plate of a passing car. Levai said the confrontation surprised him, since he has covered protests before, and is usually more wary of attacks from far-right demonstrators.

The same day, a Guardian journalist attempting to interview and film the anti-trans protesters was repeatedly confronted and chased away, with anti-trans protesters first knocking her phone and notebook out of her hand, and later pushing her to the ground.

The LAPD has said there were violent and armed parties on both sides, and shared images that it said depicted trans rights protesters pushing a female anti-trans protester to the ground. The department has said it is also investigating the behavior of its own officers after police fired beanbag rounds at trans rights activists at close range. It is also facing sustained criticism from protesters who said police should have made arrests on 3 July, after serious assaults happened in the street with officers standing by.

The police department declined to comment on the criticisms.

‘We are just trying to belong’

For trans women who go to Wi Spa and similar establishments, the whole episode was an upsetting reminder of the dangers they face on a daily basis.

“It’s already difficult going into a spa, because you don’t know if the person doing your massage will be OK with you being transgender,” said Rios-Wyatt, president of Alianza Translatinx, a Latinx trans rights group in southern California, noting that many trans women have experiences of being harassed or kicked out of an establishment: “When you’re just trying to belong in society, and then you hear someone else is complaining that you are in a public space, just because of who you are, it’s really traumatizing.”

The events that unfolded at Wi Spa are an upsetting reminder of the dangers trans women face on a daily basis. Photograph: Jill Connelly/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Bamby Salcedo, the president of the TransLatin@ Coalition in LA, noted that most trans people she knows don’t have the luxury to relax at Wi Spa: “The majority of our community, particularly trans women of color, don’t really have the means or the privilege to even go to a spa or get a treatment in the first place.”

Wi Spa represented a nightmare scenario of what can happen when far-right groups, rightwing conspiracy theorists and gender-critical feminists are all aligned against trans rights, Serano said: “The idea that anytime people can point out a trans woman was in a women’s space, and suddenly the Proud Boys and QAnon people all come out against it, is very scary.”

Julia Carrie Wong contributed reporting