I want you to understand how terrible public restrooms are for me.
For almost my entire life, I exclusively used women’s restrooms. Within the last few years, as my appearance has become more masculine, I’ve had multiple uncomfortable encounters. I’ve experienced this a few dozen times: A woman walking in while I was at the sink, stopping in her tracks and staring at me, and backing slowly out of the bathroom to look at the sign and make sure she was in the right place.
More recently, I had several experiences with “helpful” women kindly pointing out that I was in the wrong bathroom: “Excuse me, sir, this is the ladies’ room.”
“I know,” I would say in my feminine voice, and they would blush and almost always apologize.
A few months ago I had an experience that was really the last straw: In a women’s restroom at the Denver airport, an employee who was cleaning the restroom chased me down as I was walking into a stall. As she bore down on me, she shouted “Sir–sir! This is the women’s restroom. Sir!”
Fuck that. I use men’s restrooms now, whenever single-stall or gender-inclusive restrooms aren’t available. Men don’t bug me, for the most part. For the most part, it seems, men avoid eye contact and almost never talk in public restrooms. This keeps me pretty safe.
I use other strategies, too. When possible, I ask a male-identified friend to scope out the restroom for me first. They check out the number of stalls and the location of the urinals and sinks. Then, when it’s time for me to do my business, I hover by the door and wait until the bathroom seems empty. I zoom in, pee as fast as I can, and zoom back out again. If I’m in the stall when someone walks in, I usually wait in the stall until they’ve left.
I bring a bathroom buddy with me whenever possible. This often isn’t possible, because there are lots of situations where I don’t want to have a conversation with people I don’t know well about public restrooms and my gender presentation. (“Hey, so you’re a guy and I’m transgender and I use men’s restrooms even though they’re really uncomfortable and scary and I currently have a bladder full of urine and will you walk to the bathroom with me and stand there and listen to me pee and also make sure not to talk to me because I can’t have a conversation in or near the bathroom and then when we get back, please pretend we never talked about my bodily functions kthx.”)
Sometimes I’m in professional contexts–meetings, seminars, workshops, et cetera–where a facilitator will pause things for a bathroom break. This means that everybody heads to the restrooms in a group–well, everybody except for me. I stay behind because who knows what people will think or say when I walk into the bathroom? If I really need to pee, I’ll either look for a separate bathroom or sneak out at the tail end of the break, as everybody’s returning. This makes me seem a little antisocial, I think. Seeming antisocial feels better to me than navigating public restrooms around my colleagues does.
As often as I can, I just hold it until I can get home. I’ve learned to avoid drinking water during the day, which helps with the restroom situation but doesn’t do a lot for my physical health.
Yesterday I was eating alone at a restaurant and had to pee. I had already scoped out the bathroom situation: There were two doors, one marked “M” and one marked “W,” but from the outside they looked like single-stall bathrooms. (One surprising aspect of being gender nonconforming is that you learn a taxonomy of the relationship between restroom doorknobs and what’s hidden behind the restroom door.)
For transgender or gender nonconforming folks, using public restrooms is always a political act. The politics of peeing has become a lot more visible, however, within the last several weeks. News accounts suggest that people feel a lot more free than they ever did before to tell folks whether they’re in the right restroom. In Colorado, where I live, people have a legal right to use the restroom that lines up with their gender identity. That doesn’t make public restrooms any less scary.
But also, this issue is newly on the minds of lots of people who never thought about it before. Some of those people may have been in the restaurant with me, and some of those people may have been curious enough about me to pay attention to which restroom I chose.
Public restrooms were hard enough to navigate before a bunch of transphobic legislators made this a trending story. Now they’re not only complicated and tense, but they’re also scary and politically fraught.
How to make like an ally
So, here’s what you can do:
If you’re in favor of laws like North Carolina’s HB2 and Mississippi’s HB1523, both of which legalize discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming people, then you’re on the wrong side of history. There’s nothing you can do for me except maybe keeping your opinions to yourself.
If you’re a non-transgender person and you hate these bathroom bills and want to stand in solidarity with trans folks, there are a couple of things you can do. First, it’s great that you’re posting your opinions on Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites. Could you also do me a favor and talk to folks in person about this issue? Doing that has multiple advantages: First, it moves the conversation away from the trans folks you’re advocating for. When I see that a Facebook friend has posted about bathroom bills, I usually can’t help but read the comments–which means I’m reading disgusting transphobic bigotry on the regular. I’m glad that you’re standing up to bigotry for me, and I’d be even happier if you did that in a way that reduces the amount of bigotry I’m exposed to.
Second, it personalizes the issue for folks who’ve never talked about it before. You have my permission to use me as an example, as in, “Well I have a transgender friend who told me…”
But keep posting on Facebook and Twitter, too! It makes me so happy to see my friends taking a public stand on these issues.
If you’re a non-transgender person who wants to help make restrooms safe for trans and gender nonconforming folks, consider getting some #illgowithyou swag. I would totally take you up on the offer and ask you to be my bathroom buddy. So if you’re wearing your #illgowithyou button, you should also prepare to be a good bathroom ally–that means taking a look at the guidelines for how to be an effective bathroom buddy.
How to stand up to anti-trans harassment in public restrooms
Let’s say you’re a non-transgender person who wants to be a good ally to trans and gender nonconforming folks. Let’s say you’re in a public restroom and you see someone getting harassed for being in the “wrong” restroom. You’re probably going to be nervous and worried about how to do the right thing. That’s a great reaction, because this is a complicated situation and you should be worried about what the right thing is! Because what if you step in as The Transgender Savior and the person who’s being harassed doesn’t want your help? Or what if you decide not to step in and the person who’s being harassed wishes you would?
I’m just speaking for myself here–here’s what I would appreciate if I was the one being harassed in a public restroom:
- Don’t leave me alone. This might mean hovering at the sink or whatever until I’m safely out of the bathroom.
- Try to make eye contact with me, to see if I need or want assistance. (I usually keep my head down in public restrooms, though, so there’s a good chance I won’t meet your eyes.)
- Ask me if I need your help. “Hey, sorry, are you ok? Do you want me to walk you to management so we can tell them about this?” Or, if you live in a state with a transphobic bathroom bill, “Do you want me to walk you back out to your seat?”
- Once you’re sure I’m safe, make a huge stink about what happened to anybody in a position to deal with it. (Obviously, this piece of advice only applies to states that haven’t passed transphobic bathroom bills.) It’s usually better to err on the side of making the stink out of the sight and hearing of the person who experienced harassment–many of us have a lot of shame and anxiety around public restrooms, and we would prefer not to be put in the spotlight. If I’m mad enough, though, I might be willing to participate in the stink-making with you.
Ok? Ok. Now let’s all go forth together and stand against bigotry, in whatever place and whatever ways feel useful and transformative.