Let's talk about bathrooms, specifically public restrooms. Now this doesn't seem like much of a real topic. What are public restrooms? A place to expunge our wastes, wash our hands, and go.
Except...I'm a transwoman.
And as such, much of the battle for my basic rights seem focused on the issues of public restrooms.
Whether or not we have protections from being fired or turned over in hiring owing to our gender identity, whether we can be kicked out of housing or denied aid, whether we can legally be recognized as our actual sex, whether we are allowed access to aid mechanisms or services, and of course, whether our murders are to be investigated or silently left unsolved...all of these issues tend to be debated on the issue of whether or not we should be allowed in "their" bathrooms with their unprotected womenfolk and children and so on.
Now, that's a stupid debate, filled with actions that say more about our opponents than those they attack. Much of it seems to assume that the gender signs on bathrooms act as a sort of magic ward that prevent men who want to assault women from entering unless they "disguise themselves as women". Naturally, such occurrence of cross-dressing attackers in bathrooms never seems to manifest, though some of those who seek to defend from such a menace turn up to be bathroom attackers themselves.
I will, if allowed, gladly fill a column just about the political debate, but that isn't why I've brought it up.
Today, I want to do something different than just arguing for my humanity and my right to poop.
I want to talk about what its like to be a transgendered person and some of the reasons why bathrooms are treated like a fortress that must not be breached. This is a personal narrative of why I hate public restrooms and what they represent.
And as such, we begin with a flashback (please insert doo-de-lee-doos to taste). In August of 2008, I travelled to Denmark to pursue and complete my Master's degree. During that time, by sheer coincidence, I made the conscious realization that I was a woman. I had many clues before-hand, but I had stupid reasons for dismissing that gender dysphoria.
It was during this time that I began exploring the world as a conscious transwoman, experiencing life through those eyes, exploring my personal aesthetic, coming out in life, and planning my future life.
I hadn't noticed at the time, but this was a remarkably good environment to begin this exploration. And the reason for that didn't become clear until I had returned home to the States.
Suddenly, there was an overall shift in perceived safety of going out as myself and a more general pressure that was felt socially. Things were different.
And the reason for it became clear once I had my first encounter with something we take for granted back in my home country.
The all-familiar male and female restroom signs.
Suddenly, there was a decision to be made. Not to decide whether I was male or female, that was something I had made peace with. But rather which space I belonged and more importantly was allowed into.
I was wearing "feminine" clothes, but in terms of passing, I was not nearly as confident. Furthermore, there are all sorts of stories of assault, confrontations, even expulsions for "wrong choices". Interactions from security, complaints from guests, and of course the stares.
So here was a calculation of safety and more importantly what sex society would see me as. I was not having to decide based on my own sex, but rather what sex I most resembled by society's norms.
What sex would I be read as? What box would others...all others read me as?
Now, it's hard to truly capture what that feels like, because what this induces is generally a feeling of gender dysphoria. A reminder that one's birth sex, perhaps the sex the world sees you as is not your true internal sex (the sex your brain sees itself as). An attack of self-loathing, self-doubt, of being wrong, insecure, and frightened.
One gets to experience all that, because one needed to poop.
This experience hit so very hard, especially, because it didn't arise in Denmark. In Denmark, bathrooms are all labeled WC, most are single person "home bathroom" style rooms or closets that are open to both sexes. There are some segregated bathrooms of the American style in high-traffic areas but they are easy to bypass and are far from the norm.
The average bathroom experience as such was I went to the bathroom, just as a cis-person does, without needing to question or think.
But here, I must plan ahead, making sure I never forget to take care of business before leaving, often accepting the dangerous gamble of entering a very wrong restroom (male) in a skirt, eyes downcast to avoid the taken-back looks of men on the way to the privacy of the stall, hoping none become violent, because I don't yet trust my ability to pass in the ladies room. An inability to meet society's standards. Standards which often turn on say butch women and others who fail to meet society's gender policing.
And one can say, that such is a necessity of our greater concentration. Our bathrooms serve more people more quickly and as such, need the reduced space these segregations give us.
I was willing to give such arguments credence until I came to live in San Francisco.
San Francisco is largely seen as one of the more socially liberal cities in the country. One of the best cities to live in as a QUILTBAG and certainly one of the transgender-friendliest cities, or at least one with the most transgender people in it.
Here, the segregated doors, male and female still abound. And what they abound are single home bathroom style rooms with a toilet and a sink. Places with only two toilets in total have them clearly labeled male and female. What reason is there to segregate these single stalls?
At the LGBT center, a location that sees many transgender individuals and is possibly best poised to understand and empathize with their life experiences, the main bathrooms are male and female. There is a gender-neutral toilet, the same as the disabled toilet. One can enter it by requesting the key at the desk, where one is handed a key on a large wooden box (just like in elementary school). As you go back upstairs to use it, you can see men and women entering freely into the other bathrooms and reflect on how very not alienating this feels.
And that's where we get to the rub. Even in cases where there is no reason to segregate our bathrooms, we do so. It is simply something that is done, because that's what a public restroom is like. We can't seem to imagine a society where going to the bathroom isn't gender segregated. Instead it is where one must decide male or female and where one is encouraged to sort others by male or female to decide whether they "belong" there or not.
This makes bathrooms fraught, alienating, and deeply troubling. Instead of being able to crap and leave, one if transgendered must make complicated calculations of passing and face internalized demons of gender presentation and acceptance. Others are encouraged to enforce the place unthinking and more importantly carry that thinking into all public spaces. Male and female must be seen as different and distinct in public spaces, because that's how the very public spaces are built. If we don't know where you belong, where will you crap? Where will you change? Where will you go?
And this social attitude definitely feels palpable in experience. There was a genuine freedom and easy-going attitude while I was in Denmark. The public spaces were accepting of gender-neutrality and so there was less of a feeling that one was supported in segregating the genders. Mixed spaces were the rule, gender roles less focused on, and teachers hardly blinked an eye as their "male" students did their oral finals complete in skirt and shaved legs.
That is not to say that Denmark was flawless or lacked any gender segregation or sexism. But rather that the social weight of encounters felt less on the side of gender police and bullies versus the non-conforming. And there was less institutional support for social gender-segregation and internalizing it.
The bathroom in America is a sign, a symbol on a door that says Male and Female. That offers a dualistic choice. And for the majority of cispeople, such a decision is hardly ever considered.
In short, such a choice is natural. Gender segregation is a natural, everyday occurrence. And we've learned to become blind to it. It is simply how the world works. There are men and there are women.
And this thinking makes it easy to go from there to further gender policing. What type of men and what type of women? Are they too feminine, too masculine, do they retain any secondary sex characteristics of another sex, should we check?
And I think that's why all transgender rights arguments seem to center so heavily around bathrooms, changing rooms, and dorms. These locations are the last everyday locations of gender segregation. Here is where the question is raised, are you woman or are you a man? Are the people around you women or men? If they are not, they are in the wrong place.
And for those interested in arguing that these populations are distinct and never the twain shall meet (by transition, gender unorthodoxy, or simply being outside of the gender binary), the bathroom seems a natural stronghold to enforce that for society.
And that's why it feels so unsafe, why it serves as a cultural weight against being oneself. And that's just for me, who identifies as female.
Imagine how similar it must feel for unorthodox cis women and men. That is, butch women in masculine clothing, or feminine men in feminine clothing. To have one's personal aesthetic be a source of constant question, to even be demanded to demonstrate "biological proof" of one's sex over the nosiness of others from the privacy of a stall.
And imagine how much worse it must be for those members of the transgendered and intersex communities who identify outside the gender binary. Who see themselves as both or neither or a third sex or something else entirely. When there isn't a "right sex" in that binary question, how do they feel about their place in their country? Do they feel like they are seen to exist at all? Or is the need to poop an invitation a reinforcement of a narrative that they would be better off disappearing entirely?
These are all real questions. And there's no reason why bathrooms should be reinforcing all of these issues when they are simply there to serve a rather basic biological necessity.
But as long as they are, I must continue to dread, fear, and oh yes, hate bathrooms.
Frakking bathrooms, man.
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