Last night I walked several blocks and four flights of stairs to use a friend’s bathroom before I headed home for the night. We’d been to a play and the theater has its own bathrooms–nice, clean, well-lit multi-stall affairs–but I didn’t want to use them. If he’d been a woman I would have just taken him downstairs with me for protection, but that wasn’t the case. Just before meeting up with him I’d made a beeline to a big public building with bathrooms I can tolerate, and felt that familiar shot of adrenaline when I opened the door to find several women at the sinks.
This is my worst case scenario.
If I try to think of things objectively, my fear of bathrooms seems a little ridiculous. I’m a little afraid of heights, not a huge fan of snakes or spiders, and occasionally I get creeped out by mysterious noises in unfamiliar houses late at night, but I am terrified of public restrooms.
It started out innocuously enough. A few times I’d catch a woman’s gaze in the mirror and she would look away quickly, maybe leave without drying her hands. I’d be washing my hands at the sink and a woman would open the door, retreat, then walk in again sheepishly. From there, it really only gets worse. The woman will say something–she’s feeling silly about her mistake and will offhandedly chuckle, “I thought I was in the wrong place for a minute there.” A glance turns into a glare that sticks to me until I finally beat a hasty retreat to the door. “This is the ladies’ room,” a woman will say when I walk in the door. Or when I’m two steps behind her on my way in. Or when I’ve finally decided I can’t hide in the stall any longer. A male security guard will repeatedly ask my girlfriend if she’s seen a man in a blue shirt.
I try to talk about this with people, people who are my friends, and very few of them seem to get it. Some are positively baffled. “Really? I’d never mistake you for a man.” My mother’s been putting up with this for years–someone in her quilt group sees a poster I’ve brought in for a show and remarks on the one boy in the picture, the boy who is my mother’s daughter–but I don’t think she quite understands either, mostly because I don’t try to talk to her about it. I’m ashamed to tell her that I spent four years of college trying never to use the bathroom during final exams, because the policy was one woman and one man at a time, and proctors kept making me wait my turn when there was someone in the men’s room. And then there are the lesbian friends who tell me I’m taking the whole thing too seriously. It happens to them all the time, they say, and it’s funny. “I just smile and tell them I’m in the right place. You’re not going to change anybody’s mind by being all angry at them.”
That must be it. I just need to work on my sense of humor.
I would get angry about it, and I often do, because of all the places on the planet a woman should feel safe, it should be a bathroom. Don’t I deserve a place to do my business and just get on with my day? Sometimes when I’m hiding in a stall, feeling trapped by the woman who just walked in to fix her makeup, I get so furious at the ones who have the luxury of spending five minutes just gazing into the mirror. No one will question their right to be there them or glance at them sidelong.
I would get angry, but right now it just makes me feel sad. Sad that I always, always stop to think about what I’m wearing. Sad that I almost unconsciously alter my posture in a weak effort to emphasize my breasts when I push open the door. Sad that I so rarely speak my mind when a woman’s laughter, meant to diffuse the situation when she realizes her mistake, shoves me out of the room before anyone else can see me blinking back tears.
Sad that I should feel so extremely grateful that my place of work provides free tampons in the bathroom, something I can walk toward and hold as a surefire way to justify my existence.