Last week I was having a pretty great day. I’d connected with a teen at work, the commute to my other job wasn’t horrible, and I’d gotten to Cambridge early enough that I didn’t have to rush lunch. I even might have had a little extra time to read or check my email.
And then a woman followed me into the bathroom to say, “Excuse me, but this is the women’s room.”
Things like this shouldn’t have the power to ruin my day, but they do. I was just glad that I was already in a stall, and that she had the good sense to leave once it was established that, yes, I can read stick figure signs, and yes, I’m a woman.
I’ve written before about the assumptions that go into interactions like this, and the emotional impact they have on those of us for whom gender policing is a day to day reality. What I haven’t talked quite as much about are the reactions I often get from people I know and love.
1. That’s ridiculous. You look like a woman!
My mom is actually the most likely to use some variation on this line. And I love her, but this kind of reaction never really helps. It’s designed to be reassuring, but in reality it just reinforces the concept that “looking like a woman” is the key to safe restroom access. It implies that some people don’t “look like women,” and thus shouldn’t expect to get away with being in women’s spaces.
2. Well, I mean, you do sort of look like a dude.
Funny that #1 and #2 should be equally likely responses, no? This is maybe my least favorite response. It’s the “she was asking for it” of bathroom negotiations. Because apparently having short hair, wearing men’s clothes, and being tall mean that I’ve invited the world to view me as a man and treat me as such.
3. That sucks. People are stupid.
This is the only acceptable response. Yes, it’s oversimplifying what is really a very complex series of assumptions and negotiations, but it’s at least empathetic. This doesn’t tell me that I deserve what I get, or that I got what other people deserve on accident. Sig Fig is very good at always offering this up right away, because she gets me, and gets the situation.