And Behind Door #1…

August 1, 2013

I know I’ve written about this before, but I have a thing about public bathrooms. It’s not a phobia, it’s not an irrational fear, it’s a reasonable (I think) reaction to years of problems in public bathrooms. I’ve spent my entire adult life knowing that every time I step into a multiple occupancy women’s restroom, I run the risk of any number of outcomes that have happened to me time and time again: a woman enters, sees me, exits, and re-enters sheepishly. Someone tells me, “This is the ladies room.” A woman does a double-take. A woman laughs at me. Someone calls security on me. A woman stares me down like I’m wearing a t-shirt that says I’m here to molest your daughters.

I’ve had trans* women tell me I have more problems in bathrooms than they ever have.

A place that should be so simple, so basic, so available to me whether I just need to pee or check my hair or change my tampon has turned into a place I loathe. I will go out of my way to patronize bars and restaurants with gender-neutral (or just single-occupancy) bathrooms, but there are a lot of other things I do hoping to avoid all my favorite worst case scenarios. So, in no particular order,

Things I Do in Public Bathrooms (That You Probably Don’t Even Notice)

1. Send in an advance scout.
When I’m in a new bar or restaurant, I’ll often wait until another woman in my party visits the little girls room so that I can get a little recon. Is it multiple stall? Single stall? Gender-neutral? (Be still, my heart!) One of my favorite new bathroom configurations is at Publican in Chicago. Stalls are labeled M or W but they’re all single stalls and everyone uses the same big fountain sink, so nobody’s weirded out by washing their hands next to someone they think is a dude.

2. Bring an escort.
Especially in big, multi-stall situations (think airport or movie theater) I’m prone to going in with reinforcements. I’ve never really bought into the omg we have to go to the bathroom togetherrrrr! mentality, but I feel a lot safer walking into a bathroom, casually chatting with someone who is quite obviously a woman (or at least more obviously a woman than I am). I figure other women are going to know that a lady isn’t just going to waltz into a bathroom with her dude friend, so I must be safe.

3. Emphasize the goods.
I’m not the breastiest (and I know that apparently women use other cues, like haircut and wardrobe, when they’re deciding who does and doesn’t belong in a public bathroom) but I do have a pair of boobs, and I tend to try to accentuate them when I’m walking into a restroom. My whole posture changes, I’ll pretend to adjust my bra strap, or I’ll reposition the strap(s) of a bag to accentuate the boobs.

4. Accessorize.
Aside from wearing things to draw attention to certain parts of my anatomy, I’ll also momentarily ditch my baseball cap or throw a canvas bag on my shoulder. I’ve also been known to gesticulate with a tampon.

5. Get outta dodge.
The point at which I’m most likely to have a bad run-in is when I’m washing my hands. Most public bathrooms are laid out so that you walk in and immediately see the sink(s), or else come upon them from around a corner. Surprise! So I have a tendency to rush the whole hand-washing procedure–sometimes ditching it completely if I think it’ll get me out of a bathroom without running into another woman. Sadly, the very things that mark most women as la di da, just a lady here, like checking your hair or your outfit in the mirror, are the things that take too much time–I just don’t risk it.

Here’s the thing I don’t get. I’ve spent over a decade getting called out by strangers (some women, some not) for being in the “wrong” bathroom, but I have never–not once–found myself in a bathroom with someone whose appearance was so objectionable that I felt the need to say something. I’ve never felt unsafe in a public bathroom because I thought there was a dude in there with me–just tormented by other women.

Bathroom FAIL

April 1, 2009

There are so many problems with this comment thread I hardly know where to begin. Read the rest of this entry »

Excuse Me

January 31, 2009

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.”
Read the rest of this entry »

From the Mouths of Babes

October 8, 2008

(Unrelated: do you know how hard it is to type when a cat is sitting on one of your arms and actively trying to get you to pet her with the other? Hard.)

So lately I’ve had a lot less bathroom trouble, due to being able to use Staff Only restrooms at both of the places where I work. (It seems if you have some kind of Implied Authority, you also must be more able to read, and thus are less often accused of being in the wrong place.)

At the same time, I’ve been more often in the company of children, which means I’m more likely to hear direct questions about my gender.

Read the rest of this entry »

An unexpected perk of free tampons

April 26, 2008

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.

The bodies we choose

February 21, 2008

Something yesterday brought to mind a comment I read on a blog months ago. I might have written about this before, but I can’t really be bothered to check and see. Long story short: either the original post or the thread had to do with trans* identities, and one commenter (a woman? I think? can’t remember) prefaced an argument by saying something along the lines of “Well, those of us who aren’t in our chosen bodies…” She was making a larger point about transitioning, but it really rubbed me the wrong way. For one thing, it can be read as a pretty gross oversimplification of trans* narratives. (Or, even worse, the trans* narrative…) And then on the other hand, putting it that way more or less implies that we cisgender folk somehow won the body lottery.

A lot of us aren’t in bodies we “chose” by any means. And I’m not just talking about the whole “I hate my nose/waist/eyes/hips” crap. Because it’s true that, particularly among women, a lot of the things we dislike about our bodies we dislike specifically because we’ve been conditioned that way–thin is good, “real” women look a certain way, blondes have more fun… But even outside that patriarchical bullshit, a lot of us would choose different bodies. Or, in my case, different brains for the rest of the world.

My chosen body wouldn’t look very different from the one I’m wearing today, but it would be coded unmistakingly female. Anyone who looked at me, even (especially!) just for a few seconds at the bathroom sink, would know immediately that I’m a woman. There wouldn’t be a question. There wouldn’t be need for a second look, a deeper appraisal, a nearby security guard.

But I can’t have that body, because I refuse to “choose” from the options currently available. We do choose an awful lot of things for our bodies. The foods we eat, the workouts we’ll take on, the alterations we’ll make. And I could choose to grow my hair out, wear different clothing, put on makeup. But I won’t, and realistically even those changes wouldn’t make a difference to some people. I would look, and most likely feel, like a man in painful drag.

Then again, my chosen body would care a hell of a lot less what other people think.

Well, it finally happened.

May 11, 2007

Tonight someone saw me go into a women’s bathroom, thought I was a guy, and called security on me.

I was having a really lovely evening before that. I was out with the Sig Fig and her roommate to celebrate their imminent master’s degrees, enjoying expensive gourmet food and tulips in the common. And then my mood was totally ruined.

Luckily, the Sig Fig really told the guy off and made him leave before I even came out of the bathroom. (She tried to pretend nothing had happened, which was nice of her, but I’d heard a bit of the conversation through the door and pried the truth out of her.) Then again, I probably wouldn’t even have gone in the first place had I not been with two other people who had to pee–shopping centers are my absolute least favorite places to pee, with airports and movie theaters not too far behind. Because I was processing in with two other well-dressed dykes, though, I thought I’d be safe.

I hate that I let this ruin my evening, but I hate that it happened even more. And I know that unless I suddenly develop a fondness for for skirts and wear my hair out, it’s going to keep happening.

This is how bladder infections happen, people.

Sir Benson Mum, Sir

April 2, 2007

I’ve had this particular idea bouncing around in my head, and then piny’s beautiful post last week inspired me to sit on it a little and at least try to say things in a coherent way. So, here goes nothing.

I was walking to the train before work one morning when I happened across a man standing in a doorway. I’ll be honest here–had I been walking at night, I probably would’ve avoided walking past him. I like to think of myself as brave and non-judgmental when it comes to men, but there’s a building on my street that may or may not be a halfway house, and I walk on the other side of the street when I’m coming home at night. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

Anyway, we made brief eye contact, the way people passing on the street do, and as I got right up to him, he kept looking and said “Good morning, young lady.” I said “Thank you,” and went about my way.

Now, it’s interesting enough to me that he said anything at all–I had my headphones in, which tends to be a conversation deterrent. And people don’t tend to randomly say good morning to each other in this city, at least not when they don’t know each other and aren’t exchanging some good or service. (Side note: the man who hands out the Metro now at my station, and apparently in the afternoons at the next, consistently makes my day. So friendly! So happy!)

The point of retelling this encounter, however, isn’t that a stranger said good morning to me. It’s that he correctly assessed my gender, and it made me happy.

I’ve had this experience a fair amount, and afterward I always feel a little odd. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I have a significant amount of gender anxiety. That is, it stresses me out when I meet new people and don’t know if they’re reading me correctly, and I’m nervous when I think I might have to defend my presentation. So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I feel a little (or a lot) relieved when someone recognizes my gender without any prompting.

What’s interesting is that while I generally experience the most gender anxiety in all-female settings (bathrooms, mostly), I experience the most gender relief–if I can coin a new phrase–when correct recognition comes from a man.

Or maybe it’s not interesting at all. Maybe that only makes sense. Women, after all, seem to have the most at stake when it comes to accurately identifying women; men are more likely to be rapists, and women more likely to be rape victims. Men seem to have more reason to use gender-specific language with women, in order to differentiate from themselves. Just anecdotally, I’ve had far more waiters use greetings like “Hello, ladies” or “What will you ladies have tonight,” where waitresses seem to not use gender-specific wordings with tables of women. A random woman on the street probably wouldn’t greet me as “young lady” unless she was significantly older, whereas the man who addressed me that way was probably only in his thirties or forties.

I suppose my point is that if I experience the most gender anxiety when I fear being misread by women (and I do), why should I experience the most gender relief when being appropriately read by a man, in a situation that didn’t create anxiety in the first place? Although I’ve been occasionally called sir by men (usually at the airport, which never bothers me; I correct them politely, then they look at my license and apologize profusely), women by far outnumber them in the ranks of the gender police I’ve met. A man has never accused me of going into the wrong bathroom, although now that I think of it, only men have directly asked me if I was a man/boy or woman/girl. (Another story for another time.) But women regard me with gender suspicion all the time, and yet I’m never relieved when they don’t.

So what’s up with that?

Why I no longer use the bathroom on the first floor

July 20, 2006

It happened again.

I went to the bathroom downstairs. Outside I thought I heard movement–I should learn to trust myself on this. But I went in anyway, and walked into the worst case scenario: one in a stall, one at the sink. When there are multiple women at the sinks you run a lower risk of getting called out because they don’t like to make a scene, but a woman alone has no problem yelling at you. It’s worse with a woman in the stall because then your little humiliation has had an audience.

I moved quickly and with purpose, attempted to just walk into the stall–she moved as if she was also going for it, though she’d clearly already been at the mirrors–and this woman started to say “You’re in the wrong…” she trailed off and switched to “No, you’re not” as I curtly cut in with “Yeah, I’m a woman, thanks.” Then she started laughing.

Nervous laughter is one thing. Laughing at yourself is one thing. Continuing to laugh at the woman you just called a man as she tries to pee in the stall behind you is entirely another.

I was frozen with anger and shame. I couldn’t pee. I waited, because there was no way in hell I was leaving that stall with that blonde bitch still in the room.

This is my place of work. I cannot even go to the bathroom in the place where I earn my living without my gender being misidentified.

I hate this.

Problematic stick figures

July 19, 2006

Why, why must I have such bathroom anxiety?

I was sitting down when I heard the door open. This is fine, I thought to myself. Mystery Woman will do her thing in the other stall, she will leave, and I will relax. Only then I heard the door open again. This is okay, I thought to myself. The last time this happened the woman saw that both stalls were occupied and decided she didn’t want to wait, so she left. Only this wasn’t one woman, it was two women. Then a third. My God! The tension! The stress!

How glad I am that my toenails are decidedly feminine.