I had gotten used to the stares. People had been staring at me for years. I don’t remember when it started, exactly, but I learned early on to keep my head down, to not make eye contact, to try to get into and out of the restroom as quickly as possible.
If I could I would take a friend with me. I would make sure that we were seen talking and laughing. I figured that if it was clear that we knew one another, if it was clear that this other person knew who I was, then they would know that my presence in the women’s room was correct and allowed and therefore I wouldn’t be hassled.
The rural towns were the worst. The lonely gas station bathroom on the highway with nothing else around for miles when I was traveling alone to and from school or some other place. I hated those bathrooms. I waited for disaster in those bathrooms.
The older I got the worse the stares became. People would sometimes try to correct me, “that’s the women’s room!” My face would burn hot and I would mumble, “I know” trying to hurry to the stall before I had to see the recognition dawn on their face.
When I transitioned the piece that remained the most stressful was using the restroom. Especially in those early days. I had been seen as too masculine for the women’s room for years and yet I still wasn’t sure that I was masculine enough for the men’s room. And the danger seemed even greater. What if I went in and was found out? What would they do to me? Would they laugh at me? Or assault me? Or….?
I remember early on I was at a restaurant with my ex and the choir she was a part of. We were traveling and I still was misgendered pretty frequently. I needed to use the restroom but I was afraid. I didn’t think I could use the men’s room, not yet, but I knew that I would get stared at if I used the women’s room. I was anxious. I tried to hold it for as long as I could, but there was still a long time left to our drive. I asked my ex to come with me. I hoped that she could act as a shield, give me the bonafides to say that I belonged. She rolled her eyes. She didn’t want to be bothered, even though she knew how anxious restrooms made me. I think she even made a crack about it to someone else in the choir. I felt humiliated and like I had done something wrong for even asking for help. She finally agreed to go with me, sighing as we went. I felt so small and so unseen in that moment, so uncared for. To have someone close to me, who knew my fears, disregard them as inconsequential, or worse, as an inconvenience to her, taught me that my body, my needs would always come second. That experience, in microcosm, shows the attitude that so many cisgender people have towards transgender people.
Bathrooms are battlegrounds for transgender people. Not just in the court and legal battles over who should be allowed in what restrooms, but beyond that they are emotional battlegrounds. They are the place where we are forced to confront what other people think about us. They are the place we are forced to confront how well (or how poorly) we fit into societies standards about men and women. They are the place where we are forced to confront our own self doubt and self image. And they are places where we feel insecure and afraid.
And they are where we need to go to pee. Because we are human. Because our bodies are made to need bathrooms.
Some people have said that transgender people should just use the bathroom at home. Most of us try to. We plan our days around where we know there are single stall bathrooms or where we can use the bathroom in our own living space. Many young transgender people develop kidney issues from trying to hold their pee for so long. Or they refuse to drink water when they are out so they won’t have to go to the bathroom. They deprive their bodies of necessary functions because they don’t want to face the battleground that is the bathroom.
The question of cisgender people being uncomfortable sharing a restroom with transgender people is so backward to what I have experienced in my own life and in the life of my community. In reality we transgender people are terrified to share the bathroom with you. We are terrified that you will ridicule us, or demean us, or rape us, or kill us. Every time we use the bathroom we face down terror over what might happen.
The first time I used the men’s room I was petrified. I was terrified there would be a line or the stall would be out of order. I was terrified that someone would say something to me or “find me out”. I was terrified that I would be outed and put in harm’s way. For the first several months of using men’s rooms if there was a line I would turn around and leave no matter how badly I had to go. I was an expert at holding it. On my seminary campus I would search out the (very inconveniently located) single stall restrooms because I was worried about making my classmates uncomfortable.
At work they asked me to use the absolutely disgusting (and rarely, if ever, cleaned) bathrooms in the back because I might make my co-workers uncomfortable by using the restrooms in the front of the restaurant. I was the only employee required to use the restrooms in the back.
Even now, nine years into my transition, when I move through the world seen exclusively as a man, I still worry when using the restroom. I worry about having to wait for the stall to be available. I worry that something about the way that I look or move will give me away. I worry that if I was having a conversation at the table with a friend and either of us mentioned my transgender status and someone else overheard it and then saw me in the bathroom that it could end in violence. I worry about bathrooms that don’t have locks on the stall door or that have doors that don’t shut all the way.
Why have I spent all of this time telling about about my bathroom fears? I could have started off just by quoting facts and figures; there have been no instances of a transgender woman assaulting a cisgender woman in a bathroom. None. However, there are countless reports of transgender people being assaulted in bathrooms. The facts tell us that transgender people have much more to fear than cisgender people when it comes to bathroom safety.
But I want you to understand how it actually feels to have a place that is a necessity be so fraught. Using the bathroom is a ridiculous thing to have to worry about because we all need to do it. But the fear is real. It takes up so much of my mental space. It has real repercussions to the lives and physical health of transgender people (who already struggle to get adequate and competent healthcare).
Every single one of us should be able to pee safely and without fear of violence. And if cisgender people would stop using fear based campaigns about transgender people, if cisgender people would stop assaulting and harassing transgender people in the bathroom, if cisgender people would start acting like we were human, then maybe we could all pee in peace.