Before I had the courage to present my true self to the world (prior to 2002), I never thought twice about using a public restroom. I’d go in, take care of business, wash my hands, and walk out. It was so simple that it never even crossed my mind. I was young, ignorant, and privileged.
There have been several studies of the public regulation of gender and its impact on transgender people's lives. They typically find, among other things, that:
- 70% of trans respondents had been harassed, assaulted or denied access when attempting to use a public bathroom.
- 58% reported that they have avoided going out in public due to a lack of safe public restroom facilities.
- 54% of all respondents reported having some sort of physical problem from trying to avoid using public restrooms, such as dehydration, kidney infections, and urinary tract infections.
People of color and people who have not medically transitioned frequently fare worse.
While I can only speak for myself and my experiences so far, I thought it might be helpful to shine a tiny light on what it's like to have to use a public un-restroom.
- I have been harassed
- I have avoided going in public
- I have experienced dehydration and other symptoms from "holding it"
So, if you can, jump into my full-bladdered shoes as I take you on a trip to the un-restroom. You're at a restaurant. Or a concert. Or a work conference. Or a wedding. Or just anywhere that isn't a house, really.
First, you have to debate whether you really have to go or if you can hold it. By the time you've started to have this debate, you've already convinced yourself to hold it for at least a half an hour or you've waited for CDG to go so that she can report back on whether it's a "onesie" (one room with a toilet and a sink) or a restroom with multiple stalls. If it's a onesie, you need to know whether it's marked women/men or, in a perfect world, it's gender neutral. Finding a gender neutral onesie is like finding a $1,000,000 bill in your jacket pocket.
If you own an establishment and you've got a single onesie, it's automatically gender neutral and nobody thinks twice about it. People wait in line and do their thing and nobody bats an eyelash.
If you own an establishment and you've got multiple onesies, why separate them into a stick figure without a skirt and a stick figure with a skirt? If they have the same literal plumbing, why separate them by figurative plumbing? I've been in "mens" and "womens" bathrooms. Neither are anything to write home about. Both can be equally disgusting or delightful.
Anyway, if we're somewhere that has gendered onesies or multiple stalls, the un-rest begins. Off you go!
As you walk towards the restroom door, it's essential that you let some sort of femininity show. Try to make someone see something in you that they identify as feminine. Every person who joins the line behind you or who comes out of a stall poses a new threat and the odds of a negative encounter increase. The longer the line, the longer you have to watch everyone running through the “is that a girl?” routine. They literally look you up and down for clues. Prior to 2013, it was much easier to find visible clues, but those are gone now.
The longer the line, the more frequently you have to perform tiny acts of proof. Most of the time in the bathroom is spent trying to non-verbally convince people that you are, in fact, in the "right" place. The longer the line, the longer it takes you to get back to your seat. If you're gone for longer than 3 minutes, CDG will text you to check in. You love that she does that but hate that she has to. If you don't reply within a minute or two, she'll come check on you.
The longer the line, however, the longer you have to find someone who is on your team, doesn’t seem phased by what team you're on, or will (you believe/hope) come to your defense if needed. You're not, by nature, a confrontational person. But, given the right circumstances, you can become one. You've had plenty of practice. You've spent years crafting a library of witty comebacks to, “this is the women’s bathroom," “you’re in the wrong place," and, "why is there a boy in here?" The main purpose for the comebacks is to make sure you're safe. You award yourself bonus points if your response can jolt someone so intensely that they never say whatever they said to anyone ever again.
When it's finally time to do the only thing you're there to do, you close the door behind you and wonder if anyone you just encountered is going to call security, a manager, their boyfriend, or their entire group of friends. You have a very active and vivid imagination, which is a gift and a curse. You imagine someone walking in, saying, “in that stall” and you hear a knock on the door and a loud voice ask, “Sir! You're going to have to leave.”
So, when you enter the stall, it is crucial for you to regroup, take a breath, and hold the door shut, even if there’s a working lock on it.
Once you're done in the stall, it's time for the trip to the sink, which is usually just a few short paces, but can feel like miles. By this time, some of the people that may have been uncomfortable by your presence have left. You wonder if any of them have told their dinner date that a guy was in the bathroom. You brace yourself for a few minutes after you've gotten back to your seat, just in case someone confronts you upon your return.
You often adopt the men’s room, "no eye contact what-so-ever" etiquette, even if the other people in the bathroom don’t. And, when they see you, they typically don't. But, for you, it's better to pretend that they don’t exist than to piss someone off by checking out their awesome sneakers, tattoos, etc. The *last* thing you want to do is make someone feel as though you're checking them out.
You wash up quickly and you never dry your hands. Honestly, you wouldn't wash them at all if it was socially acceptable because you'd get out of there faster. But these people already think you're filthy. There's no reason to add fuel to their ignorant fire.
If you leave the bathroom without anyone uttering a word to you and there's nobody outside the door or back at your table waiting for you, you're in the clear. Congratulations! You made it! Ahhhh…. you can breathe and enjoy the rest of your meal/event/day.
But you're certainly not drinking any more water.