This is the Ladies Room

Not my closet…but this is as close as I could get to what she looked like.

Not my closet…but this is as close as I could get to what she looked like.

She was in full young professional drag. A skirt suit and pumps. A look of panic flashed across her face. She started to turn around to walk out of the bathroom, and then turned around and gave me a long hard look. She didn’t say anything. She walked past me, entered a stall and closed the door.

Because I was already inside the women’s restroom, she assumed she had made the mistake. When she realized that she was in the right place, she gave me the contempt stare.

I washed my hands and took a good look at myself in the mirror. I tried to see what she saw. Short hair, rimless glasses. A pink Oxford button down shirt open at the neck (with a binder underneath), black jeans. A black belt with an oval pewter buckle, black leather chukkas. If I were a guy, I’d look like I paid attention to what I was wearing. All I saw was a middle-aged butch.

I don’t know what she expected, but our office does not have a dress code. My version of business casual is very casual, and masculine.

I do not wear anything to signify that I am female. There were none of the expected clues, the three or four things that make the difference between being read as male or as female (hair style, accessories, demeanor). She felt entitled to look me over. She expected me to apologize; I didn’t. It was her problem.

I was caught off-guard because that is my “safe” bathroom at work. It is the one closest to my cubicle. All the women who work on the floor know me. I’ve never had a problem in there before. This woman was an outsider. I belonged there.

When I’m out with Donna I use her as my cover. I get on line right behind her. I still get stared at, but being with a woman gives me credibility. I’ve never been challenged when I’m with Donna.

I have a handful of safe bathrooms that I use when I am alone. I try not to use unfamiliar ones when I am out. I look for branches of Starbuck’s and my gym (New York Sports Club) because they have single stall (gender neutral) restrooms in most locations. It is insanely difficult to find a bathroom in New York even if you are gender normative, and when you do, there is usually (for women) a line. Lines give me the heebie-jeebies.

I’ve had my share of ugly incidents. The worst was in the Houston airport, when a woman screamed so loud that security came running in and asked me for ID.

When I’ve been told “This is the Ladies Room” I’ve replied gently, to put the challenger at ease. I’ve reigned in my sarcasm and my anger. This last incident changed how I feel. I want to turn it around. I want to ask “Why did you say that?” or tell them “I belong here.”

trans-or-cisAlthough I continue to look for gender neutral bathrooms, I think it is the wrong tactic. I don’t believe in separate but equal. I don’t want to wander around looking for the trans* equivalent of the Colored bathroom. I don’t want to avoid the cisgendered one because I might make one of “them” uncomfortable.

What has to happen for that young professional to accept that I belong in “her” restroom? For her to believe that there is nothing wrong with a genderqueer, butch, or transgender woman using a woman’s bathroom?

I’m tired of carving out safe spaces. I’m tired of being stared at or commented upon. I’m over worrying whether my presence makes strangers uncomfortable. It is time for them to get over it too.

26 thoughts on “This is the Ladies Room

  1. janitorqueer

    “It was her problem.” Totally! I hope that although people like her might stare in the moment, they might actually think about it with a little more depth later on and wonder what it is about them that made them uncomfortable. …probably won’t, but one can hope!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      If she worked on our floor, someone would “set her straight.” My impression was that she was angry at being put in the situation of almost running out of the restroom – and that it would have been preventable if I had given off a more female vibe. Obviously I am reading a lot into a very brief encounter, but the look of contempt was unmistakable. Contempt is a tough one to change, if she had a chance to get to know me or at least see me around and how I interact with staff then she might come around.

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  2. urbanmythcafe

    Well said.
    A public restroom is a very difficult place to stick up for yourself. I was so brave when I was younger. For years now, though, I find myself gravitating to “safe” places, purely because of the bathroom issue.
    I don’t have any answers for you. Be bold.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      What was disconcerting was that this was my safe bathroom; what was she doing in it? Trying to pee like everyone else! I felt like if I’m not safe there, I’m not safe anywhere. However, I have to remind myself that it is about a 1 in a 1000 challenge at this point. So on average it is still the safest place to go on the job.

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  3. Lesboi

    I guess my chest gives me away, since I don’t bind and am fairly well “endowed”, enough that I’ve never had any bathroom issues yet. There was the woman that was coming in the women’s locker at the gym a while back that tripped out for a moment when she saw me coming out but she didn’t make a scene. I suspect this will become a problem for me at some point and I’m not looking forward to it. Using the men’s room is not something I’m looking forward to either.

    The line that spoke directly to my experiences was, “When I’m out with Donna I use her as my cover.” I always feel so much “safer” when I’m out with Candice for some reason. Like she validates my “Woman Card” or she will protect me somehow. Maybe it’s just having someone with me that will vouch for my gender if needed. But I feel it not just in bathrooms but just about any where i go. I feel safer with her with me. When I’m alone I don’t feel as confident to explore unknown territories. Being between genders is tough and takes real guts. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Interesting that you feel safer with Candice wherever you go; I’m going to pay attention and see if I am more relaxed in public by myself or with Donna. Often I feel kind of invisible on the streets of New York – I don’t feel vulnerable until I have to interact one-on-one with someone I don’t know (I am a person of many rituals and habits to avoid new interactions).

      I also don’t know where that line is between identifying as male or as female, and how to navigate the middle ground when you are still legally female. Sometimes you have to choose a binary bathroom or locker room. The locker room is a tough one, because I don’t want to be seen as a threat or as a predator – but it is really all in their mind, and I need to change and shower just like everyone else.

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  4. RonaFraser

    If I can be devil’s advocate for a minute… You can’t always judge what people are thinking by the look on their face. If I had been in her place, I likely would have walked in (to the bathroom I was unfamiliar with), seen you out of the corner of my eye, and thought for a second “Am I in the right bathroom?!” I would have had a puzzled and embarrassed look on my face, as I would be thinking “Crap – Did I just walk in on a man in the bathroom?!” which would have set off my shame buttons. And when I realized – no, she’s a girl (and there are no urinals and I see a napkin disposal box in the stall), then I would have kept going to the stall, but the look on my face may still be uncertain. What I am trying to say is, her reaction likely had way more to do with her own feelings of uncertainty/fear of embarrassment than any judgement of you. If you feel like a guy and look a lot like a guy, then surely it is ok that someone thought you were a guy at first glance. Her discomfort at thinking she may have wandered into the men’s room by mistake is no criticism of you.

    That being said, I can only imagine the discomfort of having to walk into a room that is clearly marked for a specific gender and you do not feel like it is for you. I am pretty sure that if I were in your position I would feel very uncomfortable walking into public bathrooms. Hell, I am very uncomfortable in public washrooms as it is — god forbid anyone hear me pee… OR WORSE!! Hell, I was late for work today because I needed extra bathroom time in the comfort of my own home… so I already have bathroom issues!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Unfamiliar bathrooms are an uncomfortable experience or a lot of people – I know most people have probably accidentally walked into the “wrong bathroom” at one point or another and it is awkward. So she might have had that going on, but I got the sense from the second time she looked me over that she was angry at me or had contempt for me (for putting her in that situation).
      My agency (Transit) is pretty diverse – all ethnicities, all religions, a few cult members, a large handful of gay men and lesbians, and a handful of transgender folks. Most of the staff are reasonably tolerant and used to working with eccentrics; and the one thing we all learned early on was not to stare at the odd looking/oddly dressed employees!

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      1. RonaFraser

        Wow – Sounds like a pretty cool place to work! One thing I miss about living/working in a city is the diversity. Although there is a higher proportion of gays & lesbians here than I knew in Montreal (likely because I simply know a lot more people now), I’ve only met one transgendered (so far as I know) and 95% of people here are white, English-speaking, Christians… well, and airy fairy hippies… I miss the different colours and languages and fashions of the city sometimes. I am only a 45-min drive from the capital of Canada, and yet…

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  5. gok9go

    I can definitely relate. My “safe” bathroom is one floor down in my building. I always hope that the automatic lights are out because that means that I will be the only one in there. I hate public restrooms and wish there was a gender-neutral one in my building. Here’s a piece you might find of interest: http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/04/11/transgender_in_public_bathrooms_why_does_our_safety_always_come_second.html?utm_content=buffer48368&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for the link! I’ve been in the same office for a long time and everyone on the floor knows me so usually “my” bathroom is safe. I almost feel like putting up a “NO TRESPASSING” sign or a “Beware! This bathroom is also used by butch employees!”.

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  6. Khai

    I can definitely relate, especially to the part about being tired of always being the one to have to change. Why should I have to “carve out a safe space,” why aren’t all spaces just considered safe? Shouldn’t it be that I have the right to be where I want to be without being harassed, demeaned, assaulted or attacked, and if one of those things happen to me, I should have the right to be offended or hurt? Rather than having to just check off that space as “un-safe space,” and work on “carving myself a space where that won’t happen.”

    I don’t live in a bubble. I’m a young, motivated, professional– I need to be able to operate within a larger sphere of influence than just places with safe space stickers on their windows. And so I’m with you, society at large needs to make a giant step forwards in terms of all places being just, you know, places, rather than “safe space” and “unsafe space.” But I’d guess what would need to happen for that to be the case, is that we would have to have true gender equality– and four waves into feminism, it looks like we’ve still got the ocean to cross.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Part of what irked me was her sense of cisgender privilege – that once she established in her mind that it was a women’s room, then she belonged there and I was the interloper. The whole concept of policing gender presentation and segregating public spaces is a “false safety” issue.

      It has nothing to do with preventing violence, and everything to do with the maintaining the status quo.

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  7. txbridgefarmer

    Why does it not surprise me that you had a horrible experience in Houston? For a town as large and “diverse” as it is here, my all time, most horrific restroom incidents have happened here. Once, I was in the restroom with my partner. While she was in the stall, I waited for an available one. When she came out, another woman started to go ahead of me. When I politely stated, “I’m sorry, I was waiting here” she looked me up and down then said, “so? You don’t belong in here with real women!” The next time was when a woman flat out told me, “you really need to figure out a better place to pee!” Yep. Welcome to the dirty south!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The odd thing is that people who know me see past the gender dissonance and are shocked when this happens – because they see me as I am. If I get sir’d in a restaurant by a server they are speechless! Donna can not understand it; although she admits it happens all the time. People just expect to see a man instead of a woman and aren’t paying enough attention to double check their gender radar. And you are right, there is a southern rudeness that is the counterpart to northern brusqueness.

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  8. halitentwo

    No matter that I make myself go to the bathroom before going out in public, I feel like my bladder betrays me every time, forcing me into these situations. I usually use my children as my cover – going in with them takes focus away from me – but they are not always with me. It’s the look of distaste (bordering on disgust) that gets me. I want to say, “Hey, I didn’t relieve myself in aisle 9 for goodness sake! Wipe that look off your face. It’s a bathroom.”

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Needing to use a bathroom gets worse as you get older. I want a bathroom door sign that says “people using this restroom may appear more masculine than you expect”.

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  9. RonaFraser

    Saw this on Facebook this morning and thought you might like it. I love his “Super innovative gender neutral bathroom sign”. With it being a common denominator in everyone’s life (going to the bathroom), it’s amazing how we need to euphemize (?) it, with signs of people and names such as restroom, bathroom, water closet. We call it the throne, so why not our Poop Palace?! Ok, that may be pushing it. So to speak… http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2014/04/gender-neutral-bathroom-sign/

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  10. Bull Dyker

    I have nothing really important to say because this sounds infuriating and I don’t know how I would deal with it. I just wanted to mention that your outfit description made me drool and I wish I ran into people like you in bathrooms so we could chat about oval pewter buckles and leather chukkas.

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  11. Pingback: Reader Ramblings: Non-Binary Transition At Work | Neutrois Nonsense

  12. shorthairdocare

    I just got to seeing this post and you are definitely not alone. I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve seen a woman walk in, look at me, walk out, then walk back in and look at me some more. Usually that second look has distaste written all over it though. I still haven’t figured out why that is. Sometimes I feel guilty and want to apologize to people for the confusion, but you’re right, it’s not my problem… it’s theirs. It’s annoying that we have to seek out specific restrooms where we feel safe. Like seriously, we’re just all there to pee and leave so why all the judgment? Sometimes I stare between the women’s and men’s rooms when I’m out and ultimately decide to not go. It shouldn’t be like this.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I dress for my own comfort and so that I recognize myself. It reinforces my sense of who I am. I don’t do it to freak out cisgender women in the bathroom – it is just a weird irrational fear they have of either walking into the wrong bathroom (kind of hard to do) or of men lurking in the bathroom (goes along with the myth of crocodiles in the sewers).
      I’m not comfortable going into the men’s room if it is a stall and urinal set up – I’d rather risk the confrontation in the women’s.

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  13. Pingback: What to Wear to Work – Dressing While Butch | A Boy and Her Dog

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