Topless in the Locker Room

femmes-with-towelsI went back to the gym for the first time in three months. My surgeon cleared me on January 15, but then Donna went into the hospital. I’m just starting to feel comfortable leaving her alone for a few hours at a time.

The truth is, I was avoiding the women’s locker room. All of my adult life I’ve steeled myself going in and out of bathrooms, dressing rooms, and locker rooms. I brace myself for the  challenge. If you see something say something. I don’t apologize. I have the right to be there, but I don’t fully believe I belong there. I feel like an interloper.

It was my luck that the first day back, and as I was entering the locker room after my work out, I ran into a work friend of Donna’s. Carol was dressed in her street clothes and packing up. I was in shorts and a sweat soaked T-shirt. We chatted in front of my locker and then I sat down and fiddled with my lock and waited for her to put on her coat and leave. It was awkward. If I hadn’t just had top surgery, I might have stripped down. I waited. I was anxious.

Lots of women have locker room anxiety. They are shy about being naked in front of other women. They deal with it by arriving in their gym clothes and then going home and showering. Others opt for the modest multi-towel changing technique. They never show anything between their shoulders and their thighs. They shimmy into their bra and panties while remaining covered by towels. Other women change in the bathroom stall or shower stall, behind closed doors. 

It feels physically safe for me to use the women’s locker room, but I downplay the emotional danger. Being able to enter women’s spaces is a privilege I am not ready to give up. Not until there is an all gender alternative.

When I first started letting myself blur the boundary between butch and transgender, I would try to remember to wear a sports bra and women’s underwear on gym days instead of a binder and men’s low-rise trunks. I kept “forgetting” and then stopped trying to remember. I got used to it and then it seemed normal.

I am comfortable in the weight room, even when it is crowded, even when I am lifting less than everyone else. I’m in my own world.

I’ve been stopped by women, and by men, on my way in to the locker room. I’ve had women do a double take when they came in because they weren’t sure they were in the right room. Some women are uncomfortable with butch lesbians in the locker room. Some women have a hard time figuring me out. That is their problem, not mine. I can defend my right to be there. There is a big bold F on my New York State Driver License.

I spend as little time in the women’s locker room as possible, but I like to shower after I work out. I sweat; I don’t perspire. I walk to and from the shower with one towel tied around my waist, and another hugged against my chest. Even after top surgery the gym towels are too small to wrap all the way around my chest. I dry off and get dressed quickly, facing my locker. I don’t primp in front of the mirror.

Still, I feel out-of-place. This is not unique; a lot of people on the trans spectrum avoid the men’s and the women’s locker rooms because they don’t feel safe in either place. I would like my body to be seen as just another body, and for all to assume that I know where I am going and that I belong where I am.

Notes: This is an account of what happened when a trans man used the men’s changing room at a NYC public swimming pool.

Unrelated to the above post, last week my local public radio station (WNYC) aired a segment on gender neutral college students. They opened up the phone lines, and you can hear my comments at the 7 minute mark (you can fast forward the player), here.

24 thoughts on “Topless in the Locker Room

  1. Muddy River Muse

    I’ve enjoyed reading your “voice” for some time– Now thanks to your radio clip I can hear your actual “voice” when I read your words! I resonated with your observation that contemporary changes to the way gender is perceived have caused you to rethink your own identity. I am also in my mid-fifties, and finding myself discovering new insights about myself thanks to things I first learned through my children and their peers. It truly is exciting.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I don’t know where I would have identified myself between 17 and 22 (college age) if those options had been open to me. I likely would have chosen a binary FtM transition, given that I was so into being a boy. I’m less rigid and less dogmatic than I was then.

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  2. morganrichardson82

    All I can say is bravo! Very well written piece here. Now to tell you I myself am 32, and transgender. You will find my posts mostly regarding our journey from male to female. I’ve been living outwardly for three years now. At first there was awkwardness walking into a women’s bathroom in public. No I don’t care. Women never care either! I always received a warm smile from other women as I was walking in or out. It was never made a big deal, but I was living out in Dallas. I moved back to my hometown for about another year, and then ended up coming back to Dallas because of the stereotypes I was being placed in there. So I say congratulations on being yourself, and hopefully you can find some peace along this path !

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for reading and for commenting on this. To be honest, I do not really know what goes through women’s heads when they see me in a bathroom or locker room except some sense that I am wearing inappropriate clothing (jeans and t-shirt) and I am not exuding enough feminine vibes for them. Perhaps in Dallas, as long as you are presenting along feminine lines, they have the sense to accept that you belong in the women’s room. Whatever peace I find is going to have to be a peace that I create!

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      1. morganrichardson82

        Ya know one thing I’ve learned in doing this is not to let things get to me like that. I recently found myself in a 711 I frequent and it’s about an hour from home so I always stop in and use the bathroom because it is so clean. Well recently I came in to find a sing on the door that says Women Only on it. I was extremely disturbed, and was wrought with emotional stress, fear, and anxiety. My hands shook violently as I went in anyway and used the bathroom. The clerk clearly was pissed, and was giving go to hell looks as I came out. He began shaking his head and talking to himself. I videoed and took stills of the bathroom, and you could clearly see it was placed there intentionally directed at me. I asked an ACLU attorney what could be done about it, and she said basically nothing. Seriously? How is that even possible! It was obvious the sign was pointing out the fact they don’t want trans women in a single toilet bathroom of all places! I don’t know what to do at this point.

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  3. Mary Anthony

    I read this on my way into the gym this morning. It must be said that I chose this gym because they have private changing stalls. I don’t have to remember to wear girlie underwear on gym days anymore, and it freed me to worry about the workout of the day instead of locker room anxiety. I pack a beach towel for the trip to and from the shower. Like you, I sweat – a shower is not optional.

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  4. Lesboi

    I’ve never been comfortable in women’s lockers. Never! I’ve always felt like I was an intruder in a space I did not belong. I felt this way about lockers since I first started having to use them in 6th grade and it’s never changed. Now, when I go to the gym I am one of those people who just doesn’t use the locker unless I really have to use the toilet. I get a lot of anxiety about going in now more than ever. If I sweat a lot I will go home to shower and just use a towel to dry off my face at the gym. Having never been in a men’s locker I have no idea how I’d feel in there. The radio segment you shared was interesting and I enjoyed hearing your voice.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m not comfortable, and have never been comfortable, I just make myself do it because I think I should. Donna also goes to the gym and even though she is quite femme, she wears her work out gear under her coat, puts her coat in the locker, and works out. She won’t change there. She says it is because she prefers to take a bath at home instead of a shower, but I think she just doesn’t like disrobing in locker room. But she only perspires.

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  5. genderneutral

    Thanks for the post. Such a universal angst. I sweat too and am drenched after a work out. Unless I am working out with a friend I tend to head home to shower. And since getting top surgery I have still not gone into the pool area. I am working on getting over the anxiety and uncertainty about it all. I am thinking about using the family locker room when the day comes. We will see. I do use men’s bathrooms with relative ease these days, tho often still use women’s because they are cleaner.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Bathrooms and locker rooms feel very different to me – at least in the women’s rest room everything is private – in the locker room getting naked is a big deal. I wish my gym had a family locker room. Just out of curiosity, what are you going to wear to swim in?

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      1. genderneutral

        Jamie Ray – I totally agree, the bathroom is easy compared to the locker room and getting naked. Likely why I haven’t done it yet. When I swim in lakes and rivers post op I have been wearing mens OP surfing short things. Last summer since it was right after surgery I usually had a top on so as to not make permanently purple my scars. So the intent with the pool, is the shorts and nothing else which will make the womens locker room impossible.

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      2. Jamie Ray Post author

        I’m planning on wearing a sleeveless rash guard and trunks at the lake and beach. At some point I’d like to use an indoor pool – but I don’t want to wear a women’s suit and I until I find a good alternative I’m going to put it off.

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  6. Geoff FTM

    I have not ventured into the mens locker room yet, it does seem quite daunting, once my binder is off and chest is better I will likely give it a try. In the girls locker rooms, I used to only dress and undress in the stalls,and a big towel covering everything from the showers to the stall, always felt quite uncomfortable in there, so I completely relate to your post. Nice to hear your voice, definitely interesting times!

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  7. Pixie

    I have spent money I really can’t afford on my own exercise equipment because of this. I can’t even handle gendered bathrooms anymore. Before I had my gender marker legally changed to male I just used women’s and it was painful and I didn’t belong but it was *possible*. Now it isn’t possible anymore, though my appearance hasn’t changed and everyone sees me as female.

    If I had to depend on a gym for exercise, it just would never happen. I can’t do it, not possible, no amount of forcing myself to go will work. I have an exercise bike, a few sets of weights, pull up bar, and a few more bits of equipment stashed in a corner of my room, and settle for that. I need a heavier pair of dumbbells now and I can’t afford them, so I do without.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m in a really small apartment, so working out would be tough here. In the worst case scenario for me I can go to/from home in my gym clothes and use the single stall all gender bathroom on the gym floor if I need to go. And shower at home. There is just something icky about putting a down jacket on after getting all sweaty.

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  8. lostinthelakes

    I can remember the first time I went to the gym after top surgery. I was panicked. I’ve not worn any women’s clothing, aside from the bra that I couldbt do without, for over 7 years, but there’s something so different about entering that same space after you’ve had surgery. I didn’t expect to be challenged. It wasn’t that. But I certainly felt more exposed. 6 months later, and I don’t feel any more sure. Glad you wrote about this experience. It’s one that resonates.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Overall, top surgery is more psychological for me rather than physical (except that I don’t have to bind anymore which is a huge relief and comfort); I feel more at home in my body. But, I feel like no one really notices my top surgery unless I am naked or semi-naked. Sort of like a hidden tattoo. Shirtless it is obvious.

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  9. Cai

    I look forward to the day my chest is flat and healed enough, and I can use public men’s spaces to shower and clean and not have to keep a towel over my chest. Or to be able to walk outside if it’s warm.

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  10. MainelyButch

    How did I miss this post!? I have been contemplating swimming at the city pool now for about 2 weeks. I went so far as to order swim clothes, a body suit type rig, and have gotten the hours of the pool and everything…as soon as the suit arrives I am going to see just how brave I am and how uncomfortable it will be to swim in public once again. Since my chest surgery I haven’t gone to the gym or pool at all. The pool I am choosing to go to I have never swam at before, so it’s not like anyone will “know” me, unless I run into someone who does! I called and made sure they had a “family” changing room, and yes they do. The gym does not, it’s either Male or Female…so I have to figure out what I will do there…probably wear my work out clothes in and go home to shower and change, as I KNOW I will be highly uncomfortable in either “locker room” at the gym. It’s a dilemma that many of us Butches face I think. I am all for the gender neutral changing rooms, with private spaces perhaps? I think you may see more of them being built with newer gyms/pools in the future. Your blog here helped me to know that I am not the only one who is so uncomfortable with the gender-specific spaces of locker or changing rooms. I’m sure I will write about my pool / gym experiences in the near future! Rock on!!! ~MB

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  11. Pingback: Links of the Week – March 20, 2015 | A Long Run

  12. Pingback: Topless in the Locker Room – Part II | A Boy and Her Dog

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