There is a gender-neutral bathroom in the Cartagena airport. Really.
I write this with some amazement. Every summer my family tries to take a vacation to someplace outside the U.S. One of the most humiliating parts of this for me is bathroom access.
I usually wear several layers, because airports and often airplanes can be over-air-conditioned. If I walked in, all six feet tall, with my short hair, lack of makeup, and rangy build, it’s going to cause a hassle.
I could have used the men’s room, and I have on occasion, but it always feels wrong, and humiliating in a different sort of way.
It’s not that I’m a virgin in that area; quite the contrary. I lived as a boy for the first 26 years of my life. But being surrounded by men doing intimate things, watching them pull out their junk at the urinals, just feels gross to me now. Come to think of it, it always did.
So I do the next best thing. I take off all my outerwear and sling it over my rollerboard. I’m always wearing a T-shirt, so women can see my (definite if diminutive B-cup) chest. As I enter the ladies' room, I run my hand fetchingly through my hair several times for anyone nearby.
This, along with the sight of my chest, seems to get me by. Women will stare, not to mention their boyfriends and husbands waiting just outside. But no one has stepped me or dimed me out to the cops. At least not yet.
I wash my hands as quickly as I can or just skip it altogether. I get that anxious feeling until the moment I’m back safely in the hallway, and even then I sometimes check to see if there’s anyone at my back.
It’s not that I’m fooling anyone. I look about as much like a cisgender woman as I do a basset hound.
It’s just that I seem able to convince everyone that I probably don’t belong in the men’s room either, and if I’m not female I’m at least femin-ish and harmless.
I hate it. I hate it every time. I especially hate it when my daughter needs me to take her, as happened in the airport, because she is now old enough now to recognize this insipid dance I do to protect myself from cisgender prejudice and watches, wordlessly discouraged, as I perform it.
Which brings us back to Cartagena, a lovely Caribbean seaport town in Colombia. What I mean to say is that it is not the center of the politically correct universe. Nor it is stacked with slavering social justice warriors.
Yet there is this bathroom. Like all the others, they dress it up a bit by also making it a baby-changing station, but let’s face it — awareness of babies has been around a lot longer than awareness of trans people. And they never bothered to create these third bathroom options until now. So clearly this is about trans people, and the baby-changing thing is just along for the ride.
So as my daughter and I went into the room together, I began thinking about how incredible it felt for me to not have to do my little bathroom dance. For me to have a place even I felt comfortable and safe from the stares or incipient hassles. Even in Cartagena.
And I have thought a lot about this. Accompanying this article is a picture from a small Cartagena boutique hotel in the central historical district. I didn’t go looking for this — we’d just stopped in for coffee. But I was totally delighted to see it. A metal bathroom symbol with a group of four people on it.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before — not even in the urban gay ghettos we tend to inhabit. Since it wasn’t the standard boy/girl signs every bathroom sports, the owner probably had to get it specially made.
It was just this random, small, wonderful statement about inclusion and a desire to avoid someone gender-nonconforming feeling uncertain, unwelcome, or demeaned.
What to make of all this? I used to think that bathrooms were our Achilles’ heel. It is diminishing and degrading to have to launch a political argument based on something as small and personal as the need to pee. We have so many more important and pressing issues. Who wants to make a big public deal about needing to go to the toilet? I haven’t done that since kindergarten. OK, 10th grade. But still, you get my drift.
But I’m beginning to rethink that. This very prosaic-ness may actually be a strength. For one thing, the urgent need for a restroom is also something everyone can relate to — trans and cisgender alike. And unlike hormones or surgery, it has deeply affects trans kids as well. Again, unlike hormones, surgery, or even employment discrimination, it affects you nearly any day — every time you leave your home.
This is a small act that nearly every business or institution, from a huge Fortune 100 to a corner bodega, can think about and act on, because bathrooms are everywhere. In fact, the growing awareness that we don’t feel safe doing something as necessary and mundane as using a public facility when we have a pressing need to urinate has become a vivid illustration of the full breadth of unseen and unrecognized challenges that those of us who are gender-different face every day.
It doesn’t hurt that pondering alternatives to rigid boy/girl bathrooms also forces cisgender people to rethink binary genders too and become aware that not all of us fit in. Or want to.
And if my Cartagena experience is any evidence, this awareness is now going viral, and global, and very quickly indeed. This would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago.
So maybe it’s a small change, but small changes can also be very profound — and profoundly encouraging, especially if you and your daughter need to use El Cuarto de las Mujeres in the Cartagena city airport.
RIKI WILCHINS is an author and advocate.