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Riki Wilchins

Op-ed: 'It's The Women's Room!' and Other Bathroom Complications

Op-ed: 'It's The Women's Room!' and Other Bathroom Complications


Navigating the social mores of the public restroom when you're not cisgender can be a tricky dance, practiced multiple times a day.

Even in these heady times, when it seems every day there's yet another major advance in trans liberation, simply taking a public leak remains a bitch and a half.

Yes, I know there's an app for that, which will enable your iPhone to locate the nearest gender-neutral restroom. And if you live in downtown Seattle or go to school at UC Berkeley, it probably works great. I usually find the nearest one is at least two time zones away.

So I end up trying to choose between liberating the women's room, or going back to using the (yuck!) men's.

Before my transition, I can't say I ever thought much about the phenomenonolgy of the men's room urinal. But today, I find the idea of a half dozen male strangers standing shoulder to shoulder with their junk hanging out and splashing away in synchronized urination like it was an Olympic pool event genuinely terrifying, not to mention a major gross-out. Maybe it's three decades of estrogen kicking in.

I never had to worry about all this because for a long time after I transitioned, I worked hard at presenting as feminine a face as possible.

I say "worked," because if you're born into a boy body, then suddenly trying to make it appear reasonably female in your mid-30s is no walk in the park. While I fooled no one, I at least achieved a degree of tolerance from almost everyone.

I could saunter confidently into any restroom that had that outline of a little woman, standing primly in her A-line skirt with her hands at her sides and feet together -- you know, the way cisgender women often stand in front of public elevators -- and know that if I wasn't her sister, at least all my effort had purchased another Day Pass to FemaleLand. I drew stares, but not blood.

But gradually that effort evaporated. Strip the long hair, earrings, lipstick, mascara, and blush off most cisgender women and you still usually pretty much see a woman. Strip them off me and what you see is ... Richard. And no matter how feminine I feel inside, Richard gets no Day Pass. Richard sauntering confidently into the women's room is ... chaos.

Some women call out, "It's the women's room." The more polite run outside to check the sign and make sure it's not them who are in the wrong bathroom.

Others just glare really hard. I've even had a couple wait outside with their boyfriends to go after me.

And then there are the rare ones who just go off. I was shopping in my favorite high-end South Beach deli one sunny morning when a crazy older woman -- not a regular like moi -- was busy loudly harassing employees.

She yelled at the guy behind the meat counter. Then she yelled at the woman working produce.

After paying for my exorbitantly expensive goods, I made a beeline for the women's room by the registers. Just as I exit my stall, there's Crazy Woman, standing between me and the door.

Crazy Woman takes one look and -- although her voice has been in fourth gear all morning -- finds that she can still reach that fifth one in overdrive: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE! THIS IS THE WOMAN'S ROOM! WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN HERE!" over and over.

Panicked, I can see employees swarming the room, the manager storming in, the cops being called, and me being forever banned from my beloved deli as I'm perp-walked in shame before the rolling cameras of America's Most Wanted. Because while I may be legally female back in New York, Florida still goes by chromosomes, and by those rules, Crazy Woman is the RG (Real Girl).

Somehow, without missing a beat, I hear myself hollering back at her, "Do I LOOK like a MAN to you?" and as this unintentionally Zen-like koan stops her in her tracks, I bolt successfully out the door.

Finally, there are those few women I worry I might actually be scaring. No matter how much I want to think of it as "liberating" the women's room by using the bathroom that fits my gender identity (not to mention $25k of surgery), I hate the idea that I might be making another woman afraid.

A trans activist once told me her Fortune 500 company resolved longstanding disputes about when and whether transitioning MTFs should use the women's room with a simple policy known informally as the Bathroom of Least Surprise.

At the time, such a commonsense formula was a huge step forward for trans women over making them jump through the then-common, demeaning hoops of providing doctor's letters, documenting their surgical status, or producing proof of legal sex.

If a transitioning employee would be less surprising using the women's room than standing in a dress and high heels at the urinal in the men's room, then that's where they should go.

But what happens when you're still playing the role but stop looking the part? As far as transitioning goes, I appear to be a male-to-female-to-male transsexual. My identity has now taken so many turns they could make it into a ride at Disney World.

So I wonder, even though I am now definitely more surprising in the women's room, can I still l demand that the world recognize and honor my inner femme? Can I refuse to to do an intelligible gender while still demanding the privileges that fit with womanhood?

I've heard similar concerns about the women's room from mega-butch lesbian friends, who get hassled just like I do but seem to be able to muster a sense of entitlement to the space that remains out of my reach.

I turned to the Brown Boi Project for advice from masculine-identified women. In their kicky video "It Gets Messy in Here," one recounts how, out of patience, she turned on one harasser and shouted, "I have a V-A-G-I-N-A-!!!" Now, there's an interesting technique. I can do that. In fact, it's s something I can practice at home in front of my mirror.

Les Feinberg used to say that stone butches going quietly about their business in the women's room aren't really hassled because other women genuinely feel afraid; they're hassled because other women are pissed off at their appearance.

This should make me feel better. But I've also found that door swings both ways. I was finishing up my business in the women's room at the NYC LGBT Community Center, where I'd been organizing transgender support groups, when in walks this guy. I'm not exactly happy, but I hold my tongue.

Now, the community center is a genuinely safe and welcoming space, and one of the few where I could access the women's room without worrying about how I happened to look -- a huge relief.

This makes it a precious resource. Even more so in a gay-male-dominated building (they had the huge men's room with the giant Keith Haring sex mural that is now worth more than the entire building that houses it, we had a small room with no mural, by Keith or anyone else).

So I wasn't feeling threatened, just kind of offended that even in this one, small (dare I say it?) women-only space ... well, you get the idea.

But then this guy starts getting undressed. And as he pulls off his pants right in front of me, I turn and ask him, "Really? Really??"

And as he starts yelling at me something I can't quite catch, he pulls a green dress from his bag and I realize this is someone -- pre-transition, post-transition, nontransition -- who came to the center for one of my support groups and, like me, considered the women's room safe harbor.

A few seconds of privilege had turned me from a right-on, in-your-face, transgender activist into a radical lesbian feminist intent on keeping the men and trannies out of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

Which is to say, the door of gender tolerance swings both ways, Buster, and it had just swung back and hit me in the ass.

To this day I never question anyone I see in the restroom based on their appearance. I'd just like to be afforded the same privilege.

But that's a long, long story. Before we get started, does anyone need to go?

RIKI WILCHINS is an activist, stand-up comedian, and the author of Read My Lips.

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