Fear and Loathing in Public Bathrooms, or How I Learned to Hold My Pee

Ivan E. Coyote
Ivan E. Coyote   

Photo by Adam P.W. Smith

This essay is excerpted from the book Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon, out now from Arsenal Pulp Press. 

I can hold my pee for hours. Nearly all day. It’s a skill I developed out of necessity, after years of navigating public washrooms. I hold it for as long as I can, until I can get myself to the theatre or the green room or my hotel room, or home. Using a public washroom is a very last resort for me. I try to use the wheelchair-accessible, gender-neutral facilities whenever possible, always after a thorough search of the area to make sure no one in an actual wheelchair or with mobility issues is en route. I always hold my breath a little on the way out though, hoping there isn’t an angry person leaning on crutches waiting there when I exit. This has never happened yet, but I still worry. Sometimes I rehearse a little speech as I pee quickly and wash my hands, just to be prepared. I would say something like, I apologize for inconveniencing you by using the washroom that is accessible to disabled people, but we live in a world that is not able to make room enough for trans people to pee in safety, and after many years of tribulation in women’s washrooms, I have taken to using the only place provided for people of all genders.

But I have never had to say any of this. Yet. Once at an airport, I was stopped by a janitor on my way out who reprimanded me for using a bathroom that wasn’t meant for me, and I calmly explained to him that I was a transgender person, and that this was the only place I felt safe in, and then I noted that there were no disabled people lined up outside the washroom door, or parents with small children waiting to use the change table.

He narrowed his eyes at me. Then he said, “Okay, but next time you should …”

I waited for him to finish. Instead, he shook his head and motioned down the empty hallway with his mop handle that I should be off, that this conversation was now over.

I wondered later in the departure lounge exactly what it was he felt I should do next time? Hold it longer? Not have bodily functions at all? Use the men’s room? The ladies’? Be someone else? Look different? Wear a dress? Not wear a tie? Cease and desist with air travel altogether? Do my part to dismantle the gender binary to make more room for people like myself?

I could write an entire book about bathroom incidents I have experienced. It would be a long and boring book where nearly every chapter ends the same, so I won’t. But I could. Forty-four years of bathroom troubles. I try to remind myself of that every time a nice lady in her new pantsuit for travelling screams or stares at me, I try to remember that this is maybe her first encounter with someone who doesn’t appear to be much of a lady in the ladies’ room. That she has no way of knowing this is already the sixth time this week that this has happened to me, and that I have four decades of it already weighing heavy on my back. She doesn’t know I have been verbally harassed in women’s washrooms for years. She doesn’t know I have been hauled out with my pants still undone by security guards and smashed over the head with a giant handbag once. She can’t know that I have five cities and seven more airport bathrooms and eleven shows left to get through before I can safely pee in my own toilet. She can’t know that my tampon gave up the ghost somewhere between the security line and the food court. I try to remember all that she cannot know about my day, and try to find compassion and patience and smile kind when I explain that I have just as much right to be there as she does, and then make a beeline, eyes down, shoulders relaxed in a non-confrontational slant, into the first stall on the left, closest to the door.

Every time I bring up or write about the hassles trans and genderqueer people receive in public washrooms or change rooms, the first thing out of many women’s mouths is that they have a right to feel safe in a public washroom, and that, no offense, but if they saw someone who “looks like me” in there, well, they would feel afraid, too. I hear this from other queer women. Other feminists. This should sting less than it does, but I can’t help it. What is always implied here is that I am other, somehow, that I don’t also need to feel safe. That somehow their safety trumps mine.

If there is anything I really do understand, it is being afraid in a public washroom. I am afraid in them all the time, with a lifetime of good reason. I wish that I had some evidence that harassing people in public washrooms really did originate from being afraid. I wish I could believe them that it starts with their own fear. What I suspect is more true is that their behaviour begins with and is fed by a phobia. They are afraid of men in a women’s washroom, because of what might happen. I am afraid of women in a women’s washroom, because of what happens to me all the time.

I don’t see cisgendered women who want to feel safe in a public washroom as my adversaries, though; what I see is the potential for many built-in comrades in the fight for gender-neutral, single-stall locking washrooms in all public places. Because the space they seek and the safety I dream of can be accomplished with the very same hammer and nails. Because what I do know for sure is that every single trans person I have ever spoken to, every single tomboy or woman who wears coveralls for her job or woman with short hair or recovering from chemo, or effeminate boy, or man who likes wearing dresses, or man with long hair that I have ever met is hassled or confronted or challenged nearly every other time they use a public washroom, anywhere. Always. Often. Every day. All the time. Incessantly. Repeatedly. Without mercy or respite. Every thing from staring to pointing to screaming to physical violence.

This violence and harassment is justified by people claiming that they were afraid. But very rarely does it feel to me like the person harassing me is actually afraid. Startled, maybe, for a second or two. But when I explain that I was assigned female at birth, just like they were, they usually don’t back down. Their fear doesn’t disappear, or dissipate. This is right about the time their friend will shake their head at me as if to say, what do you expect? They will pat their friend on the back to comfort them. They both feel entitled to be in a public washroom, entitled enough that they get to decide whether or not I am welcome there. This feels to me like I am being policed, and punished for what I look like. This doesn’t smell like fear to me. It reeks of transphobia.

It starts very early. I know a little girl, the daughter of a friend, who is a self-identified tomboy. Cowboy boots and caterpillar yellow toy trucks. One time I asked her what her favourite colour was and she told me camouflage. She came home last October in tears from her half-day at preschool with soggy pants because the other kids were harassing her when she used the girls’ room at school and the teacher had instructed her to stay out of the boys’ room. She had drunk two glasses of juice at the Halloween party and couldn’t hold her pee any longer. She and her peers were four years old, they knew she was a girl, yet already they felt empowered enough in their own bigotries to police her use of the so-called public washrooms. I find it extremely hard to believe that these children were motivated by fear of another little girl. She was four years old and had already learned the brutal lesson that there was no bathroom door with a sign on it that welcomed people who looked like her. She had already been taught that bathrooms were a problem, and that problem started with her, and was hers alone.

My friend asked me to talk to her, and I did. I wanted to tell her that her mom and I were going to talk to the school and that it would all stop, but I knew this wasn’t true. I wanted to say that it would be better when she got older, but I couldn’t. I asked her to tell me the story of what happened. Asked her how it made her feel. Mad and sad she told me. I told her she wasn’t alone. She asked me if I had ever peed in my own pants. I told her yes, I had, but not for a long time. When you get bigger, your bladder grows bigger too, I told her. When you get old like me, you will be able to hold your pee for a lot longer, I promised her. Until you get home? she asked me. I said yes, until you can get home. She seemed to take some comfort in that.

So I get a little tired of having to swallow my lived experience to be force-fed someone else’s what-ifs. I get tired of my safety coming second. I get tired of the realities of trans and gender non-conforming people’s lives being overshadowed and ignored in favour of a boogey-man that might be lurking in the ladies room. I get really tired of being mistaken for a monster. I get tired of swallowing all these bathroom stories and smiling politely. But the last thing I can do is allow myself to get angry. Because if I get angry, then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it’s all my fault, isn’t it? Because then there is a man in the ladies’ room, and for some reason, he’s angry.

This essay is excerpted from the book Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon, out now from Arsenal Pulp Press. In their first collaborative book, Coyote and Spoon explore and expose their failed attempts at fitting into the gender binary and how our expectations and assumptions around traditional gender roles ultimately fail us all.