A Trans Woman Enters the Restroom

trans bathroom.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Thinkstock/Thinkstock

For me, it is already a new year of old fears. 2016 has scarcely begun, and there is already yet another bill, from the end of December, being proposed to criminalize transgender persons—like myself—for using the restroom that corresponds with our gender identity. Republicans have largely lost the cultural debate on same-sex marriage, and so the question of who can use what restroom has become the new site of fear-mongering rhetoric—a shift made chillingly clear after the failure of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. And this new law, which has been proposed by Sen. Jim Tomes in the Indiana state legislature, is as draconian as they get. Tomes’ bill would put us in jail for up to a year and charge us as much as $5,000 for using any restroom that does not correspond with the sex we were assigned at birth—regardless of whether our gender is recognized by the law, regardless of whatever gender confirmation procedures we may have had. It is a bill that binds us to our bodies from birth, a bill unwilling to imagine that transgender people truly exist, a bill born out of a fundamental lack of understanding of how demeaning—and dangerous—it is for a transgender woman—like me—not to use the women’s restroom. It is a bill that fails to recognize the fears that follow so many of us into the restroom already.

* * *

I am at a mall with a friend in Florida. We have been shopping for clothes at H&M, and she says she needs to use the restroom. I do, too, so I go with her. My heart starts to beat a bit faster when I see the gendered signs. I am a woman, and I am going to use the bathroom I always do—the women’s—but in a place as dense with strangers as this mall, I worry that this may be the time that something bad occurs. Pinpricks shoot up the back of my neck. I have always been androgynous, and I look like many other multiracial women from my home of Dominica in the Caribbean, a place I no longer feel safe returning now that I have come out as a trans woman. But in an American atmosphere dense with fear-mongering about how people like me are little more than sexual predators sneaking into bathrooms to assault “real” women and their daughters, I am never without some fear entering the restroom. Even before we near the door, I have already begun to chart the topography of the dangers that could come, hoping I do not give off so bright an aura of nervousness that I will be stopped even before I reach the threshold of the facilities.

As my friend and I approach the door, my voice drops to a whisper and I begin to reexamine myself in the mirror of my mind: I feel a need for my outfit to look neat and right so that I do not draw unnecessary attention to myself, attention that might turn to fear and panic in the wrong woman’s eyes. At times, before venturing out, I have dressed in more feminine fashion than I wanted to simply so that if I had to use the restroom, the see-saw of how a stranger perceives my gender would tip more toward unremarkable female and less toward threat, invader, danger, male. Today has followed that template. It frustrates me: Neither clothes nor makeup make up my gender, yet for some trans women they can become our armor of sorts against arousing hostile suspicion, a way to lessen the chance of a sound and fury that signifies all too much. To be transgender is to confront a question of how mind and body interact, and so often things that can seem unimportant or trivial to many cisgender women loom large in the minds of trans women as our bodies approach the same destination.

I lower my voice more, and my friend, after glancing at me, does the same. She is not transgender, and I have not told her my fears about the restroom, but she seems to have picked up the signals of my fear. Voice is crucial: If you have a voice that sounds like an average male’s, a lower chest voice from around 85 to 160 hertz, you will get heads turned toward you, glares sent your way, and, in some cases, be told to leave. Someone may even call the police. And, of course, any of this could happen simply because someone has read you as a trans woman from first glance.

I do my best to make sure my voice, even at almost a whisper, sounds right; I have worked for months to get it into the pitch and timbre range that most cisgender female voices fall into. This is the kind of voice I have always wanted, and it also the kind that will lessen my chances of having people refuse me services in my legal name over the phone, reduce my probability of being punched, followed, killed. In bathrooms more than anywhere else, I feel terror due to my voice. My therapist understood all too well. “Sometimes,” she told me, “when I go out with trans women who haven’t worked on their voices, I tell them to just not say a word to me in the bathroom. It’s safer.”

We step in.

Like with every other restroom, I quickly map out the geography of the space once I’ve passed the threshold—here is the exit, there are the stalls, there are the sinks

It seems absurd. It’s just a restroom, I remind myself. To speak of crossing thresholds is hyperbole. But it is not. I imagine being un-invited like a vampire, kicked out, yanked out by police officers a woman has called. Being trans in a transphobic world can transform mundane spaces into landscapes of terror.

A tall woman passes from around the corner. She glances at me, then continues on. A woman cleaning the floor smiles at me. “Good afternoon, ma’am,” she says. I smile at her, but my heart is so loud I fear she will hear its mad beat. The stalls are all occupied, so I wait, glancing at myself in the mirror to avoid speaking with the woman cleaning and to confirm how I look. Since I am on hormone replacement therapy and have lost virtually all of the facial hair I once possessed, I am usually able to be accepted, at a glance, for what I am. But I still get the confused glances, the glares. How I look, unfairly, makes it a bit easier for me in here—but the fears are real for all of us, and they can be so much worse for trans women who do not immediately “pass,” to use a term I dislike, as women. And cisgender women who look androgynous may know these fears, too, like Cortney Bogorad, a cis woman who was ejected from a restaurant in Detroit last year for trying to use the women’s restroom because a security guard thought she was a man.

In the end, I use the restroom. I sit, despite ludicrous depictions of us as bearded individuals standing up to urinate. I wash my hands, check my face, look at a split end on my front clump of ringlets, and then leave, rejoining my friend. My heart is still drumming quicker than it should, but my world has returned, briefly, to something like normalcy. Like other trans women, I don’t want to be specially accepted, praised, or attacked in the restroom; I just want it to be a non-issue. I do not want to use a special restroom that segregates me from my fellow women; I just want to live, like other women, and to use the toilet without cause for alarm. I want to stop feeling these fears re-form each time I look at the sign reading Women’s

But it is not a non-issue, not yet. When I see placards telling me that I do not belong in the women’s restroom, when I read legislation advising anyone who was born with certain genitalia to use this or that bathroom with unquestionable exclusivity, I wonder how they would feel if I were to truly forced to use the men’s restroom. The men would likely tell me I am in the wrong place; I might even cause a riot or a fight to break out if I did not turn around and flee. I wonder if the ardent sign-wavers, the people who protest with lurid slogans that scream “No Men in Women’s Restrooms!” are the same women who glanced at me as they walked by and showed no recognition that I was not a woman just like them.

Nowhere, in truth, is completely safe for anybody, but we should not—whoever we are—have to fear places like public restrooms to the degree that so many of us do. This is not an issue of special rights—it is an issue of just allowing us to be who we are, an issue of simple human rights. Under bills like Tomes’ and the many others we will likely see proposed this year, we are presumed to be criminals simply for being different, for having a sense of self we did not choose—and it is that presumption that is criminal. We cannot walk a road toward equality until we can stop seeing difference as danger.