As a woman in my 40s who likes to eat out, and enjoys spending time in places that are not home, like public libraries, I have used more than my fair share of public restrooms. These have run the spectrum from tiny basement cubicles littered with used paper towels, to the grand expanse of the hotel salle de bain (everything sounds fancier in French, right?) with shining counters of speckled granite and maids on site. A few months ago, when using the teachers’ bathroom at my daughter’s public school, I also encountered that quaint relic of the past – a fainting couch, where a lady who who was feeling unwell might rest – for just a few moments – amid the chaos of the day.
I have stood in endless lines at seafood places on Cape Cad, where 30 or 40 women, most of whom had a few beers (or at least a large glass of water) with their fried clams, wait to use a mere THREE stalls. In such lines, we publicly grump about the need for more women’s bathroom stalls, because we cannot simply use a latrine and be on our way. Really, something should be done about it, we mumble, before gratefully diving for the first empty stall.
I am generally an impatient person, and at gas stations across the Northeast, I have been known, when the sole women’s room is discouragingly locked (perhaps by someone who has Been In There For Quite Awhile) to simply use the men’s room, where I am often shocked by the level of odor and disarray. At times, I have emerged to surprised expressions from women, or men, in alleys or hallways outside. Sometimes men will give me strange grins, which seem to say, “Gosh, if you like our bathrooms, then you really must like guys – LIKE ME – a heck of a lot.”
That is not to say that women are not messy, and horrible. They just generally do not pee on the floor.
Women sometimes will give me credit for having ventured into the great unknown of the men’s room, with a pat on the shoulder and an expression of, “Good for you, dear, that’s the way,” as though I have personally knocked down a great barrier to women’s equality, or something.
In all these many bathrooms, over many years, the presence of a potentially transgender woman has only registered with me once or twice. I might, while looking in a long mirror over a bank of sinks, have noticed someone who was taller than the usual woman, or had noticeable facial hair. (Actually, for the uniformed, there are many non-transgender women with some facial hair!) In none of these scarcely-remembered encounters did anything take place except mutual silent hair-brushing and hand-washing. I have no doubt that on many other occasions, I was simply unaware that the woman next to me was transgender.
I guess this is why the controversy over transgender people using the bathrooms of their choice so surprises me. The confusing rhetoric often involves women, and the ostensible desire to protect us from assault by predatory, aggressive transgender women who have nonetheless retained male anatomy and are intent on sexual assault. Or perhaps, in all its befuddlement, the idea is that ordinary men would costume themselves as women and go into women’s rooms intent on doing harm.
Such things are of course possible in the vast realm of human behavior, and all the remote and outlying occurrences it includes, but these obscure scenarios are not among my fears. As a child, and as a young woman, I recall threatening situations in other places, and all involving men whom I believed ordinary, and who were dressed as men. On streets, during the day and a night; in apartments; on long-distance buses. But not, somehow, in women’s rooms.
Over the years, I have known several transgender people.There are a few who started life as men who now live as women, and a few who did things the other way ’round. I’ve learned that such transitions are enormously difficult, financially expensive, and never undertaken lightly; and are never pursued with the wish to use a “new” gender as guise to inflict harm. I learned that even children sometimes must undergo transitions, for anatomical reasons. I’ve also known children who have, at an early age, shown an affinity for the clothes, toys, friends and behaviors of their “opposite” gender. None of these people have inspired fear. But all the individuals I’m thinking of today could indeed be characterized by a handful of common traits; including creativity, intelligence, and compassion.
As the daughter of a very talkative lawyer who loved his profession, dinnertime in my childhood was dominated by points of law and retelling of the latest courtroom battles. Later, as a journalist, I spent years in the courts and writing about lawsuits, including a few involving freedom of expression and civil rights issues. These experiences of course don’t make me a lawyer, but give me enough grounding in law to find the “bathroom bills” absurd. How could such a thing ever be enforced? Would there be anatomical checks at the bathroom door? DNA testing to corroborate visual findings? Who, exactly, would do all that stuff? The Department of Homeland Security? Those nice ladies from the Registry of Motor Vehicles? And by the time the enforcement was over, wouldn’t we all have wet our pants, or aged by at least a year?
The only place where bathroom regulations can, in practicality, be enforced is in contained environments where people are known to those in charge, like schools. It galls me to no end that some poor adolescent kid, struggling to find their place in this world – as we all did – might have big-time conflict over their bathroom use added to all the enormous challenges of growing up in our rigid, hostile society. Everybody knows that suicide rates among gay and transgender teens are high. Is this how we want individual stories to end? In good conscience, could anyone add to the heavy social load such kids already bear?
I do think the true intent of such legislation is to solidify tired old gender norms. A woman who looks a little more masculine than average might find herself ousted from a bathroom, or harassed; a feminine-appearing man might similarly be the target of abuse. These things happen already, and if the drumbeat of intolerance gets louder, will occur more frequently.
In other words, we are being bullied into obedience with an appearance code, the details of which have not been disclosed. How feminine is feminine enough? I occasionally wear a little lipstick and eyeliner, but certainly have no intention of ever donning another pair of pantyhose in this lifetime.
So, let me just say, as a woman, and a mother. Don’t do this in my name. This is not the “protection” I want, or need.