BUTCH PLEASE is all about a butch and her adventures in queer masculinity, with dabblings in such topics as gender roles, boy briefs, and aftershave.
Header by Rory Midhani
I was at the sink, washing my hands. The woman entered the bathroom behind me. ‘Entered’, actually, is a strong word. She opened the door and stood in the doorframe with her elbow locked to brace the heavy door away from her. I was looking at her through the mirror while I counted to 30 in my head. She made eye contact with me, her mouth open slightly as if there was a word just there, pressed behind the neat row of her front teeth, resting like a mint on her tongue. She looked me up and down, shook her head like she was clearing her ears, and then turned to check the sign on the door. Ah, I thought.
The woman left, but someone else returned while I was drying my hands: the manager, with the woman a few feet behind her, standing at a noticeable distance. The manager tore into the bathroom like she was part of a high-stakes bust, and looking back, I can’t imagine what she expected to find there. A hulking specimen of hairy-knuckled terror, cleaning his nails with a switchblade? Women cowering in the corner, away from the greasy man trying to lift their skirts? I’m sure I was a disappointment to her, gawking from the row of busted hand dryers at the wall, my knobby knee exposed from a new tear in my jeans.
“Oh, darn,” she said. She looked with extreme confusion from me to the rest of the empty bathroom, as if the culprit was actually hiding in a stall, feet on the toilet. But then our eyes met again, her brow furrowing and unfurrowing with some hint of understanding. This time she was turning red. “Sorry.”
“It’s…no, I’m sorry.” I shrugged, blushing even harder than she was. I raced to exit the bathroom, nearly running into the woman outside. She made a noise at me, the kind of disapproving tut that old ladies used to make at my friends when we’d start whispering during Mass. I couldn’t look at her, but I know that she finally went in once I had gone out. The threat had been removed, so to speak.
Since my gender presentation is most often mistaken for a teenage boy, the thought of using public bathrooms is anxiety-creating for any number of reasons. I hate the second looks, the stares, those who are bold enough to ask me if I’m in the right place. The vitriol in the woman’s eyes when we made contact in the mirror — how did I inspire such a feeling in her, the same I’ve seen in others who did not want me in that space? At the same time, I feel guilty and ashamed that my presence in the women’s bathroom was read by this woman as a threat. I don’t want to make anyone feel unsafe or uncomfortable, but my very existence within that space had done exactly what I’d wanted to avoid. The fact she was so upset by my being there, maybe even fearful enough, that she needed to summon the manager to identify me and remove me, is scary to me; something I did not want to do to this woman. It reminds me of when I walk home at night, on constant alert for any threat, terrified when I see a masculine form moving towards me, and realize that I could be read in exactly that way by another person, especially a woman taught to fear a shape like mine.
I consider, then, my options. Should I have used the men’s room instead, a place where I would feel incredibly unsafe and anxious? This woman fetched the manager and made it known to me that she did not feel I was supposed to be there, but what would a man do if he recognized me as an outsider to the space? I know stories of violence like the lines on my palm. I carry them around in a balled up fist to remind me why I do not enter men’s spaces, why my masculinity is a ticket through certain doors, but never enough to be a safety net.
I’m not terribly fond of gendered spaces. Any place whose boundaries come with an act of definition is going to be a tricky one for a person whose identity is decidedly fluid. I say this knowing that I spent four years in a very intense boundary of gender; I attended a women’s college, which is its own strange and political brand of gendered space, one whose definition of woman is clearly different from my own, based on those of us who were allowed to enter and those who were not. It will always feel off to me that I could stay, a genderqueer person whose affinity to the label ‘woman’ did not match up with the expectations of my school, while someone who identifies as a woman could not, based solely on the difference between our genitalia. Somehow, my experiences with gendered spaces have always come down to the most private parts of myself and others, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Of course, at my women’s college, I often used the men’s bathroom. If I ran into the occasional student or professor, there was never an issue. The student might give me a one-over, checking to see if I’m whatever he thinks I am, but I didn’t feel any hesitation to shoot him a look back. The whole school, including that very bathroom, fell within the bounds of my gendered space, which meant that these men were the interlopers. In this bubble, I didn’t have to be anxious about what spaces I entered because the very nuanced definition of a women’s college included me, and I was safe to go where I pleased. Outside of the bubble, of course, things are very different.
I asked butch-identified folk to weigh in on their experiences in bathrooms, and very soon it became a chorus of awfully similar stories:
“Recently I was in a women’s washroom which was busy, and had a lineup. I left with a femme presenting person who was walking in front of me. We had to pass by the waiting lineup. There was a pair of women in the lineup and one of them looked at my companion with a smile, and then her face fell when she saw me. She said loudly to her friend, “Well, I thought that this was the women’s washroom, but apparently you can’t be sure what you’ll get these days.” “
“Most of the time people think I’m a guy and kindly try to redirect me. If not they won’t make eye contact with me, they get quiet when I walk in and I worry I’m making them feel unsafe, even if its due to some misconception that any masculine-presenting person is a predator. But I guess society teaches women that it’s better safe than sorry.”
“I’ve had three occasions where people have left the bathroom when they notice me washing my hands/leaving a stall/etc. and refuse to come back in until I’ve left. Also, I heard one person whispering not so quietly, wondering if I was allowed to be in there. It’s only happened a handful of times but it stays with me and gives me anxiety to enter busy ones for sure.”
“The funniest to me is when I’m standing in a line of women, after examining the ONLY MARKER that distinguishes the two rooms which is the stick figure with the DRESS ON IT, and I’m just standing there waiting in the absence of other men or urinals, and someone will still think to ask me if I’m in the right place. Like OH WHOOPS YOU’RE RIGHT, SHIT MY BAD. SORRY LADIES. I’ve got some good comebacks if anyone needs ‘em, though I’m rarely brave enough to use them. “Are you in the right place?” “Yeah, are you in the right decade?” “This is the Ladies” “Then maybe you should act like one.” BAZAM. I always think of them after-the-fact, though; after I’ve muttered something and slunked away humiliated, not making eye contact, only to spend the rest of the night stewing over it. And what gets me is that I really don’t believe that anyone could actually think that I would be in the “wrong place” – consciously or not, they’re policing my gender.”
“It’s a pretty regular experience for me: clients who walk into the bathroom I’m in always ask if they are in the right one, dressing rooms are consistently a place where I have to confront it, usually I just say “No, I go over here (walk to the women’s side)” when they tell me to go the men’s side. Also, at the gym, women won’t change near me, and I used to get asked to leave. I’m not bothered by it anymore, I get “sir’d” or “young man’d” daily so I’ve stopped paying as much attention. The worst of it was in high school gym and sports: changing in the locker room was synonymous with beating, usually by teammates.”
“I think a lot about how I act in bathrooms to prevent getting a negative reaction. I avoid looking at other people, especially making eye contact, because I worry about people thinking I’m checking them out. Or sometimes when I’m going into a bathroom, or passing someone while leaving, I do things that I think will make me be read as female, like sticking my chest out a little, or kind of smiling a little? It sounds silly, but it helps ease the anxiety. Getting misgendered, especially in bathroom situations, can sometimes put me in a negative place all day.”
“It’s weird because I get all this feedback in the women’s room that makes me sort of feel like I should be using the men’s room, but then I have this fear of not passing/potential more violent repercussions from men which is coming from a weird mixture of being a gender non-conforming queermo AND a traditional justification of separate bathroom spaces based on this “threatening men” stereotype. Like I would still be initially weirded out if I saw a man in the women’s room even though intellectually I know these separations are at their most fundamental arbitrary. Though obviously there are some social functions that have emerged for women to use these non-men spaces.”
The question, then, of what we do with bathrooms and other spaces that function along the binary is a very difficult one. Bathrooms are spaces of extreme vulnerability for gender non-conforming folk, but also to any identity where presentation is a factor. Even if you do identify as a woman or man, your ability to pass as that gender is crucial to your safety in a space where your choice to enter is a self-identifier. The fact that mandatory body functions are now tied to choosing the lesser evil, the space that will be less punishing, less dangerous should identity come into question, is a scary one for a whole faction of queer people. I wish I knew how to solve this issue, but I think so long as the binary exists and people feel compelled to enforce it and police those who do not comply, the problems will remain. Is that enforcement to be expected with gender-based violence, or is that a denial of the potential for binary-complying spaces to have their own issues? Where is it necessary to maintain adherence to gendered spaces, and where does that divide fall short and act as a disservice to its members?
In the meantime, how can we reduce our anxiety about entering gendered spaces? Resources like safe2pee provide mapped guides to the locations of unisex bathrooms. In my city of Philadelphia, new legislation states that any City-constructed building is required to include gender-neutral bathrooms, which reflects the trend on most university campuses and similarly liberal locales.
I still don’t know what to do when I enter a bathroom. I don’t know what reactions to expect, if I will make someone else feel unsafe or if I will be the one who is frozen from fear. My strategy is to remind myself after the experience that I’m a person, and a person who deserves to be safe and happy. And a person who deserves to pee, too.