Me in the Bathroom

"Me in the Bathroom" originally appeared in The Anchorage Press in 2006. For several years it was accessible on their Web site. I have chosen to repost it because I still get requests for it, and it is no longer hosted by the original publisher.


I descended the escalator from the Egan Center lobby. Muscled men in vests labeled SECURITY stood at 100-foot intervals in the hall. The night was exhilarating: the fighters in their heavy gloves and my slight, well-dressed date had filled me with insouciance. But I had waited far too long to use the restroom, so I hurried inside, chose the closest stall and shut the door.

Before I'd gotten my pants down, a woman began to shout on the far side of the bathroom. The large facility had two doors. She'd entered by the far one. Now she proceeded from stall to stall, banging on the metal doors, yelling, “This is Security! Everyone out! There's a man in the bathroom!”

My first reaction was curiosity. Then came the realization that I was the man. One of the male security workers posted in the hall must have seen me enter, confused my gender and sent his female colleague in to rout me out. She proceeded through the stalls. The volume rose as stall doors were slammed open, a flurry of hand washing began, and every one of the facility’s air hand dryers was punched into action.

I had dressed to charm that night, and brought my longhaired date to the local boxing event: Thursday Night at The Fights. Shivering in her skirt and tank top, she'd leaned back against my chest to slide her shoulders into the front of my leather jacket - a black Vanson Comet I'd special-ordered in a men's size 38. Under the jacket I wore a faded black T-shirt. My boots were harness boots, with silver hoops just visible below the hems of my jeans.

Like most butch women, I have a woman's face. My gestures are athletic, my breasts and hips rarely discernible. But even under a crewcut there is something fine and vulnerable in my face. My cheekbones are pronounced; my lips are full and red. In high school I forced myself through two proms, and in my mother's pictures, without my mannerisms to betray me, my long hair thrown into a deft, cyclonic temper by the local stylist, I am slim, clear-complexioned, long-legged—a female beauty.

The shouting security worker proceeded through the stalls, and the hand-washing exodus continued. I stood in alarm, my boxers at my knees. She was working the far wall: I had time to plan. But I still had to urinate, badly. No, I decided, better to sit back down and use the toilet, since I had no idea what would happen when I was found. By then I was clenched tight as a fresh-dug clam; it took extraordinary willpower to empty my bladder. Finally, I hoisted my underwear and jeans. I was buckling my belt when the rap came at my stall.

“Sir, Sir! Come out!”

She had seen my boots. I squared my shoulders, straightened my back, and swung the door open.

“Oh,” she exhaled, with an air of disappointment, “you're not a man.” Her permed hair fell strangely on the bright SECURITY vest. She was much shorter than me. Over her head, I surveyed the lopsided file of women drying their hands and surreptitiously watching the scene. The guard went to both exits: “It's alright,” she said, to others outside the doors, “there's no man.”

Some of the women in the bathroom cast me sympathetic looks; some shook their heads. When I stepped into the hall, five or six of the vested guards were gathered outside the restroom door. Laughter rose at my back.

~

I am accustomed to and rarely offended by the regular mix-ups of grocery clerks so inanely required, by store policy, to call me “sir” or “ma'am.” And being mistaken for a man, even a scrawny one, can come in handy—in a car repair shop, for instance, or in a summer job as a landscaper. But the restroom confusions are different.

In the building where I work, the only restroom on the floor is also used by the attendees of the training sessions, annual meetings and conferences that the campus hosts. It's a small school; the staff and faculty know me and know how I dress. But whenever visitors use the building, at least one woman, when she sees me inside the restroom, stumbles at the door and backs up to check the gender sign. If I'm washing my hands, I catch her blunder in the mirror. I do my best to be polite. If I meet her at the exit (most embarrassing for her, because I see her alarm head-on), I hold the door.

In March, exiting the B-gate restroom at Ted Stevens airport, I met a chubby teenager. She gasped and shuffled sideways, smacking her shoulder into a pay phone. It is especially disheartening to be feared by the young.

These females are only making sure they are not walking into the men's room. But the result is that the women's room is no longer mine as it is theirs. When I use a public restroom nowadays, I watch my back. I think of security guards, hard on my heels, and no female emissary to find, in the final seconds, the woman's eyes in my frightened face. In department stores, hospitals, and movie theaters, I'll suffer private discomfort rather than deal with others in the restroom.

Both in Anchorage and in rural Wisconsin, where my family is from, I have been heckled on the street by boys in rusted pickups hollering “Faggot.” Most often, outside of restrooms, I'm confused for a gay man. Once, caught on my walk home, I crouched behind a Dumpster in an alley, waiting until my antagonists grew bored and gave up circling the block. It was broad daylight, early evening, the city full of commuters. I was in little danger, but I didn't want them to follow me home, to see where I lived. Even if they had, abject gay-hating poses a different kind of danger. To carry their violent sentiments further, those boys would have to commit a hate crime, and hate crime infuriates most humane Americans. The confusion of my gender in public restrooms is both more difficult to explain and more painful. What these women submit me to and occasionally endanger me with is their lack of imagination.

Am I asking for it, going around dressed like a man?

Long before I knew I was gay, long before I knew the word “lesbian” or had any sexual vocabulary, I begged for boys' clothing. I had no brothers, and my sister and I were encouraged to hunt and fish with my father and to play any sport we chose. In my early childhood, my parents were dairy farmers. No one batted an eye at my running the length of the property barefoot, in shorts, my chest bare as any boyhood hero. I fashioned bows and arrows from birch saplings, played with G.I. Joes and toy tractors, and was rarely forced into traditional gender roles by my parents. There were the Sunday dresses, the Easter outfits, the grandparents and neighbors who cleaned and neatened me, combing my short hair flat. But even at school, up until the time of boyfriends and girlfriends, very few of my classmates cared how I dressed, how I walked, or what I did at recess.

All of that changed in junior high and high school. Clothing diverged into two distinct, gendered camps and so did my classmates. With the exception of the basketball court, I was wrong in every kind of crowd, wrong in my own body. My teammates rumored that I was a lesbian. Five years later, halfway through college, exhausted by so many attempts to erect a “normal” life around my unmistakable instincts, I was ready to admit it.

Of course, not all gay women dress like men. Some, like my date that night at the fights, are incredibly—deliciously—feminine: they wear their hair long, they wear makeup, they wear skirts. Other lesbians look neither particularly male nor particularly female, though usually they use a few minute articles to cue those who might be confused. Earrings, bracelets, and women's shoes all work well for this. But that has never been my way. If I had any choice as to whether I was gay or straight, I had as much choice in this, and I could as well feminize my appearance now as I could change the color of my eyes.

~

Last summer I visited my parents in central Wisconsin. One night we attended an open-air theater outside of Madison. The performance, fortuitously, was of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which shipwrecked Viola, masquerading as page Cesario, enters the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke sends Viola-as-Cesario to woo, for him, Lady Olivia. Never mind the play's conveniently heterosexual conclusion: Olivia falls in love with Viola. At 16, on a school visit to this same theater, I'd shamefully thrilled to this subplot Shakespeare must have meant to elicit. Ten years later, I sat in the audience, Viola incarnate, only not in love with the duke, and madly, mutually in love with Olivia. Should we break the script and tell our secrets, should she take me as I was, we could step together straight out of Shakespeare into the woods behind the set, into bramble and oak and the racket of frogs from the river.

At the intermission I walked to the restroom. There were easily 50 women moving through the large facility and 20 of us in line. I steeled myself, jutted my chin, and cast my challenging glare across the standing queue and the rotating set of women at the sinks, but received not a glance. The women in the line, some gay, most straight, simply did not care about me. Each had quickly and easily identified me as gay, as an androgynous woman, if they had bothered to note me at all.

I saw how embittered, how defensive, I'd become. I remembered leaving the restroom at the intermission of an Anchorage Opera performance, walking past a long file of well-coifed women. Three of them glared and gasped. One pulled her child towards her as if to protect him.

What I chose, in college, was to be a visible, “out” homosexual. Neither my friends nor my employers have ever given me trouble for that choice. But what I gained in peace of mind, in not living a double life, I pay back in this social estrangement and occasional danger.

Alaska is a strange political amalgam. Last fall the Alaska Supreme Court decided that employment benefits must be extended to same-sex domestic partners (as well as plain old heterosexual domestic partners). Given the bans on same-sex marriage voted into effect in other red states in 2004, the ruling was not only surprising but also uplifting for Alaska gays.

This year, a constitutional amendment designed to overturn the Alaska Supreme Court's ruling made its way through the state legislature. Due to the efforts of the Alaska ACLU, numerous Alaska gays who came forth to testify, and a handful of stalwart legislators, the amendment did not make it to a vote before the legislative session ended. But religious groups from across the state testified against same-sex partner benefits. And I couldn't help but pay attention.

For better or worse, that night at the Egan Center changed my life. That night is part of the reason I've decided to leave Alaska, and it will play a large part in where I choose to live next. I scan maps of the Midwest these days and ask myself not where I'd be happiest or where I could live most cheaply in order to find more time to write, but where I am least likely to be raped or beaten or escorted from a public restroom.

What I find is that I'm limited to the purview of Craigslist, to larger college towns and hipster urban centers. I can live where I'll be safe, or on a gravel road with birdsong—but never both. I can have wild places or my own heart. Even the muddy-heeled farmer's daughter in me, faced with such a choice, looks to safety.

This winter, I read every review of Brokeback Mountain I could find. I watched the movie in the theater twice, savoring its grand scenery and pressurized dialogue. But I cared far more what the public thought about the film. I wanted to use Brokeback Mountain as a litmus test from which to project my future happiness. But the conflict of Jack and Ennis is not my conflict. It's Felicity Huffman's Bree in the TransAmerica whose life resembles mine.

Like Bree, I've chosen to live with my truest self on the outside. Like Bree, what I want is a life with the unselfconscious ease of those who fit within the gender norms. Bree, in fact, passes where I never could, because she aspires to a normal gender role.

As I age, my hair will gray, and my shoulders will round, but I will always embody the undefined. I do not ask for society's validation as either a male or a female. I make a far more difficult request. I ask — in my appearance, in my mannerisms, in the way I live my life —whether gender is the best criteria by which to evaluate a human.

There's a scene in TransAmerica in which Bree sits in a restaurant. The child at the next table, maybe 10 years old, turns in her chair to face Bree, to ask her, as children often ask me, “Are you a girl or a boy?”

Put me, then, in Bree's chair. Not a slender, well-mannered male-to-female transsexual, but a soft-faced, bookish butch in Danners and jeans. I sit with my arms folded, slouched into the chair, legs apart. I've been eyeing the waitress, a worn but dignified small-town beauty who's refrained from “sir” or “ma'am” by calling me “hon.”

I turn to this child who evidences, in her innocence, all the difficulties my mother foresaw when, months after Matthew Sheppard's death, I came out to her.

“Amy,” she said, “they kill people for that!”

She has come to regret what she said—and I have come to see how right she was. I can't go home, ever. But I can find love in the safe places, and I can live with some dignity. I can turn to this child who will not remember what I say, though she will remember for years how I look, and ask her, because it is the question she should ask, “Are you kind?”

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