4 min

Bathroom encounters of the binary kind

It's okay. It's just me

Three days ago I broke down and bought one of those little home weight benches at Canadian Tire.

I just haven’t been making it to the gym as much lately. Part of the reason is that I am in Winnipeg as a writer in residence for four months, and the mercury has been shivering around –25C for a week now, not counting the wind-chill factor.

Some days the thought of dragging myself out of my warm and writerly apartment to go scrape off, unplug, unClub and warm up my truck, and plow through the snow to drive to the gym is too much. But my real obstacle is the gender hassle in the women’s change room at the university. Trying to speed-change before I scare an entire volleyball team of undergrads is just more than I can face some days.

Last week I heard three young women talking trash about me from the next row of lockers over, and the high school flashback that ensued on the drive home blindsided me a little and left me with the perfect excuse not to work out the next day. So I bought a weight bench, an exercise ball and a couple sets of dumbbells, cranked up some music and pumped some iron in the privacy of my own rented home.

But it got me to thinking.

I wondered how many times public change rooms have been or become an unclimbable obstacle for transgendered, transitioning, genderqueer or gender-non-conforming people. What are the health impacts of these spaces not being as accessible to us as they are for others?

The dictionary definition of the word “public” is interesting: “of, pertaining to, or affecting a population or a community as a whole, open to all persons, pertaining or devoted to the welfare or well-being of the community, of or pertaining to all humankind” being a few of the most relevant definitions.

I think if we are to continue calling gendered bathrooms and change rooms public spaces, then we have a lot of work ahead of us.

I know there are people working right now to provide gender-neutral washrooms and “family” change rooms in so-called public venues, and I wholeheartedly salute and support these efforts. But right now I am working for the University of Winnipeg, which I find to be a very progressive and queer friendly campus in general, yet the women’s washrooms are still labelled “Ladies’,” and the women’s change room is very nearly non-negotiable for me.

So, here are a few tips I have learned over the years. Not a solution, really  — just a Band-aid, but here goes:

I often ask a cisgendered or more traditionally feminine presenting friend to escort me into the women’s washroom. We recite a predecided script together, where I lament forgetting my purse and ask her if I can borrow a tampon, or some other such nonsense, in the highest voice I can muster. This works only if you can find the humour in it all and have fun with it. Sometimes I complain about my husband leaving the seat up. Can be hilarious, if you pick the right escort.

This method is useless when travelling alone, as I most often am. Some places, such as ferries or movie theatres, where there is often a rush for the washrooms, and hence the dreaded lineup, I opt for the men’s room.

This is not an option for everyone, I realize, as many women feel (or are) unsafe in men’s rooms, and they do tend to be a little… untended in the hygiene department, but I have noticed that men do not scrutinize each other in quite the same way, especially the straight ones, so they are less likely to notice you, unless they are cruising you, which is usually fine by me. If you are at all uncomfortable with sexual advances by men, I would suggest you stick with the “Ladies’” room, regardless of how much of an actual lady you might be.

Single-stall, wheelchair accessible restrooms are ideal, but the risk here is that you will find a person in an actual wheelchair waiting when you exit. This has never actually happened to me in my entire lifetime on the gender frontlines, but I always worry about it.

I have my entire apology written and rehearsed, just in case. I practise it from time to time on the few well-meaning, able-bodied people who have given me shit or just the ole stink-eye on my way out of the wheelchair facilities. It goes something along the lines of: I checked to ensure before I entered that there was not a person with mobility issues waiting, and there was not.

Then I ask them which bathroom they think I should use.

They always answer “the men’s room, of course,” upon which I use this teachable moment to pontificate on the perils of a two-party gender system and inform them that technically I am female assigned, and that in my experience most people are visually impaired when it comes to those of us with more nuanced gender identities.

This usually works, or at least confuses them enough to defuse the situation. Either way, I am off to the departure lounge with no further hassles.

The most valuable lesson I have learned is this: most women who will scream, gasp, point or otherwise hassle you in the ladies’ room are not, in fact, evil people who got up that morning intending to ruin your day. They are women who are simply startled or afraid of someone who appears to them to be male in a space that is supposed to be reserved for them. A place where they are supposed to be free from the eyes and hands of men.

So I try to remember that they are, in part at least, scared of me. And I try to be compassionate.

I drop my shoulders, make my body language as non-threatening as possible, try to hold kindness in my heart, look them in the eye, smile and say in my most reassuring tone: “It’s okay. It’s just me.”

This almost always works.