Gender exists everywhere in our lives and structures our movements, including our bowel movements. As a genderqueer person, I make daily decisions about which public restroom to use, since there isn’t often a restroom for my gender. From my experiences in both restrooms, I can tell you they each have their pros and cons. Let me walk you through it.
Reactions from Women When They See Me in the Women’s Restroom
The Hostile Stare: As soon as she catches sight of me, her eyes narrow, and she doesn’t take them off me until I’m out of sight in the stall. Then, she watches me when I come out.
The Unfriendly Reminder: She looks at me and says “This is the women’s room.” I always want to respond reassuringly, “Yes dear, so it is,” or, sarcastically, “Yes, I can read,” but instead, I usually manage to squeak out “I know,” or worse, “I am a woman, thanks,” which is actually a lie. When I’m forced to say that, I’m being untrue to myself, and that sucks.
The Demand for Personal Information: “What are you doing in here?” This one I really am unsure how to answer—how specifically does she want me to break it down? “Well, I’m going to go into an empty stall, lock the door, pull down my pants, pee, wipe, pull up my pants, flush, unlock the door, walk out of the stall, wash my hands, dry them, probably fuss with my hair, and then leave. What are you doing?”
My personal favorite, The Double Take: A woman walks into the bathroom, sees me washing my hands at the sink, does a double take, walks out of the bathroom, checks the sign, walks back into the bathroom, and then usually follows up with one or all of reactions 1 through 3.
At least one of these things happens every. single. time. I use the women’s room. So, whenever I have to go, I take deep breaths, steel myself, and get in and out of there as fast as humanly possible. If I’m with a friend, I stick close to her the whole time as my signal to other women—I am with a “real” woman and she is non-threatening to you, so I must be fine.
Changing jobs means renegotiating my whole bathroom routine. At a new job in a public government building, the women’s bathroom is no longer just for colleagues who know me: it is a public bathroom. Now, every time I have to pee during my work day, I get anxious. I hold it for as long as I can. I start having nightmares about it. After some time, I decide that this much anxiety about peeing is not sustainable. Which leaves me with only one option: the men’s room.
This decision makes me nervous, mostly because I have no idea how to act in men’s rooms. I was raised going to the women’s room so I feel pretty solid on how to behave in there. But there must be a whole different set of rules for the men’s room because masculinity is fragile and somehow everybody stands in a line and takes their penis out of their pants—no homo!
So I do some research: I talk to cis-men. I ask my friend Ben, who responds, “Oh I’m excited! I’m such an expert at using the men’s bathroom!” Ben and my little brother, the other cis-man I know, concur that there is minimal talking, a smile and nod is standard greeting for people you know, and that it’s not weird if the urinals are open but I go for a stall. They also reassure me that no one will notice that I sit down to pee.
I realize that I am never going to be ready, so one day I just go into the men’s room. Who is the first person I run into? Oh, just the director, i.e. my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. He says hi. I say hi. I go pee. I wash my hands. I leave. As it turns out, none of my male coworkers ever say anything to me about being in the bathroom, they just say hi. There are no double takes, no demands to know why I’m in there, no suspicious stares. Slowly, I start to relax. However, I quickly notice several differences between the men’s and women’s restrooms.
Real Shit About the Men’s Room
The fact of the matter is men’s rooms are definitively gross. They are gross in multiple and intersectional ways:
Women are socialized to believe that making sounds of bodily functioning is not feminine, so they suppress them, especially in public. Men had no such socialization and, in this one case, I actually wish everyone was a bit more repressed.
Men apparently have no problem answering and talking on the phone at length while pooping in a public restroom, even given the aforementioned bodily noises. Who are they talking to?? Does the person on the line not notice the sounds coming from the other end of the phone?? And what kind of person does not then say “call me back when you’re out of the bathroom??”
So we’re clear on this, humans with all types of genitalia lack control over where their stream lands when they pee. But people with penises cannot aim to save their lives. Which means there is pee E V E R Y W H E R E. So I step carefully in my cute leather shoes, wipe down the seat first, and, by god, do not touch anything I don’t absolutely have to.
Men have this weird habit where they go in a stall to pee but they don’t close the door. So sometimes I’m about to enter the stall because it seems empty and almost walk in on them. Guys, it takes two seconds to close the door!
Oh, and for the record, it is not just women who preen in the restroom. I have seen men brushing teeth, shaving, joujing hair, straightening ties, and otherwise checking themselves out in the mirror. Happens every day.
So, Pros and Cons:
1. Rape culture: To women, anyone in a women’s restroom who appears male is a threat. However, they treat this threat differently by race and class. Since I am white and appear middle-class, they are simply hostile. However, if I were a person of color, or if I wore clothes associated with poor people, I might have the cops called on me, with possible violent consequences.
2. Gender norms: Gender presentation is more flexible for women than men. Especially in cities with higher populations of queer people, women are more likely to reevaluate their first assumption and decide that I am a “woman,” and therefore allowed in the space.
3. Hygiene: Women’s bathrooms are generally cleaner. And they have deposit boxes for tampons in the stall. Changing a tampon in the men’s room is an exercise in stress and resourcefulness.
1. Rape culture: If I am read as a woman, my physical safety is immediately in jeopardy. My presence in mens’ space signals deviance from norms, which men interpret as an “invitation” for sexual harassment or assault. But if I’m assumed to be a man, I am ignored.
2. Gender norms: Since masculinity is fragile, men are conditioned to be on high alert for anyone who doesn’t conform to its standards. They assume that gender nonconformity is tied to sexuality, and heterosexual men are terrified that “something gay” will happen to them in the restroom. So if a man notices I am queer, and believes that his masculinity and/or sexuality is threatened by my presence, my physical safety is in danger.
3. Health: Men almost never have to wait in line to pee. This is a privilege of the body and of time.
Given these pros and cons, I do a cost-benefit analysis between what feels least risky and is most convenient every time I need to use the restroom. Sometimes this means going into one bathroom, leaving, and going into the other one. Often, by the time I get into the stall, it takes me a while to relax enough to actually pee because I am on High Bathroom Alert for anyone paying me too much attention. Or I feel crazy when trying to explain my bathroom calculations to people I’m with because the hostility I experience is not noticeable to people who don’t have to worry about it. Or I end up holding it for way longer than preferable trying to find a bathroom that feels safe. Listen, like many people genderqueer or otherwise, I have a small bladder, I just have to pee.
T Vatnick is a transportation nerd and godparent to the most adorable two-year-old. They are involved in SURJ DC's Queer Working Group, teach sex ed at All Souls Church, and love to cook and play soccer.