Whenever I travel and need to use the bathroom, I am not just reminded of how binary and gender-segregated public spaces are; I am assaulted by it. I am a masculine presenting nonbinary, transgender person who doesn’t identify as either male or female. I want and need to use a gender neutral bathroom.
Big places like airports or shopping centers usually have unisex or family bathrooms, but rarely are there more than one in a particular location, and rarely do I have a lot of time to wait to use said gender neutral bathroom. I either really have to pee or I really can’t be late for a meeting or flight. So I have to decide. In order to use a bathroom, I have to choose a gender I am not. I have to deny who I am in order to fit into society’s narrative that there are only two genders and the body parts I have are what determine where I can pee. This is painful and unsafe. And when I am with my kids, this problem becomes bigger and more volatile.
My kids, ages 8 and 6, are much more aware and respectful of people’s gender and of my nonbinary identity than most adults. Yes, they have had me as a guide and living example of someone they love who labels themselves outside of the binary and gender-conforming norms; but kids also have the capacity to get it and see beyond what is “supposed” to be. This ability to see me for who I am is wonderful, but my son in particular gets very frustrated when I don’t follow my own rules when it comes to using public bathrooms.
Based on the body parts I was born with, I was assigned female at birth and for almost 40 years I identified as female. But I have presented as masculine for almost 20 years, and bathrooms have been tricky for just as long. Even though I identified as female, I used the women’s bathroom with hesitation. People are not shy to tell me I am in the wrong bathroom. They are not subtle when doing a double take to try to determine my gender. And kids are not quiet when they ask their parents if I am a boy or a girl.
Even now that I don’t identify as specifically male or female, I usually still use the women’s room because it’s safer, especially when traveling in more conservative parts of the country. A woman is less likely than a cisgender man to physically hurt me if she thinks I am in the wrong stall.
Bottom line: Using the bathroom is an interrogation, and I feel forced to prove I am allowed to be in the space I occupy.
Now that my son is older (6), he wants to use the men’s bathroom; more specifically, he doesn’t want to use the women’s bathroom. He has always gone into the women’s bathroom with his sisters, me, or his other mama, but someone made fun of him this past school year when he did this while on a school field trip. Without thinking, my son followed his twin sister into the bathroom and was told he needed to get out because he wasn’t a girl. It made him cry because it embarrassed him; he didn’t understand why he needed to get out. He just had to pee. Because I have made sure to teach him this, he knew it then and he knows it now: Bathrooms are just bathrooms. But it only took one time and a couple of students to make him feel very aware of society’s need to classify him in heteronormative and binary terms. He now refuses to use the women’s bathroom.
Because he knows I am nonbinary, and he knows I feel a mix of being both male and female, he tells me I am allowed to use the men’s bathroom with him. He’s scared to go alone and to be around strangers. He can’t always wipe himself well, and he is not able to reach the soap and paper towels. Sometimes I do use the bathroom with him, but as a transgender and nonbinary person, I am very aware of my need to make choices that keep me safe, and I am super sensitive to this when I am with my kids.
Recently, at a fast food restaurant in Maryland, shortly after having already stopped at a gas station where I waited in line for a single stall bathroom in front of a man wearing a Trump 2020 hat, my son demanded I go into the bathroom with him. “You are both! You are allowed to use the boy’s bathroom!”
I told him he was right, but I stalled. He didn’t understand my hesitation. When I asked if he could just use the other bathroom with his sisters, he started to throw a fit. To him, I was trying to force him to be in a space where he didn’t think he belonged. He didn’t know I was nervous because I was afraid of a stranger’s reaction if they thought I was in a place where I didn’t belong. But the restaurant wasn’t busy, so I agreed.
I poked my head into the bathroom and saw that it was empty. I used the stall and he used the urinal and as we were about to wash our hands a man came in and stepped up to use the urinal. The man didn’t do a double take, but I steered my son out of the bathroom instead of taking the time to find out if he would.
Maybe it would have been fine. Maybe it wouldn’t have been. But I was angry that the world places us in boxes. I was hurt that there feels like there isn’t a right place for me. And I was frustrated that this is not isolated to me. Same-sex or single parents with kids of different genders must deal with this too. There just isn’t enough consideration around the changing landscape of families. The ignorance, lack of effort, and flippant responses to the needs of outliers and marginalized folks feels like we are being pissed on when all we want to do is pee.