Whenever I approach a public bathroom, I pause. What are my options? Almost always, they are just Men or Women. Binary. Sometimes there is a family or unisex bathroom available, but not often. Despite being nonbinary and not identifying as either male or female, I am forced to constantly choose one—or not use the bathroom. While I don’t just feel uncomfortable being forced to literally put myself into a box that isn’t right, I feel uncomfortable because others perceive me and my gender a certain way. And their reactions to me based on what they think they know make me feel a range of emotions from security to fear.
I present as androgynous, though more masculine, but I have a female body. This ability to be seen in multiple ways is like one of those hologram stickers where the image shifts back and forth depending on how you hold it.
My men’s jeans are shaped by women’s hips. Men’s t-shirts are filled out by breasts. I hide all of these features I don’t like about myself pretty well. But while at first glance I am assumed to be male, when someone looks closer, they see what they think is the truth. They see my feminine side too.
Most recently, I was at a high school basketball game. I made my way to the lobby to find a bathroom, and there it was again. I paused. I picked the Women’s room. It wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t right either. It was the safer option, though, and the one that would make others more comfortable. A person and their child followed me in and I heard the little girl say, “Mama? Are you sure this is the girls’ bathroom?”
“Yes, sweetie. We are in the right spot.”
But I knew they were wondering if I was. The little girl was at least. I get this a lot; people constantly assume I am in the wrong space. I have had people tell me this to my face as I enter a bathroom. Some wait until I am in a stall. Some call from the doorway, correcting my actions. “The man who just came in here is in the wrong bathroom.” I feel small, angry. I agree. This is wrong.
Yet, I have walked out of men’s single stall bathrooms and been given just as annoyed looks. Women can’t believe my audacity to bypass waiting to use the bathroom when there is a line, and men look at me and then the sign, wondering if they are about to enter a space not meant for them. I have been in gas stations and rest areas where I knew my safety could be at risk if I confuse the wrong person. I have had people shout “fag,” then “dyke” as they watched what they thought was an effeminate man turn into a butch woman before their eyes. I have sensed how my existence caused others to question what it means to be a woman.
I have seen how a man’s assumption of my maleness has caused him to interact with me as if I were a man too. I have also watched a man’s face fall and get annoyed or angry because his confusion caused his own embarrassment. It was my fault for his mistake. It makes me feel like a mistake.
If someone makes an assumption of my gender, I prefer to be mistaken as male. For years, I wondered if I am a transgender man. The binary would be easier in many ways. But I know I am not completely male. I really am a mix of both. My external feminine features cause dysphoria, but my internal sense of self is not complete without both male and female genders. And I want my gender expression to match my sense of being male.
This has its advantage as well. I know how unsafe and uncomfortable women feel while making their way through the world. I know the fragility of walking or running alone, especially at night. I know the annoyance, anger, and fear that comes with being catcalled, stalked, and constantly bothered by men who think they are deserving of a female’s time and affection. We live in a world where rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the entitled male ego is not only expected, but often excused—because we expect it. We’ve been trained to find excuses for it too.
I teach my son to not use his penis and masculinity as weapons. I teach my daughters that body parts and masculinity can be weapons. We teach our daughters to always have a plan, to have a buddy, to scratch their attacker so DNA can be collected after. We teach our daughters to plan for the worst. We teach our sons to be their best.
I realize my privilege in some moments when walking or running alone. I don’t worry about my safety in the same way a female presenting person would feel in those moments. At first glance, I am not female. I am not something to be desired. I have never been hit on or harassed in this way. And when I am with female presenting women, I know there are times when I am assumed to be the man in heteronormative relationships. That provides a bit of safety for the woman or women I am with. I am quite the buffer at bars and dance clubs. I am the one to walk someone safely to their car.
But if the angle shifts, if the perception changes, I am at risk again. The world is binary, and I straddle it in a way that feels right to me, but wrong to most people. And some people react to me in ways that could compromise my safety and well-being.
Gender is a spectrum. So is my safety.