This past weekend my partner and I traveled 600 miles round trip to Milwaukee, WI to attend the wedding of friends.
Two scenes from the weekend:
A. We’re on our way back to Minneapolis. We’re hot and tired and hungry and stop at a gas station in rural Wisconsin that serves as a truck stop, Subway, and two other restaurants. It is a bustling scene of travelers and locals alike; I am inside for less than 30 seconds when I turn to my partner and declare: it does not feel safe to use the restroom here. We get our sandwiches and drive for another hour before we stop to use the bathrooms at a rest stop.
B. Rewind 15 hours earlier, and we are raising our glasses to two of the handsomest, bearded men as we celebrate their love in a posh Milwaukee venue.
When I get into the car for an upcoming road trip, I feel excitement and a sense of freedom. And part of me also knows that between point A and point B is a whole host of unfamiliar places and people and the very high likelihood that I will have to use the bathroom at some point.
Bathroom anxiety is a reality for many trans* and gender nonconforming folks. And that’s deeply sad; the need to use the restroom is universal and feeling safe while doing so should be a given. But it’s not.
It takes a lot of energy to have to worry about such things. And, here’s the thing: the fear is justified.
I don’t need to search articles and research papers for statistics on this. I can look at my Facebook feed for stories from my trans* and gender nonconforming friends about public bathroom experiences, talk to my partner about their recent run-in at a state park where a group of women felt threatened by their presence in the bathroom, and can easily recall being a child and having adults confront me in public restrooms, peering through the cracks of my stall.
I’m going to ask a question, and I want you to really sit with it before you respond. I want you to notice the first reaction that enters your heart-mind.
My question is this: what’s the big deal? Really?
Imagine this: we—you and I—happen to stop at the same rest stop in the middle of rural Illinois. We both have a biological human need to use the restroom. Can I occupy the stall next to you to do so? All I want to do is pee, wash my hands, and carry on with my road trip.
Some of you may have never considered what it means to feel safe in a bathroom—I think it’s an experience we can easily take for granted. Going to the bathroom can become a mindless habit.
And for others of you, assessing the safety and accessibility of a bathroom is an all too familiar experience, whether it’s related to being trans* or gender nonconforming or related to another identity.
So, back to my question: could we share a bathroom?
If you say no, let’s unpack your reaction a little bit. What’s coming up for you? Feeling unsafe? A gut reaction that I don’t belong there because I’m not really a _____?
Your reaction is important because it reveals certain beliefs you have about trans* folks. And we should probably have a conversation about those beliefs.
The overt violence against those who identify as trans* and gender nonconforming breaks my heart, but the daily, insidious acts of violence—the erasure, the lack of recognition, the minimizing and invalidation—are just as hard to bear.
Just think about what I could have done this weekend with the energy I spent on discerning what rest stops and gas stations would be safe enough to use the restroom. The worry I could have replaced with excitement before the wedding when I was wondering what the bathroom situation would be—at a gay wedding!
Now some of that is my work to do and some of it is not.
The good news is that there is good work being done around trans* access to bathrooms. Many businesses are stepping up to include gender-neutral bathrooms, and OSHA recently published the “Guide to Restroom Access for Transgender Workers.”
There is also the fantastic website and app, Refuge Restroom, that allows trans* folks to search for safe and accessible bathrooms based on location. Super rad.
But in the meantime, here’s something you can do: when in a public restroom, allow others to make the choice about which restroom they choose (barring any real safety concerns). Trust that they are choosing the bathroom that feels most appropriate for them.
It may seem small, but some days making it out of the bathroom without a confrontation is a thing to be happy about.
Can’t we help set the bar a little higher?
How much energy do you expend each day planning which bathroom you will use, worrying about whether or not you’ll be safe there, avoiding places altogether or, even worse, not using the bathroom until you get home at the end of the day?
Let’s free up some of that energy for the important things: laughing with friends, being totally present during a sunset, or dancing your ass off.
Trusting others to choose the spaces where they belong can be difficult, especially when it bumps up against our beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong. What came up for you while reading this newsletter? Let me know in the comments below.
I know it’s a sensitive topic for many, but this is the stuff we need to be talking about. Thanks for showing up.
P.S. Have a favorite business that could use some help making their space more inclusive for trans* and gender nonconforming folks? Pass along this newsletter or my contact information (grey at greyspaceconsulting.com). You can learn more about my Inclusiveness Assessments here.