Too Femme and Too Masc: The Bathroom Anxieties of a Nonbinary Person
I’m a woman, but not a REAL woman. I’m a man. I’m neither. I look like a woman, but I’m really just a man. It doesn’t matter what I am, as long as I’m not near you or your kids. I’m a pedophile. I’m a flasher. I’m a sexual deviant. I’m an intruder. I’m a monster. I’m a mistake. I’m an abomination. I’ll take your kids and teach them my devilish, demonic ways. The last one may be an exaggeration, but all of this stuff has been said about trans and specifically transfeminine people, especially during the years when the HB2 bill, or the nicknamed “(Trans) Bathroom Bill” was proposed and debated.
It’s embarrassing and silly to talk about, but… the bathroom is my greatest nemesis. Ever since I started middle school, I never wanted to use the public bathrooms. From the start of the school day, or my arrival at 7:30, to the last bell at 2:49, I would refuse to go to the restroom unless it was literally going to kill me. No matter how thirsty I was, I would never drink any more water than necessary so I wouldn’t need to even ask to go to the bathroom. I initially thought it stemmed from being shy, since every time I asked a question in class I would turn bright red and forget what I was saying. But going into the boys’ bathroom even out of necessity made me feel more than just social discomfort and anxiety like in the classroom. With every step towards those two doors side by side, my chest would get tighter and tighter, and the shame that gripped me for not being able to just do something everyone biologically had to do made me even more reluctant to venture into the public bathroom. Years of being in the boys’ locker room in gym class felt the same way. All the little jerks ran around the locker room, shouting homophobic jokes and throwing things at each other. When I wasn’t focusing on avoiding getting harassed, dodging sports equipment, or getting suffocated by a looming cloud of Axe spray, I knew that I wanted to leave as soon as I walked in. I always just assumed I was being dramatic, so I suppressed and repressed the feelings of not belonging in these spaces. Eventually, I realized I could flee to the nurse’s single bathroom, but I always felt ashamed that I couldn’t just use the bathroom like the others.
Now, I realize it was something much more. All the discomfort surrounding fitting in with “other boys” made sense when I realized I may be gay and then trans in my junior and senior years. Being gay or trans makes you not fit in with the straight boys or the straight girls, especially if you come out while at school instead of living “stealth.” I never outed myself as trans, but even being the vaguely queer kid made me a sore thumb in the locker room. Had I been more of an outspoken person instead of a little wallflower, I probably would’ve been bullied like… a shit-ton. Now, things have started to change, and while I know I’ve made great personal strides in self-expression, I’m getting more afraid for my productivity and safety because of the pains I take to plan my bathroom use.
Planning My Life Around the Bathroom
The past couple years I’ve started to express my gender more freely by growing my hair out (thank GOD the awkward length stage is over with), wearing more feminine clothes, and wearing makeup on the days when I’m not too lazy (which is not often). Now, I generally feel more comfortable than before when I looked more masculine. However, in the unfortunate case that I have to use a binary bathroom, I get weird looks in either one. When I still felt I could use the men’s room, people would come in, apologize and leave in a hurry, then come back after checking the sign outside the door. On the one hand, it was flattering since I was apparently serving more than I thought, but on the other hand, it’s terrifying. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable who just wants to use the bathroom, but I also feel like a pariah. It’s sort of a catch-22 when you only pass sometimes- you’re too masculine for the women’s bathroom, and too feminine for the men’s bathroom. When I use either one if it’s not a single-person restroom, I feel the need to scrutinize and analyze my actions to not seem too masculine or feminine for the room I’m in. I always feel like I’m under a microscope, and that I’ll be “found out” for being too “fake” for the men’s/women’s bathroom. In reality, I’m sure most people don’t give a shit and just want to pee and leave, but for trans people, using the bathroom can be a harrowing experience nonetheless.
As a college student on a fairly liberal campus, I’m extremely lucky to have some single, gender-neutral bathrooms. The only downside is that they are only in some of the buildings, and they tend to be far apart. So, this means that I need to plan my days around when I can use the bathroom, leaving almost 20-30 minutes of buffer time between classes and clubs to be able to find an available bathroom. It depends on my class schedule every semester, but the building I usually have the most classes in doesn’t have any gender-neutral bathrooms. It’s extremely embarrassing to have to explain my situation to professors, and I usually don’t want to out myself as nonbinary especially when I’ll only see the professor for one semester. It’s hard to gauge people’s reactions, as someone who may seem really accepting can turn out to be someone completely different.
My typical day when living on-campus started like this: I would wake up at 7:45 and go to the dining hall when it opened at around 8:00. Then, I ate breakfast and then headed back to my dorm to brush my teeth and use that bathroom specifically to get ready for the day. During the semesters where I had morning classes, I couldn’t get breakfast and had to wait until after class to eat. No matter what, though, I always waited as long as possible to use the bathroom so I wouldn’t need to use it later, since I couldn’t during classes. Everything felt like it needed to be strategically planned instead of just lived. Any time my friends would invite me to lunch in between classes, I would need to make sure that it was at a dining hall that had gender-neutral bathrooms, or at least be near a place with gender-neutral bathrooms so that I could rush there and then to class.
During my freshman year and some of my sophomore year, I wouldn’t even want to use the bathrooms outside my dorm because of the fear of what people would say, so I ran back to my dorm every time I needed to use the bathroom (which was a 10-minute walk from a lot of my classes!) Between classes, I would also need to ensure about 20 minutes before and after each class to use the bathroom, as I didn’t want to interrupt my studying between them. A lot of times, this meant that my hour breaks were shortened to 20 minutes. It’s mostly a product of social anxiety, but it can be absolutely humiliating to need to wait outside a gender-neutral bathroom that’s placed right next to a gendered public one. Also, it’s a total productivity killer. Now that I live off-campus, I tend to not leave the house until absolutely necessary so I can just use the bathroom there. I feel trapped in my house like a recluse just because I’m afraid to use the restroom. Sometimes I feel as though it’s my fault, as if I should be strong enough to bite the bullet and go in and out as I please, but the blame is also on the strict binary construction of American society.
One gender-neutral bathroom in the student union is right next to a women’s bathroom, and I always feel like I’m “not woman enough” to go into the women’s bathroom. Waiting to use the gender-neutral one while seeing girls freely go in and out of the bathroom makes me resentful towards both society and myself for not being able to go in. Freshman year, I went into the men’s bathroom there once, and as soon as I saw someone go in and leave without washing their hands, I knew I didn’t belong there either (if you’re a man and reading this, PLEASE wash your hands after you use the bathroom!!!)
Now that college is getting harder, I find myself in the library more and more. Unfortunately, the only gender-neutral bathrooms are in the library basement. So, even if I’m on the third floor studying, I’ll need to go all the way to the basement to use bathrooms that might not even be open. While these are very petty problems on the surface, like walking an extra couple hundred feet to another bathroom, it boils down to the deep rooting of the gender binary in our society and the accommodations made for trans individuals.
Going to the bathroom is a normal human function—so normal that it’s often taken for granted. When I don’t have the option to use a gender-neutral bathroom, I’m grateful to have someone to encourage me to go into the women’s bathroom with them. Being genderfluid/nonbinary in a society based around binary gender can seriously mess up your perception of yourself and the femininity you strive for, especially when the majority of popular, “desirable” reference points out there are airbrushed instabaddies. I don’t know if I “pass” or not as either gender on the bathroom signs, and going into a bathroom that’s for one gender and not another is sort of like going into battle in a clown suit. Knowing that there’s all these things that make me “not woman enough” (though even many cis women do have things like a square jaw, broad shoulders, and even facial hair) is something that makes me extremely self-conscious. So, if you have a trans friend who needs to use the bathroom, please try and accompany them and don’t make them feel like they’re overreacting, because if you don’t pass, you may be harassed assaulted, arrested, or worse. For me, it’s something as petty as having to walk a couple extra minutes to the bathrooms across campus, but for other trans people, it can be a much harder experience.
I’m fortunate enough that I spend the majority of my time in places where gender-neutral bathrooms are available to me. While it sounds silly thinking about it, one of my biggest anxieties after college is where I am going to get a job that has a bathroom that I can use. It’s a signifier of a more tolerant workplace, and if it’s not there, there is a larger chance that I’ll have trouble at work. Whenever I’m not at school, I spend most of my time at my house or other people’s houses since I don’t feel like I can use a gendered bathroom. I’m reluctant to make plans with people because I don’t want to risk not having access to a single bathroom. It impacts my social life, my productivity, and my mental health. In many states, there are no laws against transgender discrimination, and a bathroom is just the tip of an insidious iceberg. From an outside perspective, it might just seem like a trivial issue by a person looking for a reason to be oppressed, but it’s more than just a bathroom. It can be a source of anxiety, or it can be a battlefield, but most importantly, it’s a right and a sense of freedom.