It is wild how early gender socialization starts.
I am here at Blue Door Cafe in Berkeley, an enjoyable spot to write and get some work done, and there are two single-stall bathrooms, one clearly marked “men” and the other “women.” I tend to use whichever is unlocked at the time, since they’re both literally identical. Since I just have to pee regardless of the sign. Since they could very easily change the sign to be an all-inclusive family restroom for less than $20. I’ve considered asking the staff why they haven’t yet - I’m not sure what stops me.
I remember not too long ago on a hike through Muir Woods, there were gender-inclusive restrooms with people of all genders coming out of either door. A little boy who was in line with his father ran away from the doors, confused about where to go, his nervousness not assuaged by his father’s explanation that “boys and girls” could use the bathroom. The boy finally and reluctantly followed his patient father into the restroom, still in shock that “anyone” could use it.
Public restrooms (and, well, anything public) have been a symbol of shame and repression for many groups of people. In seeing Hidden Figures this weekend, I was reminded of the struggles of segregation and racial oppression. In several scenes throughout the film, Katherine is seen sprinting nearly six blocks just to relieve herself - there were no bathrooms “for her” in any of the nearby buildings. The separate restrooms not only reinforced white superiority – they spell out in no uncertain terms the disgust white folks felt (and feel) towards Black bodies – that we are dirty, unclean, unsafe to share facilities with.
The need to relieve oneself is one that almost all humans share, unless you’re a superhero. But it’s a painful experience for many - for Katherine who had to run half a mile and back, and also for people who are transgender or don’t fit neatly into the gender binary. I have personally lost count of the amount of times I have been given looks, or been told I am in the “wrong” bathroom, but it’s enough that I’ll often just wait until I get home. A 2015 study found that 6 of 10 trans people have “held it” in public spaces, and that 8% of those have developed UTIs or other bladder conditions from long term effects. Harsh legislation in states like North Carolina have forced transgender people to use bathrooms that match their birth-assigned sex, rather than their gender.
While I don’t think the comparison between segregation and trans people being kept out of bathrooms is the same - there are similarities. Black people, and Black men in particular, have been seen as predators of white women - this fear led to accusations of rape and subsequent lynchings, and the fear of Black people plays into the segregated facilities - again, that we are unclean and unsafe.
The majority of rhetoric concerning the issue of trans people using the restroom has painted the community as predators: “men in dresses” will go into bathrooms to prey on innocent girls and women. And worse - with fatal consequences - that trans women “trick” cisgender men. Despite the fact that there have been little to no recorded instances of trans people preying on people in restrooms, and the fact that they are much more likely to be targets of violence rather than perpetrators - lawmakers and citizens alike have perpetuated the idea that trans people (and especially trans women of color) are preying, malicious, and evil - thereby justifying their murders and exclusion. Fear and oppression go hand-in-hand.
Fear strips our ability to grant human dignity. Even something as universal as needing to relieve oneself can result in ridicule, harassment, and even fatal violence. It seems to me that the very least we could do is change the signs on single-stall restrooms so that people can use it without the threat of harassment of violence. And examine where our fear comes from.
musings of a Black, queer and genderqueer activist, educator, musician.