I do not enjoy using men’s bathrooms.
As a transgender man, I am not supposed to admit this. I am supposed to proclaim that I finally “feel at home,” and that I will fight for my right to access them. And I will! But the truth is, I don’t feel safe in them—nor do I prefer them to women’s rooms.
The thing is, I never felt wrong in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms; I felt wrong in my own skin. Growing up, I remember so many instances of what medical gatekeepers call “gender dysphoria”—of feeling like I was trapped in a mismatched body. After a childhood of being the only little girl playing on all-boys soccer and baseball teams, in middle school, I was ripped away from my social and athletic communities and told I was no longer allowed to play with the guys. I can still feel the sadness and confusion of that loss.
The first time I used a men’s bathroom I was 24 years old, when I’d just begun to physically transition. As I washed my hands, I stared at the filthy wall above the urinals and wondered: Do all cisgender men step up to the toilet and suddenly imagine themselves Jackson Pollock, with urine as their medium? To be a man, did one also have to be sloppy? I felt disgusted, and I began to understand why I’d taken so long to start transitioning. While women’s bathrooms are hardly pristine, I felt disconnected from this stereotypically crude side of masculinity. I have since learned, of course, that one can live as a man and reject outdated notions of masculinity.
Today, four years later, my beard approaches what my partner jokingly refers to as “mountain man length,” and my stocky stature frequently prompts comments like, “I would never have known you used to be a girl!” And yet, for me, I don’t feel that gaining entree into the men’s bathroom is any great triumph. If anything, I feel like it reinforces the notion that in order to be accepted, one must choose between two rigidly defined genders. While I have chosen to present as a man, many other friends in the queer and trans community choose not to be gender binary—where does that leave them?
I use the men’s bathroom now mostly because I am perceived as a threat in the women’s room. But I’ve come to believe that a long-term solution is not to make transgender people choose between two gendered bathrooms, but to make all bathrooms gender neutral. And in the meantime, to understand that the bathroom in which someone feels safest may not always align with their appearance—and support them in their choice.
For me, these views are informed by a series of traumatic incidents in both men’s and women’s rooms. Some have felt unexpected—recently, for example, I accidentally stumbled into the women’s locker room at my gym. It took me a few seconds to recognize that I was in the wrong space because I’ve spent much more of my life in women’s rooms than I have in men’s rooms. It wasn’t until a woman shouted “get out!” that I realized how horrified the women in the room were, and how scared they must have been. The experience made me feel a little woozy.
But my experiences in men’s rooms have been far worse. Every time I enter a male locker room, I brace for what may be around the corner. Frequently, if men in the locker room see my body as I change or as walk into the showers, they follow me. In a few horrific cases, men have pulled back my shower curtain to “better see” me, or worse, pushed their genitals at me.
In these spaces, I seem to spark a unique and terrifying mix of sexual objectification and male-to-male aggressiveness. The men’s locker room is a place where I have accidentally, and unwillingly, become a Rorschach test of people’s sexuality, open-mindedness, and ideas on masculinity. And it’s not a fun place to be.
Meanwhile, the moment when I accidentally entered the women’s locker room was disorienting in part because it made me realize that I am now part of the same male threat I fear. After turning red and leaving, I wondered if the women I’d accidentally violated would feel less scared if they knew that I also shared a uterus, and in some ways, their same plight. Would it matter if they knew how many times I’d been harassed by men as a man with a vagina?
I don’t talk about these experiences often, in part because in my everyday life I pass as a masculine cisgender man. Far too many people, even those who care about me, have responded when they find out about my men’s room ordeals with, “Why did you let them see you?” and “Why don’t you change in the bathroom?” I change in the open because I refuse to behave like my body is a problem—and also because I prefer to tackle my fears head-on.
All of this being said, I have also experienced moments of hope—moments when I feel confident that, years from now, the public debate will be more sophisticated than simply whether to let trans people use the bathroom of their choice.
One incident from a few years ago left a particularly strong impression. I was hanging out at a bar that had separate men’s and women’s bathroom lines. It was 2:00 AM, and the bathroom bouncer seemed tired of drunk people and tired of his job—which, tonight, was to direct a sea of bodies into their proper lane. When I approached, he pointed me to the left, where a saw a large, trough-like urinal. Anxiety twisted my stomach, and I returned to the bouncer to ask to use a stall.
“Why, you don’t have a dick?” he growled at me. “I actually don’t. I’m a transgender man,” I told him impulsively, emboldened by multiple Whiskey and Cokes.
I didn’t bother bracing myself for anything; his reaction was a crapshoot. To my relief, his eyes simply opened in surprise. He did not ask any follow-ups. “Oh, okay. Uh, do you mind getting in that other line? Just so these ladies don’t think I let you skip them?”
Twenty minutes later, I had the misfortune of leaving my coat inside when I stepped out for a cigarette. When I finished, the outside bouncer refused to let me back in. At that moment, the bathroom bouncer walked past me and beckoned me to follow him. He introduced himself and walked me in through the backdoor.
“I’m sorry that guy’s an asshole. And I was, too,” he said. “I used to work at this big gay bar in the city, so I know a bunch of trans people. I’ve gotten too used to the idiot regulars around here.” I smiled at him, thanked him, shook his hand. He seemed to genuinely understand how unfair it was for me to have to explain myself, how humiliating it was to have a stranger ask me about my genitals in public.
When I tell this story now, I don’t attempt to hold back tears. Until that night, I’d never seen a cisgender person self-reflect and adjust their behavior and mindset in such a profound way, and so quickly. I appreciated the gesture deeply.
Terrifying and complicated and necessary as they are, bathrooms give us transgender people the opportunity to demand more, forgive ourselves, and see glimpses of what’s possible. But perhaps more importantly, these innocuous stalls can also give cisgender people a chance to better understand a situation outside of themselves—and hopefully, to offer a moment of kindness in a world that can sometimes be all too cruel to the queer community.
Jake Damien writes and spreads awareness about a range of topics, including LGBTQ identities and experiences. He writes under a pen name.