I’ll go with you.
This story isn’t one I have shared with many people, since I don’t suffer the ridiculous indignities that transgender folks do regarding their bathroom preferences. However, it brings to mind an experience that still rattles me to this day.
When I was a senior in college, I participated in a curious experiment in one of my sociology classes. Our professor asked each of us to leave our classroom, stand near the entrance door of the bathroom of our opposite gender, and record the reactions of those entering and leaving the bathroom. The objective of the experiment was to see how people reacted to the presence of one sex near an area specifically reserved for those of the other. At first I thought this suggestion was, to use the theoretical term, very silly. Who cares who stands outside bathrooms, I thought, in my naive and slightly sheltered undergraduate view of the world. I was about to be schooled in the halls of my university in a way I had never anticipated.
*For clarification: I am a white, Scandinavian-American woman, with a face that invites total strangers to say hello and ask me for directions on a regular basis. In other words: generally pretty non-threatening.*
Our professor gave each of us a small clipboard, tally sheet, and pen, and asked us to record whether anyone going into the bathrooms A) gave us any kind of a look, B) spoke to us and how, or C) ignored our presence. Since our class was one of more than 2o other classes being held that Wednesday evening, we anticipated a fair amount of traffic around the bathrooms. I stationed myself about five feet away from the men’s room door. I attempted to behave as discreetly as possible, but at 5'9", it was hard for me to remain inconspicuous for long.
Most of the activity near the bathroom came from male students in their late teens to early 20’s, who didn’t seem to mind me near the door, as most of them smiled at me (and two openly leered at me). What became apparent to me was as the age of the men approaching the bathroom rose, so did their negative reaction to my presence. One man, who I recognized as a graduate student from my department in his early 30’s, glared at me as he walked by. A man in his late 30’s looked at me with disgust as he entered the bathroom. As he exited, he snarled at me, “Can I help you?” When I gently replied no thanks, he sneered at me as he walked away. The harshest reaction came from a man in his late 40’s. He came right up to me, arms akimbo, and got right in my face. “What are you doing here?”, he said, his face contorted with anger. Doing my best to keep my composure and not engage the anger — remember, I was positioned several feet from the door, not staring at anyone, nor interacting with them at all — I said that I was just standing there. “You shouldn’t be here and you need to leave!”, he berated me, turned on his heel and stomped away. I was 20 years old and hadn’t been scolded by my father, let alone some random strange man, in over 10 years.
In the interest of full disclosure, the final results of this decidedly non-scientific survey were, if I remember correctly: In one hour, A) approximately 3o men gave me some kind of look, B) around 20 men spoke to me, and C) five men ignored my presence. As much as this can speak to some expectations of gender-normative behavior, I have come to realize that this data doesn’t begin to convey what I felt as a woman simply existing where some men thought I didn’t belong. While I didn’t exactly feel threatened near the men’s room, I definitely felt very uneasy, and somewhat confused. I was standing in a hallway, in a building open to the public. I was not blocking egress, nor attempting to communicate with anyone, nor interfering with anyone. Yet, a significant number of the men I observed physically and verbally took umbrage with my presence near a location where they felt only certain people (i.e., men) were allowed.
Obviously, I didn’t endure anywhere near the intrusive examination that transgender people have in recent days, but the whole experience still unnerves me, even years after the fact. I cannot even imagine how a trans person copes with the potential verbal attack, or worse, when all they want to do is tend to a simple bodily function when they’re out in public. My trans friends already know this, but for any in the trans community: If you’re hesitant about using a public restroom, and you see a tall curly blonde nearby (probably shopping for shoes), just ask me, and #Illgowithyou.