‘Is It Safe Now?’ The Trauma Of Bathroom Laws

flickr/Joe Bowser

While at one of my favorite bars on a Saturday night, an incident occurred that I’ve tried — without success — to forget. In spite of a law in Philadelphia that went into effect the beginning of this year, which states that “certain establishments and City-owned buildings open to the public, with single-occupancy bathroom facilities, use gender-neutral signage for such facilities,” the two restrooms remained labeled . . . Ladies and Men.

Despite contacting the director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs months ago — and being assured that the bar would be ordered to comply — the gendered signage remained. The men’s room has no lock, and depending on how one interprets the law, can remain just how it is.

Just as I had earlier in the evening, I got up from the booth and quickly walked the 10 or so steps toward the two small bathrooms in the back of the bar. I opened the door, walked inside, turned around as the door swung shut, and grasped the handle with my left hand and the lock with my right — when suddenly the door tore itself from my hand as a woman on the other side forcefully ripped it open.

“No,” she hollered. “Get out!”

I stood there replaying the preceding few seconds, trying to catch up to the current moment and figure out what was going on. I didn’t move and she strode into the bathroom, placing her body between me and the alcove where the sink and toilet resided, and spread her arms. “Who are you? What are you doing?” I clumsily asked.

“I am an employee here and you need to leave.”

“I just need to pee,” I said. I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth. A hashtag, a tagline, a common retort that is retweeted, turned into a meme, and repeated by your local news anchors seemed, when said aloud in a confrontation such as this, inadequate, small, and incapable of doing anything.

“Go in the men’s room.”

I could see my love and my friend sitting at the booth I just got up from, but they were facing the other direction and the music from the jukebox was loud. They might as well have been oceans away; I was all alone. A few patrons sitting at the bar closest to where we were turned to look at the confrontation; when our eyes met, they quickly turned back to their drinks and conversation. “I am not a man,” I sternly stated to the woman blocking my way.

“I don’t care,” was her reply.

Angry and shaken, I remained and said, “This is supposed to be a gender-neutral restroom.”

“I don’t care about your 2016 opinions.”

“Fuck you,” I said. I left the bathroom and then I left the bar.

What was the point — why do this to someone? Following a person into the only bathroom with a lock on the door, physically blocking them, screaming in their face, and forcing them to leave, wasn’t stopping an injustice — it was perpetrating one. The bar is now complying with the law, but this should never have happened and I doubt the woman who did this has faced any consequences. In truth, it’s been hard to gather the strength to go out with friends ever since, because other establishments have not complied by the law — every time I leave the safety of my home, there is a new risk.

And this was before the massacre in Orlando, when the whole world was forced to see, again, what risk every queer person takes when they leave their home. We like to think we have sole control over our own lives because it is our breath that we breathe, but sometimes that breath is cut short by outside forces — forces who feel threatened by the sight of the other being themselves in plain sight.

In that space between anguish and anger — the tense-chested breath where memory and reality collide — there is neither still nor quiet. That is the only noise you desperately seek to stifle, but the body won’t let you; the mind has no off-switch. On is the only option. Then, one day, it fades. It will come back in unexpected intervals, at inopportune times, but the constant rhythm of feeling, of remembering over and over and over again weaves itself into the background, becoming part of the white noise that blankets you on those sunless days.

This paradigm is not limited to trans identities and debates about gendered facilities. It’s for those who dare to breathe in a world built and reliant upon white supremacy in a non-white body. Those who are living with mental illness. Those who are survivors of rape, abuse, harassment, or some other kind of violence (physical or emotional). Those who try to survive in a world made for the physically able in a body others deem inadequate. Those who dare to love and live outside the constructs of a heteronormative relationship. And in particular, those who live at the intersection of some or all of these things the world deems other are quick to have their lives condemned.

There are people who will tell you that the trauma you endured was not traumatic or the illness you have is in your head, or the core of who you are is something you made up for attention. They will tell you you’re overreacting. You’re being too sensitive. You should have expected nothing else. Or they will say if you can’t handle this then you should stay home, and so you do. If you dare to speak openly about your experiences online, they will harass you — adding to the trauma — and declare, “That’s not harassment.” They will offer up their preferred definition and say you’re missing the point; you don’t understand what words mean.

Then you will react in some manner or another at some time or place — the specifics do not matter; all that matters is the reaction — and they will deem it inexcusable and say you’re better off dead. Living with trauma means learning how to cope and few people will ever approve of how you cope because empathy is the enemy of capitalism. Then the white noise morphs into loud, clear, in-your-face beats of bass that knock you over and keep you under — again. Until you look out from the cocoon of safety you made for yourself and in hush tones call out, “Is it safe now?”

And the quiet beckons you out, not too far, one step at a time, and you overhear someone complaining about the fragility of people, but you side step and go around them. Then the moon comes and you sleep a little, then the sun shines and there are few more steps. And each day gets a little easier and with your shield renewed, you venture back onto the battleground — but in reality, you never left, because every breath on this planet as someone the world doesn’t understand is a battle you won.

Then the unexpected happens, a friend — or someone you thought was on your side — mimics the language of the oppressor and all you can do is wonder how they could do this. Instead of retreating to the cocoon, you add a layer to your shield so this won’t happen again. But it will; it always does.

Yes, triggers are real. No, we aren’t too sensitive. We’re told to suppress, get over, move on, forgive and forget, but why? Because if we stop feeling so deeply, life will become easier for us, or so they say. No, if we stop feeling so deeply, then we will hurt without consequence. When we hurt someone, we should feel something. If we don’t feel anything, then what is it to be human? Feel less, don’t feel at all, feel like this, don’t feel like that, feel for x amount of time, feel in this setting, but keep it private. Don’t expect anyone to care. The noise doesn’t go away — it fades in and out and is constant.

And anxiety, depression, dysphoria, and suicidal thoughts take over and you consider giving into the temptation of no longer fighting . . . because all you need is to rest. Then you read the declarations of those who understand and internalize the words, “You, whoever you are — you are not too much trouble and people do care.” So you fight another day and ask others to fight alongside you, because we can’t do this alone.

We don’t have to do this alone, for others have already been here and have prepared the way forward. As Jeanette Winterson wrote in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal:

“I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.”
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