|Painting by Arna Baartz|
I first learned about women only spaces when I was 5 or 6 years old.
I was with my mother at one of her favorite department stores, either JC Penney or Belk. She has always loved those stores. We were getting school clothes for me. She had to use the restroom, so she left me waiting just outside, near the sport coats. “Stay right here,” she told me, assuring me she’d be back soon.
She must have taken too long, because I got tired of waiting and went in the restroom looking for her. I didn’t really understand the difference between boys and girls; all I knew was that girls hung together at school, shared secrets that boys knew nothing of, and got to play with cool toys like plastic makeup sets with little mirrors in them. I don’t recall identifying as a girl at that age, but I do remember looking in the mirror in my parents’ bedroom and wondering what the hell went wrong. I was sure girls knew something boys didn’t. I wanted to learn their ways and be accepted into their circles, especially since I never found that acceptance with other boys.
Maybe I saw the ladies’ room as a sacred space, a mecca or sanctuary for girls and extremely lucky boys. I am sure my burgeoning transgenderism drove me to follow my mother that day just as much as my longing to find her and not be apart from her did.
I was a little disappointed, of course. The women’s bathroom smelled marginally better, and I didn’t see any urinals hanging on the walls, but otherwise it was just the same as a men’s room. Same dull track lighting, same tiles on the floor, same stall doors I was used to. I pulled open the nearest door. If my mother wasn’t in that one, maybe there was another nice lady who’d be happy to point out where she was.
There was a lady seated in there, but she wasn’t happy to see me and she definitely didn’t want me anywhere near her circle.
“This is the ladies’ room! This is very private and you are bothering me. Get out!”
So I did. I didn’t even try to explain my quest to find my mother or become more like her. I was too embarrassed. I just went back out by the sport coats and waited silently until my mother returned. I was too ashamed of myself to tell her what happened.
Boys do not belong in girl’s bathrooms. It seems pretty obvious now. I can’t say I look back and laugh at my little misadventure, but I don’t feel ashamed anymore. I was just a kid. The only thing I feel now is guilt at how I made that woman feel. I still remember the mix of anger and fear in her eyes, and the hurt in her voice when she told me to leave. Even as a child, being pegged as male meant I had the power to violate women.
Now, identifying as a transwoman, I understand her fears. One of the first women I came out to told me being a woman means having people do or say whatever they want to you. My mentor is educated, successful. She is respected for her contributions to her field, and she has held a position of power for many years now. She is versed in queer and feminist theory, and she is one of the most accepting people I know.
She treats me with love and always listens to me, but she also wonders why on earth anyone would want to be a woman. If a woman in her position can feel that way – and feels that she must warn a newly minted woman about the dangers of just existing – then what must life be like for those women who exist outside my mentor’s bubble of privilege (and mine)?
To my mentor and myself, I am a woman. I am. Actually, I am so new to this, to sitting with and living with my authentic self, that I think of myself as a girl. I’d better hurry up and blossom into womanhood, I know – 40 is just around the corner.
I am not a woman. I am not! Not in the way my mentor or my mother or that poor lady in the bathroom are. I’ll never know the pain of menstruating. I’ll never enter menopause, or miss a period and have to go get a pregnancy test. I wish I were skinnier, and I am working on it, but I will never feel the pressure to be a size 2 the way so many young women do. I’ll never be a mother; the best I can do is be a parent to my own children, trying, along with my partner, to teach them respect for themselves and others, even those who don’t conform.
These things are true. I have not contradicted myself in those last two paragraphs. I point this out because not everyone, either conservative or liberal, is open-minded on the subject of transgender identity. In fact, most people aren’t. Most people are either scared and openly hostile, scared and trying to hide it, or gushing with praise at my “bravery” and offering to help with my “journey.” There are as many reactions to my gender identity as there are people who know me as trans. Why, with this knowledge and my male genitals intact, would I push to be let into a space reserved for women?
There is a wide spectrum of transgender identities, and I know that many transwomen do not align with my transition. I get that. I understand many of my sisters live with the feeling that they will die if they have to spend one more day in the wrong body, and that many transmen feel the same way (where are the TV shows and children’s books about transMEN?! I suppose that’s another whole essay). I have never felt completely comfortable or safe in male spaces, and I can imagine that feeling cranked up to 11 at all times. It must be exhausting and stressful. My own stress has gifted me several mental illnesses.
Luckily, none of my disorders are quite severe enough to require hospitalization or inpatient treatment. But for my sisters who have or are having that experience, and for those who have tried to take their own lives or otherwise erase themselves, who have decided to permanently alter themselves so their bodies can match what’s inside, of course I support their right to use the ladies’ room. Being in the wrong bathroom, for them, is just as miserable as being in the wrong body.
I am also in the wrong body, with genitals I didn’t ask for. Maybe one day I will get rid of them. But for now, I have them and my physical maleness is a fact of life. I can style my hair, wear barrettes in different colors, and carry a pink purse with all my essentials in it. I can utilize the legal protections I have at work. I can ask people to use female pronouns when they address me, and I can do these things without changing my physical body at all.
But even if I did change my body, even if I went all the way and medically transitioned like some people expect me to, I still wouldn’t be a woman. I’d be a transwoman. It’s a lovely, exciting, honest, warm, terrifying, risky, life-affirming way to be, but it isn’t the same as being born a woman. So, for me, women’s spaces belong to women. I will not enter a ladies’ room unless I am specifically invited and welcomed. I spent most of my life being uncomfortable. I have no wish to make anyone else feel that way.
Of course, sometimes discomfort is part of societal change. Sometimes people become allies to the LGBT community, overcoming whatever prejudices they grew up with. That takes courage. Who bets on the underdog in a fight that isn’t even theirs?
I am grateful for support in all its forms, but I do not accept what I see as brainwashing in the activist community.
The other day I went to lunch with another close woman friend. When we got back to the office, I had to use the bathroom. I made an offhand comment about using the women’s bathroom. We share a building with other offices, so there is a good chance that, if I chose to do that, I would encounter women who don’t know me and don’t know anything about my transgender status. I would feel just as weird about it as they would, but I wouldn’t fear for my safety. They would, and that is the key difference. It is the only factor, to my mind, that matters.
I have no right to threaten anyone in any way. If six-year old me had the power to violate women, without even trying, what makes anyone think that power went anywhere?
My friend’s thoughts didn’t follow that process. Or, if they did, she stifled them in the name of being a good ally. “I’ll support you 100% on that! It would be like telling a lesbian she has to use the men’s room. What’s the big deal? What are people so afraid of?”
Well, actually, it wouldn’t be anything at all like a lesbian being banished to the men’s room. I do identify as lesbian, but I don’t look like a lesbian, so it would be more like a middle-aged married man sporting a five o’clock shadow and potentially exposing his genitals to women. The big deal is, again, the fear of being violated.
That’s what people are afraid of. Unfortunately, the only ones vocalizing that fear are immediately branded as transphobes, truscum, TERFs or worse. I’ve seen it happen. It can be especially vicious on Twitter and other social media. To be fair, many people advocating for sex-specific bathrooms are transphobic. But does that automatically negate anything they might have to say, now and forever? I don’t think it does. I think we are all basically the same. One of my mottos is “look around, we’re all people” (thanks, Jello Biafra). That includes even the most virulent of transphobic people. My Christian faith means nothing if my call to love and service only extends to people who agree with me.
You don’t have to be a Christian to agree with me. You just have to be human. We are all the same, but like transfolks, human beings come in all different shapes and colors. We can and should treat each other as equals, or even as family, but we can never assume that what we are OK with is what everyone needs to be OK with. Unless I have been invited, unless it is explicitly clear to me and to every woman occupying a space, I do not belong in a women’s bathroom any more than I belong in a women-only therapy group, or prayer circle, or book club. Women have had to work hard to carve out those spaces. Who am I to intrude on that? I accept my male genitals, even though I don’t like them and they are not an ideal fit. Accepting the wrong bathroom seems trivial in comparison to that.
Steph is the pseudonym for a transwoman living and working in the United States.