Litterbox Guarding

Questioning someone’s right to be in a public restroom is a form of bullying.

I was at a day long “anti-bullying” conference in a decent sized auditorium. These events have several intermissions to refill one’s coffee and to let go of some of the same, earlier ingested. I was in an aisle seat and was able to get up and out to the bathroom quite expeditiously. Although there were no free stalls, there was also no line. I waited. Here’s where I admit my own mistake. I had made a wildly erroneously assumption, this being an alleged anti-bullying gathering, that there would be some allies, some open-minded attendees, a morsel of 20th if not yet 21st century awareness of diversity, some indication or suggestion or acknowledgment of people other than heterosexual, Caucasian, Judeo-Christian cisgenders.

The door opened and through it along with the sounds of the crowd mingling in the foyer came six, maybe seven people. I looked at them. They looked at me, then each other, and the last one literally walked backwards several paces, re-opened the bathroom door and melodramatically craned their neck out and around to see which of the binary symbols was on the outside of the door. This passive-aggressive act was intended to convey that one of us had somehow entered the “wrong” restroom.

People seem to experience great terror when someone they won’t identify properly needs to use a restroom. And because of this refusal to educate themselves, other people suffer. We conceive of this behavior and the jealous protecting of the sacred space of toilets as “litterbox guarding.”

I am 49 years old. I honestly cannot even count the times during the past 46 years that I have been intentionally intimidated and demeaned in this manner, in this setting. The problem is Western culture, with its extraordinary adamance that everything needs to be forced into binary models. General population thus far refuses to accept all empirical data to the contrary. Other cultures have a much healthier understanding of a spectrum on which we can all live. What does this mean? Well, academically, we’re talking about “intersectionality.” In the real world, we’re talking about transphobia: bullying, abuse, violence, hate, fear and harm done to those who are “gender-non-conforming.” This dangerous mindset leads to those whom society can’t conveniently identify as being either female or male (which is because some folk are neither) being extinguished. This is fact. It happens in circumstances just exactly like the one I am describing to you. People seem to experience great terror when someone they won’t identify properly needs to use a restroom. And because of this refusal to educate themselves, other people suffer. We conceive of this behavior and the jealous protecting of the sacred space of toilets as “litterbox guarding.”

On with the account. I was in a position where there were I, and about 8 other people in the limited confines of the public restroom. I felt uncomfortable, a little anxious, wondering which response—if any—to offer. Under these conditions, I am the object of attention. That makes The Others an audience. I am also a professional, I do not know who these people are, but it is possible that they are people with whom we network. So I need to be careful. And safe. Due to those considerations, I did not offer any response. I went into the vacant stall. Then I came out. Usually I engage in a short internal dialogue about whether or not it is safe to stay and wash my hands, or whether to get out of there asap. I stay. I wash my hands,. I keep an eye in the mirror on what the other occupants are doing and where they are standing. I have been cornered before. Lots of times. Patronized, taunted, poked, in other words people like to bully me. So I do pay attention. I have to. This experience is not one that I enjoy. It is not one that anyone ought to be describing. But since the opportunity was presented and I accepted, please, if you see a person that doesn’t meet your expectations, can you please make a mental note of that, and try and appreciate that variety is supposed to be the spice of life, not the kiss of death.

 

Read more stories of Assumed Identity on The Good Life.

Image credit: Sustainable sanitation/Flickr

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About Jo Gilbert

Jo is an independent consultant, tireless advocate and committed ethical practitioner. 28 years professional experience with marginalized and oppressed demographics has strengthened Jo's dedication to issues that concern social justice and civil and human rights for disenfranchised groups.
Jo is always interested in hearing about opportunities to be involved with campaigns or interventions that support safety, equality and respect. Innovative, humorous, fun; these are ways in which education is most effective and retention is most likely. Currently involved a few exciting projects, Jo is supporting the Shehugger campaign to remove the language of violence from our culture and works towards increased understanding and appreciation of diverse experience. You can contact Jo in various ways:
Twitter : Jo@Jo_Hugger
email [email protected]
Public Spectacle site: www.publicspectacle.org
Personal website: www.jogilbert.com

Comments

  1. Two things. One, there is not any empirical data suggesting, let alone stating conclusively, that humans are not a sexually dimorphic species.

    Two, restrooms are divided according to the two sexes in the human species under the assumption that people would feel more comfortable doing whatever business they need to in that room around other people of the same sex. In other words, it becomes their space, and anyone not of that group who enters the room will raise eyebrows.

    I think there is a bit of irony at play of simultaneously expecting others to respect you, your beliefs, and your space while you have no problem not respecting them, their beliefs, and their space.

    • It shows great obliviousness to criticize trans people for daring to use a gender-labeled restroom, while not offering any suggestions as to what they are to do in situations where no non-gender-labeled restrooms are available. Believe it or not, there are people who would be read as off/not-quite-matching in *either* a “men’s” or “women’s” restroom. So what are they supposed to do, in your world? Hold it? Pee in a puddle on the floor?

      Of course, your real answer to this question is “they are supposed to not exist.” If you feel that someone is disrespecting you and your beliefs simply by virtue of existing, it is time to reexamine your definition of respect.

  2. linda mccann says:

    That story is awful. I admire you greatly for standing your ground. Change is gonna come, babe.

    To the dinosaur commenter above: wherever you do it – just piss off!

  3. I think that people, whose gender might be questioned by others, should use the men’s bathroom, as usually men care significantly less then women about peoplle invading their spaces.

  4. “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen Covey

    Thanks to Jacobtk for opening the dialogue. I am accustomed to seeing this type of interaction ensue when I tell the truth.

    There is a world of difference between dialogue and debate. I do not wish to debate. I agree absolutely with Jacobtk that “anyone not of the group who enters the room will raise eyebrows”. But who says I am not of the group? I said I was. The Others evidently disagree, but on what basis and who gives them that right? That might be one conversation we could have.

    Here’s a short awareness-expanding addition to allow for proper consideration of the facts and complexities of this type of oppression. XXY males, neutrois-identifying and androgyne, transgender folk who do embrace the gender binary with or without SRS process and intersex persons, compounded by the common confusion around the definitions of sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender identity. This is, as I explained in my piece, part of the discussion we could have if we wanted to talk about intersectionality. Only the person who claims the identity knows who they are.

    I can’t actually think of a time when I told someone that they aren’t who they told me they are. No. Can’t think of a time I did that.

    Another interesting thing here is that this series is “Assumed Identities” and the definition of “assumed” allows for many creative interpretations and engaging submissions. I do not “assume” an identity which is not mine. That would be lying. Although I should tell you that I have tried it, but to be honest, it never worked so I stopped doing that when I was about 8.

    In the account, other people “assumed” my identity, and subsequently performed as judge, jury and have for other people been executioner as well. Sad. Just sad.

    Some people know from birth that they are one gender, but their gender does not match their biological sex. There are a lot of folk that identify as neither female nor male, and who will tell you (if you ask them in a genuinely interested and respectful way and if they feel safe enough to answer) who they are. Some of course will feel, appropriately, that this is an invasive question that they should not even have been asked, and will let you know that. This is a difficult one, since if there’s no opportunity to ask questions, there are fewer resources to educate. That’s why I do what I do.

    I did allude several times to the academics of intersectionality. This is not a question of a simple choice for me or for anyone else. It’s a request to be considerate and supportive, to be accountable and responsible and to accept that not everyone is exactly like you/me. I try, and I will continue to try.

    Alberich offered an interesting suggestion. Before I comment on that, I would like to say that while I was engaging with the editor on this piece, I did say that this experience happens more in one of the “assigned spaces” than the other. But you see, I balk at the idea that I am “invading their spaces.” I don’t want to do that. I don’t like and I won’t tolerate other people invading mine. That in fact really helped clarify one of the numerous component pieces to this often oversimplified and insufficiently understood matter that there are to discuss.

    Erica and linda mccann: thanks for participating in the conversation. Yes, I smiled ;)

    There was a woman, one of tens of thousands, who was recently bullied in a very public way, and being a courageous role model she has taken steps in addition to having her own established career towards helping save lives. She said this in a tweet yesterday (she does not claim the quote, she just cites it):

    Jennifer Livingston ‏@news8jennifer
    “Don’t judge a book by its cover. You could miss an amazing story inside.” #wordstoliveby

    I hope I might have offered some germane content for consideration. I am not here to represent anyone other than myself here. I was asked to recount an incident, and I did.

    Thanks everyone :)
    jG

    * Race/Gender/Class “Intersectionality”– Research Focus 2011-2012 http://www.uccnrs.ucsb.edu/intersectionality

    **Co-incidentally, this on-topic article was posted yesterday, October 26th 2012 being “Intersex Awareness Day” http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/intersex-rights-we-are-not-yet-even-starting-line261012

  5. Jo, thank you so much for telling us your story. Im grateful for both your courage, and your willingness to help others understand your experience. I think you’ve done your job and now it’s up to us who do not experience theses forms of oppression to be more conscious and empathetic. I agree to take your story as mine too, and to work to create a safer world for you that will not require you to do some kind of analysis of whose space you will ‘invade less’. Give us a break, people.

    • Thank you Jaime. If more people had even a basic grasp of the lexicon required to have the conversation, that would be helpful. It’s hard to help people understand when most people have never heard the language that will be used when we do talk about these identities.
      We’ll just keep doing the best we can, eh?
      jG

  6. xmaseveeve says:

    Thanks Jo. I don’t know why the name came up. I’m xmaseveeve.

    It’s daft to say that men object less to their space being invaded. Even if it were true, which it isn’t, the person would be safer in the woman’s room. In my long life, I have, many times, found myself at a mirror with a transvestite or a transgender person. I see the exchanged looks – far fewer nowadays, thank God – but it still happens. I meet them with a steady stare.

    I have always made a point of commenting on that person’s clothes or make up, if she wears any, and if she’s fun, I frequently sit with her for the rest of the night. If she identifies as a woman, that’s enough for me.

    • Random_Stranger says:

      “Even if it were true, which it isn’t, the person would be safer in the woman’s room.”

      way to tear down one generalization, and then replace it with your own.

  7. I recently used a unisex bathroom in San Francisco that I thought was very well designed. First all the stalls provided complete privacy with floor to ceiling walls and doors. The doors were real door with locks, not flimsy latches that are broken half the time. This eliminates a lot of the discomfort and nervouses associated with performing our bodily functions in mixed company. Second, the bathroom itself had an open design. The sinks were in kind of a breezeway which was open on both ends, no doors, just kind of a curve in the wall to provide a modicum of privacy from
    people walking by. So, there was no awkward sense of being trapped in a closed space with potentially scary people of the opposite sex. Actually it felt much safer than the average gas station restroom. I had always been skeptical of the idea of unisex bathrooms, but this proves it can work. Albeit more expensive to construct and maintain.

  8. Laura Nicol says:

    I must admit, if I found myself alone in a woman’s restroom with a person who presented as male, I would be scared, because rape happens! On the other hand, in a busy restroom, at a convention, I would simply be startled, and then embarrassed at my own reaction.

    Although I am a short curvy female, as an engineer, I choose to wear gender neutral clothing, keep my hair tied back plainly, and wear no makeup. I have frequently found workplace litterboxes guarded by executives’ secretaries who stare at me as if I a have crashed a private party. I always assumed they resented my better pay and career opportunities, or perhaps disapproved of my fashion choices. Now I wonder if I was wading through the shallow end of the pool of hostility that LGBTQ folks swim in daily.

  9. This post is a wake-up call for privileged people like me, who have never experienced these terrors associated with such exercising such a basic human function that must be carried out multiple times daily. Where to start in making the world safer? I’m working on raising more self-awareness and consciousness about my own language. I feel very nervous and awkward approaching the vocabulary. I read this GMP article on trans-inclusive language, http://ht.ly/ePWHJ and I think it’s a good start for educating myself. But it’s only a beginning, I am still not confident it’s the whole picture. Speaking for myself, I need more conversation, more articles like this.

  10. Random_Stranger says:

    Well the obvious solution are coed bathrooms -which I can support provided that :
    a) stalls become closets with walls and doors that touch the ground
    b) and urinals are in those closets: We don’t need our female colleagues seeing us and thinking “oh look at that, xyz has his penis out, he won’t mind if I ask him about those TPS reports”.
    c) we go all in equally, no coed bathrooms for all with a few women only bathrooms reserved for the uneasy -which is the usual way these things get implemented btw.
    d) while we’re at it, let’s just put a sink in those closets and call it a day -finally bathroom nirvana.

  11. xmaseveeve says:

    I don’t want communal toilets. I don’t like predatory drunk men, and men’s toilets stink. The women’s room is a sanctuary when you want a breath of fresh air, metaphorically and literally. Women cry there with other women.

    I know that if I were transgender, I would use the ‘ladies”, because I for one would rather walk into a room of mostly poodles, than a room of mostly rottweilers.

    • I don’t like predatory drunk men, and men’s toilets stink.
      yes so damn predatory, so damn dangerous that women regularly march into the bloody men’s toilet in nightclubs, bars – unless of course our male eyes have been lying to us. and what we men do, we just accept it with good grace. and how would YOU know that men’s toilets stink ? perhaps youve been a cleaner, or know one, or men have reported that state to you? or maybe you too have marched into our toilets, with the inherent rights of the ruler.

      I know that if I were transgender, I would use the ‘ladies”, because I for one would rather walk into a room of mostly poodles, than a room of mostly rottweilers.
      did you even read the article?
      jo writes,

      ‘The door opened and through it along with the sounds of the crowd mingling in the foyer came six, maybe seven people. I looked at them. They looked at me, then each other, and the last one literally walked backwards several paces, re-opened the bathroom door and melodramatically craned their neck out and around to see which of the binary symbols was on the outside of the door. This passive-aggressive act was intended to convey that one of us had somehow entered the “wrong” restroom.
      [...]
      On with the account. I was in a position where there were I, and about 8 other people in the limited confines of the public restroom. I felt uncomfortable, a little anxious, wondering which response—if any—to offer. Under these conditions, I am the object of attention. That makes The Others an audience. I am also a professional, I do not know who these people are, but it is possible that they are people with whom we network. So I need to be careful. And safe.
      Due to those considerations, I did not offer any response. I went into the vacant stall. Then I came out. Usually I engage in a short internal dialogue about whether or not it is safe to stay and wash my hands, or whether to get out of there asap.
      I stay. I wash my hands,. I keep an eye in the mirror on what the other occupants are doing and where they are standing. I have been cornered before. Lots of times. Patronized, taunted, poked, in other words people like to bully me. So I do pay attention. I have to. This experience is not one that I enjoy.
      [...]
      Alberich offered an interesting suggestion. Before I comment on that, I would like to say that while I was engaging with the editor on this piece, I did say that this experience happens more in one of the “assigned spaces” than the other.But you see, I balk at the idea that I am “invading their spaces.”

      yes, such delightful poodles…
      but i guess you know jo’s EXPERIENCES (with your radfem insight) better than she does
      lololol
      poodles indeed, them ‘poodles’ appear to have some very sharp teeth

  12. xmaseveeve says:

    My computer’s playing up. Back later. Liberal feminist; never been a radical feminist.

  13. xmaseveeve says:

    My network keeps going down. Silly Boy – why do you (twice) use the word ‘march’? Do you think that women are an invading army? Thank you for proving my point.

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