I firmly believe that the weight of any given door is directly proportional to how much you’re dreading what’s on the other side. Perhaps it’s some evolutionary advance, where instincts kick in to tell us “Don’t open that; there’s something awful in there” and our bodies do their darndest to keep us out. Muscles weaken, arms become limp and powerless as overcooked spaghetti as we strain to pull or push against towering slabs of wood or metal. But even if our bodies do know best, we are, after all, humans, and far too arrogant to ever listen.
A person encounters many types of heavy doors throughout the course of their life. Classroom doors, courtroom doors, office doors, hospital doors, funeral home doors, the doors of vaguely creepy distant relatives or angry significant others (when you know you’re in the wrong). In my experience, the heaviest door of all often leads into a public restroom.
I know I’m not the only one who suddenly finds her upper body strength depleted when faced with the emotionless humanoid silhouettes plastered across these entrances. Anybody whose physical presentation doesn’t 100% mesh with the tiny, constraining, impossible-to-breath-within borders of Society’s Acceptable Gender Standards experiences this conundrum on a daily basis. “Should I choose Door Number One and maybe get yelled at?” we ask ourselves. “Should I choose Door Number Two and maybe get beat up? Or should I just start searching Etsy for a cute vintage chamber pot to carry around with me?”
It is, of course, completely ridiculous that one of the most basic needs of all living things should inspire within us such existential questions. I mean, we’ve all read “Everyone Poops.” This shouldn’t be so hard. And it wouldn’t have to be if not for the ceaseless patrols of people who I refer to as Sentinels of the Shitter. These tireless protectors of lavatories, powder rooms, and water closets everywhere have one sworn duty: Keeping gender fucking weirdos like me out at all costs. Until my dying day, I will never understand the deep investment so many people seem to have in whom precisely is pissing in the locked stall next to them.
During a recent business trip to Chicago, I had the misfortunate of encountering one of these self-important crusaders outside of a McCormick Place restroom. I was just ending my third day of covering a particularly exhausting trade show and after hours of sucking up to PR people, begging strangers for interviews, and navigating through a sea of slow-moving middle-aged men, all I wanted to do was make a quick pit stop and catch the shuttle back to my hotel. My trip up until that point had gone smoothly enough. I didn’t get pulled aside for a “random screening” at the airport; even when I inexplicably set off the metal detector, I was jovially groped by a friendly female TSA agent. My seatmate on the plane didn’t stare or even look uncomfortable. And best of all, I hadn’t been yelled at in a bathroom once.
So perhaps I was feeling a bit too cocky when I strode up to the women’s room, mostly deserted by then except for one member of the janitorial staff standing in the doorway. I’m sorry, did I say standing? I meant blocking the doorway like a goddamn defensive linebacker in the 4th quarter. (Sidebar: I had to look up “offensive linebacker” to make sure I had the right term, as my interests are much more Puppy Bowl than Super Bowl.) I stopped abruptly in my tracks as she narrowed her eyes ever so slightly. Opening my mouth to say “Excuse me,” I was cut off when she pointed at the men’s room behind me and spat out, “Right there. Men’s room.” It was an order, not a suggestion. Her stance and words were so commanding that I half-expected her to suddenly sprout a Gandalf-esque beard and bellow, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should just hold it until I was back in my safe, gender-neutral hotel room. Finally, I stammered out, “I, uh, I need the women’s room.” For a moment she just stood there, staring at me as if I said I needed a one-way ticket to Mars. Then, without a word, she walked away, her eyes now locked on some space far off in the distance. I rushed myself in and out of the restroom as quickly as physically possible, as I had a sudden overwhelming need to be away from people, all people, and the only way to accomplish that was by getting back to the hotel.
As much as I should be used to incidents like that, whenever they happen they still completely throw me off. Maybe they just don’t happen often enough for the necessary numbness to set in. I still remember the first time I accidentally passed as a man and how shaken I was by it. Years later, I’ve been called “Sir” or “man” or “bro” so many times, had male pronouns forced onto me by so many strangers that I’m now actually more shocked when someone immediately knows that I’m female. Hell, even the cashiers at my Friendly Neighborhood Progressive Queer Café still think my name is “Brendan,” “Brian,” or, in a bizarre new twist, “Mack.”
I suppose that outside of restrooms – and the occasional, equally stressful changing room – I don’t make much of an effort to prove my femaleness. After all, it makes no difference to me what sex the cashier or bus driver or random person walking their dog thinks I am. But when it comes time to take care of business, I am suddenly the girliest girl to ever have girled. I stick my chest out like a rooster and my voice magically shoots up several octaves.
While most women commiserate about those infamously long bathroom lines, I am always relieved to see them, because that time waiting in line allows me to lessen any shock value my presence might otherwise inspire. It’s a chance to very deliberately place myself in a crowd of women (“I’m definitely not some confused dude wandering into the wrong room, no ma’am!”), make some eye contact (“I see you standing there being a female, just like me, sister!”), or, if I’m feeling really brave, small talk (“Gotta love these lines, am I right, ladies? Also, yogurt, tampons, chocolate, and household cleaning products!”).
The worst possible bathroom for me is a mostly – but not entirely – empty one. That’s when I’m most often assumed to be an idiot, a pervert, or a predator. That’s when I’m most often righteously informed by visibly frightened women that “THIS IS THE LADIES’ ROOM.” That’s when I feel that awful emotional cocktail of anger, shame, and guilt: Anger at people not minding their own business, shame at being publically humiliated, and guilt for scaring a stranger.
I know many gender outliers of my particular flavor whose solutions to this eternal dilemma are either “use the men’s room” or “become Bladder Ninjas, capable of holding it for lengths of time not previously observed in nature.” If those methods work for them, then more power to ’em, but I can’t see either working for me. If women’s rooms make me nervous, men’s rooms give me full-blown panic attacks. I find the danger in there far greater, not to mention the amount of bodily fluids that missed their marks. As for never using a public bathroom at all, well, let’s just say that I’m probably still carrying some residual emotional scarring from a particularly bad day in First Grade when I attempted to hold it during a test and failed spectacularly.
I suppose I could try to paint my refusal to be bullied out of a public space as some sort of bold political statement, instead of just me being too stubborn to change my restroom routine. I could pretend it’s a middle finger to oppression and bigotry and the heteronormative cissexist powers that be. Maybe it is that, a little bit. Maybe simply existing in front of the whole wide world can be, for all of us, an act of civil disobedience. Maybe revolutions can be born on tile floors and inside graffiti-smeared stalls. Or maybe I’ve just been pushing against this one door for so long that it seems a shame to stop now.