Of Bathrooms and Boogey(wo)men

By any reckoning, these are strange times … we  have a reality tv star, appealing to people’s basest instincts, and yet winning the race for the Republican presidential nomination.  The guy who recently dropped out, had already picked a running mate, though –on that, PLEASE see Charles Blow’s reaction, if you have not, already–that privilege is usually left to someone who has already won the nomination.  Maybe privilege is the submerged issue of our times … so much is affected by it, yet we spend precious little time identifying it, much less calling it out.

That brings me to the other thing we seem to be talking and posting about too much lately.  And by that I mean: 1) North Korea is testing missiles, 2) almost every day, there is another natural disaster or act of terrorism to confront, 3) we have a massive drug heroin addiction/abuse problem in this country, and the identification of it as a public health problem and approach to solving it could not be more different than was the case with the crack epidemic (are we talking about why that is?!?!?)  and yet, in downtown America, we are inordinately preoccupied with who’s in the “wrong,” bathroom and peeing in the stall next door. To say that our priorities are misplaced is to make an understatement of near epic proportions.

Predictably, we are starting to see stories (some real, some not) about bathroom policing.  As predictably, perhaps, the self-appointed policers are getting it wrong, and crossing the very  boundaries “we claim,” –in this regard, I am not among the we, and I am also concerned that there is daylight between what has been identified as the problem, and what the very real and scary agenda is– to not want breached.  Let’s unpack further here:  law enforcement does not always, “police,” well . When the public’s bias fueled fears get the best of them –particularly in a society where guns are fairly readily available — people get hurt or killed. See, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, or this article about a guy shot dead in church— this same phenomenon is starting to crop up in bathrooms.  In the first legit report we have, some guy bursts into a bathroom on a woman he thinks doesn’t belong there … let me repeat, a guy takes it upon himself to enter the women’s room to question someone who is in fact a woman about her presence there … Sooo, in addition to men dressed as women in the bathroom, we now have to contend with men who –1) are … protecting us?  (did we request protection?), 2)who have no more right to be in there than the hetero men they claim are in there pretending to be trans women –in the women’s room.  Does this mean that I should now feel empowered to pursue “suspicious looking,” men into the the men’s room? Does this illogical craziness have any logical end? And does this do anything to solve the legit fear I have of sending my boy child into the men’s room alone lest their be child predators in there?

So, anyone who’s met me knows a few things:  1) i have a very deep voice for a woman; 2) i am somewhat androgynous looking, particularly when my hair is shorter.  To that list, let me add a few more facts, 1) i get called, “sir,” on the phone A LOT when I, for instance, call customer service for my utilities or credit cards; 2) fact #1 means that because i would rather not deal with being called, “sir,” for the millionth time, i avoid making such calls where I can and I have a raft of self-deprecating jokes to quell the customer service folks’ paranoia. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to make jokes at my own expense to check on a charge to my credit card, but there it is. That brings us to fact 3)  i have been visited by the “bathroom police.”  Twice, in fact.

The first policing incident occurred in a bathroom (natch!) in Williamsburg, VA. After hearing me trying to coax my then 4 year-old into using an auto-flush toilet (at nearly 8, he still hates them!) at  Busch Gardens, some women’s room fellow traveller took it upon herself to report me to park security.  I was apprised of this fact as I was just about to prevail in my persuasions, and was interrupted by a knock on the stall door.  In response to knock, I said, “Yes,” in my normal tenor voice, and was informed that I was in the women’s room.  I answered, “and you’re telling me this because … ” I have to hand it to the somewhat flummoxed security person, who fairly apparently, had never had to do an “intervention,” like this one. They handled it as tactfully as they could. Next, they sought to inform me that the park had family restrooms whereupon I — wanting to wrap up my bathroom business with no further interruptions — offered to show the guard my c. section scar, if s/he wanted to wait around.  S/he did not, but did let me know that they were responding to a report. Is this really the road we want to go down, folks? Is this gonna keep up until I or someone else is actually going to have to pony up evidence that we are in the “right,”  restroom, or can we just take a step back and realize that these laws aren’t solving any problems, nor are they creating them.  That is, any guy who was gonna try to dress up like a woman and go into the women’s room was doing that before the law, and didn’t need its permission to do so.  Similarly, there are no stories of trans women doing anything other that using the toilet and fixing their make-up (if they use it) in the women’s room, so there is no problem to fix.

As it turned out, I had a second “bathroom police,” encounter at the end of the same vacation … only in Virginia, or North Carolina, I guess. Alex and I were starting our drive home and stopped for gas in Hampton, VA.  It was an older gas station, and the “one holer,” bathroom had a door that was swollen from the humidity, so it while the door was closed, you couldn’t get it to lock. It was mid-day and mid-week, and I was anxious to get on the road to avoid bad traffic close to home. Alex was having none of that and was dithering around, so I nudged him toward the toilet with my knee.  He jerked away, causing the not well enough bolted toilet to move a bit … remember I mentioned that he doesn’t l like auto-flush toilets .. he wasn’t wild about a moving toilet either, and started to howl.  At this point, I was pretty much done:  I spun him around, sat him on the toilet and said, “would you please PEE,” then withdrew, folded my arms and leaned on the sink.  Seconds later, the door flew open and a guy stuck his head in, presumably to check on noisy Alex.  Seeing me leaning on the sink, he intoned, “oh, my bad …,” then left. I was not entirely sure what had just happened, but got Alex cleaned up, and we headed out to the car.  When we passed the counter, the two sister friends at the cash register outed themselves as the reason that the guy had burst in:  “we’re sorry, we heard the baby.”  In the anti-violence world, what happened to us was what we call, “bystander intervention.”  Someone thought Alex was in trouble and sent someone in to check on him … Do I love having someone burst into the bathroom on us? Of course, not, but am I totally cool with the fact that it happened because someone had a legit reason to think a kid might have been in trouble? I 100% am.

Let’s review:  in my first story, I got hassled in a bathroom because I am a woman with a deep voice. If it happened to me before the passage of the NC law, what do you think would happen if the NC law was not about to get put on ice — note:  the US Department of Justice sued NC today to get them to rescind the law as parts of it violate Title VII (bars employment discrim. based on sex), Title IX (requires equal access on the basis of sex of all schools receiving federal funding), and provisions in the Violence Against Women Act that bar discrimination based on, among other things, gender identity.

Two points in closing, no one needed a new law to either: 1) knock on my stall door when they thought a guy was in the women’s room or, 2) burst into the restroom when they thought my kid was in danger. BUT, if my privacy was — however occasionally — getting invaded before the passage of such laws, how much more frequently would the passage of these crazy laws in NC and MS (so far) mean that I and a whole lot of other CIS and trans folks minding their own business would have to deal with self-appointed bathroom police barging into the women’s room at will.  Cuz seriously, I don’t want to encounter the bathroom version of a George Zimmerman who, I assure you, is out there and armed and will tell the cops, when someone starts to beat him up once he accosts them, that he was in fear for his life, which is why he shot them.  Because that, I assure you, is where this will end up.