There’s nothing like venturing far from home to make you realize how difficult it is to be outside the gender binary in more conservative areas of the United States.
Sure, you hear about it plenty. You read the news articles and blog posts and your skin crawls at how awful people can be. You can try to empathize and put yourself in those shoes all you want, but until you have personally been on the receiving end of ignorant vitriol, you’ll never really down-in-your-bones know.
When a friend and I made plans for a cross-country road trip this past August, I did a lot of mental preparation for how an odd character like me would be received in more conservative areas of the country. I have no illusions; what I ultimately experienced was mild compared to what some of my non-cisgender brothers and sisters must endure. And I had the luxury of moving on right away and ultimately returning home from my road trip. The privilege I have in that respect is something I fully acknowledge and don’t take for granted. Still, what I experienced definitely left me a bit shaky at the end of the day.
I’m used to getting called “sir.” Generally speaking, women who are able to grow facial hair usually choose not to let it grow out, whether for their own aesthetic preferences or due to social pressure. So between my curly muttonchops and propensity for presenting as butch, I get that it’s an easy mistake to make at a glance. Most of the time when it happens, I don’t feel compelled to correct the speaker; I’m not likely to ever see them again, and being unintentionally misgendered every now and then doesn’t–to me–warrant the discomfort for both of us that correcting the speaker usually entails.
This makes public restrooms a very anxiety-filled place for me. The first time I was “bathroom policed” was, of all places, at my doctor’s office. There was a gentleman whose office was in view of the entrance to both restrooms. He called out as I started to enter the women’s room. I stopped and stared at him for a beat. He stared back, then awkwardly apologized and I went on with what I needed to do.
I’m no stranger to curious stares and odd looks while I’m washing my hands or on my way in or out, especially from young children. For the most part, those no longer bother me. But in the back of my mind there’s always the fear that somebody will make a scene (at best) or become hostile (at worst).
The first time someone questioned me during our road trip extravaganza was at a truck stop in Ohio. I thanked my lucky stars that was a slow morning, so after I changed out of my PJs in one of the stalls I gave my chin a quick scrape at the sink. As I was wetting down my hair so I could run a comb through it, a very sleepy-looking woman walked in, spotted me, gasped audibly, put her hand over her heart and asked “…lady…?” while looking at me like I’m a snake ready to strike.
“Yes ma’am. I know how I look,” I said, but she was already on her way past me to the toilet stalls after “yes.” She didn’t say anything else or look at me as she left when she was done.
Six days later, on the return trip, we pulled in to a truck stop in Wyoming for a bathroom break. I was walking out of the women’s room when a guy turned the corner to go to the restroom himself, looked me up and down, then started walking toward the door I just came out of. I said the men’s room was the other way and he apologized and turned toward the men’s room door.
That was the most innocuous of the three incidents, but it still sat pretty poorly with me (thought not for long).
The worst, however, happened in Beaver, Utah, the next day. We had just woken up and shuffled into yet another truck stop restroom to put on clean clothes and freshen up. I’m combing and slicking my hair back when this woman walks in and declares, in the nastiest voice she can muster as she closes the door to her stall, “you DO realize this is the LADIES’ room, right?”
I really cannot adequately articulate the vitriol that was in this woman’s voice. You’d think I tracked fresh dog poop onto her kitchen floor. I don’t quite remember what I said in response, but I got myself out of there as quick as I could. By then, I was completely out of spoons for dealing with this sort of bullshit.
I count my blessings that I am surrounded by friends and family who offered their support and sympathy and shared in my frustration while I chronicled our road trip on Facebook, and who reiterated their support for me when I got home. As I said before, I am well aware of the privilege I have, living in Southern California. Folks who fall well outside the gender binary in live in the rural areas I passed through probably don’t have the kind of network I have. It was a very eye-opening experience.
BUT, lest anyone think that everyone east of the West Coast is ignorant and/or hateful, there was one incident in Pennsylvania that made me smile. My cohort and I were making our final restroom/fuel stop before reaching our destination. I ran into another butch in the restroom. We shared knowing looks and a hearty “hey, how ya doin’?” as she made her way to the stalls and I dried my hands and headed out the door. The other incidents weigh heavily on me, but I make a conscious effort to hold on tightest to this last one. It feels good to know you’re not alone out there, and to recognize and be recognized by other members of your tribe.