Toilet Trouble

In which I overshare about how fucking stressful it is being trans and needing to pee.

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Before I realised I was transgender, I already knew about the whole transgender toilet issue (or bathroom issue for Americans). I was aware of it in a theoretical way, and was full of righteous anger about the discriminatory bathroom laws in some US states. I remember thinking about how hard it must be to have to deal with that, especially early in transition — or for people who identify and/or present in a non binary way.

I wasn’t wrong.

And even if you live in a country without prohibitive laws on which toilet you use, it’s still pretty bloody stressful.

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I’ve now reached the stage where it’s an issue for me on a personal level. A couple of weeks ago, I was in a pub in Fowey (a small town in Cornwall) and went to the women’s toilets as normal. It was empty when I went in, but when I came out of the cubicle there were three young women chatting. As I emerged, they all went silent and stared at me. Then one of them said “Oh!” in a tone that made me feel like shit on her shoe. It’s hard to be sure what prompted that reaction, because I didn’t stick around to ask why. But given that people are starting to call me ‘sir’ occasionally, I’m 99% sure that it was because she initially read me as male.

That was the first time I’ve been made to feel unwelcome or discriminated against in a female space. But it’s understandable now people are starting to read me as male. The last thing I want to do is make women feel unsafe or threatened. So as a result of that, I’ve started to try and use male toilets at least some of the time — because I no longer feel comfortable using the women’s.

But I don’t feel remotely comfortable in the men’s either. I’m still in an awkward non-binary limbo as far as my presentation goes. I’m occasionally read as male at first glance, but usually read as female when I have any significant interaction with people because of my voice (which hasn’t changed much yet). Because of this, using the men’s toilets is a huge source of anxiety. I know it’s highly unlikely I’ll be challenged, because I don’t look too out of place, and most men don’t notice or care who is in the toilet with them (unlike women). But the worry is that if I was challenged, then I’d have to justify my presence there and my voice would give me away as something other than a cisgender man. That’s tied into uncomfortable feelings of shame for me, feelings about not being ‘male enough,’ and about not belonging in that place.

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There is also a deep fear for my safety. When you’ve been socialised as female you are taught from an early age to be wary of male strangers, and to avoid all-male spaces. Sorry to all the cisgender men I know and love. I know it’s #notallmen, but those are the messages most people raised as female internalise. Because of this I still feel unsafe walking alone in the dark, and I still find it hard to get in a taxi with a male driver, or to be alone in a train carriage with another man. So going against that ingrained instinct and walking into a public male toilet — not knowing who else might be in there — is utterly terrifying to me.

Yesterday I travelled to London and spent the day there. I used it as an opportunity to experiment a little with which toilets I used. I felt okay using the men’s at Bristol Parkway station. It was early, and quiet… but not too quiet. I couldn’t face the bustle of busy toilets at Paddington (either the male or female ones) so I used the loo on the train instead. I ‘manned up’ and used the men’s in a restaurant at lunchtime — and nearly had a panic attack in the process because there were two other guys in there at the time — but I did it, and managed to avoid all eye-contact or the need to speak. Yay me.

On the journey home (via Salisbury because of train cancellations) I didn’t feel safe using the men’s at the station, because there were groups of rowdy, drunk blokes around. So I used the women’s, and put up with feeling out of place and having some of the women looking at me oddly. I also felt weirdly humiliated by the experience of having to use the women’s, as if I was misgendering/outing myself by doing it. That familiar feeling of shame again. (I hate shame. I think it’s my least favourite emotion, and I should probably write a whole blog post about how shame is inextricably linked with being transgender for me).

So, this is my life now. Whenever I’m out in public and need a wee I have to think about these things. Where can I go? Will there be cubicles in the men’s? Will I feel safe? Will I make women feel unsafe?

It sucks. And this is why we need more gender neutral toilets.

So, if you’re ever in a public toilet and notice someone who is gender ambiguous, or who you think might be in the wrong bathroom. Don’t stare, don’t challenge them, just let them get on and do what they need to do.

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Chances are, they’re in exactly the right place and they just need to pee too.

Self-image, Dysphoria and Seeing the Whole Person

Navel gazing ahoy…

I’m now three months into hormone therapy, and the changes are subtle – almost imperceptible. Yet things must be changing, because before I started on T nobody ever gendered me correctly. I’d get called ‘madam’ in shops, and have polite elderly gentlemen insisting on holding doors open for me (usually when I was trying to hold doors open for them) and saying “Ladies first.” Now, people are starting to read me as male, or to at least be unsure enough that they hesitate before calling me madam. Thank God.

Even so, I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve knowingly been read as male” the guard on the train; another guy on a train; a bloke serving me in a pub; a group of Mean Girls in a womens’ toilet in a pub in Cornwall (who triggered a wave of transgender-related toilet anxiety. Thanks for that ladies).

The weird thing is: whatever these people are seeing, is not what I see when I look in the mirror. But when I started pondering on this, I realised that don’t see myself as a whole at all. I see myself in pieces. This may well not be a trans-specific issue,  I’m sure some cisgender people might experience a similar disconnect for different reasons, but in my case it’s related to gender dysphoria.

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I spent years thinking I was female and hating my body (also not a trans specific issue), but not understanding exactly why I hated it. I suffered with disordered eating for a long time, and it’s only now that I realise I wasn’t trying to diet/exercise to make the most of my feminine assets. Rather, I was trying to lose my curves and change my body into a more androgynous shape. Without the help of testosterone, I could never do enough, so I was constantly dissatisfied.

During those unhappy times, I learned to dissociate from my body as a coping strategy. I got remarkably good at ignoring the bits I disliked: hips, chest, stomach – anything soft and squishy basically; and focusing on the parts I was happier with: my shoulders, my relatively square waist/torso, the muscle I gained in the gym.

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This dissociation has continued since I’ve started to transition. Most of the time I can filter out the things that cause me dysphoria even when I look in the mirror. But as a result, I have no idea how I look to others. I’m so focused on individual features (sorted into a mental checklist of like/hate/indifferent) that I don’t see the whole. The only times I can see how I appear to others is in a photograph, and then I’m usually disappointed. I think I have the opposite of body dysmorphic disorder, because in my head I’m at least 5’10” and have Channing Tatum’s butt. Reality sucks.

Yet my self-consciousness is such that I don’t expect that magic invisibility shield to work for anyone else. On the contrary, I always expect other people to immediately zero in on the feminine characteristics that I usually avoid seeing in myself. So, when someone calls me sir, or interacts with me in any other way that makes me think they’ve read me correctly as male, I’m still terribly surprised about it.

I guess when we look at other people, we see the whole. When assessing someone’s gender, which we do unconsciously in a split second, we weigh up the visible evidence so the balance tips one way or the other (because as a society, most of us like to put people in binary boxes – not saying it’s right, just saying it’s a fact). As I keep taking T, the tiny physical changes are gradually starting to tip the scales towards Male, which feels good, even if I can’t see it myself yet.

I’m looking forward to the day when being gendered correctly isn’t something to get excited about any more. I wonder how long it will take? And I wonder how long my brain will take to catch up with that reality?