Toilets – the final frontier
February 27, 2013 § 20 Comments
Language is a perpetual negotiation in the trans* world.
I dislike the phrase ‘dress as a woman’. People use it a lot. “How often do you dress as a woman?” I never dress as a woman. I dress as a man. I dress as someone with no breasts, no hips and a bulge in the crotch area that must be disguised, hidden or otherwise rendered unnoticed through expert misdirection. I dress as someone with a thick torso and skinny legs, with wide shoulders and a tiny bum. I dress for my shape, and my shape is that of a man.
The phrase ‘dress as a woman’ in this context has two possible meanings; ‘dress as a woman does’ and ‘dress as though you were a woman’. The former ignore the infinite variety of ways woman dress, somehow equating more than half the human species in one clothing style. The latter suggests subterfuge and deceit. It suggests a disguise.
I’m not being disingenuous. To the casual reader it may well seem so. Surely I dress in a way that makes me look more like a woman? Is more akin to how women dress?
It’s femininity I adopt, not female-ness. I am not transexual. The gender dysphoria I have experienced in the past hasn’t made me seek surgery, nor sufficiently pushed me towards adopting a female identity.
I don’t present myself as female, ever. I exist in a cosy quantum state that is neither fully one nor the other. I seek androgyny. This fragile quantum state collapses when I have to use a public toilet.
Androgyny and ambiguity disappear when faced with two doors. I am forced to choose.
I nearly always use the men’s. I identify as male (no matter what I’m presenting) albeit one not following the rules and I feel more comfortable dealing with men’s potential negative response than that of women in the toilet situation. In the Gents I am man who is doing something out of the realm of normal acceptable behaviour. In the Ladies I am trying (and inevitably failing) to pass as female.
The gents toilet is a weird cultural and social space. The gender filter that toilets represent mean that behaviour inside is different to the outside. There are often displays of a kind of male solidarity. There is banter, badinage. Disrupting this reassuringly gendered environment is a surprisingly subversive act.
The effects are several.
- Double checking. As I leave the gents I often cause men who are entering to double check they have the right toilet. It is a significant social faux pas to use the wrong toilet. It’s the sort of thing high school kids have stress dreams about. They are not really looking at me as they enter (because it’s socially unacceptable to properly stare at people in and around toilets) but they see the feminine visual cues and panic. The more feminine I look, the greater the panic. I often have cause to say “you’re alright mate”, in my best baritone.
- Telling off. Toilet attendants are not always our brightest and best. The subtleties of trans* gender presentation are probably not part of their intensive year-long training. Several times I have been shouted after by confused toilet attendants. They act like gender police.
- Poor hygiene. Transphobia in the toilet environment often leads to nervous men rushing the process of hand washing and drying.
Added to all this is the fact that that I often have to use the toilet as a dressing room. This is behaviour way outside of what is considered normal for a toilet. Shaving in there causes amusement, invites comment. Putting on make-up makes people drop out of all normal brain activity. The act of putting on make-up is at once an unusual activity for a male toilet, an explicitly FEMALE activity, and a rejection of maleness. Hence the comment I heard the other day “it’s okay – he’s one of the acts”. The fact of my being a performer lets me off the hook. I’ll write further about that another time.
Somehow the single sex nature of the toilet, (and the fact that genitals are handled) means its a more socially conservative place. There is a social contract that means that only masculine behaviour is tolerated in the gents. There is a background homophobia too, with the residual notion of the toilet being used as a cottage.
I feel a palpable sense of relief when I do not have to adapt to the binary – when there’s only one toilet, or when there’s a handy disabled toilet I can use. That way I get to maintain my androgyny, keep my sexy air of unknowable mystery and confuse the next user by leaving the toilet seat up.