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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.






§ 20 Responses to Toilets – the final frontier

  • Alexa says:

    “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.”

    When cross-dressing (sort of, I’ll get to that) in the past I’ve had people point out (as people do) that “you’re wearing women’s clothes, mate”, to which I always respond “they’re not women’s clothes, they’re mine” (and I’ve actually had to explain several times that this isn’t a quote from one of your shows). As someone with a roughly neutral gender identity, though generally male presentation (and a bit of a beard, much of the time), it’s difficult to phrase it in a way that feels comfortable when wearing a skirt/dress/”women’s clothing”, especially when personally I see everything I wear as “clothes”.

    When it comes to toilets I pretty much exclusively use the gents, mostly because of familiarity and hardware compatibility.

  • Gez Murphy says:

    lovely bit of writing that, cheered up a dreary afternoon, thank you

  • Devi says:

    Theres a FTM transitioning at the school where I teach and toilets have become a real problem. Like when, during transition, do you change toilets? Is it ok to force someone to explain themselves every time they need to pee?
    It’s a weird system and for those who don’t fit neatly into boxes can quickly become a traumatic one.

  • Alexa Hung says:

    Usually whilst out on a night I’d always use the girls, but one night because I was in a new city and out for the first time with new friends I didn’t know what was appropriate so I went into the boys. I instantly march straight into the only cubicle because you know how men are forced to piss in a pig troth in front of each other. Any way before I got to the cubicle that amazingly was free the attendant stopped me and said “your in the wrong loo” I instantly put him straight, which his next response was “prove it” handing over my ID and spinning on my heels to go to the cubicle I hear the troth users asking “why is she in here?” The attendant then decided it was completely fine to hand my ID around. Thankfully most of the reactions were fine along the lines of “I’d do her” Reclaiming my ID the attendant tells me I should use the girls from now on. Since then I’ve taken that advice.
    Day time when possible I always try to use the disabled as there gender neutral and theres more elbow room. When thats not possible I still get girls following me into the guys when I’m having a butch day and even then guys only noticing my long hair assume I’m either in the wrong toilet or their entering the wrong toilet. Made for some very awkward moments, but it’s just become a part of my everyday life, which is bad to admit that I accept that these reactions are perfectly normal and it’s my fault that there being caused.

  • Christina says:

    This is what is going on in the city attached to my town:

    And if you want to see how well it’s going over, check out the facebook comments.

    She is just 6 years old! The poor kid is about to have the fury of every fascist ass in America breathing down her neck…

    • Craig says:

      It’s tragic and incredibly hard for the young girl, but this is where we, as a society, are at in our social evolution at the moment. I’m not justifying the ignorant reactions in any way. I find them sad and misguided, but for most people, the concept of transgenderism or gender dysphoria is completely at odds with what they have been taught for their entire lives. At least it seems from one comment that the concept is starting to be discussed in some schools. The majority of people are never educated about these issues and most who are exposed to them almost always reject them outright because they conflict with what they have always been taught and observed. I have seen research which suggests that only 10% of people in the USA believe in the theory of evolution. The concept that sexuality, sex and gender are somewhat independent and exist on apparently bimodally distributed spectra rather than in two convenient pigeon holes is going to be a hard sell, but for those of us who do have some perspective and want this perspective to be accepted, we have a responsibility to try to help where we can with or without getting our tyres slashed (depending on how many tyres you can afford). Expressing support to those affected and discussing these issues as openly as possible to debunk popular misconceptions are two important things to do. A retailer where I shopped regularly for ‘women’s’ clothing (I’m a very masculine man) once asked me who they were for. I told her they were for me and we started discussing it, but she was very busy with customers. I went home and wrote a little summary of my understanding and the research I knew and gave it to her the next time I was there. She read it, found it very interesting and was very grateful for me helping her to understand. She said it would be valuable for her in catering for some of her other customers like me. Most people are ‘good’ people. They just don’t understand and the whole thing confuses them. People fear what they don’t understand.

      • genderspastic says:

        I agree entirely. When you take time to explain to people they practically always come out the other side with sympathy and understanding. People are surprisingly ready, once you have shown them you’re a human being with emotions and a sense of humour, to accept you. People are almost primed to reject the arbitrariness of gender.

    • genderspastic says:

      Wowzers. It’s an interesting area, definitely. People get super fascist and hyper conformist when it comes to kids.

  • Pandy C says:

    The toilets, and any (real or perceived) patron attitudes at a venue, significantly affects whether I go out at all. At my local goth night I feel completely comfortable using the gents in either gender presentation (although I’ve still had “Wrong toilet, love”), but I have been “escorted” out of a ladies by a bouncer, despite having gone in with a wing-woman and checking it was empty before entering. That was the only time I’ve had a shouting match with a club owner.

    My other observation is that gents toilets are mostly awful. They’re not all ankle-deep in piss with no cubicle locks, mirrors or soap/towels, but its a rare exception to find a decent one.

    • genderspastic says:

      Other people seem to have had worse experiences than me. That sucks. I wonder if there’s something in my body language. I have a stand-up’s fearlessness, I guess. I also root my look in an acknowledgement of my male-ness usually. With big boots and that. If we all keep doing what we do, visibility goes up and problems will become less. xxx

      • Pandy C says:

        Since the latter incident, I’ve been a lot more choosy about where I go clubbing (let alone dress outside my assigned pigeonhole). I mostly use the gents now, and respond to any comments with humour and/or politeness. The reaction is generally OK. Though I did once have to yell, “It’s OK. I have a penis.” 🙂

  • Craig says:

    Another great post. I really enjoyed it. In my city and other major cities in Oz, women who want to dress in what is considered a masculine way seem to be able to go pretty much wherever they want without incurring more trouble than any other woman. They would probably get verbally harrassed in some of the rougher bars and called ‘dykes’, but women would get frequently harrassed in those places for something, no matter how they dressed.

    That being said, it’s very common here to see women using the men’s toilets, especially later in the night or at festivals because the lines for the women’s toilets become so long and the lines for the men’s toilets are dramatically shorter. It’s usually not a personal choice for them because men’s toilets are decidedly less hygenic and sometimes downright feral, but a matter of urgency. Most men, from what I’ve seen, don’t object, derive some entertainment from the fact, are surprisingly courteous (for Australians), let the woman use the cubicle first and keep their packages out of her direct line of sight (mostly).

    On the other hand, a man dressed as a man would never be allowed to enter a female toilet unless it was on ‘official business’, e.g., security, cleaner, tradesman. There would be uproar, escorting from the premises and possibly litigation if a man-man decided to use the Ladies.

    When men start dressing in ways and in clothes that are traditionally associated with women, the whole dichotomy gets a bit blurry. The general policy for almost every club or bar is that, if you have a penis, you use the Gents, although, generally, no one is going to check. I’ve never seen a bathroom attendant in Oz.

    It seems that, in many cases, if you can ‘pass’ or even if you can’t but you are considered to have done a good enough job of dressing yourself appropriately in the opinions of the women present and you follow the women’s social etiquette of toilet/bathroom/restroom use, you’re use of the women’s amenities is tolerated by most, providing you don’t linger inappropriately. Some even offer encouragement advice and assistance such as spontaneous makeovers.

    If a ‘cross-dressed’ man appears too obviously male, very badly or inappropriately dressed or creepy, your presence is not accepted, but if you look a bit ambiguous, are dressed well, in clothes that it’s popularly acceptable for a woman of your dimensions to wear, had good make-up, good hair, appropriately accessorised, smelled nice, walked well in your heels, appropriate mannerisms, etc. many women that I’ve met don’t seem to get too upset. They just tear your outfit/figure/fashion sense apart behind your back like they would any other woman. “Did you see his eyeshadow? That was so not his colour.”

    This is a generalisation, of course. There are always some who will be deeply offended, probably as much by the fact that a man is dressed ‘as a woman’ as much as that they are using the Ladies.

    It’s not a crime here for a man to dress ‘as a woman’, but if you get into trouble for something else, like perving at women in the Ladies, it does become an additional crime. You are considered to be ‘wearing a disguise to conceal your true identity whilst commiting a crime’, unless you have officially registered yourself as a transsexual and changed your official gender ID to ‘female’, which means you have to be dressed ‘as a woman’ in your ID photo and have an ‘F’ instead of “M’ in the gender box. There are no ‘T’ (Transperson), ‘G’ (Genderspastic) or ‘S’ (Switch) options as far as I’m aware. In that case, you would technically be considered to be wearing a disguise if you were an officially registered MTF TS dressed as a man, but who’s going to prosecute that?

    That’s the official line from the police, who are actually quite well educated and generally sympathetic about TG issues. Their hands are tied by the law, but if you behave well, they generally use as much discretion as they can get away with.

    In some of the openly gay bars, where ‘cross-dressing’ patrons tend to feel safer and better accepted (perhaps erroneously), there’s another dynamic. There are some nights when the crowds are quite mixed, like drag show nights, and on these nights, the normal nightclub rules above seem to apply. Penis = Gents, unless you can get awy with it. On other nights, however, some of these places are so over the top in their ‘gayness’, (it’s actually amazing for a straight person to see for the first time), I mean the whole clientele, vitually completely young men, dancing in just socks and jocks. If there are any women and/or men in ‘women’s’ clothes, they are expected and indeed often directed to use the Ladies. It’s like ‘Gents’ actually means ‘rabidly gay, near naked men cutting completely loose’ and ‘Ladies’ means ‘everyone else’. It’s hilarious and the girls generally bond with you in the Ladies because you’re one of the only other people wearing any clothes at all.

  • missashjade says:

    Never quite understand why there are gendered toilets. Can’t all toilets just be like women’s ie stalls? Do men need urinals? Or couldn’t there just be!one room for toilets & one rule for urinals?

    • Jonathan says:

      At the Gender Talents symposium at Tate Modern in February, they actually arranged the toilets like that, crossing out the male/female symbols, and having “urinal” and “cubicle” (or something equivalent) instead. It felt quite unusual, but nobody seemed to be having any problems.

  • Rainbowchaser says:

    I do lots of changing in toilets too, and although I’m not going for androgyny (I’m usually turning myself into a human statue – putting on a wedding dress, wig and painting myself white) I get a lot of reactions similar to those you describe of people entirely confused by what is going on in a place where there are a set of accepted social behaviours which I am clearly not adhering too. In my case though instead of the women coming in checking that they’ve come into the right loo they check that they haven’t fallen into some sort of bizarre alternative reality where brides /clockwork dolls/ cave women are popping up in public toilets. And, of course, once they pluck up the courage to ask and I explain what I’m doing ie. getting ready to perform, they become more comfortable with my behaviour.

    I don’t know about you but I take a perverse sort of pleasure in watching the people who squirm and battle with the whole “what the heck is going on here? Should I ask what she’s doing?” thing. Yes I’m doing something that’s a little different but there’s nothing wrong with it – be a modern, open minded person and let me go about my business and you go on with yours.

  • Meadhbhe says:

    As a trans girl (I get id’d too much to pass as a woman) the bathroom bit was all too common before I bit the bullet and came out. I exclusively use the other restroom now after going into the mens in a gay bar and being told I was in the wrong place hah!

    I don’t get that in the womens. But I still highlight the need for gender neutral bathrooms as it benefits everyone except the dodgy people.

  • Natasha says:

    A really interesting blog. Would you be interested in writing a guest blog for a charity? I work for Link Up (UK), a new registered charity founded to offer a unique approach to dealing with issues of prejudice and belonging. At the end of every month we publish guest blogs and we would be grateful if you could write one of these blogs for Link Up (UK) on the subject of sexuality. You could break down myths, write on personal opinions and/or experiences. If you’re interested I can be contacted via email: or by telephone: 0207 928 7585. Our website is; you can take a look at our aims, supporters, articles, infographics and previous guest blogs.

  • -=JH=- says:

    I like this bit : “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.”

    So… its Shrodingers Toilet Door then ? The gender uncertainty wavefunction collapses upon entering one of the doors 🙂

    Excellent blog BTW 🙂

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