7 Butch Women Talk About Being Discriminated Against in Women's Bathrooms
In 2016, out of all of the problems we have right now (hello, black people getting killed by the police simply for being black, and the political debate looking more like an accomplished political leader arguing with a playground bully), for some reason, where people go to the bathroom is still a huge issue. We’re truly choosing weird hills to die on, guys.
There was a butch woman in the news recently who was escorted from the Staples Center women’s bathroom because a female security guard thought she was a man and wouldn’t believe her when she told her she wasn’t. Bathroom laws are not only affecting transgender individuals, they are also affecting butch lesbians who identify as women. The women tell people, “Hi, I’m a woman,” and people are still like, “OK, but you don’t look like what I think a woman looks like, so I’m going to make you feel like shit.”
I’ve heard a lot about this from butch women I’ve known who say they’ve been made to feel strange in women’s bathrooms even though they’re, you know, women. Still, simply because they don’t fit into the idea of what some people think of when think of what a woman “should” look like, many butch women have been made to feel unwelcome, unsafe, and ashamed, when all they wanted to do was go to the bathroom like a human.
To find out more about how this is affecting the women in the butch community, I asked six butch women to tell me about a time (or times) they felt unsafe while doing something everyone does several times a day because it’s part of being alive.
“I came out as a trans woman in 2014, but because I’m medically unable to take hormones, I’ve continued to present mostly the same as before. The first time I tried to use a public women’s bathroom at a restaurant I frequented, one of the servers, who had waited on me many times, saw me going to open the door and said, 'The men’s room is on the other side.' I told her, 'I know. I’m trans.' She just blinked and said, 'That way,' and pointed. She continued to watch me, so I just went back to my table. It certainly could have been worse, but I never ate there again after that. Now I make sure to go to the bathroom before I leave home, and I limit how much water I drink at restaurants and so on. I only use public bathrooms in emergencies, or if I know that the bathrooms aren’t segregated. I do a lot more shopping online than I used to. I hate it, and I hate being made to feel ashamed about it, and planning my errands around it. I don’t think any woman should have to feel required to present femme, or to wear a skirt or dress, in order to use the women’s room just because the little stick figure on the door is wearing one. Everyone should have the right to use whatever bathroom is right for them, no questions asked.”
“One of my earliest memories is going to McDonald’s, which was a huge treat. I was 4 or 5 and looked it, with short hair, wearing jeans, and a baseball hat. My mom was in the stall and I was outside. A middle-aged woman came out of her stall and told me, 'You know, you really shouldn’t be in here. This is the ladies' room. You’re making people uncomfortable.' By the time my mom came out to confront her she was gone.
More recently, I was on a date three years ago at the 21 Club; I was wearing a suit. I have short barber-cut hair. I asked the hostess where the bathroom was and she led me to the men’s room. No big deal, but I went and found the ladies' restroom. When I came out of the stall, a woman at the sink started yelling at me, 'You’re in the wrong room! Get out!' I tried to explain several times that I was in the right room, but she wasn’t hearing it, so I washed my hands and left her there yelling.
Another time, at the New Museum, I was walking toward the women’s bathroom with the femme-presenting woman I was dating. A security guard started yelling at me across the room so loudly that many people started looking. He had me come all the way back down the hall and explain to him that I had been headed into the 'right' bathroom and wasn’t 'up to any funny business.' Nothing too terrible has ever happened to me, but the looks and comments are pervasive. I would categorize my experiences anywhere from rudeness to genuinely misunderstanding my gender, not that it’s their business. I often just use the men’s room to avoid this. I’ve never had any problem in there.”
Victoria, 34, host of the sex podcast Livin’ and Lovin’ in NYC
“I get stopped or stared at in women’s bathrooms all the time, so it all kind of blurs together. The one experience that’s sticking out in my mind was when a woman in California stopped me as I was entering the restroom and said, 'Hey, guy? That’s the ladies' room.' I briskly told her, 'Yeah, I’m a lady,' and kept walking. But all I could think was, who says, 'Hey, guy?' Is that even a thing? Anyway, I’m always anxious when I use public bathrooms. I don’t fault people for thinking I’m a man because I kind of look like one. But what bothers me the most is when I correct someone and they start apologizing profusely and dramatically show their embarrassment. It implies that it’s something I’m supposed to be embarrassed about too. I’m not offended when people misgender me, but I’m offended by the idea that there’s something embarrassing about a girl looking like a boy.“
“Honestly, I don’t use public restrooms unless they’re single stalls or I absolutely have to. It didn’t used to be this way, but at some point the confused or even angry looks, or my being asked if I was in the right room, just started exhausting me. The last time I can remember getting harassed was when I had a security guard following me through a store after I exited a women’s room and only stopped once they realized I was a woman. I stopped caring what people think a while ago, but a lot of times I just see using public bathrooms as too stressful.”
“Once when I was on a road trip, I was in the bathroom washing my hands and I noticed a woman walk in and exclaim, 'Oh, sorry!' and before I could stop her, she darted out. She returned, this time poking her head in and giving me a good stare, and then proceeded to inch into the room. She would not turn her back on me and sort of crab-walked into a stall. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to turn around and shout, 'YOU’RE FINE!' or 'BOO-GAH-BOO-GAH' more. At the time, I was too embarrassed to apologize for being there, but now I’m glad I didn’t!”
“One time I was walking into a bathroom at Terminal 5 and some drunk girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder and informed me it was the ladies' room, but then the second I turned around she said, 'Oh sorry. Nevermind.' More recently, I was temping at a job and as I was washing my hands, some woman came in surprised and asked out loud if she was in the right room. The workplace incident bummed me out a lot because I don’t consider myself that butch and haven’t experienced many instances of feeling unwelcome in what should be a private, safe bathroom space. That just gave me a glimpse into a teeeeeny bit of what even more masc of center/genderqueer/trans individuals might experience on the regular. It suuuuucks.”
“Before I moved to New York, I lived in a fairly decent sized city in Ohio. I worked a job at the mall in the food service industry and it always blew my mind that I would get approached in the public mall restroom, on a nearly daily basis, by women informing me I was 'in the wrong one.' I spent fifty hours per week in that mall (and wore a uniform covered in the restaurant’s logos), so I obviously knew which bathroom was the 'correct' restroom. The worst part is, no matter how often it happened, I was never prepared to defend my gender. Every time, I’d stammer, 'No, I’m female,' and would later be angry that I didn’t have a better quip or snarky response. I was never prepared for someone to police where I go to the restroom. I may look like a little bit like a 16-year-old boy, but it’s very clear that I’m not. Even if I was, it is shocking that someone would care so much about my existence in the women’s room, and it’s shocking that these people couldn’t have been 100% sure I was male before confronting me.”