Using public restrooms while transgender

For most of us, using a public restroom is something to which we give little thought, except perhaps for a fleeting concern about cleanliness. But Nico Lang of Rolling Stone says that a survey found that “nearly 70 percent of trans people had experienced negative interactions in public facilities — from dirty looks to snide comments to physical violence.”

Lang interviewed selected members of the transgender community about what it is like to use a public restroom and it is often an experience fraught with anxiety.

Here’s one story.

“Early in my transition, it was hard because I didn’t blend in well as a female, but I really didn’t look like a male either. So I didn’t get to use any bathrooms. When I did, I had to sprint into it and wait in a stall until everyone was gone, and then run out as fast as I could.

“You stand outside the bathroom for maybe a minute or two to make sure no one is coming out or no one is coming in. Then you go inside and if you hear someone, you just look down and hope they don’t look at your face…. You run into the stall and you lock the door as fast as you can, and then you do what you have to do. If you hear someone walk in, or you hear someone else in there, you have to wait until they leave. Once you hear that they are gone, you can run out. Washing your hands is a difficult situation because it takes time, so hopefully you brought disinfectant.”

Here’s another one.

“The worst part was the dirty looks and people doing double takes at me coming in there. I’ve had the ‘What are you doing in here?’ question. Honestly, the only thing that saves me is that I’ve had enough voice training that they’re like, ‘Oh, never mind.’ But seriously, my voice training saved me.

“[These situations] happened to me early in my transition. After I grew my hair out and after I’d been transitioning a while, [they haven’t] happened since. A lot of times I think there’s a perverse irony in that the only people [the North Carolina bill] is going to be targeting are the transgender people who are already the most vulnerable, the ones who are early in their transition, or transition later, or the ones who don’t look a particular way. It’s dangerous and it’s sad that we’re targeting people based on how they look.”

You can read the other stories by following the link.

It is good to read these experiences because it enables those of us who are not transgender to get a glimpse of how difficult the mundane things of life can be for those who are. But we must not fool ourselves about how far our ability to relate extends. While we may be able to understand better, we cannot really feel what they are going through. The bromide of “I feel your pain” that people sometimes say when trying to empathize is, even when well-intentioned, essentially false. We can never really feel another’s pain.

I think that difference is best captured by this clip from that great old TV comedy show Barney Miller that I’ve shown before. The bigotry being dealt with in that case is race but it applies to any other differences.


  1. besomyka says

    Thankfully I’ve not had any horrible experiences, but when I was early in my transition and not out at work, I was still using the men’s room. I was at the point where it was 50-50 which way a particular person would gender me. Like, I went down the line at a wrap place and every person down the line switched gender pronouns on me.

    So, I’m in the men’s room washing my hands. I have long hair, I have my nails painted, I wear wood/bead bracelets, woman’s jeans, a woman’s-fit top, and a hoodie. Guy comes in takes one look at me, and immediately leaves with a look on his face like he made a horrible mistake.

    I finish and leave, and he’s standing outside the bathroom getting a drink from the drinking fountain. A fountain that I had never seen even wet before this moment.

    I don’t know what that guy thought was going on, but at least he didn’t seem to push whatever confusion he had on me.

  2. besomyka says

    I’ll just add… when you’re out at a public function and need to use the bathroom, and you’re feeling insecure about who you’re being read by other people… standing in line for the women’s restroom (because there’s always a line..) is nerve wracking. Particular once you get inside with the 4-8 people crammed in waiting for a stall to open up.

    It’s awkward enough already.


  3. Randall Lee says

    The Intersex Society of North America defines transgenders as “People who identify as transgender or transsexual are usually people who are born with typical male or female anatomies but feel as though they’ve been born into the “wrong body.” For example, a person who identifies as transgender or transsexual may have typical female anatomy but feel like a male and seek to become male by taking hormones or electing to have sex reassignment surgeries.”
    Is there some reason these people didn’t consider that since there are only two gender designated restrooms available that they would likely experience negative reactions if they so chose to become someone they were not born to be and then chose to enter a restroom of the opposite sex?
    If I entered a bathroom of the opposite sex, I would expect to be frowned upon.
    So how does one’s choice to change their gender identity relieve them from the expectation that the majority of people are not going to appreciate their presence?
    Should private businesses, or public accomadations for that matter, be required to provide restroom facilities for people who have chosen another, and what is seen by many as a separate, gender?
    Transgenders and others demand their feelings and choice be respected, but what about respect for the feelings and sensibilities of the majority of people who are not comfortable with their choice?

  4. smrnda says


    “Transgenders and others demand their feelings and choice be respected, but what about respect for the feelings and sensibilities of the majority of people who are not comfortable with their choice?”

    You might as well use that logic to defend the ‘colored’ bathrooms, drinking fountains, and segregated lunch counters. After all, why should black people make white people uncomfortable by invading spaces which have, traditionally, been all white?

    “Is there some reason these people didn’t consider that since there are only two gender designated restrooms available that they would likely experience negative reactions if they so chose to become someone they were not born to be and then chose to enter a restroom of the opposite sex?”

    Maybe you think trans people just are doing this on a whim, but you should really you know, read what they have to say about their experiences? My whole life I’ve always been female and never felt like that was ‘wrong’ -- when I talk to people who are trans, that’s clearly not their experience.

    “So how does one’s choice to change their gender identity relieve them from the expectation that the majority of people are not going to appreciate their presence?”

    I wonder, some people are uncomfortable around interracial couples, maybe if they don’t want to get hassled in public or get dirty looks they should have *not* done that?

    All you’re doing is arguing that a small, persecuted minority has *feelings* and that the large, bigoted majority has *different feelings* and that the small minority owes it to the majority to put the *feelings* of the majority first. You can defend any form of bigotry with such logic, since it’s just basically a ‘don’t be uppity’ argument.

  5. anat says

    To Randall Lee:
    It is not hard to accommodate transgender people wrt restrooms. Single user bathrooms can accommodate anyone. Any bathroom with stalls works well enough.

    Trans people aren’t pretending or pulling a prank. The feelings trans people have regarding aspects of their body related to their assigned gender or upon being perceived as their assigned gender are of such nature that may cause depression, even to the point of suicide. One reason a trans person typically uses the restroom that matches the gender they are presenting as, simply because the whole point is they seek to be perceived as members of said gender, and which bathroom one uses is one element that influences that perception. For a trans person to be required to use the restroom of their assigned gender is to once more be told they failed at being who they are. Their gender identity is not a choice. It would be more accurate to describe it as a discovery -- they realize that their assigned gender is wrong, and in fact they identify as a different gender.

  6. usagichan says

    From the article and comments this seems to be primarily an issue for Trans people that are male assigned at birth. Is the opposite the case?

    Given that female toilets generally only consist of lockable stalls, it seems strange to get so obsessed with the physical state of a person’s genetallia -- so is there something else going on here? Is this a case that a particular group (Trans women) have been demonized to such an extent that people are unable to react rationally.

  7. anat says

    usagichan, the main excuse is that supposedly cis men might pretend to be trans women in order to gain access to women’s restrooms. However will we tell them apart and know whom to kick out? Of course, what the proposers don’t seem to realize is that trans men will be required to use the women’s restrooms under proposed bathroom laws. This means that cis men who wish to gain access to women’s restroom will simply need to pretend to be trans men. They won’t even need to put on a dress!

  8. says

    I have had the fortune of only being in transgender-friendly countries since my transition (a foreigner living in Taiwan, on holiday in the Philippines). I have never been harassed or questioned while using women’s public toilets. That said, I am definitely bracing and arming myself mentally for others’ ignorance if/when I return to Canada or visit other countries. I’m not worried for and can take care of myself, but many transgender people lack emotional or physical security. They face enough hostility in public spaces even before facing the potential dangers behind a closed door.

    Randall Lee is an example of why people need to educate themselves on a topic before they speak. He accomplished nothing except to display his ignorance.

  9. lanir says

    It’s easy to spout off on either side of this issue. There are some considerations that hold true for everyone that are worth thinking about though.

    1. Aside from sweating, excreting biological waste products is generally not a social activity. From plain vanilla cis-hetero to anywhere on the LGBT spectrum, people don’t generally walk into stalls together to pee or poop.
    2. Other activities not covered by #1 do not involve exposing oneself to strangers. So what specific anatomy a trans person who uses a stall has does not particularly matter. One can wash hands, etc. in mixed company.
    3. The culture in the US is overly defensive about women being attacked. But if they are, it couples this with extensive victim blaming which has the end result of making it more difficult for women to respond to being victimized if not outright victimizing them again and obscuring the actual data on how often this happens.

    With #1 & #2 we pretty much remove most reasonable objections to sharing a bathroom with a trans person on the ground that just the normal activities undergone in a restroom are badly impacted by their presence. Urinals are a potential complication but generally speaking there’s nothing to see unless one uses a urinal next to someone else doing the same.

    #3 is the one ignorant or hateful people use as the magic excuse for any sort of anti-trans acts they feel like engaging in. Personally I think it has more than a bit of self-reinforcement going on. Because our response to women who are actually victimized is so incredibly awful as a culture, it makes fictions about who is actually doing the abuse more plausible while at the same time sheltering actual abusers. And yet even with all this mess, I’ve never heard of anyone who claimed trans people are more likely to victimize women and followed it up with sourced data. This suggests the whole thing is a few nationally publicized comedy skits away from being somewhat understood by a significant percentage of the country. And understanding makes this boogey-man go away. If you want to do something useful about the real problem here, stop fantasizing about sexual assault and support victims of sexual assault in the real world where they could really use some help (don’t listen to me about it though, look up RAINN and go from there).

    These are all trends. Trans people are still PEOPLE so outside of the stated differences they can be wonderful and awful and surprisingly normal in all the ways anyone else can be. But these fears are not “women might be attacked by someone who might be trans,” the fear is quite specifically “trans people specifically might attack women” and that just doesn’t appear to be true to any reasonable extent. I am continually amazed at the ability of people, especially those who tend to think of themselves as conservatives, to ignore real problems and then make fantasy straw-men based on the very same issues they’re ignoring to attack unrelated groups they don’t like.

  10. Nick Gotts says

    Shortly before I stopped working, a staff member at the research institute I worked at decided to transition. I have to say the employer dealt with this extremely well -- calling in staff in small groups to tell them what was happening, and warning that any insult to the transitioning person would result in serious disciplinary action. She had suggested -- and this was taken up -- that she use a single-user toilet the building happened to contain. Whether she was able to move to using the women’s facilities once people became used to her new identity, I don’t know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *