Book Excerpt: Gender is Confusing, I Confuse People

Being gender non-conforming means I don’t look like what a lot of people think I should based on my biological sex. Therefore, when I am in a space that’s designated for women, other women sometimes get confused. I was in the bathroom at the public park the other day changing into my karate uniform in preparation for class. I was in the far corner of the room, half-dressed, minding my own business when a woman came in to use the facilities. Instead of going into the stall, she stared at me and then asked “Is this the ladies’ room or the men’s room?” She didn’t say it very nicely either; it was more an accusation that I was not where I was supposed to be rather than a genuine question about her location.

Not only did she breach cultural protocol by making eye contact and conversing in a public bathroom, with someone who was not fully clothed and clearly trying to be as out of the way as possible, but she was rude. Even if I was in the “wrong” bathroom, my activities were clearly those of a person trying to change clothes, not a person peeping into the stalls. Her perception that I was in the wrong place was based on my hair cut alone, because at that point I had my karate pants and top on, which as outfits go, is as shapeless and as close to a genderless flour sack as outfits come (except actual flour sacks).

Further, her question about “ladies’ or men’s” made the English teacher in me want to correct her mismatched binary language choices, and I thought of a number of responses that matched her tone and level of ignorance. I chose not to say them, but there was a long pause as I searched through the Rolodex in my head to give her an answer that fit all the criteria of the moment. Let me share them with you.

The first thing that popped in my brain was “Don’t you know what bathroom you just walked into?” Then the slightly less snarky, “It’s whatever it says on the door.” Then I considered looking away from her without saying anything (probably making a sour “you’re an idiot” face when I did), letting her sort out her confusion on her own. I may have made that face anyway; I’ve been told I do that sometimes without knowing it. I considered rephrasing her question for her since it was clear she made no distinction between “lady” and “woman” despite the fact that she looked plenty old enough to have lived through the women’s lib movement of the 70’s when such words were called out as awkward and inappropriate. However, I didn’t say: “Are you asking if this is the women’s bathroom?” and I realized that my go-to when people call me a “lady” would not work in that situation.

There have been times in the past when I’ve been called a lady, often with the diminutive “young” tacked on. This is usually uttered by males of a certain age, frequently as a friendly greeting from someone I know with no ill-will behind the phrase. Despite the ingenuousness motive on the part of the speakers, the label makes me bristle. My usual response to being greeted as a “young lady” is to say that “I am neither of those things.” The greeter will often laugh and take this for what it is: a subtle correction that acknowledges their friendly greeting with one of my own without ignoring the ill-fitting gendered term.

But bathroom lady wasn’t using that term to be friendly. And since I was neither a “lady” nor a “man” (the only two choices in her world) I felt compelled to note that in my answer. All these thoughts spinning through my mind while this unpleasant little lump of a woman stared at me accusingly for simply being in a gendered space led to the obvious answer I finally gave her: “This is the women’s bathroom.” I tried to say it in a way that indicated she was the confused one. She seemed less than satisfied and stared at me a moment longer but finally went into a stall.

In summation, I was forced into an unpleasant conversation just so some lady could pee.