"The Ladies Room" | Nancy Powaga

Every two weeks or so, I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, an essay from Nancy Powaga. Nancy is a writer who lives and works in Seattle, Washington. They hold an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. Currently, Nancy is at work on a novel about brain injury, alcoholism, and queer spirituality. You can find them on Twitter @nanbot and Instagram @sideofnanch.

As a rule, I use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex on my birth certificate. Filed on May 11, 1984 by the Director of Licensing of Hennepin, County, Minnesota, the certificate reads, “Sex: Female.” At airports and restaurants, in amusement parks and malls, I urinate and sometimes defecate, though only on an absolutely need-to-go-number-two-now basis, in the women’s restroom.

Despite the female pedigree granted by my birth certificate and the vagina between my legs, I’m always nervous to step inside public bathrooms. On first glance, most people perceive me as a man. I am 6’1” and muscular. I have short, nineties male heartthrob hair, and I wear clothes from the men’s section. In winter, I cover my body with a long goose down parka. I don’t have much in the way of hips and usually bind my breasts. I am trans non-binary, but since there aren’t widespread unisex restrooms, I choose the women’s restroom, the safer of two evils, to do my business.

More often than not, I’m greeted by impolite stares. After people get in their double and triple takes, they usually just wash their hands and get the hell out of my way. Sometimes, I’m told point-blank that I’m in the women’s bathroom, the wrong bathroom. I say, “No, I’m not,” and then I rush into a stall, hoping that the accuser either realizes the error of her assumption or doesn’t have the fight to escalate things.

Once at Whole Foods in Bellevue, Washington, an affluent Seattle suburb, as I waited for the automated dispenser to whir out my recycled paper towel, I could hear a muffled conversation happening right outside the restroom door. I figured it was the elderly woman who had minutes prior stared at me with the unbroken awe of a human being first encountering extraterrestrial life, as though a little green man stood before her and not me, an Earthling, rushing to urgently expel a load of iced-Americano-tinged urine into a porcelain chair.

I prepped myself to defend myself, summoned some righteous rage, swung open the door, and preemptively stated, “I’m in the right restroom.” The woman, store manager, and poor teenage checkout person who’d been roped into the mix, scattered.

Hoping that was the end of it, I took my cart and started walking away.

I didn’t get far before the woman reappeared.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I thought you were a man because you’re so tall and have short hair.”

“It’s okay, really,” I said, trying to kill the conversation.

“But now I see that you’re a woman.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You can’t tell people which restroom they can use.”

“But I thought you were a man…”

I was livid, but I managed to measure my speech.

“Listen, you can’t tell a person’s gender based on how they look, and you shouldn’t assume or tell someone they’re in the wrong bathroom.”

In her eyes, something clicked. I was proud to have stood up for myself and anyone else who is regularly given the side eye—or worse—in gendered public spaces. Regardless, I wished that someone else had already informed Grandma that trans people exist.

I’m fine, really. Whatever harassment lite I get pales in comparison to the more serious threats against other trans people. First off, I rarely feel like I’m in physical danger. There’s privilege in being read, even if just for a moment, as a six foot-plus white man. Bathroom starers are usually quite young or quite old and not about to attack me. I do get the occasional “faggot!” shouted at me, but these greetings come from bigots on-the-go, young guys leaning out of their Corollas as they roll off to school or home or work for another day of indignity, real or imagined, at being reminded that they’re nothing special. They’d never learned in toddlerdom that acting out only shines a spotlight on one’s insecurities. In this scenario, it only makes it seem like they want to have sex with a man.

The American Right echoes the resentment of these mundane men. Republicans remain uncomfortable with strides towards gender equity, even if they can’t say it in so many words because in gender politics (and nearly everything else), the party holds the minority opinion. Politicians cannot openly agree with the ten percent of American adults who believe that when it comes to giving women equal rights to men, our country has gone too far. The polling suggests that militant misogynists are a relatively small proportion of the population.

The group doesn’t constitute much of a voting bloc, even among the MAGA base.

The Right’s attempts to sustain minority rule inspires some of their most twisted rhetoric. In a recent speech, Senator Josh Hawley—made famous by his January 6th insurrectionist fist pump— put on the Ol’ Fascist Razzle Dazzle:

The Left know what they believe. They believe that America is a systemically racist, structurally oppressive, hopelessly patriarchal kind of place. It’s a dystopia, if only Americans would get woke enough to see it. It’s a nation that needs to be taught how unjust it truly is and after that, rebuilt from top to bottom. That’s the Leftist project, and that’s their grand ambition: to deconstruct America. This work of deconstruction is what unites today’s Left and binds together all their various preoccupations, from critical race theory to their economic socialism to their bizarre war on women’s sports.

Hawley goes on to blame the abolitionist Left for a supposed crisis of masculinity. He believes (or purports to believe, one can’t really tell with this guy) that the Left’s multi-pronged challenge to gender norms signals the collapse of the American Man. He says that instead of getting married and raising families, young men are stuck in the basement playing Call of Duty and jacking off to porn.

Josh Hawley doth protest too much. For all their talk of freedom, Hawley and his cronies rely heavily on strident rules—and the fear of breaking these rules—to manipulate their followers. The speech is his way of shouting out of a car window or telling someone they’re in the wrong bathroom. This is how the Right makes victims out of men. Despite their insistence on self-reliance, they bemoan the sad state of affairs from mothers’ basements throughout the land. Politicians deflect and conjure unspecific, mythical periods when men were men, women were women, and America was untouchable. Their nationalism ignores all the destruction wrought by American culture, wars, and settler colonialism.

In pre-colonial North America, societies recognized genders beyond the binary. Duane Brayboy’s article “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders” details the status of Two Spirit people, a term which coalesces various tribes’ understanding of gender nuance:

The Two Spirit people in pre-contact Native America were highly revered and families that included them were considered lucky. Indians believed that a person who was able to see the world through the eyes of both genders at the same time was a gift from The Creator. Traditionally, Two Spirit people held positions within their tribes that earned them great respect, such as Medicine Men/Women, shamans, visionaries, mystics, conjurers, keepers of the tribe's oral traditions, conferrers of lucky names for children and adults (it has been said that Crazy Horse received his name from a Winkte), nurses during war expeditions, cooks, matchmakers and marriage counselors, jewelry/feather regalia makers, potters, weavers, singers/artists in addition to adopting orphaned children and tending to the elderly.

Brayboy points out that Two Spirit people weren’t merely tolerated, they were celebrated, ordained, and considered integral assets to society. Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s new anti-trans legislation suggests an opposite approach to diversity. Abbott and his Attorney General operate under the implication that there’s no such thing as transgenderism, and so they work hard to erase trans people. In another century, Abbott might have called for the governmental institutionalization and lobotomization of transgender adults.

Today, he points his ire at transgender kids and their caretakers. According to Abbott, parents, teachers, and medical professionals who enable gender-affirming care for citizens under eighteen are guilty of child abuse.

Parental choice has become a potent topic for the Right, born out of the hardships that parents have experienced during the pandemic. Republicans want to maintain a system where parents have a fundamental right to raise their children how they choose. One would assume that these rights should privilege a parent’s consultations with their child’s medical providers. The problem for Abbott is that in the twenty-first century, sometimes a child’s medical regimen includes comprehensive gender care.

Abbott’s work is cruel, but also incoherent. Any parent knows that there are an infinite number of things that they cannot choose about their child. Gender reveal parties are built around this conceit. These popular festivals of biological determinism confuse gender and sex but ultimately celebrate the delight and surprise of chance, matters left squarely out of parents’ hands. Reveal parties, despite their ham-handed understanding of gender, manage to concede that a human’s nature is left to fortune, randomness, a deity—but not parental choice.

I see an opening. What if the mainstream understanding of gender moved on from pink and blue to include numerous genders, each innate in that they depend on a person’s interpretation of one’s own soul, and not the appearance of one’s genitals?

I don’t want to “leave trans kids alone,” as liberals plead whenever issues around trans youth make it to the courts. This framing is too passive, too much like the “love is love” cry from the marriage equality fight. Queer love is amazing, holy, and so are trans kids. I hope for a culture that exalts trans kids, sees them as special in the same way that Brayboy describes his Two Spirit ancestors.

The genocide of the Indigenous Peoples of North America destroyed both lives and expansive cultural understandings of gender roles. Adherence to a rigid gender binary is ahistorical, unimaginative, and fragile; any contemporary deconstruction is just the overdue toppling of a house of cards.

Still, the Right has a talent for sniffing out, exploiting, and even creating anxieties which shadow progressive gains. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Republicans designed so-called “bathroom bills” to scapegoat my transgender siblings who use the public restroom in contradiction with the sex marker on their birth certificates. The bills play on all sorts of ugly tropes: transgender people are deceptive and predatory, perverted, and ultimately up to no good. Bathroom bills are a wedge issue meant to align a Republican party split between haves and have-nots, the old-school Moral Majority types and the white grieving NASCAR set, a voting bloc divided between people who get richer from low-or-no taxes on the wealthy and those who seek an answer to their failing quality of work and life. Bathroom bills bet on the premise that everyone—whether they are high income or ashamed of relying on other people, let alone the government—fears a man in a skirt.

Of course, transgender women are not men in ladies’ clothing. They are women, full stop. And of course, transgender people, especially Black transgender women, are not the perpetrators of sexual assault but overwhelmingly the victims of violence. Bathroom bills are meant to inject fear and confusion into a place where women of all stripes just want to pee in peace. They are designed to shout, in the words of the drag queen Jaida Essence Hall, “Look over there!” as Republican politicians strip workers’ rights, cut social safety nets, and otherwise screw over voters.

Where then do I fit in this fool’s bargain? There are no state legislators arguing about where I, a 37-year-old non-binary dyke, should go when nature calls. By focusing so much on the gender binary—that quick and dirty tool to divide and conquer—the Right has neglected to think about the millions of people who fall somewhere in between male and female.

I could spend all day poking holes in the ginned-up problems supposedly haunting America. But at the end of the day, anti-trans activism is tactical. Politics only has so many themes, and the rich and powerful using fear-based manipulation to stir up support is one that is tried and true. The Republican playbook is simple. First, they make up a problem which centers an already-oppressed group as the object of fear. When one kerfuffle dissipates from the public consciousness, Republicans simply move on to the next fabricated social catastrophe because in this version of Occam’s razor, the simplest solution to any non-problem is more ignorance.

But wedge issues touching on gender have unique staying power. People remain super sensitive about disrupting the divide. I’m reminded of this every time someone mistakes me for a man and then knee-jerks into profuse apology.

Recently at a nice restaurant, the visibly gay, presumably cisgender man working as host “sirred” me from behind. When I turned around, he hid his face in embarrassment. The remainder of the evening, he made a point to call me “miss” and “she” and “her.” At the end of the meal, a free dessert arrived at the table.

I liked the host. He was kind, polite, and well-meaning. The gratis pavlova was delicious. The guy was likely operating from his own experience as a queer person, reacting to the pain he’s felt at being called a sissy or a girl or a faggot, and dreading that he’d inflicted the same harm on someone else. The irony of the situation is that the host failed to do the one thing that would have made things right. He could have asked me for my pronouns. Or I could have just _told _him which pronouns I use.

While misgendering someone remains an ultimate social taboo, I try not to be too hard on other people or myself. Until very recently, I did identify as a woman. The pandemic years have given me time and space to reflect. Interactions with the general public have diminished. When I’m out and about, my face—which holds some of my most feminine features—is obscured by a mask. Often, strangers don’t even try to guess my gender. I’m neither sirred nor m’aammed, bossed nor honeyed. I exist without salutation. I enjoy respite from perception.

At home, it’s just me, my partner, and our dog, and when only two people are around, “you” quickly becomes the only pronoun you need. At some indeterminant point in the pandemic, I started noticing myself squirm when coworkers on Zoom referred to me with she/her pronouns. Over this period, I’ve come to identify most comfortably as neither male nor female, as a person who can express and internalize qualities from all along the gender spectrum.

I now use they/them pronouns. This is not a matter of preference. I prefer almond milk in my latte but will drink cow’s milk in a pinch. My gender, however, is not my coffee order, so I ask others to use these pronouns when referring to me as a matter of fact, not frivolity.

One of the blessings of queerness is the potential energy that it stores up in a person, a power that fuels change. Over the years, I’ve changed a lot about myself, and not only my pronouns. In the late-aughts as I was coming of age, only a handful of people I knew in my extended, very queer community in Portland, Oregon identified as non-binary and used they/them pronouns. Binary trans people were far more visible, especially trans men whose beards, flat chests, and general masculinity threatened my fragile, baby-queer psyche. Back then, I held problematic views still common among TERFs who fear that trans people aim to snuff out or replace women and lesbians. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve changed, and so has my community.

TikTok routinely feeds me videos from people who explain that during the course of the pandemic, they’ve found themselves unexpectedly but irrefutably attracted to genders they’d never desired in the past. Bros lust after Paul Mescal. Ostensibly straight women fawn over Megan Rapinoe. My gay cis male friend Carson keeps posting to Instagram about his giant crush on Sydney Sweeney even though he’s still more likely to spend his Fridays at the leather bar than anywhere near straight people.

Anecdotally, a number of friends have experienced shifts to non-binary identities similar to mine. The social rupture caused by the pandemic has provided folks a petri dish to test out alternate premises. For example, you don’t have to pass or have surgery or do anything at all to be trans. You don’t have to accept or reject or love or fear masculinity to be a good queer. Queerness isn’t necessarily about how you look or who you date. It’s about truth which is beauty which is love for yourself and others.

Humans are paradoxical, characteristically obstinate and adaptable. We despise being inconvenienced, but our survival routinely begs us to take novel approaches. As I leave the house I now recite, “phone, keys, wallet, mask.” I’m so accustomed to pandemic public health measures that I have a hard time recalling the beforetimes, when seeing a masked public would have been remarkable, a scene out of a disaster movie, not a Trader Joe’s.

Of course, not everyone has been so amenable to masks. Anti-mask activism gets a lot of attention, which seems like the point. Vaccines are another problem. American men are about four percent less likely to have been vaccinated than women. Polling suggests that white men, particularly those who support Trump, are the most stubborn holdouts. Sometimes, I wonder if the resistance has to do with the fact that getting vaccinated means getting penetrated, letting the outside into your body. At a public event in early 2021, an Idaho doctor named Ryan Cole—who was later appointed to Idaho’s largest public health board—even referred to the COVID-19 vaccine as “needle rape.”

I wonder how these attention-starved anti-vaxxers would handle real oppression, the types of hardships that are life-altering and life-ending and not just inconveniences. Sixteen percent of American women, for example, have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. And according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, “LGBT people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.” Then again, maybe anti-vaxxers are aware of their standing. Maybe they fear that a needle’s poke is not just a poke but a small taste of what it’s like to be us.

It can be tempting to want to just wait out these so-called culture wars. The pandemic will end. The broader public might one day soon accept trans people. This year, for the first time ever, _People Magazine _placed actor Brian Michael Smith, a transgender man, on its Sexiest Men Alive list. It may seem silly, but the distinction points to a big cultural shift. Not long ago, trans panic was an effective legal defense in homicide cases. Defendants argued that their horrific actions were justified on account of the insanity-inducing horror of realizing that a romantic partner was transgender. But now in waiting rooms across the country, a popular tabloid has given straight women and cis gay men permission to lust after a trans person. In America, objectification is the surest sign of acceptance.

Of course, there’s real danger in today’s persistent anti-trans rhetoric. I fear that all transgender and gender-nonconforming people, despite the modest gains of now being considered human in some circles, are a few setbacks away from being dragged back into hate’s tar pit. The only thing keeping us from another Trump candidacy is a massive stroke in the septuagenarian’s brain and even then, Republicans would find a way to run the guy. Picture Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell propping up Trump _Weekend at Bernie’s _style in the Oval Office, piping in “Memories” from _Cats _to give him enough wherewithal to mutter out “Count Chocula!” as his Supreme Court nominee to replace an ousted Sonia Sotomayor. The new seven-two conservative super XXL majority court would love to hear the case of Karen versus Ross Dress for Less where the plaintiff argues that the retailer did not do enough to protect her from the irreversible psychological damage of seeing a person with facial hair trying on a maxi dress.

My decades-long bathroom troubles make me worry about the average American’s tolerance for gender difference. I’m also a Teutonophile and have spent a lot of time thinking about how backlash turned genocidal in the twentieth century. In 1930, the German economy tanked, which primed the conditions for Hitler to woo disillusioned voters to his extremist Nazi Party. Less than a decade later at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, for example, homosexual prisoners were raped, castrated, and killed. Ilsa Koch, also known as the “Witch of Buchenwald,” oversaw this torture and made lampshades out of the tattooed skin of murdered inmates. Her crimes resemble the work of American serial killers from Wisconsin to Washington State, psychopaths also known for targeting women and gay men.

And for every Ilsa Koch, there were probably thousands of Elke Kochs, average German citizens who ratted out a neighbor to the SS for suspicions of antisocial behavior, Nazism’s umbrella-term for queerness. Their proof? None required. I imagine that if pressed, they may have cited an apocryphal incident like trespassing in the opposite gender’s restroom.

In the rush of everyday life, it’s impossible to know which conflicts are temporary backlash and which are here for the long haul. Torture to compel confession. Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Economic stimulus as a cause of economic downfall. And now climate change. Time and again, reality has killed the American Right’s political darlings.

We live in difficult times, no doubt. The past two years have seen a cavalcade of troubling events and attitudes. Police murder citizens yet voters elect the status quo. Adults scream at each other in school board meetings. Kids still bring guns to school. Global warming is here, no longer some future specter but a fleshy ghost of Christmas Present, reminding us of humanity’s excesses through fire and flood.

In memes, conversation, and song, the Zeitgeist seems to be ushering in the apocalypse. Inside, Bo Burnham’s magnum opus of pandemic-era anxieties, features “That Funny Feeling,” a litany of sensations, objects, and facts which elucidate this contemporary sense of doom:

The backlash to the backlash to the thing that's just begun…The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door…Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go…That unapparent summer air in early fall, the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.

Right-wing politicians have long characterized climate change as a liberal boogie man. One of their main arguments against confronting climate change, meant to appeal to an evangelical Christian base, claims that only God can affect the weather. The idea that carbon emissions, and the humans who direct them, could negatively impact the weather spits in the face of God’s supremacy. If temperatures are rising, it’s all a part of the divine plan. The righteous welcome the apocalypse, after all, because they’re sure to be chosen.

Thankfully, plenty of smart, sensible people reject this suicidal ideation wrapped up as faith. There is still time to fight the worst effects of climate change. We have reason to hope that humans and our Earth will survive. And yes, there are trans people in that future.

I also hope that the current backlash against transgender people will soon go the way of the marriage equality fight in the aughts. I hope in ten years, trans people can just be normal people. We’ll use bathrooms with impunity. Trans kids will include themselves in the vast majority of people who play youth sports but never dream of going on to college or professional ball.

I hope trans people will have the luxury of being basic. They won’t have to be perfect like Laverne Cox, sexiest like Brian Michael Smith, or enormously wealthy like Caitlyn Jenner to gain respect. Then and now, trans people should be allowed to be messy, to stumble out of taxi cabs, to wear Halloween costumes of questionable taste. Trans people should be allowed to make clumsy passes at a bar without fear of physical harm. Maybe one day we’ll all just be human, endlessly forgivable and lovable. -"The Ladies Room"