Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective

I spend a lot of time in both men’s and women’s public restrooms.  Or more accurately, girls’ and boys’ restrooms – I clean toilets, and I work at an elementary school.  There are also a few gender neutral bathrooms, for staff, which is pretty great.  For a tally, there are 3 girls’ gang bathrooms and 3 boys’ gang (That’s really how they are referred to, which totally conjures images of ruffians scribbling graffiti all over the walls and pulling all the toilet paper off the rolls.  Oh, and smoking and fighting and stuff.), 3 gender neutral bathrooms for staff, one women’s room, one men’s room, and 7 bathrooms within classrooms (also gender neutral).

For my first half-hour of work, kids are still in school.  I like to get a head start on some areas I can access before they leave for the day, and gang bathrooms are one of the places I can start.  But only if I’m sure no kids are in there, and they’re not likely to come in. Especially for the boys’, because technically I am female.  This is very serious.

Before I labor over that point, here’s a little back story about my take on which bathroom I personally should be in:  Over the holidays, I got to hang out with two out-of-town friends who are both trans*.  They were both describing dreams they’ve had where they went into an unaccommodating bathroom, like stalls were missing or it was more of an open locker-room vibe.  And they asked my partner and me if we’ve had public restroom anxieties, and we both replied, “No.”  And in that sense, it’s true.  I strongly feel myself to be non-binary and genderqueer (and my sense of self is closer to male than female), yet I really have no questions or reservations about which public restroom to use.  If a gender-neutral or family one is available, I will use that.  Otherwise, I will use the women’s room.  And if people are doing a double take or wondering if I should be there, that’s kinda their problem.  Because it’s the bathroom I feel more comfortable in.  I didn’t always feel this way.  I used to always feel very anxious about the whole endeavor of going into the women’s room.  Honestly, I’m not sure what changed, other than the fact that I’d rather be in there than in the men’s room, and I’d rather feel calm than anxious?

What if, though, I were just a few degrees closer to feeling male and presenting masculine?  And/or I felt more comfortable going to the men’s room, but looked the way I look now?  What would that mean for me at work?  The whole system of safety according to separation of genders would be breaking down.  Like, what if I were out at work, and asked for male pronouns and used the men’s / boy’s room?  Would there be a lot of upheaval and confusion?  Or would everyone be accepting and cool with it?  I really can’t make that call in advance, but it’s interesting to think about, even on this basic level of which bathroom is it “safe” for me to be in at the same time with children?

Daily, I have to be in and out of both bathrooms.  And as of now, f I get a call that there’s a problem in a boys’ room, I gotta get out wet floor signs and yell into the doorway, “Anyone in here?”  (I do this for the girls’ room too, even though I don’t technically have to.)  If I’m already in there and a boy walks in, I have to make a huge deal out of the fact that we are both in there.  And I have to walk out immediately.  This happened just yesterday in fact.  I knew I was taking a chance, starting to clean the bathroom before school was out.  A first-grader came in, and I had to be all, “Wait one second.  Let me leave and then you can go in.”  He was really flustered and turned right around and was really hesitant about going in at all after I walked out.  I had to repeat a couple of times, “You can go ahead now.”

Why all the paranoia?????  I follow this protocol because people can loose their jobs over shit like this.  And a part of me understands it, from a safety standpoint.  But at the same time, we are instilling and reinforcing really irrational fears and gender rigidity into kids!  The situation is anxiety provoking, all around!

During the majority of my shift though, I walk in and out of bathrooms without any hesitation because my co-worker and I are the only ones in the school.  (There are evening activities most days, but everyone needs to go to designated bathrooms at those times.  They can’t just wander around the school.)

This may sound kinda weird, but bathrooms are a good place to kill some extra time.  I like to practice peeing standing up, without an STP device.  (Basically because I don’t have one; I’m thinking about getting one.)  Interestingly, I do this still in the girls’ room.  I never actually use the boys’ bathrooms (it’s been ingrained in me too).  Also, bathrooms have mirrors, which used to come in handy when I was just starting to get into doing drag.  I’ve spent countless work hours listening to my mp3 player and practicing lip synching and dancing, in front of mirrors in the public restrooms.  I like to use the mop handle as a microphone stand.  It’s pretty fun.

Bathrooms end up being a microcosm for people’s anxieties surrounding gender.  And I don’t totally get it.  But I can attest to the fact that it is indeed taught and reinforced at a very young age.  I can also attest to some differences between genders, based on the different states I find the bathrooms in or just trends and differences between the two, but that’s sort of a different topic all together.  And some of it is just plain gross.


22 Comments on “Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective”

  1. Interesting. I had never thought about it, but, of course, a janitor would have unique insight into public restrooms.

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  2. Tristen says:

    What countries I don’t recall, but several of them have truly gender neutral bathrooms in which males and females share the same one, the gang style. Why we can’t do that I’ll never know. People are in the bathroom to handle a bodily function, not get their freak on.

    As for the first grader you mentioned, boys are notorious for waiting until the last possible moment to go to the bathroom, hence the peepee dance. It may have been more of his own sense of urgency then your presence in “his” bathroom.

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    • janitorqueer says:

      good point about the first grader. I really shouldn’t attempt to get into the minds of kids because I definitely have no clue where they’re coming from / what they think about, haha.

      And yeah, the rest of the world should take a cue from countries with lax bathroom borders!

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  3. Jamie Ray says:

    I’ve always been surprised at how many mirrors there are in public bathrooms! Many more than are necessary although I guess they add to a sense of security and they reflect a lot of light.

    My general rule is that I don’t go into a public women’s bathroom unless I am accompanied by someone else (e.g. Donna). I use the women’s bathroom on my floor at work because everyone knows me – but I have been stopped by visitors to the office who’ve tried to correct me – which is awkward. I don’t use bathrooms on other floors.

    I have a mental list of gender-neutral bathrooms (I love Starbucks) if I am by myself, and my gym has single bathrooms that I can use in a pinch (and they have gyms all over the city). My bigger problem is communal locker rooms and gendered try-on rooms; I feel like I am being stared at even if I am not actively challenged.

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    • janitorqueer says:

      yeah, dressing rooms are a big one! I’m always bringing boys’ and men’s clothes into the women’s dressing room. And I don’t do any sports or go to gyms, but that does sound very uncomfortable.

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  4. I never really thought of using the one that I would feel more comfortable in, just the one I thought other people would feel more comfortable with me using. That’s a good way to think of it.

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  5. urbanmythcafe says:

    It always comes down to “where am I going to pee?” I wish that I had not devoted so much mental energy into this question during my life.

    I haven’t thought about school restrooms in many years. Mostly, I just managed to avoid them entirey, at the time.

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  6. micah says:

    This post was very engaging! I love how you analyze this stuff at work.

    Your conclusion on using women’s vs men’s restrooms is exactly the opposite of mine, though we employ the same reasoning. I switched to using men’s restrooms, and will now do so exclusively. Occasionally, I’ll walk in, walk out, like when there are no empty stalls, and consider walking into the opposite one. But now, when I walk into the women’s, I feel immediately anxious, like I am intruding somewhere I don’t belong.

    For me, the irony is that both you and I look pretty much the same in terms of masculine/feminine appearance, so we probably encounter similar reactions in either one, but we’ve somehow found comfort in different places.

    (However, there was a long transition period of sorts before the emotional switch flipped for me. Perhaps it is just about what we’re familiar with that makes us comfortable?)

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    • janitorqueer says:

      Huh, that’s really intriguing that we’ve thought about it in similar ways, but have come to opposite actions based on those thoughts. I feel really strongly that this is where I’ve ended up (women’s room) as opposed to, I just haven’t gotten there yet (men’s room), though I can’t place why, exactly.

      I imagine if I do come out at work, I will end up only using the gender neutral staff bathrooms from that point forward. But of course, I’ll continue going into all of the bathrooms for cleaning.

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  7. samallen230 says:

    Hey there. So good writing! Just sayin’. 🙂

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  8. Akiva says:

    I never thought that much about which restroom I *should* use before I started questioning my gender, though I got a few pointed glares from women. My first job out of college was working in an office with almost all women, so I started using the men’s room because it was less crowded and closer, and because I was curious how I’d feel about it. I noticed a strong conditioned anxiety about violating the taboo of going in the “wrong” restroom the first few times I did this, but it was completely gone after a few visits. It took another few visits where men were also using the bathroom for me to get used to that, and I’m still very aware of when other people are present in either bathroom, but I’ve lost the unreasoning anxiety.

    Now I actually have to remind myself that when the stalls are full, people will get nervous if I back out and go in the other one! I mostly look for gender neutral bathrooms because my priority is to avoid making others nervous, but my work doesn’t have them so I actually use both interchangeably. Only one person has been bothered by this (a guy, oddly—guys don’t usually look as closely or care as much because they don’t worry about being attacked by women in bathrooms), so whenever he’s looking I avoid going into either bathroom, which sucks.

    It’s interesting to hear how that taboo gets instilled in kids—“you can’t pee when there’s someone of the “wrong” gender in the bathroom, this is really important!”

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    • janitorqueer says:

      It’s really interesting (and good to know) that it was actually easy to switch bathrooms after getting over the initial ingrained hurdle.

      It’s a bummer you have to be on guard when one person in particular is around. Good for you for changing up which bathroom you go into. I’m curious – did you specifically come out at work as non-binary?

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      • Akiva says:

        Ha, no, not even close, I’m a coward. :/ Everyone calls me my preferred name (which is traditionally male), most don’t know it’s not my legal name, and I’ve never heard anyone call me by anything but she/her (which I don’t mind, it’s nice to have a mix in my life, since many strangers read me as male). There’s one other coworker I’ve seen in the men’s bathroom regularly, and I have no idea what he thinks about it at all—he seems totally unsurprised and incurious, but I don’t interact with him much.

        I feel almost like I’m “stealth” as non binary (I wish I wasn’t, but I also wish people would just look at me and assume I’m non binary, and that’s clearly not going to happen). A surprising number of people don’t want to be rude and will assume that any confusion is on their part.

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      • janitorqueer says:

        I definitely wouldn’t call that being a coward! You’re acting in ways you want to, by using the bathroom you want to use, etc. You’re not just conforming to what you think everyone around you wants you to do, and that’s courageous!

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    • micah says:

      I did something similar in my previous job, but the situation was different. It caused me huge anxiety to use the men’s, because my co-workers knew me as “she” and I guess they were all very confused, not to mention it was always full and crowded, but at that point I had started to feel very uncomfortable using the women’s, so catch-22.

      Like you, I never came out to them, because I did not feel comfortable doing so (among other reasons). My ultimate solution was to switch jobs – along with the name, pronouns, and restrooms 😛

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  9. […] co-opt mindfulness. -How we were fooled into thinking that sexual predators lurk everywhere. -Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective. -Can men ask for safe space? -Laverne Cox is the woman we’ve been waiting […]

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  10. sadtransface says:

    Bathrooms aren’t an issue for me anymore, thank god. While I was on low dose T and for quite some time after I stopped (before I started singing), I had to be careful when going into bathrooms with other girls, because I scared other women with my voice once or twice. At the beginning of my transition, bathrooms ruled my life. I still feel like an outsider to both types of bathrooms. At one of the most high end malls in the city, there is a section of just family restrooms, about 6-8 of them, and they all look like mini public restrooms with a few stalls in each one. I dig it!

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    • janitorqueer says:

      yeah, there should totally be more “family” style bathrooms! But they should change the name to “communal” or “shared” or something. Some people want to go in them without their whole family haha.

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  11. Right on. W feels the same way about preferring the “women’s room” over the “men’s room,” if no gender-neutral (ideally, single stall) facilities are available. However, he’d say he has some anxiety about it. He’d rather hold it than deal with the annoying people in the women’s room. But he’d rather use the women’s room than the men’s if he HAS to pick. But really, why do we care so much about gendered bathrooms? Are they really necessary? Seriously, I am just fine living in a world where everyone uses the same bathrooms. We’ll all doing the same thing in there, for the most part.

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    • janitorqueer says:

      I overheard a conversation yesterday in which someone was talking about working at Old Navy’s dressing rooms. They said that although there are men’s and women’s dressing rooms, they aren’t labeled, and it’s company policy not to enforce where people go. (This person had come across people doing sexual acts in the dressing rooms more than once.)

      It’s pretty cool that people can go in whichever dressing room they want, but bathrooms are still an issue? Haha. I mean, dressing rooms are well, roomy! And the purpose of them are for people to get naked (to try on clothes). Bathrooms are tight quarters, and people are in there to do specific business and not much else!

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  12. […] assigned gender category can feel this way- deciding which toilet to use can be a real source of anxiety. some have been attacked for using the “wrong” bathrooms. People think they are justified in […]

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