A friend of mine living in Albuquerque posted about an art project s/he recently completed, and I messaged hir to find out more about it. What follows is an interview with the artist, Harley Kirschner, in which we touch on toxic masculinity, safety, artistic processes, and a whole lot more!
Kam: How did you get involved in it? Did you propose the idea?
Harley: I work at Winnings coffee shop again, after a few years in plumbing and pipefitting , unemployment, self employment and other jobs. We have artists do murals in our bathrooms and it was time for a new one.The need was expressed and I jumped on the opportunity. I got free reign over what I wanted to do and as a trans artist who is getting into what I like to think of as oversized zines, naturally I created a zine installation about using public restrooms as trans in a public restroom.
Kam: Is it related to your plumbing career, your art career, or both? Can you elaborate on that?
Harley: My plumbing career collapsed which I now see as a blessing. However, in that collapse, after living stealth 24/7 I really collapsed emotionally. Everything about my art and my loud trans non-binary self is because I failed at fitting the mold of what a plumber or pipefitter or man is supposed to be. Trying to be someone that I’m not almost killed me as I was terrified and disassociated all the time. I do share my experience with how bathrooms were such a huge part of that in this installation. However, although I would usually put my name on my story, due to the location being my place of employment and coming to embrace myself as non-binary and using mixed pronouns when I feel safe, I felt too vulnerable. I thought about censoring my story but felt the content was important so I chose to leave off my name.
I found empowerment in taking a bathroom and making it my own and a safe place for trans people after my experience in the plumbing industry which has rules (which are laws under the guise of safety… Most are.), about gendered bathrooms. That was one issue that I always had issues with myself. My experience in the plumbing and pipe fitting industries was heavy industrial for the most part so I did very little in bathrooms and actually very little with water. Mostly, I piped refrigerant and coal. I still use some of my skills in doing irrigation.
When my plumbing career fell apart and I started talking about it in zines and about how toxic masculinity makes me want to kill myself, I started getting recognized for my art and it was very clear to me that where my art had been lacking in the work that I had been showing wasn’t in the technical sense but rather in the voice. I knew that if I wanted to achieve what I wanted with my art, to make trans people feel beautiful, I had to use my own voice and make it loud. I had been very scared to do that. Partly because it was incredibly unsafe in my plumbing career and partly because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. When I had nothing to lose career wise and my sanity and breath depended on taking up queer and trans space I knew that taking the steps to enhance my literary voice would give my fine art real value.
Kam: What are your goals with the project? What would you like people to get out of it?
Harley: To make Winning Coffee Company the most queer and trans friendly coffee shop in Albuquerque. To take back bathrooms after they made me feel so unsafe. To embrace the diversity within my community by feeling the love and support of not only trans people but of all the people who love my work. I feel that it is very new to me to feel the amount of love and support around being trans from cis people that I do and I would like to offer that same safe feeling in a public place in Albuquerque for all trans people. I am very lucky to have such great supportive coworkers that helped make this happen, including making the bathrooms gender neutral (a few years ago) and helped me paint the walls.
Kam: Do you see ways to expand on this? Other places or other ideas?
Harley: I would like it to be an ongoing conversation. As the installation deteriorates and get tagged (unfortunately a given with the Winning’s bathroom-nothing offensive just disrespectful in general) I would like to replace the paper with different stories. People are encouraged to contribute any stories they have about using the bathroom as a trans person. I have thought about doing this bathroom in other spaces but am too busy artistically to take on another project right now.
Kam: What did your artistic process look like for this?
Harley: I used matte black paint on all the walls but chose to keep the ceiling white and paint the door white so it didn’t create a feeling of being trapped. There was a metal frame that used to have an advertisement poster in it. The advertising company closed but the frame was still there. It reminds me a lot of the welding that I was working with at the job that I reference in my story so I chose to keep it and decoupage the plexiglass that it holds. It works very well with the symbolist element of my work. I wallpapered large photocopies of stories and photocopied collages of images related to being trans and using bathrooms. I incorporated images from my time in the union, including an image of my shadow where I look like I’m holding a gun and I’m going to shoot, an image of a sign that says “ouch”, and images from one of my textbooks. My favorite part is the dictionary words “restricted” followed by “restroom”, nothing could have been more appropriate. In my photocopied collages I incorporate transfers to overlay images. There is a grainy quality in oversized prints that I find particularly appealing.
Kam: Anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t ask about?
Harley: Thank you very much for asking me to talk about my work on your blog. Your writing has always inspired me and I hope that my voice will be as touching to others as yours has been to me.
Within a week of me coming out at work, a new protocol had been put in place for how we should go about cleaning bathrooms. And for the first time, it applied to all cleaners in all bathrooms, not just guy cleaners going in women’s /girl’s bathrooms, or gals going in the men’s / boy’s. The timing of it was not lost on me.
1. First, call out to see if anyone is in there. If they are, wait.
2. Next, take a sign that is now velcro-ed to the back of all bathroom doors, and velcro-adhere it to the front. This sign reads, “Do Not Enter. Cleaning in Progress.”
3. Close the door, and then do whatever you’re doing, whether it’s just loading more paper towels or full-on cleaning the bathroom.
Before this, we only had to be conscious if we were in bathrooms that were opposite to the ones of our gender/sex.
When I came out to the principal and assistant principal, one of the first and only questions they asked was about bathrooms. Which bathrooms did I plan on using? If she (the principal) could make a suggestion, it would be best if I only used the gender neutral bathrooms. I was polite in response, even though I had not thought this through, and at the time, I used both the women’s bathrooms and the gender neutral bathrooms. All I said was, “A lot of people are worried about bathrooms when it comes to trans-people.”
As it is, a year later, I really only do use the gender-neutral bathrooms because different people within the school have different perceptions about where I’m at, and I want to protect myself and also foster the idea that I am neither male nor female. I didn’t plan on this. I thought I’d be continuing to use both women’s and gender-neutral ones. But I’m not.
I clean one set of bathrooms in the “centrum,” an open plan area where the first graders are taught – there are 3 regular classrooms, 2 resource classrooms, a big open area, and two bathrooms. These bathrooms don’t have doors on them, and also therefore, there are no, “Do Not Enter, Cleaning in Progress” signs accompanying them. Since I do get a head start while the first graders are getting ready to go home, I always yell, “Anyone in here?” even before just dumping the trash / cleaning the sinks. (Due to placement, there’s no way I’d encounter someone using the restroom from the sink area.)
A few days ago, I was doing my routine and called out like always. No one answered. I was putting in a new roll of paper towel. Then I heard a toilet flush. Also a bunch of kids were to the immediate right of this bathroom, putting on their winter coats and boots. I finished loading the paper towel, deciding that it would have been a bigger deal if I had just left it half loaded in my paranoia to escape the bathroom. The girl washed her hands and then I ripped off a piece for her to dry her hands.
Kids who were right there had a very lively conversation!
“There are no boys allowed in the girl’s room.”
“And also no girls allowed in the boy’s room.”
“But why is he in there in the bathroom then?”
“He has to be in there because that’s his job.”
“He’s putting more paper towels in there.”
“But still are you sure he can be in there?”
I just cleared out without further fanfare, but I felt kinda flustered. Personally, I still feel like I half belong in the girl’s / women’s bathrooms. Indeed, those are the ones I use the vast majority of the time when I am out in public.
I was intrigued that these first graders gathered that I was male. I honestly have no clue whether kids at the school I work at think I’m male or female. Whenever I’m asked (this happens so rarely), I do make a point to say, “I’m neither. I’m a little bit of both.” But short of that, I don’t have a clue what conclusions they come to!
One other thing that is tangentially related, I feel, because it concerns personal space: Since I’ve come out, had top surgery, and been on testosterone for long enough that my physique and how I carry myself has changed, I get touched a lot more at work. Some teachers pat or gently tap my shoulders and back. A few days ago, I was thrown way off when a kid patted my midsection for no apparent reason! It’s definitely different, and I don’t respond likewise with anyone, but I gotta say that I do think it’s a positive change – I think people can tell that I am more comfortable in my skin, and some of them act accordingly.
I’ll take it!
If you’d like to see what I originally wrote about this topic, back in January of 2014, here it is:
Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective
I decided to write a Part 2 because this one felt outdated. And I still haven’t covered everything, not by a lot shot! (probably part 3 will appear in the future…)
While driving around the other week, my partner spotted this sign at the firehouse around the corner from us. They were temporarily closed while they renovated the bathrooms! I was floored by this – went back and took a photo of the sign. Way to go, neighborhood firehouse!
This post is part 2 in a series about some issues that are on the minds of a lot of non-binary people. Part 1 was about why I prefer male pronouns. Today I’m talking about bathrooms. Part 3 will be about legal designations / filling out forms.
I am someone who is inhabiting a space in this world, in between genders. There is a growing language, subculture of sorts, and political agendas surrounding this experience. In theory, I am on board with all I’ve seen (and let me clarify that what I’ve seen is almost entirely online at this time, and not reflected in the world I actually live in). But in actuality, not every part of it appeals to me personally. Which is OK – I can still support it while simultaneously getting the word out that not all non-binary people have the same needs, preferences, and agendas.
In general, I use the women’s restroom. The reason for this is: because it is where I would rather go, despite the fact that I see myself in more masculine terms, overall. No need for a further explanation – no need to try to align different areas of my life into one gendered idea of myself (even if that one gendered idea is “gender neutral,”) if I don’t feel like it.
If there is a single stall / gender neutral one available, I would prefer to use that bathroom. But usually there is not, and it is not something that I am personally concerned about. I feel comfortable enough in the women’s restroom. I don’t have any anxiety about it. I don’t second guess it. I’ve rarely been confronted (I keep my head down, avert my eyes, I don’t linger, etc. I am aware I don’t completely belong, so I wanna be as inconspicuous as possible, and so far so good.)
(I wrote an earlier post about my experience with bathrooms, here, at Bathroom anxieties: a genderqueer janitor’s perspective.)
However, many non-binary and transitioning people do not feel safe and/or comfortable in either the women’s or the men’s restroom. Indeed, they are often made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable. There has been a push for more gender neutral bathrooms in public places, over the past few years, particularly at schools and on campuses. Why schools and campuses? I’m not sure exactly, but I can make an educated guess. People in their teens and early twenties are at these places en masse. People in their teens and early twenties tend to be going through changes – they may be focusing on their identities (including gender identities) more so than the general population, so it makes sense they would want to change the spaces where they spend the most time, in order to feel more safe and comfortable.
I hope this movement spreads beyond schools, to include government buildings, corporate chains, every place, really. I think that it will, or, at least, I think this agenda will gain more traction than the push for gender neutral pronouns, which is, comparatively speaking, somewhat nebulous. changes in language are more about changing people’s perceptions and notions on a large scale (potentially very difficult). Bathrooms are about physical spaces, with a direct request that involves a straightforward solution.
New buildings can go up with this floor plan in mind, without much more money or labor. Existing buildings can be remodeled and reorganized. (Something that happens frequently anyway.) Often it’s just a matter of relabeling existing layouts (at no additional cost). For example, if a restaurant has a single stall restroom for men, and a single stall restroom for women, how much work would it take to get that restaurant to just change them both to gender neutral bathrooms? Hopefully within the near future, not much convincing work at all!
Until this is happening anywhere and everywhere (I hope I see the day!!!!), here is an amazing website resource: Refugee Restrooms.
All you have to do is type in your city or location, and it is a database that lists where there are single stall handicap accessible and/or gender neutral restrooms in that area. The database is only as big as everyone makes it, so if you know of bathrooms in your area, go ahead and type in the locations now! I started adding some for my city; let’s spread the word!
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.