I get called “sir” fairly regularly, and get told I’m in the wrong bathroom almost as often. My pal Butch Wonders and I have even written some friendly advice for those who might innocently mis-gender someone. Here I want to offer some of my best gender mistake stories (all of which involve bathrooms – which are ground-zero for gender-policing):
I was at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. It was the middle of the day on a weekday, so the place was nearly empty – except for the staff member at the reception desk. After wandering around the museum (which I recommend highly — although those of you who are not conventionally gendered in your self-presentation may want to pee ahead of time), I went into the restroom. While in the stall peeing, I hear someone come into the restroom, loudly calling “Hello? Hello?”. Since I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in there, I answer “Yes?”. She responds, angrily and loudly, “This is the women’s restroom!”. I respond (while still trying to finish peeing in peace), “Yes, I know. I’m a woman.” I hear a heavy sigh, then “Well there are some ladies who need to use the restroom, and they are concerned.” Note that I am in a stall peeing, that I am dressed nicely for work, that I’ve just spent 45 minutes looking at art, and that I’m about 5’4″ — even if I was in the “wrong” restroom, I’m not sure what the concern would be about. At any rate, I exit, wash my hands and start to leave. By this time the staff member is back at her desk. As I leave the building she says to me in a pretty huffy tone “It was a completely understandable mistake!” I said to her “At first, maybe; but your insistence that I was the one who was wrong was rude.”
I’ve said before that I absolutely understand when people think I’m a dude. But I will never understand the logic needed to assume that a short person with boobs and hips who tells you she is a woman and who is sitting in a stall peeing is actually a man in the wrong restroom and a legitimate cause for concern. If she and the other ladies were legitimately afraid, I’m thinking calling the police or other security would make more sense than following me into the restroom and confronting me. This was not about fear, this was about discomfort with non-normative gender presentation.
I’m at a community theater production of some old musical (“Bells are Ringing”, I think) with my wife, to see a colleague who is in the production. The crowd is mostly older than us (and I’m no spring chicken). At intermission, I go to the bathroom. While in the stall, I can hear an older man saying “Don’t go in there, there is a man in there!”, and I know awkwardness is about to ensue. I go to wash my hands, at a sink visible from the door to the restroom, and the older gentleman steps into the restroom (which has now been vacated by all but me), and aggressively tells me “This is the women’s room!” I respond as politely as I can (I’m frankly a bit shaken up by now) “I know, I’m a woman.” He pauses for a long few seconds as he looks me up and down to confirm my statement for himself, before telling me “Well, your attire had some of the ladies very concerned.” (Note: I was wearing pants and a sweater – very manly, concerning, pants & sweater, apparently). As I exit the restroom, I see that there is a line of older women waiting to use the restroom; and a crowd gathered waiting for “the man” to exit the women’s restroom. Despite the fact that I did nothing wrong, I was mortifyingly embarrassed. I’m not really sure why this situation was more embarrassing than infuriating, but it has something to do with the number and age of the people who watched the whole thing go down.
As soon as I walk into the bathroom at a local public park, an older woman starts talking to me in Korean (I think) and pointing to the “Ladies” sign on the door. I smile, nod, and go into the stall to do my thing. She is waiting for me at the sinks, and continues berating me and pointing while I wash my hands. So I pull my t-shirt tight against my chest and point at my boobs. Light bulb goes off, and we both laugh out loud. Boobs are part of our universal language, apparently.
I have a bunch more stories, but these are the highlights. For those of you worried about making a gender mistake, I really do encourage you to read Post-Gender-Mistake Etiquette: Friendly Advice From Women Who are Often Called “Sir”.
But my advice also boils down to:
- Don’t worry about someone’s gender unless it is relevant (and it is rarely relevant).
- Trust someone’s assertion of their own gender – including which bathroom they go into.