Trans Characters and Gendered Bathrooms

Trans Characters and Gendered Bathrooms

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

I’ve been gone for a little while because my partner was recovering from surgery (which went extremely well!). I’m finally back into the rhythm of writing, though, and I wanted to kick this week off by talking about bathrooms.

Now, if you listen to my podcast, Gender Journeys, you know that my partner and I have had bathrooms on the mind this last week. While we talked about our personal experiences with gendered bathrooms, it occurred to me that this near-ubiquitous experience for trans folx is one a lot of cis people just… don’t consider.

So I thought I’d speak this week on how the general concept of gendered bathrooms might affect your trans characters.

Trans Characters and Gendered Bathrooms

image of a standard "restroom" sign with a skirted figure on the left and an unskirted figure on the right, the two separated by a white line. Smaller and to the unskirted figure's right is a figure in a wheelchair. Another, horizontal line runs beneath them with the word "restroom" beneath it in all caps

In many places in the US and beyond, trans folx can be denied access to the bathroom that best matches their gender identity. And even in places with non-discrimination laws designed to prevent this, trans individuals may be harassed or physically assaulted when using the bathroom. This means that many trans folx are uncomfortable using public restrooms at all. (If you want more information on this issue, check out this resource)

Restroom scenes can be places of catharsis, isolation, transformation, connection, and growth. Public restrooms in fiction function as facilities for privacy and reflection — crying in a stall, splashing cold water on their faces, staring at one’s face in the mirror. But where does a trans character go when they cannot retreat to the simple safety of a public restroom, either for fear for their own safety or because of literal laws barring them from such spaces? Including one of these scenes for a trans character without considering the wider picture can come across as unrealistic or tone-deaf. 

If nothing else, most trans folx will consider their surroundings before using a gendered bathroom. They might consider the laws and protections in the region, the predominant culture’s view on gender identity, and the queer-friendliness of the place. This doesn’t mean that the character will never use a gendered bathroom, of course — it’s a risk assessment, and one that’s informed by the character’s identity and appearance.

“Passing”

“Passing” in the trans community is the concept that your expression matches your gender identity such that those around you gender you correctly. No trans person is under any obligation to pass, but many pursue that goal to make their lives easier. And, if a trans person passes, it’s possible they won’t be in much danger using the restroom that matches their gender identity, as no one will be able to tell at a glance that they’re trans

Trans folx, especially binary trans people, are often acutely aware of how well they pass in a given situation. This will figure into the calculus of when to use a gendered bathroom. I, for example, prefer using the women’s restroom and pretty much universally pass, so even in situations where I might be a little fearful I generally decide that it would be safe enough to go in and pee real quick.

Nonbinary Folx

Not all trans people pass, though — and, notably, there’s no way to “pass” as nonbinary (something I’ve touched on previously). There are no fashions or expression signals that universally code as “nonbinary” in our society, and even if there were, “nonbinary” is such a diverse label that many folx would not necessarily feel comfortable conforming to such a standard.

A bathroom sign with an image of a toilet with the words "All-Gender Restroom" beneath it in all caps. The words are repeated in Braille beneath

There’s no such a thing as a “nonbinary restroom,” anyway. There are gender-neutral restrooms — usually private or single-stall affairs which are not equipped with the same facilities as gendered bathrooms (urinals, multiple stalls, etc.), but this isn’t quite the same thing. Though they offer extra privacy, they also tend to turn over more slowly and can serve to alienate nonbinary folx, restricting to them to a special, “different” bathroom.

But a lack of “passing” is not the only additional consideration a nonbinary individual has to make. In situations with no gender-neutral option, they have to consider which gender identity they most resemble in that moment, which bathroom would feel the most affirming, and which is the safest in their current situation. This is markedly more difficult that a binary trans person doing all they can to “pass,” and in many situations is simply unattainable for nonbinary and gender expansive folx.

Writing With Trans Character and Gendered Bathrooms

So, with all that context, here are some general tips for writing trans characters in relation to gendered restrooms:

  • Consider their safety. You don’t have to labor on this point, but make sure it figures into your character’s decisions


  • Remember there’s always a bathroom at home. A lot of trans people, unwilling to risk their safety, will go to extreme measures to ensure they only use the bathroom at home — up to and including not drinking at all until they return home for the day

 

  • Avoid bathroom assaults. Especially, if you aren’t trans, I highly recommend you stay away from explicit depictions of harassment or assault in bathrooms. It’s VERY trying for trans people, who deal with this on a near-daily basis, to have to read about, so don’t approach the topic flippantly.


  • Don’t labor over particulars. No trans person actually sits down and enumerates all the pros and cons of using a gendered bathroom. Rather, they will have a moment of hesitation or consideration before making a decision. Just because the process isn’t as easy as with a cis person doesn’t mean it deserves its own paragraph — a sentence will suffice.


  • Friends are incredible. Early in my transition, before I passed, I relied on the kindness and understanding of my friends and partners to scope out bathrooms for me — to see what the stalls or signs looked like, keep an eye on the door to know how safe I was, or even accompany me if needed. It’s possible your trans character has people in their life that can do these things for them, especially early in their transition, and that’s amazing.

That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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