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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The locker room

ave you ever noticed that in movies about young people (and sometimes in movies about older people), one of the favorite settings for stressful stuff is in locker rooms and their shower facilities?

Somehow, sitting on a bench in your underthings, surrounded by rude, sweaty jocks, or, on the other side of the gender divide, rude, catty clique members, creates a vulnerability not easily equaled elsewhere.

I always hated locker rooms.

From a very early age, I found the places terrifying. I was known by the school bullies, the camp bullies, and, yes, the church bullies as an easy victim. I had no idea why I was singled out, but it was always the case, everywhere, from the first age that I went into such places unattended by my mom or dad.

I had observed such treatment (of others) when attended by my dad, whereas in locker rooms where I had gone with my mom, behavior seemed to be really civil.

Once I was on my own, however, I had no access to the civil locker room; only the one full of loud, muscular brutes snapping one another with towels, pushing, making lewd references to one another's moms, laughing at one another's "size." Aggression was their response to being cooped up together, and I seemed to lack that response.

They found me right away. My clothes were hidden, my shower turned cold while the soap was in my eyes, and I was bruised by towel-snaps from shoulder to ankle.

Telling my parents was no help. They would look ashamed of me, then try to explain that I needed to "stand up for myself." How? Any overt move on my part would go straight to the vice-principal, the camp counselors, or the deacons, and I would be, in their eyes, a troublemaker. The hazers were experts, and the hazing was a closed system with no escape.

Physical education was a requirement in the schools and even in the colleges in my day, so, not until I dropped out did I gain control of my own cleanliness. There were still public restrooms to deal with, but I was now among adults who seemed to have a truce while in the men's room. I would survive.

Fast forward a few decades to the twenty-first century. I discovered that I needed to cross the gender divide; this apparently was what the bullies had spotted in that puny, timorous child, calling me things that were meaningless to me then, like "fag."

I went to counselors, did hormone replacement therapy, grew my hair, got facial electrolysis, learned to wear gender appropriate clothing, to walk, to sit, and to think and feel as I felt I had always been meant to do and be. I have scheduled an operation.

I explained the situation to my co-workers, friends and family. Nearly everyone was not merely supportive, but celebratory. "You're really becoming you – you look so happy." I entered the world of the ladies' rooms, where the warmth and civility that I vaguely remembered awaited me. I joined a women's walking group.

Our group hiked past an exercise center. "I've always thought about joining that place, get a little help with my waistline and cardio issues," I remarked.

"They're pretty inexpensive and really friendly. Why haven't you joined?"

"I dunno. Maybe next year – I have so much I'm dealing with this year.”

At home, I looked in the closet. No exercise stuff. Well, I could buy a sweatsuit. I looked in the dresser. Nothing. Then I spotted the swimsuit.

I know how to swim but I don't anymore, because I don’t have a left eardrum. But my beloved gave me one of her swimsuits, a nice black one-piece, which I sometimes wear in summer with a skirt, for that backless look.

I tried it on and looked in the mirror. Hey, looks pretty good. Nice on top, waist not bad ...


So that's the problem.

Until I have the operation, no way am I going to the exercise center. I would never make it in the showers.

I haven't been in a men's locker room in over thirty years. Frankly, they have always terrified me. And yet, during that time I was ostensibly not a "transwoman" but a married man with four kids. There were associations for me that had remained raw.

Now I had an additional reason not to go – to the women's locker room – or did I?

The City of Eugene is currently struggling with a code revision that would add transpeople to the list of protected classes. Unlike some seven states, ten counties and sixty-five cities nationwide, in Eugene it is perfectly legal to fire a transperson for being trans, or to deny that person housing. Interestingly enough, it's not illegal for them to be in the restroom or locker room of their preference, but exposure, whether willful or unintended, in the presence of the "opposite sex," is illegal, thanks to a different ordinance.

Much of the public testimony, from those opposing the revision, has focused on restrooms. Many men, in particular, find it intolerable to think of a "man in a dress" going to the ladies' room where their wife and daughter go. Visions of terrible events pass though their minds, which in reality don't occur; statistically, transpeople simply aren't predators.

Locker rooms are, however, another layer of the problematic. This has been noted by the operators of shelters, some of whom have strict rules about separation of men from women.

I hold a driver's license that says I am female, and I haven't been in a men's room in over a year. Yet if I were to present myself to some shelters, even with a letter in hand saying I have had surgery, which hasn't yet occurred in my case, I would be denied admission unless I changed into men's clothing and slept in the men's dormitory. And I would be forced to use the men's locker room for my cleanliness, even though I have breasts.

(Aside from the main argument of this letter, here's how strongly I feel about that. If I had no choice but to go to such a shelter, and such a rule were imposed, I would make a point of dying of exposure on their doorstep.)

Interestingly, there has been considerable controversy about this issue among the very people the code revision seeks to assist. Most say that the ordinance should simply protect trans access to public facilities, as a safety issue – one gets to pick the one in which one is most comfortable. A few, however, expressing concern about a right-wing backlash, insist there should be a "documentation" clause – that the operator of the facility should be able to demand proof that one's operation is over and done with.

I'm inclined to think that such a clause would perpetuate the very discrimination the Human Rights Commission is seeking to address. Most of those who have had the operation are also "done with" transitioning. They have become the men or women they feel they were meant to be, and are now blended into the population in their new roles. For the privilege, however, they faced tremendous hurdles. The operation for MTF (male-to-female) can cost from ten to thirty thousand dollars. For FTMs (female-to-male), this can go to more than one hundred thousand dollars. Usually this is out-of-pocket, as most insurance companies are as transphobic as nearly everyone else.

As you might expect, most people cannot pull together that kind of money easily, and, if they have been trying unsuccessfully to get a job or find an apartment, this is even less likely. Of all transpeople, the ones who tend to be looked down on the most – by straight people, gay people, and post-operative transsexuals alike – low-income MTF and FTM "pre-ops," cross-dressers and drag queens – are the very ones most likely to need shelter access and are the very ones who will have no documentation they can show.

It's all a very sad case, ultimately, of elitism. The documentation is supposed to keep other people from looking at low-income transpeople naked. But a transperson is no more likely than anyone else to want anyone looking at them naked!

I'm accepted in the ladies' rooms because I'm pretty passable – when dressed – and there is a lot of privacy. Each of us has a place to sit down where the others can't see us. The stress level for all concerned is way lower than that in an open row of urinals. Dressing rooms in retail establishments work the same way. Each of us has her own space in which to undress and dress. Privacy, I think, may have been the issue all along. Men and boys like their privacy as much as women, and it's denied them in the locker room, so they mask their anxiety with aggression. If men's as well as women's locker rooms and showers had the privacy that restroom stalls and dressing rooms have, the anxiety level, and the potential for misunderstandings, would be reduced considerably for all concerned.

And transpeople would be a non-issue.

It's not about the transpeople, my dears, it's about the privacy. Wherever, whenever, and for whomever. In American culture we have a badly designed system of public facilities, and none of us is well served by it.

Consider that many of those who have been attacked or arrested in restrooms and showers for being in the "wrong" place are in fact in the right place. These are cases of mistaken identity. There are straight and gay men who look, through no fault of their own, more like women than like men, and there are women, straight or lesbian, who look more like men than like women. And then there are the intersexuals, those born with characteristics of both sexes, whose physical appearance, especially below the waist, can in some cases cause a lot of confusion.

If we were to adequately address the needs of these people, none of whom are necessarily trans (a very rare condition), as well as the privacy needs of the entire population, the trans issue in public accommodation might simply disappear.

Just hang a three dollar curtain around your showers, folks.

I'll bet we could find some rich liberal who would be willing to foot the entire bill.

-- risa b


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