Toilets, Transitions, Truth
A few times in kindergarten, when Muir was still living as G., she wet her pants at school. This had rarely happened since she was potty trained at age three, but it wasn’t a big deal. Her teacher was charmed by the way G. had come to her and said nonchalantly, “Jeannie, I wet my pants. What should I do now?” When we mentioned it to G. later, worried that she might have been embarrassed, she shrugged it off. “Like Elmo always says, accidents happen!”
We stashed an extra pair of undies at the bottom of her backpack, but she never needed them again. We chalked what became known as “the pee incident” up to her unwillingness to waste recess time visiting the bathroom. Then, in second grade, Jeannie, who was no longer G.’s teacher, pulled me aside at pick up time. She said she’d looked out her door during class that day and saw G. wandering around the quad. When she stepped out to see if she was okay, she’d noticed something in G.’s hand, which she tried to hastily shove in her pocket. “I’m pretty sure it was toilet paper,” Jeannie said. “What do you think is going on?”
We started to figure it out over a year later, when G. came home one afternoon and told us that a group of girls had shoved her into a bathroom stall and held the door closed. Horrified, I asked, “Why would they do that?”
“Because they think I’m a boy and I shouldn’t be in the girls’ bathroom. They yelled, ‘You can’t be in here! You’re a boy!’”
Several of the girls involved were in G.’s class and obviously knew that she was a biological girl. I contacted the administration; suspensions were handed out, apologies were made. And we finally figured out what had happened with the hidden toilet paper that day in second grade: G. had either been bullied out of the bathroom, or had left herself when a group of girls walked in, wanting to avoid an embarrassing confrontation, or was wandering around waiting for the bathroom to be empty. All of these possibilities were heartbreaking, and infuriating.
How long had G. been enduring this? I suddenly remembered a field trip to a farm that I’d chaperoned in first grade. Before we got on the bus to return home, we had the kids line up to use the port-a-potties. When G. went in, I heard a little girl whisper to her friends, “Too bad there’s not a urinal in there.” It seemed like an odd comment, but maybe she was just going through a phase of curiosity about urinals and had hoped to see one? I hadn’t thought about it after that. But now it made sense: Even when G. was six, she was harassed in the bathroom because she didn’t conform to her classmates’ idea of a “girl”.
The teachers put plans into place to protect G. She’d take one of her best buddies to the bathroom (both of whom had two moms, incidentally, and were genuinely indignant that G. should be harrassed around this issue). The buddy would wait for her outside, ready to alert an adult if she were bullied. If she wasn’t able to take a buddy or she wanted to avoid the girls’ bathroom altogether, she could use the staff bathroom. This eased the immediate problem, but it wasn’t a solution. And as each year began, with each new crop of entering kindergarteners who didn’t realize that G. was a biological girl, the issue flared all over again. Some days, she ran in the door and straight to the bathroom after school; she told me she’d held it all day.
“What can I do?” I asked. “What would help?”
“I want to use the boys’ bathroom,” G. told us.
“Don’t you like using the staff bathroom?” his dad, Bryn asked. “I’d rather use the staff bathroom or the girls’ bathroom anyday. All boys’ bathrooms are gross. All men’s bathrooms are gross, really. We’re kind of pigs.”
“People look at me when I use the staff one,” G. said. “I want to use the boys’.” She was confident that this was the solution. This wasn’t just some lesser of two evils choice. It was what she wanted.
“Don’t you think they’ll look if you use the boys’?” I asked. “And what about the boys? Don’t you think they’ll give you a hard time, too?”
“You’re not getting it,” she said. “The reason people bug me is that they don’t know if I’m a boy or a girl, and so they don’t know which bathroom I’m supposed to use. If I just use the boys’ and we tell everyone I’m using the boys’, it won’t be a problem anymore.”
Tell everyone? I hadn’t thought things through that far. It seemed like one thing to just let her start using the boys’, and something else entirely to make a public announcement about it. But I figured she was right: the only way to change the situation was to bring it out in the open and let everyone know what to expect.
On the one hand, it seemed like the right and logical thing to do. On the other, would we be exposing G. to further ridicule, to uncomfortable questions she wouldn’t want to answer? And, some part of me wondered, what exactly did it mean if she “officially” used the boys’ bathroom? That G. was a boy now? That my kid was transgender?
After long debates with Bryn and several discussions with G.’s therapist that went on for the better part of a year (while G. continued to experience daily stress around bathroom visits), we finally agreed that it was healthiest, emotionally and physically, for her to use the bathroom that best aligned with her evolving gender identity. Coming to this decision for ourselves was challenging enough, but it also turned out that the school administration was also grappling with concerns of their own. They responded to my emailed request about the restroom decision that the school welcomed G. to use the staff bathroom, but wasn’t prepared, or ready, to agree to letting her using the boys’ room.
They thought they had the option to delay or deny. So did I, until I Googled “transgender bathroom kids” and discovered that three years earlier, in 2013, California had become the first state to require K - 12 public schools to allow transgender students to use whatever bathroom or locker room they choose. AB 1266 “gives students the right ‘to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities’ based on their self-perception and regardless of their birth gender.” I emailed a link to the full text of the bill to every school administrator. I refrained from pointing out that it was someone’s job to keep track of such important legislation, especially as the lack of such awareness could lead to potential lawsuits based on discrimination. I did, however, refer to the ACLU and its work on behalf of transgender students a few times, as well as the fact that offering a staff bathroom amounts to “separate but equal” treatment. I left it at that.
When I hit send on that email and felt the adrenaline of righteousness and justice surge through me, I realized that this was something significant, not just for G., but for me. This was something I was willing to fight for, that I was prepared to take legal action for if necessary, and I had the State of California behind me. Whatever it meant for G. and for us as her parents, if using the boys’ bathroom was what it took to make her feel comfortable and “like myself”, that was all that mattered. That was what would happen. I made a list of who we would enlist to support us in our fight: The Transgender Law Center, the Gender Spectrum legal team. I also researched a few private schools, where, it if came down to it, we could enroll G. and she could simply start over in a new gender identity, and no questions would be asked.
My strategy of “stealth litigiousness”, however, did its job. The school responded to my email right away, and their message was supportive and even positive. A meeting was held, where the staff and administration expressed their strong affection for G. and desire to see her healthy and happy. Everyone agreed that G. would begin to use the boys’ bathroom, and we made sure she knew who to go to and how to get help if she ran into trouble. Just like that, a problem that had been unsettling G.’s life for years, for her entire elementary school experience, had been solved...with a little a-hem from the California State legislature.
It was a victory. But for G., it also opened the door to do what she’d wanted to do for over a year: “come out” to the school. Since she was going to use the boys’ room now, she should probably let the kids know so they wouldn’t be surprised...and if she was going to do that, she might as well tell them she’s going to be using a different name and pronoun from then on. It just made sense, she told us.
Thus began another round of debate. Bryn and I had, at this point, accepted that this wasn’t a passing phase: G. was transgender and wanted to live as Nicholas, in his affirmed gender. It was already halfway through the school year, and Bryn felt that G. should wait until the new school year to make his announcement. Most of the school administration felt the same. Personally, I didn’t see the logic behind this. How was it going to be any different if we told the kids in August as opposed to March? Maybe they were secretly hoping that G. would change her mind over the summer and the issue could be avoided entirely?
I pushed back. There was no reason to wait, I countered. G. knew what was right for him. He needed to be trusted. And while I didn’t believe it would ever happen, if G. did change his mind as some point in the future, so what? The kids would deal with it. Or, if it was a really big concern, he could just start over at a new school as a girl again.
Bryn was convinced at last. I’m not sure about the rest of the school administration, but when we told Jeannie, who was by this time the assistant principal, that G. was now Muir and would be living as a boy, she took the somewhat risky initiative to act on the school’s behalf. She told every teacher in the lower school that G. was transitioning to Nicholas, and we’d be coming around to all of the classrooms to introduce him to the kids. Not at the start of the new school year, not next week: Tomorrow. Nicholas was overjoyed.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked. “I can just go tell the kids. Or Jeannie can. Or we can just skip it altogether and let kids figure it out.” Part of me hoped he would choose one of these options.
“No way. I’ve wanted to do this since kindergarten,” he said. “It’s happening.”
The next day, Muir, Bryn and I visited every K-5 class. Muir calmly and confidently began, “Those of you who know me have probably figured out that I don’t really look or act like most girls, and that’s because I’m not. I was born a girl, but I’ve known my whole life that I’m really a boy.” Pause. Some of the kids looked at each other knowingly. There were some raised eyebrows. A few mouths twisted in confusion.
I held my breath. Were they going to laugh? Taunt him? The potential for this to go horribly wrong suddenly became very real.
But Muir forged ahead, announcing his new name, his new gender marker, and his decision to use the boys’ bathroom. He was brief and direct, almost nonchalant. At the end, he entertained questions. Mostly, the kids were surprised that changing one’s name was actually an available option in life; you could see the wheels turning in some as they plotted how to get out from under the tragically hip names like Gertrude and Cedar they’d been saddled with by trendy parents. Some wanted to know when Muir had known he was a boy and not a girl. There was not a single question or concern raised about the bathroom.
I kept waiting for an inappropriate outburst or a homophobic comment, but the reception was the same in every single classroom. None of the kids seemed surprised or troubled. Many told Muir that he was very brave and applauded when we left. Only one little third grade boy had anything to say about the bathroom, and it was, “Muir, you are welcome and supported in the boys’ bathroom.”
Okay, this is Oakland, and a liberal community where there are many versions of family and many parents talk openly about the variety of people who make up the world, so it’s not entirely surprising that an eight-year-old at our school would say something so genuinely sweet and kind. But it truly affirmed my belief that we were making the right choice by letting Muir be Muir, a boy who uses the boys’ bathroom. It showed me that if we trust Muir and ourselves, we will make the right decisions, even when they are scary, and that if we simply believe that the people in our lives will accept Muir with love and generosity, most of them won’t let us down. They will see our kid for who he is, not for his name, or his pronoun, or the toilet he uses.
He will be welcome and supported. He knew this all along, knew that if he was true to himself, everything would be all right, and he would finally be able to pee in peace.
It was right around the time that we were navigating G.’s use of the boys’ room that the “bathroom debate”, which caused so much controversy and created a sudden surge of awareness around gender identity, became a national political issue. While there was still hysteria in some communities about the possibility that “gender neutrality” in bathrooms was an invitation to predators, in California, where we live, signs that said “all genders” or had both male and female icons on them quietly appeared in public places.
We first encountered an “all genders” bathroom at Target. We stood outside the door, marveling. “Do you see that?! I don’t believe it!” It was perhaps the most exciting trip to buy light bulbs in our lives. And it wasn’t just Target: Suddenly, cafes and museums, libraries and supermarket had “unisex” bathrooms. Sometimes, “men’s” and “women’s” were eliminated altogether, and simply turned into two “restrooms”. Our favorite breakfast place, Saul’s in Berkeley, has a picture of the recently-departed David Cassidy on the men’s room, a picture of Danica Roen on the women’s, and, on the third restroom, a picture of the Partridge Family that says “everyone”. We applaud discreetly over our lox bagel and shakshuka every time we visit.
I never would have believed that bathrooms would become a source of both such conflict and such happiness in our lives. When I see an “everybody” bathroom in a business or a public space, I feel like the world sees my kid, sees us. It recognizes that we don’t all fit neatly into specific boxes, and it’s willing to make room.
After all, we all use public bathrooms. Women, men, LGBTQ, all races, all ages, all persuasions. Everyone. Perhaps it makes some crazy sense that toilets might be where we finally begin to understand and accept each other. The place where we are most humble and vulnerable, where we perform the most fundamental of human acts.
Because we’re all just people. And we all just need to pee. And even if we can’t accept everything about each other just yet, maybe the bathroom is a good place to start.