Bathroom Manners: How I Learned to Stop Being Helpful

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I could often be found grading papers at a long table in close proximity to the women's bathroom on the second floor of the P Street Whole Foods. The men's bathroom is located way across the floor but because the women's is visible first, a number of men mistakenly approach it. This happened often enough that numerous times I pointed out the correct location to save oblivious guys from embarrassment.

On one such occasion, someone who reminded me of my friend Malcolm in gait, contour of jaw, and length of dreads, advanced with serious urgency.

"Sir, that's actually the ladies room, the men's is over there," I said, in the non-judgmental tone I had cultivated for my self-appointed role. But instead of the usual grateful smile, he responded with a loud, disdainful grunt. This person, who apparently was not my friend Malcolm nor his twin, then entered the women's room, pushing the door so forcefully, it should have flown off its hinges and landed on me. At the moment, I wished it had.

I wanted to scream that I have nothing against Ls, Gs, Bs or Ts. In fact, in the 70s, I hung out with someone who called herself Tanzelle, tucked her male organ away and stuffed her bra with socks when we hit the club scene. And recently, a former colleague felt comfortable sharing that her daughter had become her son. I told her, quite genuinely, I admired her calm handling of such a huge change. Liberal, open, curious, that's me, I shouted silently. But if that was true, how could I have made such a mistake?

The minutes dragged by. I contemplated grabbing my stack of papers and making a dash for it. Not-Malcolm and I would never have to gaze on one another ever again. I reviewed the evidence: striped shirt with button-down collar, gray slacks, loafers, no evidence of breasts. In all regards -- traditionally male in a non-descript way, but what does that even mean? The irony if you didn't catch it was that I was trying to save "him" from embarrassment, and I ended up being embarrassed.

I stayed put at my table because I am no coward and plus I wanted to apologize. "I am so sorry... ," I tried to say to the hand she held up as a barrier when she exited the restroom. And then she marched off, like she was wearing heavy boots, only she wasn't.

One moral of this story? I will never again stop any person of any gender from entering anybody's restroom. I will also work harder at not giving into stereotyped tropes of maleness or femaleness.

Washington D.C.'s "safe bathrooms" law disallows single-gendered, one-stall restrooms in business establishments that are open to the public. Chapter 8 of Title 4 of DC Municipal Regulations says in part: ... single-occupancy restroom facilities shall use gender-neutral signage. More states need to adopt similar legislation. Gender and sexuality are more fluid these days than ever. Some countries actually recognize more than two genders. The U.S. isn't quite ready for that but what we can do is check our gender stereotypes at the bathroom door and implement more legislation like D.C.'s and then enforce it. Come on, Boston, get on board! That will be one giant step for man/woman/or neither kind.