The Sunday Rumpus Essay: The Butch and the Bathroom

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My beloved and I have a routine, worked out over thirty years, a road show really, or a vaudeville act, each venue a version of the venue before, a wall-long mirror, a sea of side-eyed, not-looking looks, bright tile or porcelain surfaces, faucets with knobs or motion detectors, towel dispensers or baskets of heavy napkins, or in fancy places like the art museum those dryers (my favorite) made by the vacuum cleaner company with hand-shaped slots and automatic fan. Most, unless they’re one-seaters, have cubicles, a bank of confessionals, some ill-fitting doors or broken locks except in department stores and occasional restaurants—I found a nice one at an Illinois tollway McDonald’s—where everyone gets their own fully enclosed little one-person comfort room.

Whatever the setup, the routine is this: I approach the door first, you know the one, where the body on the sign is shaped like a triangle, the head usually hairless, but if there’s hair always a chin-length bob or even a flip, rolled up on the ends, defying gravity, hair you rarely see on the street anymore. In some places there’s a damsel with a big nineteenth-century hat, or a cowgirl, or lipsticked lips, a high heel, a corset, a bow. I might be, or wear, any of those accessories—except for the bow—but the husbutch relates to none of these. On the other door, the wrong door, are the pants, the top hat and cane, the pipe, the necktie, the oxford shoe; these are what the husbutch might wear, or be.

On any given night on the town my beloved might wear a necktie and cufflinks, heavy shoes, a suit jacket. The waiter, the ticket taker, the usher may have called the husbutch SIR, after which the beloved and I meet eyes and smile. The next person down the line might say SHE—but HOW ARE YOU LADIES DOING TONIGHT is wrong too. We don’t correct anyone because there’s no right pronoun, no perfect correction. It’s hard won, my spouse’s deep butch spot on the gender spectrum, but harder to explain, no longer as common as in our butch-femme lesbian youth, never in fashion in the hetero world, here in that queer place where the masculine SHE might be the singular THEY—language and signage both inadequate. I love my beloved’s middle-aged butch manner even more than I loved the younger, less-honed version of the same, love the tall, square, self-inhabited form, love their arm reaching for my arm, don’t expect straight strangers to have words for us. We have words: classic butch and femme queer, but most of the world has still not read our dictionary.

Then there is the bathroom issue. My beloved is like me, like you, like anyone. Sometimes a person has to go. And so the routine. There have been times when the husbutch has chosen the cowboy, the rooster, the mustache room, if it’s a one-seater, or if no one’s around who might slug a person for disobeying the rules of the door, but usually the threshold named “Ladies” is the one they cross. Despite the glares. The gasps. The stares. The wild head swings. The bossy corrections. The hard sighs. The sharp squeaky inhalations. The body blocks. The back out the door and baffled return. Because, did I mention? Sometimes a person just has to go.

Our routine is one way I say I LOVE YOU, but is practical too, providing a cue, an entrance swell, anything that will invite my beloved to speak. And so the husbutch and I keep putting on our dog and pony show. I am the dog who says, a little too loud for conditions, SO HOW WAS THAT STEAK or DID YOU TALK TO YOUR MOM TODAY? The husbutch is the pony who whinnies back in response, intentionally pitching their voice higher. A LITTLE OVERCOOKED. YES I TALKED TO HER THIS MORNING. Any spoken language will do. My beloved is masculine but is not a man and relies on the voice to reveal that THIS room is the only POSSIBLE room. Most of the time the routine leads the door guardians to settle down, look again, remember, perhaps unwillingly, that sometimes the bodies don’t match the signs.

And sometimes too the routine doesn’t work. The usher cuts us off and shouts THE MEN’S ROOM IS ON THE OTHER SIDE. The woman ahead of us in line shouts WHY IS THAT MAN IN OUR RESTROOM LINE. The woman at the end of the line sends her husband to the threshold to shout, enunciating too slowly, SIR. YOU. ARE. IN. THE. WRONG. PLACE. Sometimes the righteous lady—she must love those signs featuring damsels in feathery hats—backs away and returns with a man wearing a button that says SECURITY. Sometimes the husbutch will say THIS IS THE APPROPRIATE ROOM. Sometimes I will lose my cool and say YOU AREN’T LOOKING CLOSE ENOUGH. LOOK THE FUCK AGAIN. Those times I think the damsels-in-distress see WHAT we are just fine. It’s not the men they don’t want in their bathroom, but the queers.

In his thirty-fourth day in office President Trump revoked former President Obama’s 2016 directive stating that American schools receiving federal funding must allow students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, because Title IX prohibits sex and gender discrimination in educational programs. This pullback of protections for transgender students is in keeping with the bathroom law in North Carolina that started the nationwide legal fight—The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act—which states that individuals must use the public bathroom that corresponds with their birth certificate. The bill carries no clause insuring safety in a restroom where your gender expression matches neither your birth certificate nor the sign on the door, suggesting gender-nonconformists had better just hold it or go home. More frightening than the legal battle is the din of binary bathroom supporters, including, we presume, all the ladies-in-line who call in the cavalry to save whom from what? The terror of allowing a trans teenager to pee in peace? Fear of a smiling silver-haired gentleperson in antique cufflinks and colorful tie who stands quietly in line waiting to take a leak? Panic over some belief that my beloved has stolen their pot to piss in?

The husbutch and I have practiced alternate responses. WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO PULL DOWN MY PANTS SO YOU CAN CHECK? or I’LL SHOW YOU MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE IF YOU’LL SHOW ME YOURS. But until all the bathrooms say LADIES & GENTLEMEN—or better yet, just TOILET or COMFORT STATION—our show must go on.

One evening this year, just after the musician Prince died, and while the bathroom issue was all over the news, I walked into one of those fancy art museum restrooms in Chicago. It was the night of the Prince tribute and all the drag queens wore purple. They were performing in the lobby but just then were on break, relaxing in the ladies’ room, lounging across the sinks, legs spread long, smiling defiantly at everyone who came in to pee. I had to go too but stopped to admire. What sign should be on this bathroom door? Wigs and false eyelashes? Smiles and a chaise lounge? I moved into the nearest cubicle, wishing this time the husbutch was along. For once, someone else was taking care of the show. I will ask the husbutch later why they didn’t go in with me, forgetting for a moment that public facilities are for public needs, and that all the potty should not be a political stage. BECAUSE, my beloved will tell me, I DIDN’T HAVE TO GO.


Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic, winner of a Lambda Literary Award and an IPPY Gold Medal in Essay/Creative Nonfiction. Her previous book, My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), won the ALA Stonewall Book Award in nonfiction. Borich is an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago where she edits Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts. More from this author →