Lost in Trans-Relation: A Reflection on a Bathroom Encounter

She and I are in a seminar together and during introductions she, who I originally thought was he because of my perception of her presentation, stated her pronouns as “she/her.” I accept this and made the note to self that anytime I speak of her, if I’m not using her name, I will use her preferred pronouns.

Before this, it had been three years since first I encountered the concept of preferred gender pronouns. It was during a week-long sexuality institute at San Francisco State University that I discovered there was such a practice and that someone who I perceived as either male or female would go by another pronoun. I remember hearing someone who I perceived as a woman saying their pronoun is “him/his/he.” I remember the moment when I heard someone say that they prefer to be called “it” and I was incredulous because I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to eliminate their human being-ness to be called “it.” Nevertheless I decided that all I needed to do was accept and embrace the pronoun someone chooses for themselves. That was three years ago and, since then, I haven’t held close space with many people, that I know of, who are explicit about preferred pronouns, until now. But this isn’t just a story about preferred pronouns…

Pronouns and all introductions aside we take a break before jumping into a discussion of the readings. I run to the women’s restroom where a line of my classmates is already forming and we pass the time by talking about how we like the seminar thus far. As we are talking she walks into the restroom and I’m certain I do a double take. If not a double take with my head, an internal double take. “What is she doing here?” I thought to myself. I was conflicted. She stated her pronoun yet, what I perceive to be a male-gendered presentation wouldn’t let me be comfortable with her in the women’s restroom. Nevertheless, she joins our discussion and I ease up, but still I wonder what she’ll do when she walks into the stall. When it is my turn to use the toilet I linger wondering if I will see her toes facing the toilet or facing the door. Alas, I also had my phone with me so, in no time, I forgot to watch her and I end up reading an e-mail instead. I finish up in the restroom and go to send a text to two close friends that says, “Can I just say, the first time a trans person comes in the bathroom with you is jarring as hell.” I don’t send the text, instead I sit with the thought for the rest of the seminar. Why was I uncomfortable with her in the restroom when she claims she and not he?

The second portion of our seminar presses my thinking on this further as we discuss authenticity and blackness as presented in an article by Michelle M. Wright entitled, “Can I call you Black? The limits of authentic heteronormativity in African Diasporic discourse.” Wright focuses on the assumptions of a normative and authentic blackness that exists in the dominant discourse in African Diasporic studies. This skewed focus results in marginalizing anyone who falls outside of those categories. Wright analyses the aftermath of the discovery that Olaudah Equiano’s was born in North Carolina and not Nigeria and how that shifted people’s perspective of his authenticity and place in the annals of history. She talks about Black Brits and how their authenticity is tested by Black Africans and how these views of authenticity are deeply rooted in the practices of a Eurocentrism and patriarchy. Of this she says,

“…the origin of blackness as an identity does not begin in Africa (and why should it? Why would millions of people with distinct histories, cultures, languages, and the like invent a generic term to categorize them all?) rather in prejudiced writings of European Enlightenment figures going through yet another era of deep historical amnesia that produced Africans as an undiscovered primitive rather than a continent whose coastal nations were central to the story of Mediterranean civilizations in antiquity” (Wright, 9).

Our professor welcomes a discussion on authenticity and blackness but encourages us to also think about the purpose of a demand for authenticity in relation to other identities integral to the study of women, gender, and sexuality. I didn’t recognize this as an immediate opportunity but realized it when I came home that day and am still reflecting on it now as I write. The discomfort I experienced in the restroom was caused by a few things one of which was my particular claim to an authentic womanhood that I didn’t believe my classmate possessed because of what I perceived about her. Another part of my discomfort is a reckoning with the so-called Other. (I use “Other” with great discomfort. I dislike the language but I’m using it here because I believe it goes toward my point.)

What is an authentic woman? This is the question that must follow my own claim to authentic womanhood over and against hers. I can’t answer that question right now, but I acknowledge it as part of the problem with my issue of her. The more I think about her and my reaction to her, which is unbeknownst to her, I wonder how it would make her feel. I’m troubled by the fact that it would make her feel anything less than welcomed and affirmed when she must hold close space with me. I dare say that my inability to accept and affirm her ought to make me the one who is not an authentic woman–if we want to define the authentic woman as one who unconditionally embraces all. I’ve been socialized to believe the only women that truly exist in the world are those who are born as such and only recently am I learning what it means to take someone at their word. Her word ought to count and, to an extent, it does count theoretically, but practically speaking I have catching up to do. I’m challenged by what it means to lend theoretical support but to falter practically.

I’m so certain that, rationally speaking, I’m here for her using the women’s bathroom, but my reaction to her actually using suggests otherwise and that is troubling me. In general I support the rights of trans people to use the restroom that they identify with but I recognize my ability to say that has been mostly abstraction, something I can say because I’m not faced with the so-called Other. And now here I am, having to step away from the abstract into the real and make my theory of advocacy into, not only, a practice of advocacy but, more importantly, of care and embrace. This seems like the missing step in the academic’s project of advocacy. We know how to theorize from above but we don’t travel below to work it. I know how to theorize and speak well for the marginalized and oppressed of this world, but I’m still working out how to be well with them. So here I am. I’m wrestling with this and find irony that I’m wrestling with this in context of a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar. That is the last piece of this narrative puzzle.

I met her in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar where the core question of the class is, “What is Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” That introduction I mentioned earlier included answering the question, “Why Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” My answer to this question in the seminar was all about the practice of engaging women, gender, and sexuality studies as a field of inquiry useful for bridging what I perceive as gaps in theology and ethics. But given the chance to answer this question again, I would say that Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is as much a personal project of inquiry as it is an intellectual project. I need Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies to interrogate myself and deconstruct years, if not decades, of closed theory about what constitutes woman, womanness, gender, and sexuality because my life is steeped in dominant views of normativity and authenticity about those categories. I need it as someone who has both a personal and professional commitment to the Christian tradition who wants to truly welcome all. I need it because I don’t just want to speak about welcoming and affirming all, I want to be about the business of it; a business undergirded by the discipline/field’s knowledge, nurturing understanding, and, most importantly, cultivating relationships, starting with my relationship with her.

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Comments

  1. Kristen Jason says:

    This is so poignant. Sometimes what you believe in is contradicted by a visceral instinctive reaction that you have. And it’s important that more people acknowledge they feel that way and then move on to correct it. All women are just not going to be comfortable with women who born men right away; but this is a larger conversation of how we can get there.

    Like

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