Restroom gender and no-smoking signs

How wrong is the wrong bathroom?

Max told me a lot about smoking. And gender. And freedom.

I wanted to talk with this participant all day, but Max is in a band and had to leave to get ready for a gig.

I felt connected to Max in a way I can’t make sense of with words, plus the politics of trying to name that connection are complicated, and even more so by the professional/official context of our conversation. Max expressed experiences that are intimate to my heart and have become foundational to my identity and sense of the world – yet we use different names to describe them. I wanted to share my own experiences and ask what Max thought the difference was, but those are my personal interests and biases that I’m supposed to keep out of the interview: it’s about the participant, not about me. We both got emotional during the interview – sometimes for different reasons, sometimes the same.

At one point though, Max seamlessly boiled down so many of the things we’d been talking about into a rhetorical question that made me laugh louder than I normally would in an interview. The phrase was so relevant I didn’t even realize how truly apt it was to our study on stigma and tobacco control in LGBTQ+ communities until afterwards.

Max said, “Are you smoking in the right bathroom?”

To me, as a trans man and as a smoker, this question consolidates a constellation of others, many of which are accusatory rather than inquisitive.

“Are you in the right bathroom?”
You’re in the wrong bathroom.

“Are you supposed to be in here?”
You don’t belong here. You don’t look right.

“Are you a boy or a girl?”
You aren’t good enough at either; you have failed to give me necessary information about your humanity.
Also, what’s in your pants?
What kind of genitals do you have?
Do you have a penis? Do you have a vagina?
You don’t have a penis.
You don’t have a vagina.
You’re not a real woman/you’re not really a woman.
You’re not a real man/you’re not really a man

“Are you smoking?”
You shouldn’t be smoking. Are you stupid? Do you want to die?
Do you want to kill me?
Are you just rude and careless?

“Are you smoking inside?”
Are you insane? Reckless?
That’s illegal, you’re a criminal, and a menace.
And an idiot jerk.

Are you smoking in the bathroom?
You’d better not be.

Are you in the wrong bathroom?
You’d better not be.

Some of this constellation of questions and accusations is also internal. Am I in the right bathroom? Which is the right bathroom? How wrong is the wrong bathroom? Am I allowed to be here? What’s wrong with me? I don’t feel like I belong here. Am I safe here? What should I do? I don’t know what to do. I should probably just hold it. Should I just go have a cigarette? I could use a cigarette.

When is it okay to police other people? Their bodies? When does your health come before theirs? How do I explain the similarities of this kind of policing – of genders, of bodies, of behavior, of smoking, of the morality of health – without equating them?

These aren’t all the questions. Not all of these questions are always asked, or even relevant. Most of them never get answered. Sometimes when they are I wish they hadn’t been.

I am very grateful for the honesty, earnestness, depth and complexity that Max brought to our interview. I won’t soon forget it.

Emile Sanders

Emile Sanders

Em has been working for the Center for Critical Public Health since March 2016. He is currently completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology with a minor in LGBT Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Em received his Associate’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with Emphasis in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Cañada Community College in 2008. He has previously worked in the food service industry and non-profit social services.
Emile Sanders

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