Smoking in the wrong bathroom

Smoking in the wrong bathroom

Restroom gender and no-smoking signs

How wrong is the wrong bathroom?
(Image CC BY-SA Critical Public Health Research Center)

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.

We’re all freaks here: Queer community, punk identity & cigarettes

We’re all freaks here: Queer community, punk identity & cigarettes

We're all freaks here. ('Identity', X-Ray Spex)

Today I’m interviewing Tabatha, a young woman in her 20s with a cloud of curly red-tinted hair, who wears a jacket and skirt with combat boots and a septum ring. Her nails are painted in elaborate two-tone patterns, and her voice is low and husky. Tabatha identifies strongly with the Bay Area punk community, describing the punk ethos as come-as-you-are, a place for “freaks.” “We’re all freaks here,” she says.

Tabatha also identifies as: queer, sexually compatible with all genders but homoromantic, femme, cis, and a woman of color. She describes herself as “white passing” and says that she is privy to racist conversations among white people who assume that she is white. Similarly, she says that she is not perceived as queer as often as women who look more butch; she “passes” as straight, and finds herself reminding straight people that they’re talking to someone queer.

In the queer community, though, she says being femme can be hard to navigate. She’s in a double bind where she’s seen as not-really-femme if she makes the first move to initiate a relationship — yet since she is also seen as not-really-queer, other women don’t make the first move either. In that context, passing as an insider can leave her caught between worlds.

Tabatha started smoking when she was 12. She likes the aesthetics of cigarettes, and says that the smokers of her 12-year-old imagination were artists, writers, musicians and thinkers. Romantic outsiders, people who did not expect to live long. She says she did not expect to live long either. Continue reading

Photo elicitation

Photo elicitation

Beginning in October 2014, our team at the Center for Critical Public Health set out to investigate how gender overlaps with ideas around alcohol use. Using an interview-based approach, we’ve now interviewed roughly one hundred and sixty 18-25 year-olds living in the Bay Area. As part of our interview schedule, we created a photo elicitation activity, where participants are asked questions based on photographs presented by the interviewer. For the next few months we piloted different types of images, ranging from advertisements to candid images found on open source image sites. We’ve used multiple photos since the start of the project; some were dropped along the way, and a few have been altered to examine specific ideas of interest. The photo elicitation activity has proven to be a helpful strategy for discussing gendered issues with participants who are reluctant to talk about gender differences during the normal question-answer sections of our schedule.

Two items of particular interest were pivotal in designing our photo elicitation activity:

1) Participants gave particularly interesting responses to a Facebook-embedded photo we were using, and

2) Participants were generating a significant amount of discussion around their own social media use.

Since social media seemed both interesting and relevant to so many of our participants, we decided to embed some of our photographs into different social media platforms, creating both an Instagram and Snapchat photos. As the project continued, our discussions regarding participants’ social media use were unique enough that we expanded the interview schedule to include specific social media questions in the open-ended portion as well. The following is a summary of findings that have emerged thus far, keeping in mind that interviews are ongoing and that deep analysis of the data has yet to commence.


Facebook Instagram Snapchat
(most risky) (least risky)


Overwhelmingly, the most popular way in which alcohol experiences are shared online is through visual media. Still-capture photos were identified as the primary means of posting, sharing, and otherwise exposing people in one’s social network to alcohol-based activities. While it was acknowledged that this happens across a variety of different platforms, Snapchat and Instagram were highlighted as the two most frequently used social media platforms for sharing alcohol-related experiences online. These standards relate to discourses connected to social risk, social acceptability, and internet culture. Notably, people’s comfort in sharing alcohol-based information varies based on their perceptions of risk, which seem to fall on a spectrum of Facebook (most risky) > Instagram > Snapchat (least risky).

This risk management seems to revolve around the user’s own self-monitoring, as they seek benefits from sharing ‘fun’ information with their social network, while keeping in mind the potential consequences that could emerge if that same network disapproves of that shared information. By posting acceptable information, participants have described these positives results in terms of social capital. Direct positives on many of these platforms include receiving friend requests and gaining followers, and real-life positives discussed were linked to a person’s increased popularity online. On the other hand, by posting material that is seen as taboo by the online community, users expect to receive negative feedback and possible scrutiny by friends and acquaintances alike. These standards seem to be determined by the online cultures that exist for each platform, and each of these were described as unique social environments. How each person describes their standards and protocol is unique, but below is a rundown of each photo we use and some of the themes that have emerged so far. Continue reading