Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bathrooms - An Ironic Experience at the State Capitol

Yesterday (Tuesday, April 21, 2009) I took a trip to the New York State Capitol in Albany to witness the Assembly debate and passage (for the second time in two years) of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA, A5710/S2406) in that chamber.

The floor session was scheduled to begin at 3:30 PM, so I made sure I got myself a good seat in the Assembly gallery, which is accessed from a fourth-floor hallway in the State Capitol building. I took a look at the agenda, and realized that it might be some time before the bill came up for debate and a vote, so at about 3:45 PM, with a quorum not yet present, I decided to make a brief stop at the nearest restroom, which happened to be just on the other side of the metal detector and security staff at the entrance to the gallery.

I nodded to the security staffer in the dark suit and red buttoneer, went past the metal detector, and on my way to the stall passed by two older women who were on their way out. In passing, I noted that they might be Capitol cleaning ladies, wearing colorful crocheted patchwork smocks.

As I got into the stall, I started hearing knocking. With the bad acoustics, it seemed to me as if the knocking was coming through the wall to my left. Then I heard a man’s voice saying “hello, hello.”

After getting the necessary body functions taken care of and leaving the stall to wash my hands, I heard the continued knocking, and the man’s voice say, “you’re in the wrong bathroom.” At that point I realized the knocking and hallooing might be aimed at me. I looked around – I didn’t see any urinals in there, and I thought, and weren’t there a couple of older women just in here? And then I saw the security gentleman standing politely at the open bathroom door.

Anyway, at this point I stepped through to the anteroom and then out of the bathroom, and it turned out the knocking and “hallooing” had indeed been coming from the nice, respectful, Capitol security gentleman with the red buttoneer, who repeated the assertion that I had been in the wrong bathroom. I looked around at the glass sign above the door which clearly said “women” and then looked at the security man and told him, “No, that was the correct bathroom.”

His response was to say that “a couple of ladies” had complained. It must have been those cleaning staffers who were on their way out as I was entering.

Then he asked me, “Do you have I.D.?”

Now, I know that may have crossed the line – we don’t ask people for their I.D. when they use the bathroom. However, he was a Capitol security staffer in charge of the metal detector, and asking for I.D. is a permissible thing in connection with that process, though I hadn’t been asked for it when I passed through the metal detector. Regardless of whether he was entitled to see identity papers, I decided to take the easiest course, and opened my handbag, pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to him, with my as-yet-unwashed hands, to take a look for himself.

This was apparently satisfactory. So I asked, “Do you think I can go back in and wash my hands now?”

He had no problem with that.

I have never been confronted with this situation before, though I have heard of situations like it. There was that time a few years ago when I was on line at the Steak Escape fast food counter at the food court at the Palisade Center Mall, when I noticed a group of teens furtively whispering and alternately peering at me. One of them approached me to ask the time – and after I looked at my watch and gave it to him, he returned to the group to announce, “she’s a woman.” Apparently my voice passed muster.

I can just imagine what it might have been with the security staffer at the Capitol if I had not had my driver’s license corrected in accordance with New York DMV regulations – a situation that confronts many trans women who are early in transition, and have not yet gotten legal name changes and documentation in order.

I also thought of what the situation might have been like had the security staffer entered the ladies’ room to pound on the stall door and demand my immediate egress. That would have been frightening and upsetting, and I would have made a rather indignant and immediate protest and complaint. As it was, the situation was only mildly annoying.

I thought of just how ironic this was, being “clocked” by a couple of Capitol cleaning ladies who hadn’t even spoken to me, on the very day the Assembly was about to consider passing GENDA again.

And, of course, this entire experience turned out to be an ironic preface to the floor discussion between Assemblymember Gottfried and a Republican member whose name sounded to me like “Condon” (but there is apparently not a “Condon” in the Assembly)[ADDED NOTE: According to Caprice Bellefleur, who was watching the proceedings on television, the Republican member with the questions was Assemblymember Conte, who ended up voting for the bill - so it seems as if this Assemblymember was satisfied with Assemblymember Gottfried's explanations on the floor.], which predictably turned to the usual but politely-stated outrage over the so-called “bathroom issue.”

The “bathroom issue” seems to be based on the bogeyman that the law would encourage crossdressed male sexual predators to be lurking in bathrooms waiting to pounce on women. GENDA would not protect sexual predators, even if they disguise themselves.

However, GENDA would protect that poor early-transitioner who doesn’t have her I.D. in order from being barred from the correct bathroom.

The idea that innocent transgendered and transsexual women should be barred from the appropriate public rest rooms because cisgendered women might feel “uncomfortable” is reminiscent of the policy of racial segregation once practiced in the American South.

The comfort level of white women was “protected.” They were "safe" from having to share the use of toilet seats that were also used by women of color. In many places, there were three facilities – Women, Men, Colored. One might presume that “colored” men and women were supposed to have no problem sharing the same toilets – I guess African-American women were expected to deal with men the seat left up in public facilities, while white women only had to worry about other white women peeing on the seat.) Their segregated white childen were “protected” from exposure to African-American kids in the classroom. In hotels and restaurants, their only contact with African-Americans was with menial cleaning and kitchen staff, and perhaps entertainers, but they were assured that they would be sleeping on sheets that were not shared with African Americans (perhaps not thinking of the fact that the laundress and the maid had at least touched these items). Of course, there was always the shared bus, but even that was separated based on who could sit where.

My own discomfiture is with these ostensibly cissexual cleaning ladies (that’s what they looked like, anyway, with their crochet-patchwork smocks – they certainly weren’t dressed like Capitol professional or office staff – they looked more like the shabbily-dressed denizens of seedy bingo parlors) thinking their feeling of “uncomfortability” with transsexual women (or women they “clock” as transsexual or transgender women, who might just be butch-looking cissexual women, or cissexual women exhibiting symptoms of Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)) entitles them to bar people like me from using the correct public restroom.

If they feel that uncomfortable, I welcome them to “hold it” until they get to the privacy of their own homes. Their comfort level issue should not force me out of an appropriate public restroom. Of course, if they were educated on the issues, they might have a lessened sense of discomfort. They’re not being asked to share the ladies’ room with men, after all.

I actually felt bad for the security staffer – once he had the complaint, he felt it appropriate to use his position of apparent authority to make me prove my entitlement to use the bathroom facility near his security station. I doubt that he was aware of any guidelines as to how to approach this situation, or whether he had the necessary jurisdiction to make the inquiry. And I am sure that he felt terribly uncomfortable about the entire situation, especially after he reviewed my driver’s license to see the big capital “F” on it.

Perhaps he was unaware that the City of Albany already has an appropriate local law protecting transgender people from discrimination like this. I wonder whether there is some policy that the Capitol, being state property, is exempt from the application of local anti-discrimination law, or whether the issue has been raised.

I am not sure who supervises the cleaning personnel (or Capitol staff, if that’s what those two women were). My best guess with regard to the security gentleman, since he was not a uniformed state trooper, is that he is probably a civilian State Police security screening technician associated with the State Police Security Services Unit.

In any event, it might not be a bad idea for some basic sensitivity education to be provided so that gaffes like this don’t happen in the future. I am going to bring this quietly to the attention of State Senator Tom Duane, whose office is just a little way down the hall from the bathroom in question, and trust the good senator to know exactly what to do and who to contact.

Next week is Equality and Justice Day – and there will be hundreds of trans people in Albany, in the throng of over 1,600 people expected to be there for GENDA, Dignity for All Students, and Marriage. I’d hate to see situations occurring where someone without the right documentation gets barred from the appropriate bathroom.


  1. According to Caprice Bellefleur, the Republican Assemblymember who raised the questions was Asseblymember Conte (not "Condon"), and he ended up voting *for* the bill!

  2. Hello Joann,
    Wow, I can't believe this happened to you as I would never have expected it to.

    You never cease to amaze me in how you handle the various situations life can throw your way. I admire you and am glad that things worked out during your trip to the Capital.

    Keep a smile on your face and love in your heart!