In August, a California girl in the women’s bathroom of an REI store encountered what she perceived to be a man. Her mother complained. Store personnel informed the mother they could not determine the genders of their patrons. Now, citing civil rights statutes, the general right to privacy, and building codes requiring gender-specific bathrooms, lawyers from The Pacific Justice Institute are writing letters on the mother’s behalf demanding “a clear policy to protect the safety and privacy of customers.”
I find this so irritating.
First, what does this woman want REI to do? Ask customers to pull down their pants so the sales clerks can perform an assessment? Demand papers? Form an Olympic Committee of gender assessors to sit outside the bathrooms?
Second, notice the ways in which her response conveys the message of feminine frailty. The psychological trauma of dealing with this situation is not something girls and women can be empowered to handle, but rather something they must be protected from encountering at all—by the company, by the lawyers, by government, etc.
For any fellow parents who are curious, here is how I would handle this situation with my own daughter.
First, Rule Number One. Which transcends every other rule.
If anyone of any gender anytime anywhere makes you feel even the slightest, tiniest bit uncomfortable in any way for any reason: Leave.
No delay, no apologies. Don’t explain yourself. Don’t worry about being polite or hurting someone’s feelings or being a bigot.
Just go. Turn around, walk away without a word and go to the nearest place you feel safe.
As a culture we are too polite and go too far instilling in our children the habits of acquiescence and accommodation when we should be doing the opposite.
Fuck politeness and fuck other people’s feelings. Just GTFO.
Second, I would tell my daughter (as I already do) that sometimes you cannot tell from the outside whether a person is a man or a woman. Sometimes they might seem to you to be one when in fact they are the other. Sometimes they are both or neither, and the available bathrooms do not reflect their possibilities.
Most people fall into familiar patterns, but not everyone does, and there is nothing inherently bad about nonconformance. It can make us feel weird or uncomfortable when it is unexpected or unfamiliar. It’s not bad to feel that way and also not bad for people to be different.
Just like people who follow familiar patterns, those unexpectedly different people might be manipulative assholes and violent dangerous criminals. Or they could be nice, kind, interesting people.
In either case, always follow Rule Number One.
Third, if my daughter had left the bathroom without finishing what she went to do, I would offer as many options as were available. Return with her so she could finish. Wait until that person had left the bathroom. Look for an individual bathroom. Leave the store. Pee in the parking lot. Etc.
Then let her decide.
This part is crucial.
It empowers her to be the arbiter of her own experiences. She does not have to subject herself to anything to which she does not wish to be subjected. And it focuses her attention on Rule Number One. Did the person really give her a Bad Feeling? Or did she just feel weird because something about the person was unexpected?
At the same time, it conveys no message about the other person. It does not suggest that the person really is dangerous or has done anything wrong or has any lesser right to be in the bathroom. It preserves that person’s agency while focusing my daughter’s attention on her own.
If she chooses to go back into the bathroom accompanied by me—and the person is still there—then she gets the added benefit of seeing how I handle it. For me, my default is polite and kind, and assuming the best of people.
But that’s just the default. Subject always to Rule Number One and taking into account that on the scale of fucks-given, my kid’s comfort is somewhere up in the stratosphere and the tender feelz of an adult stranger in the bathroom are maybe at the height of a fire hydrant.
Fourth, later on and as a consistent topic of discussion, I would review not only all the prior messages, but also the general idea of being proactive about analyzing and identifying her preferences in life and then being assertive about having them met.
Does she have feelings about sharing a bathroom with grown ups, other kids, with people of the same gender, of another gender, of the various other possible permutations of the human condition?
There are no right or wrong answers. I was at least in my twenties, maybe my thirties, before it got weird for me to share a bathroom with males. Now, in my forties, I don’t want to share with anyone.
Does she prefer to have a grown up accompany her into strange bathrooms for the time being? Again, no right or wrong answer. Part of being empowered is being able to assess if she really does need help and have it provided without disapproval.
Does she know that many places have individual bathroom options? Can she find a store employee and ask for directions? Could she wait until she either has the bathroom to herself or, conversely, it is so full that it feels safer and more comfortable?
In contrast, if all the mother does is bitch out the manager and have lawyers write letters and alert the media, then the daughter has learned nothing about how to navigate a sometimes complicated world in ways that make her feel safe and empowered—except by way of demanding that other people take steps to shelter her from the prospect of encountering complication in the first place.