My manager stopped by my cubicle signifying the start of our weekly check-in meeting. As we were heading out to find a conference room he excused himself. “I keep forgetting that we cant have our one-on-ones in the men’s room,” he joked as he headed for the restroom.
The main engineering building where I did my studies was called Hitchcock Hall. It seemed a fitting name for a place so dark and dimly lit that a significant pause upon entry was required on sunny days. When the blinding darkness subsided you could continue into the foyer without risk of running into someone or tripping up the stairs. Freshman engineering students on their way to drafting and design classes passed through this windowless hall with low ceilings, flanked with portraits of mostly white male engineering professors. It was a five floor structure.
During my time in school, Hitchcock had three women’s restrooms. We heard that the building didn’t have any women’s restrooms originally, an artifact still present in floors 1-4 where freshmen engineering classes were taught. There was a women’s restroom on the far end of the first floor near career services in a newer portion of the building, and an unmarked, converted men’s room available somewhere on the second floor. A few years later I learned of a third women’s restroom in the basement. Finding women’s restrooms in old engineering buildings; a scavenger hunt!
I remember one of my freshman engineering classes quite well. It was where I learned that I was good at programming. It was a class of 60+ freshman where my friend E and I were the only female assigned people. Long beige tables set out in front of a white board where our TA occasionally scrawled things in colorful dry erase.
On the first day of class E and I sat in the second row, close enough to smell the markers. As the TA gave an overview of the course and discussed a free form design project, a voice behind us shouted out
“Can we redesign women?”
While my face was reddening a few boys laughed and I heard another fellow mutter
“Dude – theres two girls up there!”
Shaking, I turned around to face him and said
“Only if we can redesign men.”
Welcome to college, freshman female-assigned engineer.
As if these interactions were not enough of a thorn in my side I was quite ill during my freshman year, sometimes necessitating several trips to the restroom during class. Our programming lab was on the fourth floor. I was afraid to try and find the second floor unmarked women’s restroom, which was later adorned with a colorful paper sign thanks to Society of Women Engineers, so I tromped from the fourth floor to the first and back with my sore belly, sometimes several times over a ninety minute lab period. More time away from class. More steps to climb than those who used the men’s room.
Recently I was preparing to attend a networking event. Two months post top surgery, nervously figuring out what to wear to appear professional enough but not overly formal, and figuring out how to negotiate the bathroom yet again. Overweight from holiday eating and bloated from monthly happenings I carefully gauged which size cotton stick would plug me up sufficiently to make it through the meeting. One more trip to the restroom before I leave the house. I could make it without using a restroom, I told myself.
Despite carefully rationing my fluid intake during the two hour meeting I found myself needing to go. I slipped away while the talks were finishing up, hoping to avoid restroom confrontations. This is my life now, split second judgements on which restroom to use based on a tradeoff of likelihood of getting harassed or perceived a pervert, need to deal with monthly happenings, and confusion of new acquaintances seeing me in a restroom unexpectedly. The bathroom is not four floors away but it may as well be.
I’m sitting. I’m peeing red. I’m wondering if expelling gas really loud will help establish that I am In The Right Restroom. I’m pretty sure I won’t bleed through my pants for the remainder of the meeting, the networking session I absolutely need to take part in to make business connections.
I put my business face back on and return to the meeting, confidently approaching strangers with businesses similar to mine, trading advice, business cards, and making off the cuff pitches of my services. Finding the right moment to intercept introductions to clarify that my pronouns are he and him, watching faces begin confused and shift to “ohhh… got it.” Today I am lucky; most of those moments end in affirmation, if slightly bewildered. I’m pretty sure I’m not yet bleeding through my pants. I return home clutching business cards and scribbled notes, totally exhausted but too anxious to take a nap.
I wonder what my old manager would say if we run into each other in the men’s room.