Today I felt more shame than I have ever felt before in my life. I felt like a failure to my lesbian and educator identities.
While on last period bathroom duty today, I was drained, sick, and ready to go home. (Bathroom duty involves collecting bathroom passes, being wary of students cutting class, and making sure students don’t try to go in the other gender’s bathroom to get into trouble.) My colleague and I had just finished dealing with rambunctious students, and I was looking down at an assignment a student had handed me. A student came up to me, gave me their bathroom pass, and started to walk towards the women’s room. I had barely glanced at the student, and I pointed in the direction of the men’s room.
“I’m a she.”
I looked up and took a second look at the student, apologizing profusely. She continued into the bathroom, and I felt a wave of shame wash over me.
I regularly defend and comfort my own fiancée when she is mistreated in the women’s room when we go out in public. I spent my years of undergrad and grad school purposefully using unisex bathrooms and educating myself on trans* issues. I’ve gotten into arguments with complete strangers over people going into the “right” bathroom, and what that means.
So what the heck caused me to become as ignorant as those I have argued against so many times? Was it the fact that my activist roots have remained closeted in my sometimes closed-minded work setting? Was it my femme lesbian privilege? Was it my place of power as a teacher in a school setting?
While the student used the bathroom, I questioned these things, as well as tried to gather my thoughts on how I could sufficiently apologize– or assuage my guilt– for doing the exact opposite of what I stand for.
When the student came out of the restroom, I called her over and said, “I’m really, truly sorry. I always get upset when people give my fiancée problems in the bathroom and mistake her for a guy, and I feel awful. I’ve been trying to think of how I could possibly apologize to you for the past 5 minutes, and nothing is sufficient. I feel like an asshole. I’m so sorry.”
The student’s entire demeanor changed, and she said, “It’s okay. Wait, your fiancée…? You’re gay…?” I pulled up a pic of V & I at her sorority formal, her in her tux and I in my gown, and the student started telling me her life story. I learned how she had been disowned by her family after coming out, and how she couldn’t get over how others at our school couldn’t express their true selves or be out.
“I don’t get upset or angry when people start to yell at me I’m going to the wrong bathroom. I choose to dress this way. I cut my hair. I wear boy clothes. But I can’t choose who I am. All that matters is I know who I am,” she told me.
She then started asking me questions, trying to dispel rumors from the truth.
“Is it true girls can’t go to prom with a girl? And that girls have to dress like girls, in dresses? My friend said that (somebody with power) said so.”
I felt an inexplicable anger flowing through me, and I gave the girl my name, email address, and the day and classroom I stay after in. “I don’t know you, but if ANYONE gives you trouble, I will stand up for you and fight for you. None of what you’re saying is legal. You stay in touch with me.”
The girl thanked me, and said she was going to email me after school today. I wrote her a pass back to class, and we went our separate ways. I’m sure we were both thinking about our conversation when we said goodbye, a conversation that would not have had happened if I hadn’t made an ignorant, shameful mistake.
I am a white, middle-class, feminine woman. I have received a college and graduate school education. I have a lot of privileges that I am aware of, and I have some, like my gender-identity, that I sometimes take for granted. Compared to society as a whole, my lesbianism makes me a minority. Yet, I am able to hide my differences. I put on makeup. I wear feminine clothing and jewelry. If you saw me on the street, you would probably assume that I am an average, heterosexual white girl. Unlike my “butch” counterparts, nobody would assume that I am gay and “different.” I have faced little discrimination in my life. I cannot imagine being judged for my sexuality solely based on my appearance, and I cannot even fathom how the intersection of race and gender-identity would come into play if I were a African-American teenage butch-or-androgynous-appearing lesbian.
I am so incredibly grateful for reality checks that remind me of how fortunate I am, and reality checks that make me feel shame for making assumptions or taking things for granted. I am so continuously amazed and in awe of all of the gender non-conforming, atypical, defying-the-stereotypes individuals in my life, particularly my more masculine, “butch” fiancée, friends, and loved ones. Thank you for always being strong, and thank you for being unafraid to be who you are. You show me what it means to be a better person and woman.