I consider myself pretty observant. Running a classroom requires a certain amount of paying attention to detail, and I would like to believe that I am just a little better than most at watching and taking in my environment. Fortunately, this belief was challenged recently as a friend and I returned from a day spent at a local, all-women’s writing retreat.
As we drive away at the end of a full day of meeting and greeting, and intensive writing workshops, my friend and I discuss the workshops and the other participants.
My friend mentions Susan. Susan sat next to me at breakfast that morning, and during open mic at the end of the day she read a great fictional piece about a girl who refused to wear a bra to school. I say how much I liked her writing. Then my friend says, “You know Susan is transgender.”
“Really?” I say. “You think she’s transgender?”
“Yes! You didn’t notice her huge Adam’s apple?"
“No, not at all. Really?” I say again.
“Yes! You didn't notice that she was almost 7 feet tall, and that she had shaved the hair off her hands? Seriously, you didn’t notice?” she says. She's turned to face me as I drive, and out of the corner of my eye I can tell she’s amused.
“Wow, no,” I say, wondering how I’d missed it, being the very observant person I know myself to be. I tell my friend that Susan was even in both my morning and afternoon breakout sessions. I confess that I spent all day with her in small group workshops talking and doing exercises to quiet our inner critics. I admit that I sat right across from her. I talked with her and listened to her read her writing, and had no idea. It didn’t even occur to me.
This provokes a good belly laugh from my friend, and she cracks some joke about me being from a small town.
We let it pass, and go on to talk about the quality of the workshops, how delicious the food was and how no time was wasted during the breakout sessions. We agree that overall it was a great experience for both of us. But later I ponder the transgender conversation a bit more. How could I not have noticed?
There is such a huge to-do in the news lately about laws requiring transgender people to use the bathroom according to the gender they were assigned at birth; shouldn’t it be more obvious if someone is trying to be a different gender? I think maybe it was Susan’s politeness that threw me off.
At breakfast that morning seven tables tightly filled the little meeting and greeting room, and with chairs around all sides of each table it was a snug fit, even for someone of average height and weight. When I saw Susan approaching our table I pulled a chair out for her next to me. She needed the end of a table like someone with extra long legs might require the aisle seat on an airplane. I recall being impressed by the way she said “thank you” when I offered her the chair, like she really meant “Thank You!”. Her explicit expression of gratitude made sense later that day when we were asked to list two of our greatest pet peeves during a fictional writing activity. She revealed that her two most egregious peeves are when people don’t say “thank you” and when people cut other people off in traffic. She said she can’t stand it when people are rude to each other.
I ponder this, and remember that she was also very kind to another participant during our morning small-group session. Maybe that was it. Our morning facilitator used news stories as writing prompts, and one woman chose to use a recent Orlando nightclub shooting article as a catalyst for a piece of narrative non-fiction. After our fellow participant read her piece, Susan said she thought about using that one, but it was hitting a little too close to home for her. The other participant was crying and Susan was comforting her. Susan told her she appreciated that she was brave enough to write about it. I was so impressed that she chose to put another person at ease, even though it was obviously a personal and difficult topic for her.
Or could it have been her sense of humor that distracted me from noticing her male gender indicators? In our afternoon breakout session, I wrote a story about a woman who hated her couch so much that she prompted her dog to pee on it so her husband would have to let her buy a new one. I explained that I chose this topic based on a certain recliner my husband owns, and a disagreement we once had about buying a reclining sofa. Susan was cracking up as I shared my story. It felt really good to have someone appreciate the humor in my writing, and at this point I was thinking that given the chance to get to know one another a little better, she and I could definitely be friends.
After witnessing Susan’s politeness, compassion and sense of humor, I do admit that I sit here and wonder what the controversial bathroom laws are all about. It seems like much ado about nothing. Susan has about as much in common with a pervert wearing a dress so he can stalk little girls in the women’s bathroom as Hitler had in common with Mother Teresa.
She and I did not use the bathroom at the same time that day, but based on my interactions with her all day in our writing sessions, here is the truth about what I imagine happening if Susan and I ended up in a public restroom together. I’m pretty sure it would go something like this:
I see her walking into the restroom since I am right behind her. I don’t notice her Adam’s apple or shaved hands but I do notice she’s a very tall woman with short brown hair, cut in a modified “Dorothy Hamill” style, walking with the long, slow gait of someone approaching six-and-a-half feet tall. When we reach the inner sanctuary, she turns to politely offer that I go ahead of her into the next available stall. As she turns and smiles, I see her interesting face. I notice she wears no makeup and I guess that she is someone who doesn’t plan to spruce up her appearance to be more feminine. I judge that she is neither homely nor pretty, but somewhere in between, plain, like a Midwestern housewife who has risen with the sun to bake bread and muffins and can only think of all the work she’ll accomplish before the rest of the family is even out of bed. I see her as common, everyday folk; no frills attached. I take her up on her offer to use the stall first since I have waited too long, as usual, and really have to go bad. When I get into the stall I hear her walk in beside me and lock the door on her side. She goes, I go, we both go. I reach for the toilet paper and there is nothing there. It is Costco after all, on a Saturday, and it is BUSY! I say, “Hey….um, would you mind passing me some toilet paper?” She will laugh at this because it is awkward and funny to get that far into the bathroom experience only to reach for an empty roll. Because she understands, she gives me a lot of toilet paper. She passes no judgment on what I might have done on the other side of the divider, but gives me enough to be prepared either way. During this encounter I see that she is polite, has a sense of humor, and is kind. Who knew you could learn so much about a person during a trip to the restroom? The only thing I would not have learned about her is that she is transgender since we didn’t actually share the same bathroom stall.
In other words, having Susan with me in the restroom would be an absolute non-event for me. It is likely that most people wouldn’t wonder for a minute if she was in the right restroom if found in the women’s room. However, I assure you that eyebrows would rise dramatically if she were to walk into the men’s room. Having to use the men’s room would be embarrassing, and, in some circumstances, might even be dangerous for her.
On this day I wonder if we need this law, or other laws like it. Could old-fashioned interpersonal politeness, humor and compassion really be all we need? Whether there is a law in place or not, one day it will simply come down to me and the person standing across from me. What will I become in that moment? That is the greatest question of my life really.
All I know for sure is that I have decided if the person with me in the moment is Susan, or someone like her, and they are kindly passing me toilet paper, I will be sure to say “thank you” and truly mean it.