When I ask you to name a place of violence, where does your mind go? Is it to Charleston, the Middle East, schoolyards full of bullies or prisons? These jump to mind because the word ‘violence’ is often reduced to a direct physical assault on a persons’ flesh. Yet in my experience, violence can also occur spiritually and mentally, with words replacing guns and knives as implements of destruction. I’ve heard of an ancient torture called “the death of a thousand paper cuts”. I feel we should also consider the torturous agony of those who are currently buried under the weight of a million words. Therefore, while all of the places I mentioned, and many more, have been tainted by the stain of violence against the body, mind and soul; I want to draw your attention to one that is a bit closer to home. The most violent place in my experience is one that I cannot escape from if I am to function in society. That place is the public restroom.
You see, I am bigender. That means that I was made in the image of God as a person who is simultaneously a woman and a man. Just as we cannot divide Jesus’ humanity from his divinity, in a similar way it is impossible to divide my masculinity and my femininity. Because of this I face erasure from the moment I reach a restroom door.
Sometimes the violence is more explicit. I took the follow pictures at a bus station while I was moving across the country. In the expectation that a men’s room has no place for women, and the women’s room has no place for men I was told that my existence as a person who is simultaneously a woman and a man is something wrong, something weird, and something for which I could be denied the ability to go pee.
This violence only escalates when I need to go in a place with locked facilities. Then I am left waiting anxiously in the hall, hoping that I’ll be able to hear the “click” singling which restroom the attendant believes I should use. Even when I have the choice of which door to open, I am still entering a place of violence.
In the past few months, I have watched as people have seen me, and then doubled out to check the sign because I obviously can’t be in “their” restroom. I have been marked as an intruder by the glares of families when I leave the only gender-neutral bathroom, as they judge me for not having a child with me. I’ve had my very existence wiped away as I’ve been asked over and over “aren’t you a ______”, leaving me to decide between saying “yes”, no matter how wrong their assumptions are, or saying “no” and risking my safety and freedom.
I’ve learned that no matter how well I’ve tried to dress into the cultural expectations of the gender binary, it’s never enough. I’ve literally used the women’s room in a public space and been yelled at for it. Then, at the same place when I used the men’s room I was asked what I was doing there. All of this WHILE WEARING THE SAME THING.
When these intrusive questions and persistent gender policing occur in another patron my heart rate shoots up, but it usually ends in only a worrisome inconvenience. Unfortunately these confrontations don’t always end there. The question “do you belong” feels very different when it is being asked by aarmed security. In those moments I am keenly aware that my answer may mean the difference between finishing my business and ending up another name read aloud during the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
These experiences are important for us to hear as a church. While we proclaim “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” in the past three parishes I’ve worshiped, worked and connected with, none of them had a gender neutral bathroom. I’ve literally lost count of the number of conventions, retreats, workshops and gatherings in the Episcopal Church I’ve been at when the question “where can I go pee” became an urgent issue.
With this in mind as I prepared for General Convention I took these concerns to prayer as I pondered the three primary methods to peacefully challenge the injustice that I am familiar with. Each of them has their own value and form an integral part in the pursuit for justice. But they confront violence in very different ways. First I contemplated legislative action. I saw in 2012 how great strides were made legislatively as 2012-D019 and 2012-D002 passed adding gender identity and expression to our non-discrimination cannons. I stand by my joy that these protections are in place. But after three years, one Title IV mediation and numerous places I have been told that I am not welcome due to my gender within the Episcopal Church, I’ve learned that legislation can only go so far in responding to injustice.
Secondly I considered education. I thought of different ways I could share my story, consolidate resources and demonstrate how the violence I am constantly confronted with could be drastically reduced with just four easy steps. This resonated with me as teaching, that is to say connecting with others and creating a space for mutual change, is something I have a gift for. In fact I did take steps on education, working with Trans Episcopal to prepare a resource guide for those who are interested in learning more about this topic. (http://tinyurl.com/LMPG-SafeRestrooms)
While I look forward to the conversations that will stem from the education work I’ve been preparing for, it still felt insufficient. I’m only one person, and education often is dependent on getting people interested enough to listen in the first place. Thus I turned to the third tool to peacefully challenge injustice, direct action.
I perceive direct action as being correlated with human rights, things which cannot be asked for because they are inherent in our existence as people, such as the right to breath, the right to participate in governance, the right to pee. Direct action is disconcerting, because it is designed to make people uncomfortable. In a moment cultural expectations and rules are tossed out, creating space to imagine change unfettered by “impossibilities”.
Within these waves of discomfort are ripples of hope. The hope of people who are still striving, still participating, still belonging to this church even after being told there is no space for them. The hope of those who long for a just world and now see a way they can join in creating it. These waves even contain the hope of those wrestling with difficult truths as they realize the world is a far bigger place than any of us can imagine.
It was from the seeds of this discernment that I decided to come to General Convention 78 ready for a dual-response to the violence I’ve repeatedly encountered in the Episcopal Church. I came ready to teach and learn, to connect and talk with anyone who longs to build a world where violent words and actions have no place within our churches. As a part of that work, I also came ready to declare my dignity as a beloved child of God, a person, who like all other people, has the right to pee in peace.
Before embarking on this direction action I prayed with these words, adapted from the “In a Bathroom” section of the Celebration of a Home in Book of Occasional Services.
O holy God, in the incarnation of your Son our Lord you made our flesh the instrument of your self-revelation: Give us a proper respect and reverence for our mortal bodies, of every shape, color and gender, keeping them clean and fair, whole and sound; that, glorifying you in them, we may confidently await our being clothed upon with spiritual bodies, when that which is mortal is transformed by life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.