This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has had the opportunity to publish four essays in Bearings Online. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
Bathrooms have been in the public spotlight frequently in recent years. Governors and state legislatures have passed bills requiring K-12 students to use public school bathrooms that match the “sex” listed on their birth certificates. These bills are the frothing crest of a large public wave of furious anxiety over the possibility of walking into a bathroom and meeting someone who does not look like they “belong” there. This is an anxiety with which I am familiar in the reverse: I look somewhat gender-ambiguous, and occasionally fear that my presence in a public bathroom will cause people to stare or even leave, thinking that they are in the wrong bathroom (which has happened). My approach to bathrooms is pragmatic: I choose them based not on how I identify, but on which has the shortest line. The one thing I do ask of a bathroom is to be left alone—to not be stared at, wondered about, or scrutinized.
The one thing I do ask of a bathroom is to be left alone.
Bathrooms have, for most of my life, been a cherished zone of privacy. Growing up, since I shared a bedroom with my two sisters, the only private space in my family’s house was the restroom. Outside the bathroom, I could hear my mother scraping dishes against the sink, the chewed-off ends of my siblings’ bickering, and the sonorous vowels of my father’s preaching-voice vibrating off the walls. But inside? It was as close as I could arrive to silence. Even today, I am prone to lingering on the toilet seat, my head lost in the clouds, until the sharp—rap—then: “Ya done in there?” Then I reluctantly get up from my seat and open the door, bidding adieu to my momentary oasis.
When I think fondly on the relationship I’ve built with the bathroom over the three decades of my life, there is a particular toilet that stands out to me. It was not in my family’s house, but in a much larger one, right by a river in eastern Maryland, where I lived with eleven other people, all of us in our twenties. We were living in an “intentional community” as part of a nine-month residential fellowship aimed to simulate monastic rhythms for young professionals. We did everything together —pray, cook, work, write—an instant formula for the fuzzy feelings of “family.” We also were each working on specific projects; mine was to figure out if it was part of God’s “design for marriage” whether I could marry a woman, that is, someone of the same gender (my doubts if I was, indeed, a woman would come later). Halfway into the fellowship, it was becoming clear that the answer was, “Unfortunately, no.”
I thought then that perhaps I could be content with the answer. So long as I lived in a house with all my friends where we played ping pong every weekend, held hands to sing a benediction over a home-cooked meal every night, and gave each other massages on the living room rug, sure, I could be single for the rest of my life. The warm effervescence of the house felt like a blanket swaddling me.
It was in the bathroom where the charade caught up to me.
It was in the bathroom where the charade caught up to me. The toilet was placed right next to a window. When I sat on the toilet, I occasionally cracked open the window to catch wafts of conversation trailing past me—a couple laughing flirtatiously with each other, a group of friends chatting over lunch. In the bathroom, I was finally still enough to feel a heaviness descend. The warm blanket would morph into a yoke of iron, pressing down onto my shoulders and neck as I propped up my dull head with my palms. The chirps of laughter from the other fellows drifting in through the window turned into tinny mockery, for I realized they belonged to a class of cisgender, heterosexual homo sapiens for whom “falling in love” was not, in fact, something to be anxiously dreaded. It was for them that all the songs were written. Slumping forward, I contemplated my body, whose bowels were so regular, but whose heart, it seemed, was not. Or perhaps it was my body in general that was at fault – I had been given a body I did not choose, and, with it, an instruction manual of whom I was supposed to desire and marry, and how I was supposed to dress and behave. I thought about living another twenty years in this body. In that bathroom, I finally found enough silence to hear my insides violently screaming: No way.
A few years later, my theology started to change and I realized that perhaps I could start dating women without guilt. I started seeing a therapist, Lisa, to get guidance in my process of coming out to my parents. Our weekly sessions became my new bathroom. She was seated across from me on a plump red sofa-seat; together, we were in a concrete box office that muffled out the roar of the tiny Lego cars soaring over the Manhattan bridge. In one of our sessions, I started to go on a long theological explanation about why my parents’ hermeneutical approach, which I used to share, precluded them from accepting me.
“You’ve been arguing about theology nonstop with your parents—what if you just told them how you feel and what you want from them?”
Talking to them about how I felt required, I realized, first getting in touch with how I felt. And I needed to learn how to do that much more frequently than my morning meditations on the toilet. Lisa taught me how to access my inner bathroom, if you will.
Nevertheless, the physical bathroom still sets the scene for a contemplative inner-knowing, although less so in public spaces, especially since I’ve cut my hair short, stopped wearing clothes I didn’t like, and regularly switch up which bathrooms I use. In women’s restrooms, I instinctively scan faces to see if any of them evince feelings of “suspicion” or “confusion” at my presence. In men’s restrooms, I try to avoid eye contact as I make my way to a stall. Once inside, my body may be inside the stall, but my mind is fully outside of it, hyper-conscious of the movements of the shoes underneath the stall. What if they notice that the sounds I’m generating sound more like peeing, not pooping? If I speak and they hear my voice, will they start interrogating me? When I’m done, I hastily wash my hands and rush out of the restroom. Unlike at home, there’s no lingering whatsoever.
In men’s restrooms, I try to avoid eye contact as I make my way to a stall.
When you feel that you are not welcome in the restroom that you choose, this is what happens: instead of a rare reprieve from the performativity of everyday life, the experience is turned outwards into an anxious moment of exteriority. You become hyper attuned to the movement of everyone’s bodies except your own, and everyone else’s thoughts and motivations but your own. The bathroom becomes a place for everyone but you.