Aimee Toms posted a video rant after being told she was “disgusting” for being in a women’s public restroom. (Photo: Facebook)
A woman in a baseball cap who was harassed by a fellow bathroom-goer at a Connecticut Walmart over the weekend, apparently being mistaken for a transgender man, has been getting much media play this week.
Aimee Toms, 22, said in a video she posted to Facebook — already viewed more than 57,000 times — that she was using the bathroom at a Danbury Walmart on Friday when a woman suddenly approached her from behind and yelled, “You are not supposed to be here! You need to leave!” The woman then gave Toms the finger, told her she was “disgusting,” and stormed out.
While the details of the situation are disturbing — particularly in light of various transgender “bathroom bills” being debated in North Carolina and beyond — similar episodes are neither rare nor new for women seen as being on the male end of the gender spectrum. And Toms’ experience is shining a light on how such confrontations can affect women on the receiving end — as well as how the growing national frenzy around bathroom use is emboldening citizens, more than ever, to become restroom gender vigilantes.
“OK, I get it, the baseball cap, I was wearing just a plain blue T-shirt, she saw me from the back, OK. I can get why at first glance she would mistake me for somebody who’s transgender,” Toms said in her video. (Although, if she were in fact a transgender male, then she would have been in the correct bathroom, according to transgender bathroom-bill proponents.) And, Toms added, “It really got my gears turning at how amazingly ridiculous this is becoming as an issue.”
Aimee Toms. (Photo: Facebook)
It can also be a major source of anxiety for tomboys and butch-identified women who, just like transgender people, deal with bathroom vigilantes constantly. A recent Texas situation, in which a man followed a woman into a restroom to make sure she wasn’t a man, as well as another scene posted to Facebook (origins unknown) that shows a boyish-looking woman being chased out of a bathroom by security — are just a couple of examples of this issue. More were provided to Yahoo Beauty, in the form of personal stories, in response to an anecdote-seeking Facebook post on Tuesday.
“This whole debate is so misguided,” one woman explained in her response. “It’s all based on appearances, NOT gender identity. For most of the last decade, I have dreaded using public women’s restrooms. I’ve had women stop me and start telling me I’m in the wrong bathroom. I’ve seen women come into the restroom, see me, then go back out and re-read the sign on the door to make sure they are in in the right restroom. I am not transgender and this is my reality because I ‘look like a man’ at first glance… or second glance.”
According to Sasha Alexander, a spokesperson for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York City transgender law resource, “There’s a very symbolic meaning to entering a public restroom — it’s so charged.” Restrooms are and have pretty much always been, in fact, ground zero for anxiety, stress, and harassment for transgender people and for anyone not adhering to expected gender norms. That was the focus of an ahead-of-its time 2003 documentary, “Toilet Training,” created by the SRLP and filmmaker Tara Mateik, currently in the process of being updated to reflect the current national conversation.
And there’s a lot of baggage and symbolism associated with public restrooms — a traditional battleground when it comes to civil rights and segregation. “Part of the issue with public spaces is, in some ways, it’s a litmus test for where the country is at with many issues,” Alexander tells Yahoo Beauty. “Bathrooms have become a central piece when you talk about gender — partly because of the sexist-vulnerability-of-women piece, and also because people want to make [gender] all about people’s parts.”
Just a sampling of other anecdotes shared with Yahoo Beauty illustrate that truth:
•“[This happens to me] all day long,” noted one woman, of San Francisco. “Once at an airport restroom in San Diego, I was at the sink washing my hands and saw an elderly lady enter. She saw me in the mirror, looked confused, turned around, and walked out. Not one minute later she walked back in and poked me in the chest and said, “I thought I was in the wrong bathroom, but YOU’RE in the wrong bathroom.“ I would probably have less trouble if I used the bathroom NOT of the gender on my birth certificate.”
•“I get a look pretty much every time I use a public restroom — because of how I carry myself, what I’m wearing,” said a woman from New York City. “It’s slightly annoying, because people just don’t look. Usually people are trying to figure it out, or are questioning themselves as to whether or not they are in the right bathroom. One time, at a Connecticut highway rest stop, a male employee tried to stop me on my way in the bathroom, yelling, ‘Hey! You can’t go in there!’ I said, ‘I am a woman!’ and kept going. He wouldn’t let up, so I turned around, lifted my shirt and flashed him.”
•“Barely a day goes by that I don’t get at least a second look going into the women’s room. This is OK with me,” explained a mother of two from Sacramento. “I realize that, for a moment, a woman sincerely thinks that a man is walking into the women’s room — and as a woman myself, I get that you would cognitively want to sort this out to determine if there was danger, an error, or something else going on. But what has happened several times over the years is a woman does the double take… and, I believe, knows I am a woman, but nonetheless looks me dead in the eye and says, ‘Uh, this is the ladies room,’ loud enough to be not meant for only me to hear and, I think, therefore, intended to shame.”
“Some of this policing is always happening,” Alexander notes. “But when you have presidential candidates asking ‘are little girls safe?’ it becomes very volatile… Part of where we need to see this discussion go is to see everyone accessing bathrooms and public space equally.”