No, you may not use the restroom...
As a middle-aged cisgender, heteronormative, white female with a pleasant disposition, I am generally met with open arms and glad hearts and have never encountered any type of discrimination – that was the case until my recent visit to Las Vegas when my perceived entitlement ran out.
What started out as a normal day shopping with family turned into my first experience of what I would come to understand as a feeling of discrimination. Technically I wasn’t discriminated against but I felt that I was. And it was awful.
My husband, brother-in-law and sister-in-law and I had gone out for a day of thrift shopping, convinced Vegas would have great deals on more designer styles than we had in our hometown. We arrived at a huge Savers thrift store and set about on our own directions looking to “pop some tags.” Not really, we paid for everything, but we all laughed about the silly song made famous by Macklemore on our way to go shopping.
As I started skimming through the long-sleeved blouses one by one looking for a treasure, I realized I needed to use the restroom, the large amount of water I drink every morning runs through me and I pee at least four times between breakfast and lunch.
I walked over to three sales associates sorting through the donation piles, “Excuse me,” I said, “Do you have a restroom I can use?”
All three women turned to look at me and the one obviously in charge said, “No, we don’t have a restroom.”
“Oh,” I said with my obvious naïve Idahoan showing, “You don’t have a restroom I can use?”
“No,” she said again, “we don’t have a public restroom.”
With a hint of snarky I responded with, “Ooookay,” and turned back to sorting through the blouses. I quickly chastised myself thinking perhaps if I had asked in a more polite and sweet way I could use their restroom, after all, I really did need to go.
I walked back over to the three women still sorting through the piles of clothing and housewares, “Excuse me,” I said again. “I really need to use the restroom. Is there any way I can use it?”
“No,” said the same lady as before, this time with an annoyed look to her, “we just did four thousand dollars worth of repair to the bathroom and no one from the public can use it.”
It instantly flashed in my mind, “What exactly do you think I could do in there that could ruin your four thousand dollar repair?” But instead I huffed and asked where I was supposed to go to use the bathroom.
“I don’t know” she said, and turned away from me.
“You don’t know?” I said loudly to her back. “I don’t live here. You can’t tell me where I can go to use the restroom?” Now I was more than a bit snarky, I was irritated and getting desperate about my situation.
“Well, next door has asked us to stop sending people there and I’m not sure if the gas station will let you, but you can try.”
I had never known a gas station to not let anyone use a restroom so I thought that was the best option. I left the store to begin what would turn out to be quite an adventure to find a bathroom.
I was turned away at the place next door, just as the lady in charge at Savers had indicated would happen. I then walked quickly to the gas station at the end of the parking lot. On the door in big black letter was a sign that specifically said, “No Public Restroom.”
“Really,” I thought, “I’m sure they won’t turn me down, I’m just a normal person who needs to use the bathroom, no biggie.” I opened the door and walked up to the counter and leaned in to the young female clerk and said in a hushed voice so as to avoid the ears of the male patrons, “Excuse me, would I please be allowed to use the restroom?”
Thinking for sure this sweet looking young lady would say yes, I was shocked when she looked down her nose at me with slight disgust and said in horrible English, “No, we ain’t got no public restroom.”
“Really?” I said, “I really need to go.” Now I was slightly embarrassed at sounding like a child begging to use a bathroom, “Please, mommy, I’ve got to go!”
My snark reared its head again and I hissed, “I hope YOU never need to go pee!” And I turned to walk out as the clerk scoffed.
I was mumbling to myself as I step out of the store and all but ran into a young teen aged couple walking hand in hand. “You wouldn’t know where a person could go to use a restroom around here would you?” I asked.
They both smiled a bit and looked at each other, “Naw,” said the boy, “No” said the girl. The young man then said, “You might try the Burger King across the street.” And the girl chimed in that perhaps they would let me but she wasn’t sure. They were so fresh in their behavior that I smiled, forgetting that I desperately needed to pee and was becoming increasingly more irritated over my bathroom situation.
I thanked them and walked to the corner of a six lane street, pushed the crossing button at the light and waited. By this time I nearly had to cross my legs while waiting for the light to change. The cars buzzed by and the smell of the city stuck to me with the heat.
The light changed and I walked with a mass of people across the street and then up a slight hill and through the parking lot to Burger King. At least ten or more minutes had passed since I initially had to use the bathroom in Savers and things were getting to be of a more desperate nature for me; I actually wondered if I could find a place to pee behind a building.
As I walked up to the door of the Burger King I did not see a “No Public Restroom” sign so I was starting to feel some hope. I walked to the right of the counter toward the restrooms where I saw a sign on the ladies’ room door that read, “Restrooms for customers only.” I tried the handle and the door was locked. Seriously?!
It crossed my mind that I could have simply purchased something and then have been allowed to use the restroom, but I had left my cash and cards back at the hotel and my husband, who had both, was not with me. I turned to ask the young employee if I could get a key when a man, presumably the manager by his dress and demeanor, walked out of the Employees Only door and used a key to open the ladies’ bathroom.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Can I please use the restroom?” Whether it was the pleading look on my face or I simply got lucky, he said without hesitation, “Sure hon, I just need to check to see if there is any paper.” And he let me in.
I did my business, washed my hands and let myself out of the door. As I was walking toward the front door I heard a man at the counter say, “You know I am in here all the time, I just need to use the bathroom.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the restrooms are only for customers,” said the young lady at the counter. I had gotten lucky.
After much conversation that day about this incident I learned this is not abnormal in Las Vegas in fact it is quite the norm. Restrooms are for customers only or are simply not available in most non-casino establishments. Apparently there is a huge issue regarding people who are homeless taking up residence in bathrooms and therefore businesses have taken to simply not offering them to anyone, often not even to patrons.
While I was not technically discriminated against, I did experience a myriad of emotions while going through that ten minute exchange with four different establishments just trying to do what was natural and normal for every human being; pee. I had been denied a simple basic need, the use of a toilet.
I was disgusted, embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated, mortified and fearful – what if I really couldn’t find a place to go pee? Would I have had to go behind a building and hope not to get caught and cited for urinating in public – which could be categorized as a sex crime (indecent exposure or public lewdness).
I had the tiniest of glimpses that day into what it might feel like to actually be denied and discriminated against regarding the use of a toilet – something transgender people face on a continual basis.
The next time you are faced with difficulty finding a public restroom, imagine yourself in the shoes of a transgender person who faces that difficulty daily. When you become desperate with worry over whether or not you might wet your pants or worse, think of how that would feel on a regular basis. And when you become so frustrated, irritated and demoralized over being denied a basic needs service, keep in mind that a transgender person regularly experiences those feelings on a much grander scale.
Please consider these dehumanizing feelings when legislation regarding bathroom rights of transgender people comes up. We are all human and we all need a place to pee!