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Today is Saturday, November 24, 2007


A Men's Room of One's Own

A Workshop Teaches Transgendered Men How to Go with the Flow

As an out lesbian living in Louisville, Kentucky, I've learned to count my blessings by name - Ellen, Rosie, Will and Grace. Queers everywhere have them to thank for the growing acceptance of sexual minorities. But what happens when the discussion of difference goes beyond gender norms? Not enough. My transgendered friends are still waiting to see themselves reflected in mainstream media. From Boys Don't Cry to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, trannies are too often cast as misunderstood martyrs or bitter freaks of nature. In reality, the trials of living as trans are much more mundane.

In search of a more realistic view, I decided to accompany some friends to Seattle for "A Gender Odyssey," the annual conference for the female-to-male transgender community. In the crowded lobby of the Doubletree Hotel, I felt about as hormonally exciting as Aunt Bee. Everyone was on a personal gender journey but me. I steered toward the registration table, taking note of the abundance of buzz cuts, stringy mustaches and flat chests. I noted, with just a touch of schadenfreude, that I was finally the most feminine person in the room. (Mom would have been proud.)

That's not to say there wasn't a hefty dose of estrogen present. The proliferation of short, soft bodies bespoke womanly origins. Yet the ubiquity of facial hair, the breast-bereft chests, and the general testosterone-enhanced vibe told a different story. With every pair of eyes I met, my gender barometer fluttered between male and female like a broken doctor's scale.

But the day's workshops were scheduled to start in five minutes, and I had no time to recalibrate. I eyeballed the brochure, perusing the morning's offerings - "The New Man in Your Life", "Hung Like a Chihuahua," and "Men's Room 101." Thinking I'd ease into things, I settled on the men's-room primer, described as "a hands-on workshop to demystify the men's bathroom environment." I got directions to the aptly named Cascade Room, and glanced again at the brochure to ready myself. Participants were advised to "drink plenty of water," wear loose clothing, "and/or bring a change of clothes in case of an accident." For once, I felt comfortable arriving unprepared.

As a bio-girl (read: a woman whose birth gender is in sync with her female identity), I was clueless about the anxiety that public restrooms can provoke in trans men. Like most women-born-women, my biggest challenge was getting in and out without touching anything. I whisk in, hover, wash and cruise out. What could be simpler? I soon discovered how little I knew.

Upstairs, two dozen young trannies were seated in a semi-circle around Miles, the workshop leader and self-described "guru of pee." A self-assured FTM, he swaggered to an authoritative position in the front of the room, oozing a brand of sensitive masculinity exclusive to men socialized as girls. His flat chest, sculpted biceps, and well-groomed goatee were evidence of his years on testosterone. But even more enviable was his pee CV. Miles informed the group that he'd been peeing exclusively in men's restrooms for seven years. Pausing for emphasis, he added that he'd recently made the leap from stall to urinal.

The white noise of small talk and rustling programs came to a halt. Miles had the room's full attention.

(I knew enough about FTMs to understand that casually pissing at a urinal is the Holy Grail of trans bathroom accomplishment. The ability to point and shoot one's flow from an appendage measured in centimeters, not inches, is the ultimate show of marksmanship.)

Miles sidled up to a dry-erase board and asked his audience to exorcise the demons that kept them out of the men's room. "I'm scared I'll accidentally look a guy in the eye and get beat up," offered a soft-spoken redhead from Iowa.

Miles wrote FEAR in capital letters at the top of the board. "I'm afraid guys will hear me peeing in the stall, and it'll sound like girl pee," mumbled a college student from Seattle.

Miles added FEMALE-SOUNDING PEE to the list. Within five minutes, he had filled the board with phrases like LACK OF PLUMBING, PEE SHY, SEXUAL TENSION, and ZERO PENIS = ZERO PASSING.

As the angst flew, Miles nodded like a sympathetic priest. His advice was dutiful and comforting. "Guys aren't listening to the sound of your pee," he soothed. "It would never enter their minds that there's anything but a man in the stall next door."

As each tortured soul described the post-traumatic stress inherent to whizzing in the boy's bathroom, I wondered why they didn't just duck into the nearest women's. Not to devalue the importance of passing as a guy, but if you've gotta go, you've gotta go. As it turns out, many women (both straight and queer) lash out with fear and indignation when faced with a bearded stranger in the ladies' loo. Almost every tranny in the room had a story about the time he was busted. A twentysomething with neon-blue hair and a thick Southern accent told of being pulled, kicking and grabbing, from a women's-bathroom stall by mall security guards. A fair-skinned, freckled college student explained how his birth gender had landed him on the women's floor of his co-ed dorm. Blushing, he admitted that fear and pride kept him from using the hallway's shared bath. Instead, he sets his alarm clock for 3 a.m. and sneaks onto the adjacent men's floor for a shower. During the day, he walks fifteen minutes out of his way between classes to use the sole unisex bathroom on campus. His professors don't understand why he's chronically late.

The group agreed that the world needed more unisex bathrooms, but until that blissful utopia arrived, they would take their chances in the men's room: it's one of the few places where homophobia pays off. Confused, I turned to the grizzled dude next to me for help. (Later, I found out that he's the mother of five grown children.) Fear of being labeled a fag keeps men from making eye contact or looking at other guys' parts in the bathroom, he explained. "Chances are they'll never know you don't have a dick."

Walking out from behind the desk, Miles demonstrated the must-have body language for the typical men's room scenario. "Take up space," he said, planting his feet apart as if bracing for a tackle. "Pull your shoulders back. Open your lats." The directions peppered us like darts. "Don't fuss in the mirror," he instructed. "Grunt. Adjust yourself, whether you're packing or not. And, for God's sake, don't look anybody in the eye, or they'll think you're a homo. If the stalls are full, DON'T form a line." He shuddered at the thought. "Women line up. Men mill around."

He relaxed his stance and softened his voice. "Hands up for all the folks who've peed on themselves in public." Dozens of hands began to rise but were felled by embarrassment. "Don't feel bad," Miles cajoled. "It's happened to everyone." He took a deep, pre-confessional inhale. "One time, my soft pack fell out while I was standing at a urinal." Nervous titters filled the room. I scanned my mental thesaurus for "soft pack," and retrieved "fake dick."

As a femme dyke, my interest in soft packs, or "packies," is only slightly higher than my curiosity in the real thing, which is nil. Soft, silicon falsies are for presentation, not penetration. My FTM friends, on the other hand, consider soft packs a necessity of passing. Apparently one can't get by with just a sock anymore.

After that humanizing glimpse into Miles' peeing persona, it was time to demonstrate his piece de rsistance: the "flat disc urinary device." He opened his backpack and pulled out a pair of heavy scissors and a plastic lid from a Folgers coffee can. With Martha-like aplomb, he snipped off the hard outer rim, leaving only the soft plastic behind. The size and shape of a compact disc, it fit snugly into the upper right-hand pocket of his jeans.

I craned to see over the cowboy hat in front of me as Miles sauntered toward an invisible urinal. With a magician's sleight of hand, he pulled the disc from his pocket while curling it into a funnel inside his loosely clenched fist. Simultaneously, he unzipped his pants and lowered them just beneath his hips with his left hand. Moving his tighty whities (sans soft pack) to the side, he pressed the wide, business end of the funnel firmly against his urethra. The funnel's narrow tip proffered perfect aim. (Although he offered to bring in a bucket, we said we'd take his word for it.) To finish, he gave the Folgers-coffee-top penis a few shakes before stealthily returning it to its hiding place.

As we applauded Miles' showmanship, the class ended. Miles announced a spontaneous field trip to the hotel men's room, and he left with a gang of cheering tranny boys trailing behind. I kept my seat and made some resolutions: if the occasion arises, be kind to short, fuzzy-faced men milling about the ladies' room; and keep a few Folgers Coffee lids handy for myself. A girl never knows when she might want to pee standing up.

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