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Brighde Moffat


Under the spell of the modern goddess Hygiene, bathroom design has lost its capacity to become the focus of relaxing psychic activity. Instead, the bathroom has become a place—or better, a metonymic space—a closet—of secret constraints.

Marco Frascari [1]

Hands measure and mold the body. The thick pen bleeds onto thighs and gathers within dimpled cellulite. Fat deposits. Dashed lines form a rough blueprint of what needs to be carved away. What I will look like in eight weeks, four weeks, two weeks, tomorrow.


A ritualized addiction of gutting out their touch.


It all comes up at once.


*    *    *


Great pains are taken to secure a normative cissexual (non-trans) gender order and to police and map the coordinates of that order in bathrooms and bedrooms…. This is a generative quiet; one that conceals as it orchestrates a truth about the body, its gender, its genitals.

Sheila L. Cavanagh [2]


The bathroom is a space of some of the most private and personal bodily functions. Its functionality is not determined by gender, and yet, within the last few centuries, public restroom law and design have been heavily influenced by the gender binary. In 1870, Massachusetts became the first state to sign into law the separation of restrooms by gender. This only occurred because women, particularly white women, were beginning to enter public space more prominently via the workforce.  

The generative quiet that Cavanagh speaks to extends to all bodies on the margins of dominant moral ideology. Gillian Frank’s article, “The Anti-Trans Bathroom Nightmare Has Its Roots in Racial Segregation,” details the racial history of public bathrooms in this country and how this history now informs anti-trans ideologies and anti-trans policies. During segregation, bathrooms designated for Black Americans were few in number, in disrepair, and lacking in the federal resources afforded to white-only bathrooms. Vitriolic arguments were made against desegregation.


While segregationists frequently claimed racial integration would grant black men sexual access to white women, white women also emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases [3].


We are not living in a post-racial America. It is important to note that while public restrooms are no longer segregated by race, many communities are still segregated due to racist housing policies and continued racial wage gaps. What began as the myth of the Predatory Black Male, which still exists in this form, found itself a similar iteration in the myth of the Homosexual Bathroom Predator.


Because police, medical authorities, and the media frequently depicted homosexuals as child molesters, public restrooms came to be understood as sites of sexual danger for young children. In 1954, a district attorney in Massachusetts prepared a leaflet “to protect children against crimes involving sex perversion” that contained tips for children such as: “Never wait or play around toilets. Always leave immediately” [3].

These myths mask the greatest predators, white supremacists, while displacing blame and fear onto the people most vulnerable to violence. It is far more likely that the perpetrator is someone the victim already knows, versus a stranger. Similarly, feigned safety concerns for cis-women and children (most often white) are used to create transphobic policies. This is a painfully ironic tactic. In April of 2015, the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union all told Mic that there have been absolutely zero reports of trans violence against women or children.

Vincent Villano, the director of communications for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Mic in an email that there isn't any firm data to corroborate these lawmakers' claims, and that NCTE has "not heard of a single instance of a transgender person harassing a non-transgender person in a public restroom. Those who claim otherwise have no evidence that this is true and use this notion to prey on the public's stereotypes and fears about transgender people [4].




The 2013 study Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives surveyed transgender and non-binary people in Washington, D.C., about their experiences in gendered public restrooms. The survey found that 68% of respondents have experienced verbal harassment, 18% have been denied restroom access, and 9% have experienced physical assault when accessing or using the bathroom of their choice [5].


* * *


This room is measured by lung capacity. Solar flare of the ribcage. How far until light hits the wall.


Her snarl pulls back to form a fist. And I am down, in the corner. A repository for my mother. My spine plastered between hard right angles. She is making purple-black holes. It is acid, eating away at me.


Metabolizing fire is caustic for a water-based body. Tissue damage in the throat.


* * *


Disordered. Disorganized. Addicted. Ill. Coping. These words blur.

If I pick one, I might close the door on another. I don’t want to shut myself in here. Nor do I want to shut anyone out from having space in language.


* * *


“Public sex prohibitions are about gender. But they are also about a puritanical will to discipline public cultures predicated upon the ephemeral. Because it is seemingly immune to the various prohibitions placed on the body and its sexual capacities, queer sex in toilets is an affront to the normative gender identifications that are sanctioned by Western modernity, Christianity, capitalism, and the white nuclear family as a national and colonial icon.”

Sheila L. Cavanagh [2]


In 1998, singer George Michael was arrested in a public restroom in LA. Will Rogers Park was a well-known spot for cruising, and the nightly policing of the park was roused by homophobic panic. Officers frequently went undercover in order to bait and entrap gay people, mostly men. The arrest was highly publicized, and afterwards, sparked George Michael’s disclosure of his sexuality. At the time, violence directed towards LGBTQ people was not considered a hate crime.

This is but one example of the criminalization of LGBTQ people. It’s important to keep in mind that there are people who rely on public restrooms alone, those who do not possess private spaces of their own. And those confined to share space, such as incarcerated people. Like public restrooms, public and for-profit prisons adhere to the rigid gender binary. In the vast majority of situations, trans people are forced to go to the prison that corresponds to the gender identity that were assigned at birth. This is an inhumane practice that leads to more instances of socially motivated assault.


While cis-queers and trans folks have experienced—and are still experiencing—policing of their bodies, a difference in the breadth and depth of said control must be acknowledged. There is also a greater lack of protections in place for trans and non-binary people, with trans women of color being especially vulnerable to violence. As of 2017, twenty trans women of color have been murdered. Law enforcement agencies rarely take these cases seriously, many times saying that they have no reason to recognize these murders as hate crimes. Nor can the police be relied upon to properly respond to an assault that does not result in death, since so often trans women are arrested for protecting themselves.

* * *

Intermission sex. Playbill split down the middle.


We consume the two by three bathroom stall. Hot breath blow, suck up.

Powdered drywall, soft white thighs.


I see exit signs.


* * *


Is this a salve? Or another hole into which I fall.


They say it’s part of my personality. No control. Too much control. They say I’m the hole.


And I reach out, and I reach out.


* * *

Nowhere is trans erasure more apparent than in the gender space of the bathroom. Trans bodies are not planned for, and as a result, trans and gender variant people become tacit users of public toilets.  


Syrus Marcus Ware [6]


Toilet Training (Law and Order in the Bathroom) is a collaborative documentary between transgender videomaker Tara Mateik and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. The film states that the average adult needs to use the bathroom four to eight times during the day and one to two times at night [7], whereas many within the trans community are forced to “hold it” for the duration of their day. The film is filled with anecdotal case studies that attest to the on-going psychological and physical damage trans people suffer due to lack of safe access.

One interview participant reminds the audience that disabled, single-occupancy bathrooms are never gendered. They are also very few in number and difficult to reach, with much of our public infrastructure not, or barely following, the minimum ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards for accessible design. Integral to this conversation on accessibility are the needs and lived realities of disabled communities. It is an on-going fight for basic access to schools, workplaces, transportation, government buildings, and other public areas. In all these spaces there is the demand for restrooms, and some maintain that by creating more gender-neutral restrooms—restrooms that are inclusively accommodating and fluid by design—there would be greater access for disabled people, as well.  


* * *

Waning rock in the sky. Pass me between planets.


His hands, her hands. Mediating between deflation and splitting fullness. Skull knocking on the ground. Punished by gravity. If I only knew how to behave. If I only knew how to beg better.


Appetite is one long eclipse. Eating in the dark, less and less.


Symptoms persist to be known.


* * *

To what extent is addiction an unnatural response?


Tunneling into myself, pathways in and out of skin. How do you run when you cannot stay or leave. Words dry up before they can be spoken. Did you think this was uncommon.


* * *

The bathroom is a long-time site of both intimacy and violence. As such, the bathroom remains a battlefield and a stage for human rights. Much like the metaphorical space of “the closet,” it holds a lot of weight, past and current, for trans and queer communities. The space is also heavy for those living with eating disorders and other forms of addiction. Behind closed doors, we endure.


This essay is by no means a comprehensive account of bathroom politics, merely a collection of entry points into the conversation. We all have our body-place stories—they are complex and further complicated by legacy and varying pressures of social control. By making room for one another when we enter language, when we enter into conversation, we become more equipped to understand and disrupt these pressures.



[1] Frascari, M. (1997). ‘The Pneumatic Bathroom.’ In Plumbing: Sounding Modern Architecture, ed. Nadir Lahiji and D.S. Friedman, 163-80. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.


[2] Cavanagh, S. L. (2014). Queering Bathrooms Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


[3] Frank, G. (2015, November 10). The Anti-Trans Bathroom Nightmare Has Its Roots in Racial Segregation. Retrieved from


[4] Bianco, M. (2015, April 2). Shocking Report Reveals How Often Trans People Attack You in Bathrooms. Retrieved from


[5]Herman, J. L. (2013). Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives. Journal of Public Management & Social Policy. Retrieved from


[6] Ware, S. M. (2011). What Exactly Are You Doing in There?: Sheila Cavanagh's Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination. Retrieved from


[7] Mateik, T. (2013). Toilet Training (Law and Order in the Bathroom). New York: Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Retrieved from

Brighde Moffat lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. They are an MA candidate at Goddard College, where they study embodied language. Brighde acts as editor-in-chief & poetry editor at Hematopoiesis Press.

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