With her flannel shirt and short hair gelled into a stiff side part, it’s hard to identify Anna N. Murphy ’12 as male or female.
Her style is more Goodwill than Urban Outfitters, set off with big belt-buckles and cowboy boots. Some might call her hipster—or hispter-esque at least—but these are political clothes that blur the line between masculine and feminine.
Murphy, a social studies concentrator, identifies as transgender, which means her appearance is more masculine than feminine.
When she arrived at Harvard, Murphy’s dark black hair was long and reached her shoulders, but over the course of the past three years, she has cut it shorter and shorter, resulting in a fair bit of confusion—“I’m called ‘sir’ in lecture often,” Murphy says.
Today, it’s become less taboo for individuals like Murphy to blur gender lines. But for Murphy, whose gender-bending appearance breaks from the norm, life comes with a series of choices that box her into the category of male or female, and nowhere is that more true than in that most everyday of actions—going to the restroom.
With simplistic stick figures adorning its doors—a woman in a dress and the outline of a man—the public bathroom is one of the last remaining institutions that sifts men from women.
And for those who cannot be easily identified by others as a man or woman, entering a single-gender bathroom can come with painful consequences. For that reason, activists have made the increased availability of gender neutral bathrooms one of their top priorities, actively lobbying for restrooms that allow both men and women to enter.
Cameron Partridge pulled over on the highway to use a rest stop bathroom. He crossed the lobby and headed toward a restroom. At the time, Partridge identified as transgender but had yet to transition and therefore did not feel comfortable using the men’s restroom. So as he opened the door to the women’s restroom a man yelled, “Hey buddy—wait!” The man walked over with a dim-witted grin on his face and said to Partridge, “You’re about to go into the ladies room!”
Partridge looked at the man dumbfounded, turning words over in his head wondering what to say, and blurted out, “I know.” The man looked at Partridge strangely for a moment, apologized, and walked away.
Several years ago, while studying at the Divinity School, Partridge medically transitioned from female to male, but before that procedure he had a few uncomfortable experiences using women’s restrooms like the one at the rest stop. Now Partridge is a lecturer the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Department and at the Divinity School and says that while he doesn’t feel “traumatized” by these bathroom encounters, he appreciates—and has taken advantage of—the considerable number of single stall bathrooms that are available on the Divinity School’s campus.
It is practical considerations like these that lie at the heart of the movement for gender neutral bathrooms. The effort seeks to minimize the uncomfortable encounters, confrontations, and tensions that can arise when other individuals misread a trans person’s identity.
“So many people I know, including many women who are not trans-identified but whose gender presentation to some degree transgresses the gender norms of their context, have had the experience of being asked if they are in the ‘right bathroom’ or told they are in the ‘wrong’ one,” Partridge writes in an e-mail.
So as she walks around campus during her daily routine, Murphy has to be constantly aware of where the nearest single stall or gender neutral bathroom is located. And until gender neutral bathrooms become widely available, trans identified individuals will continue to have to structure their days around finding a comfortable place to do their everyday business.