My parents knew long before I did that I was gay. When I was still in elementary school Mom showed me my Baby Book. She pointed out my footprint, my first word, when my first tooth came in, and on the very first page the information copied from my birth certificate. She made it a point to read that information out loud. “You were born a boy!”
This was after the family had watched Bonanza and Little Joe had rescued some frontier ingenue. I made the mistake of saying out loud what I’d been thinking: I wish I was her. My panicked parents misunderstood. I didn’t want to be a girl. I wanted to be rescued by Little Joe. Every western, every detective show on TV always ended the same way: the pretty girl was saved by the handsome hero. I did not want to be the handsome hero. All he got for his troubles was saddled with a pretty girl. Who wants that? The pretty girl may be too dumb to solve her own problems (this was the early 1970s) but she was still smart enough to be saved, hugged, and smooched by the handsome hero. Ipso Facto, when it came to picking out role models, even though I was quite content being a boy, I’d much rather be the pretty girl.
When I grew up I learned you could be a boy and still be with Little Joe. There was no longer any reason to want to be the pretty girl. Or so I thought.
A few months ago, I was stuck in traffic on Highway 280 in Birmingham, Alabama. If traffic had been moving smoothly it would have taken me half an hour to get home. As it was, I was looking at three times that, if I was lucky. I was a lot of things that day, but lucky wasn’t one of them.
My stomach made a subtle gurgling noise, nothing too drastic, just enough to make me aware that the traffic could pose a problem. I gave my tummy a reassuring pat. “Hey Mavis,” I said to the GPS.
“Please state a command.”
“Go Home. Find alternate route.”
“You are on the fastest route.”
“I am not.” I tapped the GPS screen, manually clicking the “detour” icon. No options came up. My stomach stopped being subtle. I was seized by a cramp and prayed I wouldn’t have an accident in the car. Forget going home.
Brook Highland Shopping Center was at the next traffic light. I pulled off the road and drove along the shoulder, ignoring the honking horns of the cars I was illegally passing. I turned into the shopping center. Books a Million seemed the best bet. I parked the car and half walked, half hobbled inside. I was no stranger to the bookstore and knew where the bathrooms were. I shoved the door to the men’s room open, barreled inside and froze. Of the two stalls, one had an Out of Order sign on it and the other was occupied.
For the first time in my life it mattered that I was male instead of female and it had nothing to do with being rescued by Little Joe. I went to the Women’s room door. I didn’t give a gentle “is anyone in there” tap, but a “the store is on fire, get the hell out of there” beat down on the door. No one replied. I opened the door, peeked inside and thanked the gods of every religion I knew, real and imagined, and ran to the first stall.
I made it with a nanosecond to spare. I mean that both biologically and geographically. I’d no sooner sat down than the door to the restroom opened and two women entered.
I held my breath. I wondered if the noises a man makes in the bathroom are different than the noises a woman makes. Would I be found out? I looked down at my hairy legs, exposed at the bottom of the stall door. I pulled up my jeans as far as my knees and continued to do what I’d come in there to do. Then I worried that the women might say hello to me. Do women make small talk to strangers in the john? Men don’t, but I am unfamiliar with the distaff side of bathroom etiquette. The women left without incident. I finished my business and was ready to leave, but before I could, the door opened again and another woman came in.
During the periods when the bathroom was empty I was afraid to leave, lest a woman come in while I was on the way out. Should that happen, there is no way I could pass for transgender. I considered calling a bomb threat to the store and leaving the bathroom when the premises had been evacuated, but I knew 911 would have a record of who placed the call. And what if someone came in while I was placing the call and heard a man talking on the phone in the women’s room?
Aren’t there some frogs that, out of necessity, spontaneously change their sex?
It was now or never. The bathroom had been empty for several minutes. I stood up, pulled up my pants, and fled the bathroom. Habit is a funny thing. I almost paused to wash my hands, but I kept going. I left the women’s room went straight into the men’s room where I washed my hands and caught up on my breathing.
I strolled out of the bathroom, and even though there were no books I was interested in, strolled the bookshelves for a few minutes, trying to justify my presence. I picked up a couple of magazines and took them to the checkout area. While the clerk rang me up another woman came up to her. “Have you gone on break yet, Megan?”
“My break’s not till six.”
“Oh, right.” The other woman glanced at me, then went back to Megan. “I lost track of time I guess. I’ve been busy filling out loss reports.” It was clear that Megan couldn’t care less why she’d lost track of time but the other woman went on. “We prosecute all shoplifters, you know.” Now she looked at me again. “Got cameras all over the place. Never know what you’re going to see.” Megan roller her eyes, wishing her boss would go away. I was wishing the same thing. Megan bagged my magazines but before she could hand them to me the manager took the bag. She carried them from around the counter and joined me, walking with me to the exit.
She handed me my purchases at the door and said conspiratorially, “The line to the ladies’ was so long at a Taylor Swift concert that I went to the men’s room. But the men all knew it. Don’t worry, you’re good.”
I was as far from good as you could get. In fact, I felt my stomach start to cramp up.