A couple weeks ago, I walked into the women’s locker room at the Prospect Park YMCA in Brooklyn. I’d joined the gym the day before, and planned to kick off my new membership by swimming laps. I had just started to take my gym equipment out of my bag when a woman walked up to me and asked if I knew that I was in the women’s locker room.
At first, I thought she was confused about which locker room she was in — something that occasionally happens when someone sees me in the women’s restroom and briefly panics, thinking that they’ve walked into the men’s room. But the woman asked again — “You know this is the women’s locker room?” — and this time there was a hint of anger in her voice. I told her yes, I was aware of exactly where I was standing, and she walked away. I brushed off our awkward interaction as just one of many I’ve experienced as a transmasculine nonbinary person, and went back to changing.
Ever since I began hormone replacement therapy, I wondered at what moment I would need to start using the men’s room. Every trans person is different, and not every trans person is required to or even wants to medically transition, but for me, top surgery and starting testosterone felt right. Every morning, I apply a topical gel called AndroGel that delivers a low dose of testosterone to my body. The effects of AndroGel are slower and more gradual than other types of hormone replacement therapy. Since I started AndroGel, I’ve noticed small changes in my body — the hair above my lip is getting thicker, my fat distributes a little differently, and my face has become more angular — but most of the time, I’m still read and gendered as female. On the off chance that someone genders me as male, they usually notice otherwise once they get a good look at me, or the moment I start speaking. When someone calls me “sir” or “he” I’m usually holding my breath throughout the interaction, waiting for them to realize their mistake and apologize profusely. For these reasons, I use the women’s restroom at work and in public, and I continue to use the women’s locker room at gyms.
Many transgender people have been accused of being interlopers in public bathrooms — the myth of trans predators preying on little girls and women has managed to fuel anti-trans bathroom bills and general trans panic in the US for years now — but I wasn’t exactly expecting to be accused myself on a recent Friday after work.
About five minutes after being asked if I knew I was in the women’s locker room, I was standing alone, wearing nothing but shorts — my chest was bare, revealing my top surgery scars — when a YMCA staff member approached me and told me that I needed to leave.
I tried to explain that the women’s locker room was where I felt the most comfortable. “Listen, I’m trans, but I was assigned female,” I said. “I don’t know where else to go.”
Suddenly, the locker room grew quiet. There were other women changing around us, but none of them said or did anything — except for the few who began poking their heads around the corner to get a look at me, as if to see what kind of trans I was. This YMCA, the same one that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio uses, is located in a legendarily progressive neighborhood, and I expected someone to speak up, but no one did.
The staff member told me again that I had to leave and use the men’s locker room. At this point I felt helpless, alone, and humiliated. I said I would be leaving soon to go swim, but again, she insisted on escorting me out.
After I gathered my things and left, I asked if there was a gender-neutral or single-stall room I could change in, and she recommended I use the family locker room, where I was finally able to change without incident. A few days later, I called the YMCA’s New York City headquarters, but when no one answered, I followed up by directly contacting the YMCA in Park Slope, where I reached the executive director. I explained what had happened and she apologized, saying she would speak to her staff.
But when I returned the next week, on August 24, and tried to use the family locker room again, a different staff member didn’t think I belonged there, either, and they asked me to leave because I was neither a parent nor a child. Since I felt I couldn’t go back into the women’s locker room after getting escorted out the week before, and I wasn’t comfortable going in the men’s locker room — because I don’t feel as though I “pass” as male either — I left.
Even though it is a violation of the New York City Human Rights Law to prohibit “a transgender or gender non-conforming person from using the single-sex program or facility consistent with their gender identity or expression,” and even though I’d just paid the YMCA $138 for my new membership, I couldn’t use the facility I’d paid to use, and that New York City law says I can use.
There are official channels for complaints like these, and I am pursuing them, but they are slow to resolve. The YMCA didn’t do anything after my initial complaint, and it’s unclear when my complaint to the Human Rights Commission will actually be adjudicated. In the meantime, I think it’s important for Americans to know that even in cities with strong laws in place, discrimination like this still happens — it happened to me, and it’s happened to countless trans and gender-nonconforming people I know.
After both incidents, I thought about just leaving the YMCA entirely, but swimming laps is a huge stress reliever for me, and has been for most of my life. From my first swimming lessons as a little kid to competitive swimming in high school to grabbing a few laps between classes in college, I’ve always loved the water. As soon as I jump into the pool, all of my stresses and worries that have built up throughout the day seem to melt away.
Since getting top surgery (otherwise known as a double mastectomy) last year, the visible scar that stretches just below my chest has become something that catches most people’s attention when I’m in and out of the pool. A lot of the time I can feel people’s stares from the locker room to the pool deck, and yet up until now, I’ve mostly been able to ignore them.
I’m not the only trans person who has been questioned about their gender at a YMCA facility. In 2016, at a suburban YMCA near Chicago, a woman told employees she was concerned to find a teenage trans boy using the women’s locker room. This report, along with a few other similar instances, prompted the YMCA of Metro Chicago to issue guidelines for accommodating transgender members and guests.
But unless staff and gym members are made aware of trans-affirmative policies at places like the YMCA and beyond, these policies can do little good. At times, not even local or state nondiscrimination laws are enough to deter employees at public and private accommodations from policing patrons’ genders and ejecting them from the premises if they’re picked out for not meeting arbitrary standards for what a man or a woman is “supposed” to look like. According to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 60% of trans people say they have avoided using public restrooms for fear of confrontation, harassment, or assault.
Earlier this month, parents invoked violence against a 12-year-old transgender girl in a series of Facebook posts, calling her an “it” and threatening her life: “If he wants to be a female, make him a female. A good sharp knife will do the job really quick.” The threats, which made national news and led the sheriff in the small town of Achille, Oklahoma, to order the school district temporarily closed, were all inspired by the fact that the 12-year-old, while at school, was using the girls’ restroom. Rumors had spread on a Facebook group for local parents that the girl was looking over the doors of bathroom stalls.
Trans girls and trans women tend to inspire the most ire and suspicion when it comes to the national bathroom debate; only recently have trans men and trans boys started to become the center of a trans panic of their own. But that doesn’t mean transmasculine people like me exist in gendered spaces without being scrutinized, harassed, or sometimes ejected altogether — and not only in conservative, rural areas like Achille, Oklahoma, but in supposedly progressive safe havens like New York City.
As I replayed the scene in the locker room, I began to wonder if the incident had actually been my fault. Should I even have been changing in the women’s locker room in the first place? Have the effects of the low-dose testosterone I’ve been taking since February and top surgery made me so passable as male that it actually doesn’t make sense for me to be in there anymore?
But even back when I was pre-T and hadn’t yet had top surgery, a staff member at a different gym once came up to me and told me the locker room I was changing in was “for women only.” I was far less secure in my trans identity at that time, and in order to end the awkward interaction as soon as possible, I explained that “I’m technically a woman” even though that wasn’t true. Shortly after, I canceled my membership at that gym.
However, this is an issue that extends far beyond that one gym, and far beyond the YMCA. Trans people aren’t the only ones being scrutinized and, at times, ejected from public spaces — many who don’t appear to follow certain gender stereotypes, from butch lesbians to non-trans cancer survivors with mastectomies to more feminine men, are subjected to this kind of gender policing.
Asking trans people to avoid using restrooms and locker rooms for the sake of others’ comfort is not only cruel and inhumane — it also bars us entry from participation in public life. All I wanted to do at the YMCA was go for a swim. I wasn’t hurting anyone; I was just trying to live my life — just like the 12-year-old transgender girl in Oklahoma was just trying to attend school.
I reached out to the NYC Commission on Human Rights about what had happened to me, and their spokesperson said that “it is illegal under the NYC Human Rights Law for employers, housing providers, and places of public accommodations in New York City to discriminate against individuals because of their gender identity or expression, including denying access to bathrooms or facilities to transgender or gender non-conforming individuals. Being uncomfortable with someone else’s gender identity or expression is not a lawful reason to deny access to bathrooms or facilities.”
When I reached out to the YMCA again, this time as a reporter, their communications director, Erik Opsal, got back to me the same day. Opsal put me in touch with Erika Rautenstrauch, YMCA's vice president of operations for Greater New York. Rautenstrauch profusely apologized for the incident, and made it clear it was the YMCA’s policy that transgender individuals should be able to use whichever locker room they feel most comfortable using, whether it’s the women’s, men’s, or family locker room. She also offered to sit down with me during my next visit at the YMCA, and discuss how she could make this right.
Opsal later emailed me with an official statement: “The YMCA deeply regrets that a member was made to feel unwelcome at one of our branches. The Y is here for New Yorkers of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and to ensure everyone feels welcome and safe, we offer transgender individuals the opportunity to use the locker room that matches their gender identity. We will reiterate our protocols with our staff and contractors to ensure this does not happen again.” Opsal also confirmed that the two new YMCA gyms currently under construction in the Bronx will have universal locker rooms, and are scheduled to open in 2020.
When I spoke with Rautenstrauch, she asked me which locker room I would feel most comfortable using. “I’m assuming the women’s, right?” she asked. While that might’ve been true up until earlier this month, I no longer feel most comfortable changing in the women’s locker room. However, I’m still not ready to use the men’s locker room or restroom for safety reasons, and using the family locker room makes me feel uneasy. The truth is, I don’t feel comfortable in any of these spaces. But since there is no gender-neutral locker room at the Park Slope YMCA and I’ve run out of options, I’ve returned to using the women’s locker room. This time, I go straight to the individual changing stalls, and avoid eye contact with anyone I see on my way in and out. It’s an experience I do not look forward to, and try to rush through as quickly as I can.
Outside of the Prospect Park YMCA, there is a sign that reads: “We welcome all sizes, all colors, all genders, all beliefs, all religions, all types, all people.” I didn’t find that this sign, while admirable in sentiment, held true when I walked in the YMCA’s doors, but I hope it will be true one day. ●