Policing Gender through Bathrooms

I have been called sir more times than I’ve been called ma’am.

When I popped out of my mother the nurse was able to tell her clearly that I was a girl. She also predicted I’d be a dancer based on my leg length.

I reached 5’10” by the time I was 13. The only person taller than me in middle school was the principal (he’s your pal!) At 18 I was just shy of 6′ and so skinny I had little to no figure.

For a variety of reasons I wore baggy tshirts that hid what figure I had. I tied my hair back in a plain pony tale. I didn’t shave my legs. And, thanks to genetic quirks handed down by a French Canadian great grandmother, I can grow a teenage boy’s beard.

I wore heels to my wedding and occasionally to the opera. I like dresses but jeans are easier if I have to climb a fence. You never know when you’re going to have to climb a fence. I grew up in the country riding cows and climbing fences. Nobody taught me how to shave my legs. I have the scar on my shin to prove it.

So I got called sir a lot until the person behind the register did a double take and apologized. I told them not to worry. What did it matter? What’s between my legs only matters if you plan on having sex with me.

It didn’t even matter when it came to going to the bathroom. If the girls’ room was full and the boy’s room empty I’d go in the boys’ room. The sign on the wall is just a warning. Enter here and you may see someone peeing standing up! Enter here and you may see a bloody tampon in the trash!

Lately people have been freaking out that someone of the “Wrong gender” may be using the bathroom. They don’t talk about my popping into the men’s room or a man using the women’s room or mothers bringing their sons into the women’s room or fathers bringing their daughters into the men’s room. What they talk about is people who are “wrong” about their gender using a bathroom. This is about a man “masquerading as a woman” trying to get into the women’s bathroom.

So how do you spot a man “masquerading as a woman?” Is he tall? Does he have stubble? Does he not wear heels or makeup or dresses? Sounds like me.

Am I supposed to carry my birth certificate with me everywhere in case I need to use the bathroom? You know you’re not supposed to carry your birth certificate around right? Identity theft is a problem too.

Who has the right to ask if I’m in the right bathroom? Who’s going to arrest me? What will the charges be? How often will I have to go to court with a note from my doctor saying that all my lady bits are the original package I was born with? Should I just start wearing dresses and no underwear and throw up my skirts every time someone questions my gender? How close a look is close enough to tell? Do I get to go pee first?

“This isn’t about you! This is about transgender people.” (Say both transgender people and the people who hate them.)

This is actually about everyone. The bathroom bill set up to target transgender people makes it so everyone’s genitals are under the microscope. Are you masculine enough? Are you feminine enough? Every person you meet in the bathroom has the right to question this now. Sure you may look like a guy but the bulge in your pants is pretty pitiful so I need to see your birth certificate. You think you’re ok because unlike me you can’t grow facial hair and you do wear dresses? Someone’s going to think you’re trying too hard. Meanwhile how long before a divoced dad gets taken to court because he took his little girl into the bathroom because she had to potty and is too young to go alone?

So let’s just skip past the moral question of whether or not it’s right to ask to see a person’s private bits to make sure they’re in the “right” bathroom. This law is not enforceable. It simply creates chaos and panic and excuses for bigots to beat up on people who may or may not be what they hate.

Exactly Why I Need the ACA

Exactly why ACA and the ability to get health insurance with pre-existing conditions matters.

In 2013 I had a craniotomy to fix a hole in my superior canal (superior canal dehiscence syndrome). Side effects of the hole include complete lack of balance, migraines, and hearing things like my eyelids pop when I blinked or brain swoosh when I turned. As my symptoms increased my ability to do anything decreased. I eventually ended up on short term disability a month before my surgery. Without that surgery I would still be on disability. With that surgery I am an active part of the community with a good job that just bought a house and a car (economy yay!).

I was on disability for three months. The month before surgery and two months after. I was able to continue insurance through Cobra ($700/person) and was paid disability wages (60% of my paycheck). Rent was about 30% of my paycheck because we were lucky. Rent in general is much higher than that. To cover both me and my spouse would have meant that all my disability wages would go to insurance and rent and some rent would be paid by my spouse. My spouse is a cook. I love him tremendously but his paycheck does not support us. Mine does. Money left over from paying insurance and rent and doctor copays and bills would not have fed us and some bills would have gone unpaid.

We sat down and talked. My husband was healthy and we decided he could live without insurance for a few months. A year later, back on health insurance, he had a heart attack. More on that later.

So we managed to scrape by, keep our apartment, not go bankrupt, get me the surgery I needed by deciding to forgo health insurance for my husband for a few months.

Let’s say this surgery did not happen in 2013. Let’s say it was happening this year. This year we could not afford to forgo health insurance for my husband. He has had a heart attack. That is a pre-existing condition. Congress is in the process of dismantling the protections offered by the Affordable Care Act. Whether they succeed or not we cannot risk my husband not having health insurance for even a moment. Then he could be denied health insurance ever after. And he would.

He has heart medicine. He has a lifetime ahead of him full of potential health risks like broken bones, the flu, another heart attack, bronchitis, my imagination is running wild but it’s not unreasonable to assume in the next 40 years he will need to see an expensive doctor.

In 2017 with ACA under attack we could not decide to budget away a few months of health insurance when times are tough.

In 2017 with ACA under attack I cannot open a small business because of the risk of missing health coverage.

In 2017 with ACA under attack if I was having that same brain surgery we would not be able to afford rent. Healing from brain surgery while homeless is impossible. We would have taken out a lot of debt, ruined my credit rating, never bought a house, declared bankruptcy which is now something employers look for in your history. My ability to get hired, get insurance would have gone down.

In 2017 my four months off for brain surgery would have been a life sentence of poverty and tax payers eventually paying for my food stamps, disability checks, and unpaid medical bills.

I know why people hate the ACA. They hate having to pay for insurance they “don’t need” and “can’t afford.” Then work on the costs!

By throwing the baby out with the bathwater Congress is screwing over a whole class of people who until recently could find ways to juggle their expenses to make health care work.

Essentially all you healthy people who “don’t need health insurance” are screwing me over because I happened to have a hole in my head.

Now don’t try to problem solve me. Don’t tell me our parents could have paid some part or we could have started a gofundme or try to fix the math so everything works out. Don’t polish this turd.

Without ACA people like me are going to go bankrupt and without health insurance people like me are not going to go to the doctor to find out why they have migraines because they can’t afford the special CT-Scan that finds a hole in their head that fixes their problem. They are going to end up on disability and after a few years of listening to their eyelids pop and their brains swish they will kill themselves. Trust me.

So call your Congressman. Tell him that you hate ACA and you’re happy to see it repealed AFTER there is a replacement plan in place that protects people with pre-exisitng conditions. Hell, why not throw in the protection against lifetime caps and the ability for parents to pay for their kids to be insured through college?

Really. Call your Congressman. We need the provisions that the ACA provides. I need them.

Tahini Muffins

Tahini Muffin Experiment

  • 2 cups ancient grains gluten free (or all purpose) flour
  • 1/2 cup packed Brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon Baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 2/3 cup tahini
  • 1 1/3 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom
  • dash of toasted sesames

Preheat oven to 400 F and line muffin tin with papers.

Mix flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside

Mix milk & tahini, add butter, then eggs, then sugar and cardamom.

Add dry ingredients to wet.

I like to use my 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop batter into the muffin cups. Sprinkle the tops with toasted sesames.

Bake for approximately 15 min or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool a bit before transferring to a plate.

Texture turned out a bit sandy due to the tahini. Cardamom gives it a nice crisp taste. Palate cleanser.

Fighting Stereotypes: #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Once upon a time a software company posted pictures of their employees. The end.

Or not. One of their engineers happened to be a beautiful woman. Out of nowhere she started getting comments and messages, “You don’t look like an engineer, are you sure you’re not a model they hired to pretend to be an engineer?” And ruder. Her response? #ILookLikeAnEngineer

When I first started down the path of becoming a programmer people would tell me that the money wasn’t good (it was just after the dot com crash) or the hours were awful or any number of negatives. Then they would say wouldn’t you rather be a teacher? Or a project manager? Or a product owner? Or a designer? No, actually, I enjoy the act of programming.

There’s a stereotype around what software engineers look like. The effect of that stereotype is that people who don’t fit the stereotype constantly have to explain why they want to be a software engineer. Since women are assumed to be worse at math than men the reason they want to be software engineers is often thought to be something other than love of the (at times) mathematical nature of the work. Instead of defending ideas that I have around programming I end up defending that I can even have those ideas as a woman.

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign touched me. I may not look like a model but I have had been told I don’t look like an engineer. I posted my picture to twitter. I write software. I am an engineer. I look like an engineer.

A week later my boss at Billups asked me if I’d seen #ILookLikeAnEngineer. I showed him my post. He said they wanted to help with the Indiegogo campaign. Then he and the owner of Billups threw the weight of the whole company behind helping get the best possible out-of-home billboard campaign for the project. The team handled the campaign from conception to execution, organizing the printers, getting good deals through contacts in the area, making the whole thing bigger and better pro bono. Yes, pro bono, no charge for our services.

We got the message all over the Bay area – we have coverage in Oakland (Coliseum), Bay Bridge, 101 (Santa Clara & Palo Alto), downtown SF, BART stations. Media formats include: Bulletins (static & digital), Metro-Lights, 2-sheets. (Yes, I’m quoting a coworker who was talking about what we did. I just build the software that helps organize the data and process, everything I know about the process comes from amazing people like Kristana.) AND we partnered with a great data company called ESRI that makes it possible to provide a density map of people in the Bay Area that had a Computer / Mathematical focus for strategic targeted planning. (They also often host the local #golang meetup.)

All that launched this week. What started with me caring about how software engineers who don’t fit the stereotype are viewed became the company I work for doing amazing things for the community. The official press release is here. And yes, they stuck my face on the billboard. Luckily I wasn’t alone and one of the other women who builds Billups’ software was willing to have her picture taken too. So here we are, looking like engineers before going back to work programming in Go, writing tests, creating data structures, building databases, and maintaining our legacy PHP codebase.

Alex & Rebekah looking like engineers
photo credit: Victor Garcia

2016 Hugo Award Contenders Short Story: Cat Pictures Please