How I navigate women’s spaces as a trans woman

neon women sign
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I remember the first time that I used the women’s restroom. It was 2007, and I was 16. I worked part-time as a lifeguard in my home state of Maryland, and I was assigned to the inside pool at Goucher College. I had felt the desire to use the ladies room for some time but resisted the temptation in fear of ridicule. I remember entering the restroom and heading toward the nearest stall. I remember how the two middle-aged ladies standing at the sink glanced my way as they continued chatting. I remember how exuberant I felt, for the first time, in a space that I felt safe within and in which I belonged. 

As a trans woman, I find myself constantly balancing what it means to embrace my own identity while simultaneously valuing women’s hard-fought-for spaces and rights. It’s an astonishingly complicated, emotionally draining and yet transformative journey into my own womanhood that has taught me a lot about the power of empathy, compassion and respect. 

Growing up, I was constantly aware of the fact that I was different from others. I didn’t grasp exactly what the distinction was until I was about 8 or 9: I happened to be a girl inside, although the world was utterly, adamantly certain I was a boy. For most of my childhood and teenage years, I wanted to die and be reborn as a biological woman. So badly. I struggled with depression, self-harm and even suicide attempts – all directly related to my gender dysphoria. 

Coming to grips with the truth about myself – that I was born male and would never be biologically female despite identifying as a woman– was a challenging and exhausting journey, but I ultimately discovered the fortitude to accept myself as I was. And thank God. I began transitioning at age 14, and it saved my life. 

Once I began to transition, I started to become extremely conscious of the difficulties that loomed beyond. Living as a trans woman is frequently a scary and solitary experience, from navigating the medical system to confronting prejudice and harassment in public spaces – some of which I know I am privileged to avoid due to “passing.” 

However, as I embarked on my sojourn toward exploring and actualizing my true self, I resolved to do so while maintaining the utmost regard for the women around me. Navigating the complex and often contentious subject of women’s spaces constitutes one of many challenging elements of being a trans woman. There are different spaces where women assemble for safety, privacy, and comfort, whether it’s a public restroom, a women-only locker room, or perhaps a boarding home. As a trans woman, I realize and appreciate the value of these spaces, and I wouldn’t ever want to see them disturbed or disrespected. 

Simultaneously, I recognize the importance of my own distinctiveness and sense of identity. As a trans person, it is often challenging to establish one’s place in the world at large, and I frequently grapple with emotions of larger-scale societal and cultural isolation and rejection. Yet I am aware that the only way to navigate this road with respect and integrity is to never lose sight of women’s rights and needs.

That in turn involves being aware of my personal conduct and never presuming that my presence within women’s space will always be accepted – even though I may feel it is where I belong. It entails being an ally to all women in every way imaginable, as well as collaborating to create an existence wherein trans women and cis women can coexist securely and compassionately, in solidarity and as a true sisterhood. 

As I discover my rightful place in the world as a trans woman, I have been continually convinced of the importance of empathy, compassion, and respect. It is frequently not a comfortable path; instead it is one that is rich in meaning and purpose. 

Additionally, I’ve realized that through honoring women’s places and rights, I am simultaneously valuing myself and my distinctive identity. Yet that act of honoring isn’t done through surrendering my desire, or my own right, to participate in and partake of those spaces or rights; rather the honor is in how I live and utilize those spaces, how I lend my experience as an ordinary person to those spaces.

I honor myself, and all women, by striving to be a decent person in these spaces; by contributing to the security and decency of these spaces, by being respectful and conscientious. I access these spaces with acute awareness and sensitivity. I use the bathroom like a normal person, without spectacle. I change in dressing rooms modestly and with sufficient discretion to not make it abundantly clear that I am trans. I buy undergarments and sensitive items. Essentially, I live my life and my presence without showy-ness and with the desire to just be; not taking anything from anyone nor creating discomfort for them. 

If I’m being honest, part of me does resent the fact that I, out of an abundance of goodwill, should exercise more caution than other women. But, also, the fact that I cannot eat whatever I want without gaining weight, like other people I know, is also a fact I resent. For me, it’s just become part of life. The reality is that whatever sacrifice I’m indeed making is simply worth it to create a world that is more harmonious and considerate. I just chalk it up to doing my part. 

Among the most difficult issues I experienced earlier in my transition consisted of reconciling my own identity with the facts of the world around me. As a trans woman, I’d constantly felt like an outcast, a person who wasn’t quite fitting with mainstream society’s norms and standards. Nevertheless I likewise understood that I possessed a right to be alive and present as my authentic self, which included navigating my surroundings without doing any harm to others.

Arguably the most vital lessons I learned were the value of listening to and learning from the perspectives of other women. Whether it was hearing the tales of women who suffered from sexism and violence in public places or understanding the early decades of the feminist movement, I realized how multifaceted and nuanced the issues regarding women’s spaces and rights are.

I also came to appreciate just how much women have fought and sacrificed to secure the rights and protections that we enjoy today. From suffragettes to feminists to activists fighting for reproductive rights and beyond, women have always been at the forefront of the struggle for equality and justice. And as a trans woman, I knew that I had a responsibility to honor and respect their hard-won victories. 

Throughout my journey as a trans woman, I have come to understand just how important it is to be true to yourself while also being mindful of the impact your actions have on others. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that requires empathy, compassion, and respect for all those around you. At the end of the day, it’s not about taking anything from anyone. Rather, it’s about creating more for everyone. More community, more rights, more spaces, more solidarity, and more hope for a brighter, more tolerant, more secure and kinder world. 

I know that by honoring the rights and spaces of women, I am also honoring myself and my own identity as a trans woman. I am proud to be a part of a community that values equality, justice, and respect for all, and I will continue to do my part to create a world where trans women and cisgender women can coexist peacefully and respectfully.

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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