Commentary | Set us free, let us pee

On intersectionality and issues of access

The world we live in is full of secret walls. Invisible and unspoken, they dictate the terms of our movement: the places we go, the work we do, the bodies we touch, the people we love.

For some, these walls form a relatively smooth passageway through life, allowing easier access to hard resources such as food, healthcare, and physical space, as well as to intangible things like love and self-worth.

For others, the world of secret walls is maze-like, and they constantly struggle against barriers that shift and turn to keep them trapped in society’s margins. Each experience of marginality is unique and individual. Most marginalized individuals struggle alone. This is the nature of intersectional oppression, and, for me, the walls of that oppression are never more visibly manifest than in public washrooms.

The first time I used a public toilet while wearing a dress was a year ago, in the women’s bathroom in Toronto’s Union Station. How can I describe that terror – my wildly beating heart, my paralysis as the ‘real’ women turned to stare at me as I stepped through the doorway, my anger, my deep shame? How can words do justice to the sudden rush of clarity I experienced then, as hands drifted toward pockets and purses – for cell phones, perhaps, or pepper spray? – as eyes raked over my body and then were quickly averted? I understood then that this was a barrier I would struggle against for a long time – that from now on, the act of peeing would be one more example of the place where the personal and the political are blurred.

As a trans* person, it’s often too easy for me to conceive of the problem of access to public toilets as located solely in cissexism – a social structure that favours normative bodies and gender identities. But it would be too simple to suggest that all we need to do is rip the signs from washroom doors and declare: Toilets for all! I am thinking of the enormous legacy of violence that women – all kinds of women – have endured at the hands of men, and their right to define spaces as female only in order to be safe. I am thinking of the racial segregation of washrooms and other public spaces that profoundly shaped my grandparents’ lives. I am thinking about how so many people considered disabled by society must search for those rare washrooms that are wheelchair-friendly, where appliances are suitably placed and shaped for the vast diversity of ‘disabled’ bodies. We must look deeper and harder at the problems of privilege and access.

The public washroom: what a perfect and ridiculous metaphor for the experience of oppression! A place of shame, taboo, and bad smells; each of us trapped in our own tiny boxes. A place we didn’t choose. But we can choose to reach out, across the silence, to speak the unspoken: Enough. See the barriers.  Break the walls. Set us free. Let us pee. 

Ryan Thom’s Memoirs of a Gaysian is a column about life, love, and intersectional oppression. Ryan is a writer, performance artist, and lifelong slut.  Contact them at

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