Opinion: Why We Need To Talk About Bathrooms

In 8th grade, a quiet girl in my P.E. class felt uncomfortable changing in front of others and would hide in a bathroom stall to put on her gym clothes. When she got teased for this, several of us joined her in taking our clothes to stalls to change so she wouldn’t feel alone.

In 9th grade, I overheard some girls in the locker room whispering about how a tomboyish girl was “probably a lesbian” and “watching [them] change” into their running clothes. I myself proceeded to change alone in a bathroom for the next four sports seasons.

In 10th grade, I walked into a bathroom before school started to find a girl straightening her hair, her friend beside her putting on mascara. Both of them were preparing themselves in this quasi public-private space.

In 11th grade, I threw up in a bathroom at a school I didn’t know, before sitting to take the SAT.

In 12th grade, I escaped to a bathroom to take a breath after my ex confronted me at lunch, demanding an ultimatum from me: love him or never see him again. I chose the latter but alas was not granted that privilege.

In my first year of college, I hid in a bathroom after spotting a nameless guy who had kissed me so aggressively at a party that my lips were in pain the next day. I had thought I would never see him again after running away that night.

In my second year, I stood in the shower, looking at the bruises on my fists from the frustration I took out on the gym heavy bag with my unwrapped hands, realized I wasn’t okay, and I then returned to seeing a therapist.

In my third year, I quietly retreated to a bathroom stall after getting a text saying a close family member had had a sudden plummet in health. I struggled to see clearly as I read the message, telling of how he no longer showed the signature snarky sense of humour I had known so well growing up.

Why am I sharing these personal moments from my own life? Why are they all centered around bathrooms? Likely as a surprise to no one reading this article, I want to make a point.

If you can connect with any of these emotions I’ve experienced as a cisgender woman (a woman assigned female at birth), then you can connect with the same emotions a transgender person (someone whose gender identity does not align with their assigned gender at birth) may have experienced in their lifetime; they too have felt scared, ashamed, and lost at times, but also safe, proud, and connected at others.

The key difference, in this case, is that I have never been made to feel unwelcome in a bathroom. Bathrooms have always been a safe place to escape to when life became a little too intense.

This issue has become a hot topic in the ongoing battle over gender-identity rights.

A recent legal case in the spotlight involves Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student in Virginia, who was denied access to the boy’s bathroom by his school, largely due to strong backlash from several students, parents, and local community members.

The narrative of trans people being “sexual predators” or otherwise causing harm in bathrooms is statistically invalidated; they are much more likely to be on the receiving end of aggression and violence.

In fact, about 70% of trans people have reported being denied entrance, assaulted, or harassed while trying to use a restroom, according to a 2013 Williams Institute report.

Tell me why a trans person should ever be made to feel unsafe? Tell me how they are looking for anything beyond decency, respect, and the ability to use the damn bathroom in peace? I wish this wasn’t something we had to fight for, and I wish they could just exist without it becoming part of a political narrative that, above all, seeks to reduce their humanity.
But the reality is that this is not a universal wish, and in many ways, transgender and gender non-conforming people have to fight for some of the most basic rights that most people will take for granted.

Now, maybe you find this an ill-fitting audience. Why would Olin, a seemingly progressive and accepting campus, need to talk about these issues? My opinion is that it is simply not enough to tolerate and passively accept.
We need to have a dialogue on these issues and make it known that we care and are here to support those who are being silenced. Note that this doesn’t mean interrogating the trans and gender non-conforming people in your life, but instead looking for ways you can support them.

Massachusetts Question 3 on the November ballot, which questioned whether laws banning discrimination in public spaces based on gender identity should be upheld (you may have heard of the “Yes on 3” campaign which sought to protect transgender rights), passed with just over a two-thirds “Yes” vote.

This is a sigh of relief, and a win for transgender and gender non-conforming people everywhere, but also a great concern that it was even called into question.

As a community, these are the kinds of issues that we need to be vocal about to show people that we will be here to support them no matter what happens. Stay informed about what’s going on in the world, especially with respect to executive declarations that specifically target minority groups and seek to incite fear.

Think about the topics that you’re prioritizing in your everyday conversations and how interpersonal interactions can be just as, if not more, important than group projects and technical assignments. I am by no means doing enough and am writing this not just to the Olin community but to myself as well.

I really hope Olin can overcome its aversion to political discussions in order to take action and show support for people that may otherwise feel disenfranchised by the world around them.

P.S. I chose to publish this anonymously so discussion will be focused on the issue itself and not sidetracked by my own experiences. I am well aware that this is not my own issue and I was originally tentative to speak up about something that I have not personally experienced.

However, I believe this is a case where conversation about how we can do better as a community is necessary, and I want to use this opportunity to bring it up.

I hope this can be taken as an appeal to each of us as part of the Olin community to make a space for honest and well-intentioned discussion, so we can better support the global community by starting with our own.

Accommodations Weren’t Enough

It’s time to introduce you to the chaos that is my mere existence. Yes, folks, I’m talking about my unbelievably awful medical history.

First, some background. Here are some things I have been diagnosed with:

Chronic psychophysiological insomnia

Tendonitis of the arms, wrists, hands, knees, and feet

Bursitis of the hips

Raynaud’s disease without gangrene

Chronic migraines


Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Major depressive disorder (with one episode)

Bipolar disorder (with major manic episode)

And I like to add Fibromyalgia to the list, because a rheumatologist actually confirmed it, but didn’t write down (which super screwed me over when I ended up in a psych ward). Here’s what he said:

“Sounds like you have chronic, unexplained pain in your whole body. Well, your test results are all clean, so some people might call that Fibromyalgia.”

Notice the implication that he wouldn’t call that Fibromyalgia, for some reason.

My further evidence is this quote from an email I received from a Harvard clinical study on Fibro, which is currently the only way a broke ignorant college student can get access to innovative healthcare:

“From what you told me it seems like you will be a great candidate, I have had many other participants who don’t have an actual diagnosis, so that will not exclude you.”

Which was good enough for me, especially considering this untestable, incurable disease is diagnosed entirely on self-reporting of pain. Which I definitely have.

So, anyway, I’ve clearly got some major medical problems, but that list doesn’t really tell you anything. Here are some of the everyday effects of all my illnesses:

Extreme fatigue (insomnia, Fibromyalgia, migraines)

Difficulty concentrating (insomnia, migraines)

Pain (all of the above)

Hopelessness and irritability (pain, depression, bipolar)

Nasty belly cramps (IBS, womanhood)

Shame (IBS, everything else)

Light, sound, smell, taste, touch sensitivity (migraines, Fibromyalgia)

Loss of appetite (IBS, migraine, the physical act of eating hurts from Fibromyalgia)

Being freezing all the time (Raynaud’s, which means poor circulation)

Hot flashes (same thing, I can’t regulate my temperature from Raynaud’s)

Crying (pain)

Extremely painful muscle stiffness in the morning (Fibromyalgia)

Lots and lots of other unpredictable problems

Inability to recover (insomnia, everything else)

Basically, I wake up every morning feeling like I spent the night tied to active railroad tracks, and it only gets worse from there. And the best part is, it’s pretty much all (currently) incurable.

Sure, there are some kinds of okay treatments for some of these things, but it’s all in the works, and they’re meant for people who only have one of these problems. For example, Tylenol and NSAIDs can sometimes help my soft tissue pain, but it upsets my IBS which causes more pain, especially when combined with caffeine which I take for migraines, but that makes Raynaud’s worse (and believe me, you probably underestimate how painful it is to not be a nice, neutral temperature), and that’s all really stressful which makes my psychological things worse, which makes everything else worse, and whoopie now it’s a downward spiral.

And don’t forget! I was in college.

I thought I’d do something nice for myself, and secure some accommodations. What I didn’t realize is that those are designed for people who have nice, manageable problems. They’re meant to help you be more normal, by giving you slight advantages like being able to move to another room when your environment is too overwhelming, or get extra time on a test. It works all right at most schools, and if it doesn’t, you can at least keep yourself under the radar.

But I wanted something better for myself. I wanted something like me— unusual. Hard to believe. I wanted to go to a tiny, innovative engineering school called Olin College of Engineering, where everything is projects, and experiments, and teamwork, and fun. I loved it.

And despite what happened next, that school is my heart. It’s real small, and everyone (students, faculty, staff) is doing their damnedest to make it awesome. Everyone there works unbelievably hard, but sometimes, there’s just too much work to do, and someone has to suffer for it. This time, that person was me.

The flexibility of experimental, team-based classes was both a blessing and a curse. It meant I could take days off when I needed to, and work when I wanted to, and it would usually be fine. But it also meant I was held far more accountable for my actions than most college students- my peers, friends, and professors were putting faith in me that I would abide by our Honor Code, and do the best I could, always. So, sure, the students (which used to include me) might have a hard time getting to class on time, or at all, but damn do they work hard to deliver on that promise. If you’ve ever met an Oliner, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

What this school grants its students is this: Autonomy. From the school’s perspective, this is because if you give people the resources, teach them the skills, and see what they want to accomplish, the results are astounding. I love how fantastic that is in its own right, but from my perspective, it’s also the only way I can survive.

See, my disabilities don’t fit into pretty accommodating boxes. They’re messy, overwhelming, interactive, and fluctuate constantly (often even in span of just a few minutes). You may have heard how hard it is for anyone with a disability to explain it to someone else, and it’s about a million times harder for someone like me. It’s almost impossible for me to understand and predict my body, much less explain it to someone else. It takes a huge toll on how I can interact with people, so I end up just pretending everything’s fine because it’s just way too tiring to bring another person to an accurate understanding. And I look fine, don’t I?

So when the disabilities counselor asked what accommodations I needed, I came up blank. It was just too hard to come up with an accurate prediction.

Sometimes I need to leave the room, or run around the room to get my circulation going, or disappear for a few days, or nap for 10 minutes, or blindfold myself, or change clothes, or eat, or go to the bathroom, or whatever, and there’s a pretty solid chance I won’t know until it’s happening. Because, guys, I’m in excruciating pain all the time— Pain isn’t an indicator for me anymore. I have very little warning when my body needs something.

The problem is, the whole point of accommodations is to help normalize me into the system. But I have never been, and never will be, normal. I wanted to be, but my body can’t do it. I have to live a lifestyle that’s very very different from the norm because it’s fixing problems that the norm has never even considered. And the really shitty part of that is, what’s accommodating for me isn’t always going to be accommodating for you, and there’s a lot more of you. So when it comes down to it, I don’t even really get a say in the matter.

So, predictably I guess, the whole college thing failed miserably, because I fell into a downward spiral that I couldn’t get out of, and my school understandably attributed it to mania rather than the hoard of other medical problems that I couldn’t really explain, and I ended up in a psych ward. I had a bad time. I’m writing a book about it.

But how did I even make it through the first two years?

Yeah, I’m riddled with awful medical problems that make each other worse. Yeah, no one can help me. But I’m a goddamn human being, so I adapt, and I figure out how to turn my problems into my strengths. For example:

Problem: I can’t work for two weeks because my body is in excruciating pain.

Solution: Use my tendency for mania from bipolar disorder to make up the work.

Problem: I’m experiencing sensory overload from my environment, and I can’t focus, and I’m starting to panic.

Solution: Use my techniques to control my circulation to slow my heartbeat, which will help me be calm, and I can use my engineering skills to think of a better solution.

Problem: I’m in way too much pain to do this.

Solution: I will be in pain anyway (Fibromyalgia). Do it anyway. I’ve experienced enough pain so far that my pain tolerance is exceptional if I can figure out how to focus (caffeine).

And those are just some examples. After twenty years of living like this without perspective on what “normal” is (because guess what runs in the family!), that’s just what I learned to do. Figure out who or what I am, and make it work. I think that, at least, is a pretty standard human experience.

To that end, I’ve found a way to change my story from “despite everything” to “because of everything,” and even though I’ve suffered more than any person should from merely existing, I intend to make good on my internal promise to make this worth it. I’m going to make this world a place where someone like me can exist peacefully (and you’ll probably all benefit in the process).

So good luck, my friends, and keep on chugging. If I can do it, you most certainly can.



P.S. There’s like a lot more I want to say, but as I said before, it’s really hard to communicate my struggle. So just stay tuned, if you’re curious. Oh and, if you’ve gone through something similar and want a buddy, I gotchu fam. Stay strong.