The Right to Pee
I asked my school district to pay me $200 for a phony penis. Seems like a stretch, but here’s why I did.
I’m a transman. I tell my students that my preferred pronoun is he and that I’ve been a man as long as they have been alive, but that when I was in high school, I was a girl. I don’t give them any label for myself. But by and large, people just see me as a man.
I dedicate myself to teaching. It’s not just a job to me. I see a light in each of my students and my goal is to help each one of them find the place to let it shine. I truly believe that if every young person in the world is able to find their joy and build a life around doing what they love, the world will be a better place. So when I teach, I work hard. It means starting early to get things prepared. It means being fully on and in performance mode for every period. It means sponsoring student clubs during lunch and being available to help students after school. Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, including grueling 17 hour shifts on film sets and high pressure tech jobs, teaching is the most demanding in terms of commandeering my time.
Even working in construction, I had the right to take a break at any point. I could go to the bathroom or simply say “Hold on a second, I need to take a breather.” If I did that too often, it might reflect on my job performance but no one would call it out of line. Can you imagine a teacher putting their class on pause like that, even for a moment? Hell, no. It’s against the law for us to leave the students unsupervised in the classroom, ever.
Think about what that means. I have a first period prep. Every teacher gets one prep period. But from 9:50 am to 3:30 pm I am in performance mode with a 30 minute lunch break and 5 minute passing periods all controlled by bells. I have to time my urination in synchronicity with those bells. Who else lives like that? That prep period is no vacation, either. 70 minutes to print out worksheets, prepare slideshows, post instructions, and provide feedback for over 100 different students in four different classes. And that’s just the bare vital job requirements for daily lesson prep. It doesn’t even include grading, contacting parents, professional development, clubs and committees, and a myriad of other things that are expected from teachers.
So please, understand the levity of my words when I tell you that I only have a moment, one precious moment captured and stolen from the grasp of everything else I do for everyone else, to escape to the bathroom and relieve myself. Now, imagine that you have captured that moment. The bell has rung ending 4th period. You had a club meeting during lunch and you didn’t really need to go then. But you’ve been holding it all during 4th period, waiting for this bell. The students crowd the door ahead of you. You still need to collect folders and pass out new folders for 5th period but first nature calls. So you press your way out into the hallway and walk into the men’s room at last.
Now imagine as you step in there, there is a big sign across the whole room that says “Closed”. Now what do you do? You can run, and I mean literally run, to the main building and try the next available bathroom. But you know from experience that the next bathroom is 87% likely to be closed to you as well. Your best guarantee is to go to the staff bathroom by the front office. But that is truly a race against time. If you do it, there’s a good chance you will arrive after the bell, your tables unprepared for the next class. While that’s not the end of the world, chances are that with a large 5th period of mostly 9th grade boys, you are already having issues with keeping students on task and teaching them to respect the 70 minutes of class time. They want to roll in late and get up out of their desks 10 minutes early and start to crowd around the door. But you’ve been focused on focusing them, and in this split second of panic, you weigh the importance of setting an example against your need to pee. All too often, I choose the students’ needs over mine. I take a deep breath and resolve to make it to 3:30.
Now what, you may wonder, is going on with the facilities at this school? Why are they 87% defunct? Well, the urinals are free, but the stall was closed. I am a man who can’t use a urinal. Not without a prosthetic. As a transman, I can’t stand to pee with the equipment I have. I’m not the only one. Students in wheelchairs or with colostomy bags are in the same situation I am. They rely on that one stall positioned beyond the row of urinals to be open. However, students have an accommodation I don’t. They can be excused during the middle of the period when bathrooms are less likely to be filled. But I can assure you that in between classes, the chances of finding an open stall are quite low.
At middle schools, there are often separate staff bathrooms, usually one room with one toilet that is either occupied or not. I suppose there is more fear of a younger boy being exposed to an adult penis than there is at the high school level. But in my current job, which I love by the way, there is one men’s room with 3 urinals and one stall. Staff and students share it. The next closest bathroom is in the next building across an outdoor breezeway and down a crowded hallway past the band rooms. Or I could go through a maze of turning left at the end of the breezeway through some doors down another hallway then make a right, another left, through a locked door into a narrow hallway, unlock another door into a dressing room and there is a toilet hidden away that I can use.
If I plan ahead, I can do all this on my lunch. But remember when I started listing the things I tried to accomplish during that first period prep and never even got halfway through the list? Well, guess what I’m doing during lunch. You’re right, though. If I know this is an ongoing problem, I should be adult enough to do something about it and not just play the victim. I knew that, and I did do something. I stopped drinking water. In fact, I developed an aversion to beverages. Unhealthy, I know. But the truth is that I got myself into embarrassing situations more than once. I did resort to abandoning my class unattended and I have also hoped and prayed that a little leak didn’t show on my black jeans and the smell wasn’t strong enough to attract attention. I spent many months experimenting with different routines and liquid fasts. It can be infuriating how the body will insist upon being its own natural self with its own demands no matter how much I try to control it.
I reached a point of desperation that drove me to research something I had abandoned in my history of being a transman. Over the course of my 20 years living as a man, I have carefully considered several different surgical options and I have purchased several products designed for us. I could write volumes about FTM genital reconstructive surgeries, and in fact, several people already have. I have not found an option yet that feels compelling enough for me. Less drastic, there are several stand-to-pee prosthetic (STPP) devices on the market. I used to use these many years ago. I found them most useful when camping or hiking and also in situations where I need to use a porta-potty or hideous gas station bathroom. As a teacher, I preferred using the stall as a way to put some professional distance between me and the students, anyway, regardless of the equipment I do or don’t have. So when my last STPP cracked of old age and deterioration years ago, I just stopped using them.
Now, STPP devices can be as simple as cutting up the lid to a margarine tub. You simply take a thin plastic disc and make a slit in it from the center out to the circumference. This allows you to form a cone. You may need to snip the tip of the cone to make a wider opening at the end. You simply place the open end of the cone over your urethral area and point the cone out and away. When you’re done, you can rinse the disc as you wash your hands and stuff it into your back pocket. While this might work well in the hideous gas station scenario, it’s not really very discreet in any shared public bathroom situation. Plus, for me anyway, it is prone to leak.
I happen to be a gusher. Perhaps it comes from spending so much of my time holding it until the opportune moment. But even in relaxed situations at home, I sit and a small flood comes out nearly instantaneously. I’ve always peed like that. I did have a history of wetting my pants when I was in grade school. It resulted in many visits to a urologist and even surgical inspection. I had my urethra dilated several times in my childhood. I don’t think that would have any permanent effect, but nonetheless, I have never been one to trickle. This presents a challenge with STPPs. The basic physics of all the devices is that of a stylized funnel. Funnels work well if you don’t pour in too much, too fast. Otherwise, they overfill and spill out. The same thing happens with STPPs and the result is ugly. It’s much worse than simply wetting yourself because the cup makes it spray out everywhere. That is not something I want even the slightest chance of happening at school.
But desperation drove me to look into it again. As I imagined would be the case, things had evolved since I last shopped for an STPP. There are now realistic looking silicon options in many different skin tones. One, in particular, attracted my attention and seemed like it might work even for a gusher like myself. That was the one with the $200 price tag. I talked to my wife about it and we decided the need was great enough to merit the expense.
Around the same time, I was being an advocate for queer and gender diverse students around a national issue. It occurred to me that this bathroom situation I found myself in was inextricably due to my being a transgender employee in a workplace situation. It’s not an issue for me outside of that particular combination. If I had a student appeal to me with a similar problem, I would certainly encourage them to approach the school and request an accommodation. I would back them up, too. So why don’t I do that for myself? I figured there was no harm in asking.
It was embarrassing. It meant making an appointment with the principal and sharing personal details with him that I wouldn’t normally share. But he was supportive and he put me at ease. He said the request made sense to him and he would take it to the district. In the meantime, I went ahead and ordered it. About a week later, I got an email from the principal saying he was sorry, but the district said my request didn’t qualify. ADA only covers accommodations for tasks that are required in your job description. That seemed a bit of an odd response to me, but I let it go. I wasn’t even sure the device would work for me. Also, it was at the end of the school year. I only needed to make it through a few more weeks.
Over the summer, it gnawed at me. How can the ability to relieve yourself at work not be covered? I had time over the summer to get used to wearing and using the STPP. It was a good thing to have that time, too, since I made some mistakes. Timing, placement, what to do when the zipper doesn’t unzip enough, stance, and yes flow control all come into play. Once you have it down, you don’t even think about it. But those awkward first weeks, I was happy not to have an audience. And a few months after shelling out $200, it doesn’t feel like such a financial hardship anymore.
I came back to school in the fall more confident, but still nervous about my first on-the-job STPP experience. The first time I used it with someone else at the urinals was during a professional development day, so the other person was a staff member and one who didn’t know me. That made it easier and it went just fine. No leaks, nothing awkward. I got better at it and soon, I had a favorite urinal in the bathroom that used to give me so much grief. Even months later, when I see that closed door to the stall and I walk up to the urinal, I feel such gratitude for this freedom.
In the fall, I sat on a diversity panel for a class. One of the questions fielded to us by the students asked about how the school district did or didn’t support us as transgender employees. I thought about my request and denial, but I wasn’t sure if this was the right forum to talk about it. In my moment of hesitation, another panelist answered the question and we moved on. But the question stuck with me. I mentioned it to some trusted colleagues who reacted more strongly than I thought they would. They encouraged me to pursue it further. So I reinstated my request and I got brave enough to share it with the assistant superintendent.
The end result was the same. HR said that their responsibility is to provide an accessible bathroom, which they have. My ability to use it is up to me. So, for example, the school wouldn’t be expected to pay for a wheelchair or a colostomy bag. But they do need to provide a bathroom that the wheelchair can fit in and a closed door where a person can empty a colostomy bag in privacy. They are sticking to their original decision to deny my request for accommodation as ineligible.
However, I think it’s more important that I bring to their attention a workplace inequity that I am pretty certain they were unaware of. The bathroom issue continues to be a problem for gender variant students and staff. We have one gender neutral bathroom in the whole school. That gets the district off the legal hook because the accommodation has been met on paper. But the need and the inequity persists.
I would say that feeling safe to use a bathroom in a confident way is pretty crucial to a safe learning environment. Any lack of that basic privilege can be as disruptive to learning as not having enough to eat. If we can’t provide our students with these basic needs, we can’t really expect them to tackle higher order learning. For some, the need can be met by providing more gender neutral bathrooms. For others, it means defending a student’s right to use the bathroom of the gender that they identify with. We’ll see where this goes in the long run. But for now, I am standing up for the right to pee.