The Hunger

Monsieur, c’est pour les femmes.” “Oui,” I respond, “oui, oui… je suis la faim.”

Faim? La faim? Really, Ellen, you are The Hunger, is this some new superhero? You took the time to take off your sweatshirt, cover your hair with a hat, and pull the necklace out from under your shirt, but somehow, you forgot to prepare your tongue. Well done.

Femme,” I blurt out, “je suis une femme.” It takes a few moments, one to look down at my flat chest, another to examine my man-pants, then back up to my man-shirt, and then finally that extra moment to see beneath the loose t-shirt to my bust. “Je m’excuse madame, je m’excuse.”

This happens often—but usually in English. So, this was the first time I inadvertently tried to use superhero status to gain access to the women’s bathroom. Since cutting my hair, bathrooms have become a litmus test where upon entering their territory I receive an indication of the public’s opinion of my gender. That day in the Casablanca airport, I was a man.

Some days I wear button-down shirts, most days I wear pants, occasionally I feel like wearing a dress, but every day, I am a woman. And every day I need to pee. Traveling to new places requires peeing in new places and it takes a few litmus tests before I am eventually able to find places where bathrooms are just a single toilet behind a gender-free door.

My litmus test experiences can generally be broken down into two types. There are the times when I am told that I’m in the wrong place because the person is trying to help. They are trying to prevent me from embarrassing myself by entering the wrong bathroom. After I clarify my gender, those interactions generally end with an apology. Then, there are the more hostile and judgmental encounters where the person is not actually trying to help, but is trying to tell me I am wrong. Those encounters usually end with a glare that says, “well, if you are a woman, why do you look like that?” Those suck. Fortunately, this one was the prior.

Unfortunately, many of the latter experiences happened during my first semester abroad in Budapest. The program I attended shared a campus with a separate international program—students whom I never encountered in my classes but managed to regularly encounter in the bathroom. Eventually, school was not a place where I wanted to use the bathroom. However, I discovered that many of the smaller cafes in Budapest don’t bother having gender separated restrooms, so I found cute cafes, studied, drank tea, and peed in peace. (Interestingly, there are regulations in Budapest requiring cafes past a certain size to have gender separated bathrooms. So, small cafes are the way to go.)

It should, however, be noted that there was an advantage to my gender-bending superpower. No matter how late it was, I could always walk home alone. Being The Hunger has its benefits.

I have been in Finland, now, for two weeks and I have yet to have anyone, well-intentioned or not, try to direct me to the correct bathroom. It is lovely. Gender expression is much more variable here than in Budapest, or even Amherst, and as such expectations are less rigid. As a result, I have begun to stop thinking about my perceived gender. During our orientation, I asked if there was a student LGBT organization. The student organizations representative didn’t know and neither did her two colleagues. After some googling we found a Queers Without Borders organization, but it was remarkable to me how different this was from the US. I’m so used to a university’s LGBT organization being a talking point on campus tours as well as front and center on admissions diversity pamphlets. Here, it feels like it is just not as big of a deal.

That’s not to say equal rights aren’t on the forefront of peoples’ minds. After my second Set Theory lecture, the professor came up to me to talk about the Women’s Marches that had happened over the weekend. We hadn’t spoken much last class, but she knew I was a visiting student from Amherst and that was enough to ask me how I was doing. We talked briefly about the future, and some about the present, and then she suggested that the whole class should go out for beers at some point so that I could make some Finnish friends. It was awesome.

I think that Finland has taken my superpower away. I am sure it will come back eventually. But for now, I like just being Ellen.

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