Transitioning has affected how I interact with my body in more ways than I thought possible. It may sound funny, but essential bodily functions like peeing have taken on symbolic significance since I came out as a transgender man at age 16. Let me explain.
For my early years of life, I had always walked swiftly to the stall in women's public bathrooms, where I would sit on the toilet to pee. After I came out, I remember feeling a bizarre sense of satisfaction at being able to walk into the stall in men’s bathrooms. Urinals never intrigued me, but the idea of being able to walk into a room labeled “men’s” felt surprisingly validating. After all, most people take for granted the feeling of being “at home” in a gendered bathroom. And as we can see in the media today, being trans complicates the equation of going to public bathrooms, and sometimes results in verbal harassment and even physical violence. Needless to say, public bathrooms have long been a source of anxiety for many trans folks.
In any case, when I started using the men’s bathroom in high school, parents called the school to complain—but they also did so when I used the women’s bathroom. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, so I ended up relying on the bathroom in the nurse's office, which was private, and gender-neutral.
For most of college, any time I needed to use a public bathroom, I always just walked swiftly into bathroom stalls, closed the door, peed, washed my hands, and left. This process worked perfectly fine for me (aside from a few incidences of harassment) up until I planned a summer as a counselor at an outdoor wilderness camp. The camp didn’t have traditional bathrooms. I was informed that the camp had open-facing composting toilets. What this means is that if you sat on the toilet, you would be able to look out at everyone in the camp (and they can look right back at you!) with a little half door that blocks your behind. Introductory information told me that the composting toilets were only for women to use, or for men needing to poo. Men were forbidden from peeing in the composting toilets because it would mess up the pH of the compost to have that much urine. Instead, the camp had installed these two by fours around various areas of the camp’s grounds to mark designated spots for men to stand around and urinate onto the ground between them. Thrilling.
For the first time since the days of gender policing in my high school’s public bathrooms, I felt anxious about peeing. Since I wouldn’t get to pee sitting down in private, I had to figure out something else—something that would jive with the way I wanted my gender to be expressed.
The camp directors knew I was transgender; there had been one transgender man named Daniel there before me, and I had asked to get in touch with him before the session started. Daniel turned out to be a lovely person, but his experience was slightly different from mine; instead of being a counselor down by the pee pits, he had been a garden manager who had his own little cabin and composting toilet. He did inform me that using a stand-to-pee device (STP) was definitely recommended; otherwise people would’ve thought that I was pooping all the time if I went to use the composting toilets. While that wouldn't be a giveaway to others who didn't know that I was transgender, it still might be uncomfortable to be known for an entire summer as Skylar, the counselor who poops all the time.
Daniel recommended a simple trick to make a DIY STP device—to burn a hole into the tip of a medicine spoon and practice, practice, practice. I picked up three medicine spoons just in case: one clear, one yellow, and one blue. With my various art supplies scattered around, I sat in my college dorm room heating up the tip of a nail with a tiny lighter before puncturing it through the end of the medicine spoon. The clear one was destroyed immediately, I heated the nail too long. I opened a window to let the smell of burnt plastic out, and continued on.
Once I found the right burning technique, it only took another ten minutes to complete the yellow and blue ones. After ten or twenty trial times in the bathtub, I was 50/50 at it. It didn’t come quite naturally and was uncomfortable at first. But I pushed through by watching YouTube videos of others who had made medicine spoon STPs and appreciated their advice. Stage two of the process was to address the question of aim, and to try it into the toilet; that process took me another good ten or twenty trial times before I could rely upon it. “Practice, practice, practice!”—Daniel’s advice echoed in my mind. And he was right. My first time doing it successfully into the toilet with no mess finally happened about three weeks after beginning my attempts.
After that, there were a few nights where my house threw parties and our bathroom got busy with guests around. Needing to pee, I brought my medicine spoon in my shorts pocket outside into the backyard and went in the woods. To be honest, it was a validating experience that I hadn’t expected. It reminded me of how having a hysterectomy relieved dysphoria that I didn’t know was there prior to it. Being able to stand to pee by my own choice felt like a milestone.
There was also the less symbolic, more pragmatic benefit: being able to stand up to pee was also very convenient, just as I had hoped it would be. Camp would have been impossible without learning to do so, really. After a long day in the gardens, planting seedlings in 90-degree heat, I was able to walk off into the field by a tree, pull my STP out of my cargo shorts, and just stand with my back to the other guys without anyone thinking twice.
Ironically, perhaps, I ended up having to leave camp for other personal reasons, some of which involved the fact that the showers were completely exposed and that the cabins only had one or two walls to house twelve folks. After I arrived for training during that first week, I was told that it wasn’t a good idea for the parents of the campers and the campers themselves to know that I was transgender. Believe it or not, this was in 2012, just a few years ago. Thankfully, I have heard that this camp has become much more accepting and open with transgender counselors and campers.
Since then, I’ve used my STP during only a few camping trips, hikes and some crowded parties. It’s not something I regularly bring to bars around Boston, but it is something I am happy to have handy. More than that, learning how to stand and pee feels like a great skill that I never expected to need and for me, it’s the choice that’s most empowering.