We’re Here, We’re Queer, But Can We Pee Here?
by Emily Blair
My partner needs to pee. We’ve just come off a mountain in Virginia on our way to my friend’s wedding. I’m fit to burst, too. So, when I pull into the first twelve-by-twelve-foot gas station I see, practically skidding into a spot, I look over expectantly. Aren’t we going to pee?
LB takes a look around the parking lot, taking in all the pick-up trucks, Confederate flags, Trump stickers, and other trappings of what I know as small-town life. “I’m going to stay in the car.”
When I walk off, they lock the car doors. With my long hair, makeup, and general femme persona, I walk through the world as a cis woman with only the kind of conflicts that most women could readily identify: harassment, discomfort, and unwanted attention because of my womanhood. LB, on the other hand, gets an entirely different kind of harassment. We end up stopping at a corporate gas station less than a mile away, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t think before I stopped in the first place.
Thirty-five percent of LGBTQ+ Americans live in the south, the largest percentage by region. LB and I live in North Carolina, where we share the state with over a quarter of a million other queer adults. When we’re in Asheville, where she has lived for eight years, the confused looks we get in queer spaces are related to my femme and straight-edge appearance – am I here as an ally, or what? I’ll write more on femme identity in queer culture in another post. But in Iredell County, where I live and teach, LB is often mistaken for a man. It’s a different kind of uncomfortable silence.
Maybe you’ve heard of Queer Appalachia, the media juggernaut reaching tens of thousands of people inside Appalachia and beyond on social media and with their queer magazine Electric Dirt. Maybe you’ve heard of the Campaign for Southern Equality, Southern Fried Queer Pride, the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference, or any other number of organizations and events fighting for, and celebrating, queerness in the South. Even a passing viewership of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, drag’s presumed entrance into mainstream cis-hetero culture, reveals many performers from the south.
But where can we all pee?
Remember House Bill 2? A North Carolina law passed in 2016, and then revoked amid a fury of national backlash and economic consequences, made it illegal for anyone to use a bathroom designated for a gender that does not correlate with the gender placed on their birth certificate. The 2017 repeal was met with well-founded excitement from queer people in the state, but the fight isn’t over yet. And while school districts, cities, and individual businesses have taken it upon themselves to change their own bathroom policies or the signs altogether (my personal favorite is the half-dress clad humanoid with WHATEVER underneath) to skirt the law, the bill irreversibly changed the conversation surrounding where queer people pee in this state.
I didn’t see my birth certificate until I moved states and asked my parents to give it to me, just in case (of what? I suddenly hauled off and got married? who knows). There, under my parents’ names and the date, was Gender: F. As a cis person, I have spent my entire life responding to that little F with, “Yeah, sure.” As a femme queer woman, I enact the gender expression one most closely associates with being assigned female at birth. My birth certificate currently lives with my passport, bank documents, and my car lease in a fireproof box in my house somewhere. I’ve never been asked to present it, or my driver’s license, to access a restroom.
But where queer people pee isn’t just about a law; that the law has been withdrawn has not changed the ramped-up surveillance that many queer people now feel in public. If my partner goes for the women’s restroom, will they be stopped? Will they be asked to produce identification? If we are in the restroom together on road trips, I avoid speaking to her entirely; if we do have to speak, we use one another’s names instead of our usual pet names. We avoid small talk with other people at the sinks.
The point of the bill wasn’t to make us all carry our birth certificates everywhere – it was to enforce a state of extreme surveillance onto queer bodies in public spaces, even more than people were experiencing previously. And it’s working far beyond the borders of North Carolina.
As a queer Appalachian (born and raised in Fort Chiswell, Virginia) who has never lived outside the American South, I know that we are currently experiencing something like a reckoning in queer culture in the South. Suddenly, the data proves, and the greater American media cares, that we’re here in record numbers. West Virginia leads the country in the percentage of teenagers who are trans. Writers like Silas House and Jeff Mann write about being queer Southerners while holding prestigious jobs as professors at major colleges. Support for same-sex marriage (the bar resting snugly on the ground for queer rights, but an important milestone nonetheless) has nearly doubled in less than twenty years, an astounding reversal of bigotry.
And yet, I walked into the tiny gas station to pee with all my cis- and hetero-passing privilege, leaving my partner nervously sitting in the car outside (which was selfish and horrid of me, in retrospect), because for all the good and normal and beautiful in our queer south, I still have to ask: Can you pee here? And that answer doesn’t come easily.
Emily Blair is a queer Appalachian poet and blue-collar scholar. Originally from Fort Chiswell, Virginia, she now lives in North Carolina, where she teaches at a community college. More information about her and her writing can be found on her website, emilyblairpoet.com.