Ma’am or Sir?
Android Bathroom Signs
I’ve gone into a men’s washroom only once. It was at a theatre during an intermission. The lineup for the women’s washroom was enormous, but there was no lineup for the men’s. One enterprising woman enquired of a man who was leaving the facilities whether or not there was anyone else in there. When he said “no,” we took turns in guarding the door so that women could use the men’s stalls. Although I don’t think I would have gone in without the guard, that moment caused me to think about the design of washrooms in public buildings. In recent years, many places have increased the number of female stalls, but very few have created gender-neutral washrooms. You know. Like the ones you have at home.

Another moment of “Duh! That’s obvious” kind of realization happened when I was first called “Ma’am” by a store clerk. I had never before thought of myself as old. Even less had I thought of myself as an abbreviated madam. In the prairies where I now live, being called ma’am is the respectful way to acknowledge an older woman. Younger women are “Miss,” so becoming a ma’am is a milestone and not always appreciated.  Hell, no. It’s a forehead-slapping awakening!

Today, when I was enjoying a pub lunch with one of my adult children, the server asked for ID. Not from me, I hasten to add, but from my 30-something-year-old child. It reminded me of the time when, as a 24-year-old, I was first asked for ID in a pub. I was newly arrived in Canada, and the notion of being asked for ID was alien to me. Added to that, I didn’t have any ID to show. I had not yet acquired a Canadian driver’s license, and I didn’t have my passport with me. Nevertheless, I managed with a little bluff and bluster to get a drink–my first wine spritzer!

My child did not object to being asked for ID. Well, who doesn’t want to feel as though they look under age? It’s a different story, though when being called ma’am. That identifies not only your age but also your gender in ways that may not be appropriate. This adult child of mine is in the process of gender transition, and is emerging from a feminine chrysalis to become a man.  I don’t blame store clerks and drinks servers for making a momentary choice in favour of good manners. They don’t have time to get to know us before moderating their customary speech.  At the same time, it’s difficult for people whose gender identity is perceived as neither ma’am nor sir. They would prefer to have no gender recognition, rather than have the wrong one.

We all know people whom we see as masculine women or feminine men. We sometimes wonder about their gender, but we don’t usually think about what it is like for them to try to fit into the two categories we have created. How would you feel going into a public washroom if you looked more like the opposite gender? You’d probably want to ask someone to act as a guard.

It’s all so silly, really. We share toilets with people of all ages and genders in our homes, but in our public facilities we want to stick to the binary gender segregation. Maybe we should make age-related toilets, too. All we have to do is decide at what age a miss becomes a ma’am.

Easy, right?

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