Two people in Charlotte embrace as they protest a North Carolina “bathroom bill.” (Skip Foreman/AP)

The year: 2005. The city: New York. The place: a nice restaurant — the kind with bathroom attendants who hand you a towel after you finish your business. I was having dinner with some LGBT colleagues when I excused myself and headed to the facilities — one labeled for men, the other for women, facing each other across a small hallway. Between them stood an employee, who looked me up and down and opened the men’s room door for me.

How polite? Hardly. Instead of thanking him, I explained how presumptuous he had been in deciding my bathroom preference for me. I tried in vain to explain how “gender identity” (the way individuals perceive themselves) is different from “biological sex” (generally indicated by a person’s genitalia, or sex assigned at birth).

To be fair, even today, the concept of gender identity is unfamiliar to most Americans, especially since, as GLAAD reports, only 16 percent of us know a transgender person. But believe me, we’ve been in classrooms, conference rooms and, yes, even restrooms with transgender people.

Back to the restaurant: It wasn’t that my gender identity was ambiguous, but several of my dinner companions would have probably presented a challenge. At my table that evening were individuals who are transgender or gender-nonconforming.

The bathroom “monitor” thought I was crazy, as did the manager, who simply said, “Men are men, and women are women.” I’d like to think we’ve come far enough in the decade since then to know that gender identity is not nearly so black and white.

But I’d be wrong, at least in North Carolina, which recently enacted a law that requires all individuals to use the restroom that corresponds with their biological sex. It’s one of many recent “bathroom bills,” which allegedly protect public safety by keeping men out of women’s rooms. Of course, there have been no reported incidents of sexual assaults committed by transgender men in women’s restrooms anywhere in the United States — not that facts should get in the way of political debate.

With no enforcement procedures delineated in North Carolina law, speculation is rampant that some form of gender surveillance will take place. In a letter to the editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times, Wayne Stanko asked: “Will there be guards outside every restroom in the state checking people’s sex organs?” Or, as others worry, will we all need to carry our birth certificates to prove — on demand — what our biological sex is?

Before you sign up as a bathroom attendant, let me tell you this is not a job you should want. Not because it’s “politically incorrect” (although it is that), but because it’s really hard. Just think about which restroom door you would open for these two individuals:


Caitlyn Jenner (Richard Shotwell/Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Caitlyn Jenner identifies as female, and she dresses and styles her hair as a woman. But the North Carolina law requires her to use the men’s room. Is that the door you’d open for her?

James Parker Sheffield is a transgender man, meaning he identifies as male, and dresses and presents as a man, although his natal sex is female. The state law requires him to use the women’s room.

In a recent live chat, Sheffield imagined this scenario: “I stop at a rest station on a road trip and, if I follow this law, I HAVE to go to the women’s room. Now, are the people who see me go in there going to stop and think, ‘Oh, he must be trans?’ Or are they going to think, ‘Why is that man going in there with women?’ The end result could mean life or death for me in an open-carry state with a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law on the books.”

And this is not just about transgender men and women. It’s about all of our families. This week, the North Carolina mother (who asked to remain anonymous) of a 13-year-old girl who identifies as pansexual told me how fraught it is for her daughter when it comes to using the school restroom or locker room. “She feels like she has the word ‘freak’ on her forehead when she has to use the girl’s restroom. She’s come home so upset.”

In any “bathroom bill” jurisdiction, anyone whose style doesn’t conform to binary standards risks not just stares and glares but an official challenge from a manager, principal — or sheriff.

Some politicians not withstanding, I honestly believe that what’s happening in North Carolina and elsewhere is as much about fear and ignorance as it is about hostility. When that restaurant manager told me, “Men are men, and women are women,” I think he didn’t have a clue that gender identity refers to what’s between your ears, not between your legs.

Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.

Join Petrow for a live online chat Tuesday, April 19, at 1 p.m., at live.washingtonpost.com Email questions to stevenpetrow@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow.