There is a limit to our public lives, a mental radius we each keep but rarely discuss: Where’s the bathroom? The journalist Lezlie Lowe uses the phrase “bladder leash” to describe how far we can venture safely knowing we’ll be able to find a bathroom if we need one. Our freedom to move, organize, and protest, and at the most basic level, live comfortably, is all tied to bathroom access. And yet, outside of disability and homeless advocacy, few of us think about where to go until it’s an emergency.
The appalling lack of public bathrooms in cities worldwide became ever more apparent as the pandemic further restricted our movement. In the months before Covid-19 spread in the U.K., the Twitter account London Loo Codes crowdsourced accessibility information and access codes of bathrooms around the city via social media. That model inspired me and another comrade to create TO Toilet Codes in Toronto, and similar projects have popped up in other cities. In our first few weeks of operating, we received close to 200 submissions.
All that information became obsolete once Covid lockdown measures hit. We struggled to maintain up-to-date details about what public services were available and where. Conditions changed week to week, and the city’s sporadic notifications would frequently contain inaccurate information. Delivery workers were denied bathroom access at restaurants (of course, the apps they work for didn’t care), and libraries closed their doors to the public. From Toronto to Los Angeles, park bathrooms and water fountains were closed in the name of sanitation, leaving unhoused people especially with nowhere to go. During the early months of the pandemic, when hygiene was emphasized as the best way to suppress the spread of Covid, many were stuck without even a place to wash their hands.
While many of our more regular toilet code contributors are disability rights activists, gig workers, and urban planning enthusiasts, employees also send us a fair number of workplace codes. Cities and gig economy companies have been more than happy to offload their responsibility for bathrooms to commercial spaces, entry to which frequently comes with barriers attached (a purchase, a buzz-in system, a key, etc.). One barista’s Twitter DM mentioned they were tired of their boss asking them to act like a “toilet bouncer,” in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s a comment that touches on how often bathrooms are also sites of policing and surveillance: places where mores of workplace compliance, racial segregation, and the exclusion of the disabled or unhoused are enforced, and where LGBTQ+ people fall under suspicion.
This inequity and contempt for bodily needs goes back decades: Operation Soap, a 1981 raid on four gay bathhouses in Toronto, remains one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history, with 300 men charged. Some were dragged into police vehicles wearing nothing but a towel. In 2016, Toronto Police Services formally expressed “regret” for the incident on its 35th anniversary. (Just months after this formal apology, they launched Project Marie, an operation focused on park cruising.) During crackdowns on homelessness, public bathrooms are often the first target, since they’re said to “attract” the unhoused, even while public urination or defecation tend to be what draws ire and cops’ attention to people on the street. (The Los Angeles County sheriff recently took to Facebook to complain about the city’s Metro lines smelling like piss; his proposed solution, of course, was not more facilities but to put his deputies in charge of policing the rails.)
Panic around what goes on behind stall doors factors into public bathroom design, in a subset of what’s known as hostile architecture. Monochromatic blue lights are sometimes installed to make it harder for potential drug users to find veins (harm reduction advocates have pointed out these lights do little to actually dissuade drug use and only result in more dangerous injections). Lausanne, Switzerland, recently touted a public bathroom equipped with transparent glass windows as a novelty tourist attraction. The windows frost over when the doors are locked to offer privacy when the stall is in use and turn transparent again if motion detectors don’t pick up any movement for 10 minutes. (If your business takes longer than that, you are apparently out of luck.) A town in Wales concocted fantastically expensive toilets weaponized with water sprayers and alarms to keep people from having sex or sleeping in them.
If the state and capital alternately ignore and criminalize what happens in bathrooms, it makes sense that they have also been sites of creative resistance. In 1964, Saul Alinsky and the Woodlawn Organization planned a “shit-in” at O’Hare Airport to pressure Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to follow through on his promise to fund more infrastructure in the city’s South Side neighborhood. They extensively mapped and tallied the airport’s bathrooms and estimated that it would require some 2,500 supporters to occupy its stalls indefinitely. They figured that since the first thing most travelers do after a long flight is head to the restroom, their plan would cause chaos: well-paying customers soiling themselves in hallways, flight delays, clogged runways, and clogged plumbing. Alinsky’s shit-in never happened; two days after they threatened it, Daley caved to the group’s demands. A shit-in was successfully carried to completion on March 18, 2015, in India, when tribal activists from Jharkhand’s Latehar district protested a land acquisition bill, which sought to weaken protections rural communities had against state and industry incursions on their land, by lining up and defecating on copies of the legislation. When organizer Abhay Xaxa was interviewed about the action’s supposed “incivility,” he responded by asking, “If poop protest is considered uncivil, then tell me what is civil in this country?”
Bathrooms are also essential protest infrastructure. Last June, hundreds of police officers and private security guards mobilized at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto to evict an encampment. Police set up steel fencing around the park residents and those of us who’d gathered to support them, blocking access to food, water, bathrooms, and outside help in an effort to “starve us out.” Thankfully, one supporter had the foresight to bring a portable toilet in at the beginning of the day so that the hundreds of us trapped inside the fencing had a stall to use during a standoff that would last close to 12 hours. Back in the days of Occupy Wall Street in New York, the new inhabitants of Zuccotti Park relied on a nearby McDonald’s when they had to go. Better public bathrooms could make occupations easier to sustain.
In our fight to reclaim our buildings, streets, leisure time, and workdays, we must also take back our right to a place to piss. Beyond our basic bodily functions, the toilet stall can be a place to discreetly hook up, to check our phones, to rest our heads between our knees in the middle of a busy shift. If there is any single, basic, unifying, irreducible human need we can agree upon, it is this. Like the good book says: Everybody poops.
Michael DeForge is a cartoonist in Toronto.