Recently, while hanging out in Madison Square Park, I needed to pee. There was an APT (Automated Public Toilet) nearby. Unfortunately, it was out of order. No big deal – because of my privilege as a middle class, white person, I was able to use the toilet at a nearby bar instead.
I learned about APTs in In Lezlie Lowe’s new book, No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. She writes about how crucial public toilets are, especially for those who can’t just walk into a privately-owned business bathroom, such as the homeless. The area around the broken public toilet in Madison Square Park smelled like urine, presumably because others had, lacking a place to go, urinated on the street instead.
Lezlie Lowe, a freelance journalist of over 15 years, has been covering public toilets for a long time. “I described public bathrooms as the itch I could never scratch,” Lowe said. She first became interested when her small children’s bathroom needs changed her relationship to her city. “But over time I kept on it,” Lowe said. “[Toilets are] the one thing I keep coming back to in my journalism practice. … There’s always great stories.”
Toilets also appealed to Lowe because she likes to write about the unnoticed parts of everyday life. “Public bathrooms were a good fit because you can’t find someone who doesn’t have some relationship with public bathrooms,” yet they’re frequently ignored or underappreciated in building design and public spaces.
We talked to Lezlie Lowe about toilets, feminism, and the process of working with a small press.
When did you realize this was a book-length piece instead of a long form story?
That’s actually really interesting. So I wrote this book as part of an MFA, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction. I just graduated in 2016. It was a two year low residency program at the University of King’s College. And I applied with a different project and I never intended to write a bathroom book but [the director of the program] called me right before the program started in 2014 and said “I know you can do this, we accepted you into the program … but we think your project could be stronger.”
And so basically I started going through my backlogs. I worked in long form, and so I had a lot of stuff that I had done pretty deep digs into. And toilets was one of them.
So I went into [the MFA program] that first day and that’s the book that I pitched. I was like OK, I think it’s going to be bathrooms. I think I can dig my teeth into this.
How was it working with a small press for publishing?
My publisher is Coach House, which runs out of Toronto. For a Canadian publisher, it’s a midsize publisher, but in the context of the US it would be quite small. It’s been really amazing. You have to almost differentiate the editing side of it and the publishing. In terms of publishing … The entire team is working so hard to get the book out there. There’s two US publicists. I feel like everyone’s working really hard to support the book.
The other thing is that Coach House has their own press, they print their own books which is quite unique. It means they can be quite adaptive to orders. They can print a smallish run knowing that within a couple of days they can quickly double the run.
What was it like working with an editor?
There was this moment where I got the Advance Reader Copy. And my editor said OK, now I want you to read it on the page and flag any changes. So I flagged [my changes on the book with hundreds of post it notes]. And then a couple days later I sent a message to my editor and said OK, I made my changes, do you want to send me a Word document so I can key them in? And she was like, “Oh no, it’s laid out now, so we can’t go back to Word. They have to be keyed in on a PDF.”
And I’m like, oh no, and I sent her a video of me [showing how many post-its there were]. And she said, “It’s OK, we want it to be the best book it can be. And if we need to key in all of those changes by hand, that’s totally fine.” So that felt really great. My book was really cared for in terms of the editing.
Since you’d covered toilets previously, what were some of the newer topics that had changed when it came time to write this?
A lot of the fundamental issues hadn’t changed. The idea of being able to access a bathroom that matches your gender expression has been an issue for a long time. These kind of stories wash up and then it gets back in the public consciousness.
A really hot one right now is what happened in June, in Philadelphia, two African American businessmen were arrested for trying to use a public bathroom in Starbucks. So those kind of racial privilege issues are going to come up with bathrooms. Whether you’re healthy, if you’re able-bodied, if you’re middle class…
And then the big overarching theme in my book is that bathrooms are a feminist issue and that is not something that’s going to go away anytime soon because those built environments take a long time to adapt to the needs of people whose needs have not been met in the past.
In the book, you mention the rift between feminists about sex-separated bathrooms.
I was actually thinking about this last night, I didn’t really come down on one side or the other in the book and that’s because there’s no right way. I’m going to make a generalization here and say that a lot of younger feminists see the value in the idea of all-gender [bathrooms]. Whereas I think a lot of second gen, third gen feminists say no, segregation is the way to go because we need our space, we need a space away from men. A third wave activist in my book calls it the city of man and she says this is a space we need for women. And she’s not wrong. Nobody is wrong. It’s just kind of how, what you believe, and what you want to privilege over other things. It’s really hard.
What about violence against women in bathrooms?
There’s statistically a very low likelihood that cisgendered women will be attacked in a bathroom. Statistically, stranger violence is less likely, and statistically the place is not going to be a bathroom. It’s going to be a place you know by people you know. That said, I cannot discount people’s fears, right? It might make perfect sense for somebody who’s been a victim of violence in one place to experience fear in another place and it has no relationship to the statistical likelihood of them being attacked again in that other space. So I think that’s again where I try to present the facts, which are you’re really not likely to be physically assaulted in a bathroom while at the same time valuing the fact that this is real, people’s feelings are real about this.
I guess there’s not really an easy answer on whether to maintain gendered bathrooms.
Well this gets back to the built environment and how difficult it is to change it. The answer is having an all-gender space and having single-gendered spaces in addition, so having three different options that are even so that people can make choices.
If I’m a trans woman and I don’t feel comfortable going into the woman’s bathroom I may opt for this other stall, but that other stall is often kind of a wheelchair, family-friendly bathroom. But the intention is not that it becomes this kind of all gender space. The intention is different and so people can be judged for using that bathroom.
Is there a small action that people who read your book and want to improve things can take?
I think a really easy action that people can take is just to talk about public bathrooms and how important they are. Because I think that the people who are bathroom-privileged just sort of think, “OK, there’s no problem here.” You know, I manage so therefore there’s no problem.
I consider myself really bathroom-privileged, but being a woman is a point of discrimination. I don’t want to be too heavy handed with this but I face barriers getting into bathrooms because I’m a woman. But even in that I just pass it off, and I think most women do that. We stand in bathroom lines and we’re like, ugh, this is ridiculous, And then it ends. We use the bathroom and it’s a drag and we’re sick of it but we don’t feel like there’s anything we can do. So I think talking about, recognizing those problems and talking about them and not feeling like it’s embarrassing or unimportant is really good.
I think if you’re a business owner, opening your bathrooms to people is a really important action to take. There are so many issues I bring up in the book, but one of my biggest pet peeves is customer-only bathrooms, because it’s such an easy thing to not do. Like I sympathize quite a bit with a business that has no all-gender bathroom because they’re in a building with a male side and a female side, and there’s not a lot you can do about that. It’s a big deal, it’s really important to address it, but that pisses me off way less than when I see a customer-only bathroom sign, because it’s like, you really don’t need to do that.
And I don’t want to say it’s a simple action because it may not be simple, but I think that very generally speaking, people return respect. So I think if you go into a space that’s well kept and clean and you feel that you have a privilege going in, most people will return that in terms of the way they keep the space and how they use the space.
What makes you furious right now (other than toilets)?
Oh my god, I’m furious all the time. [laughs].
I’m furious with your president. And I’m particularly furious as a Canadian that, I think some people who support President Trump don’t recognize the deep effect that his actions have on countries around the world. Particularly in Canada, we’re greatly impacted by many of the decisions he’s made.
There’s fighting about trade and NAFTA and NATO and we’re part of that. But also, the kind of ideological shifts which I can see happening in the US right now, are seeping into Canada, which is horrifying and terrifying. So it infuriates me when I see on social media that Americans are saying “mind your own business.” America is so powerful and particularly so close to Canada that it really affects us and it is our business because we are in an interconnected world.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.