Transgender individuals demand safer, gender-neutral bathrooms in India post-Section 377 verdict
Although institutions are slowly warming up to the idea of building gender-neutral or even restrooms exclusively meant for transgender individuals, the fear of potentially hostile bathroom policies in a public space, is still felt daily.
The Supreme Court verdict decriminalising consensual gay sex by scrapping sections of the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was rightly hailed by members of the LGBTQA+ spectrum. However, whether the ruling marks a positive change for India's transgender community — among the most marginalised group of individuals in the country — is debatable.
Although the landmark judgment has emboldened the transgender community, governmental protection has eluded it for years. Four years since transgender persons finally gained recognition as a third gender, one of the community’s most basic rights remains compromised: access to a safe and sanitary toilet. Although the Centre in 2017 pushed for easier bathroom access for India's third gender by allowing them to use to the restrooms meant for both men and women in public and community toilets, activists and transgender individuals echo a similar sentiment: it’s not enough.
While the sanitation ministry’s advisory may seem like a legal antidote against discrimination and ignorance, the actual process of using a public bathroom still creates multiple conundrums for transgender persons at various stages, ‘passing’ as the gender you identify with, being the first.
Mann Chawla, a Delhi-based trans person, says using a public restroom used to be harrowing before he got on hormone replacement therapy. “Using the men’s washroom has become easier after going on hormone therapy but the problem is, I always have to find a stall. In the absence of a stall, I have to pretend like I just wanted to wash my hands, and get out,” Chawla says.
Although he has never faced any problems with using public toilets in Singapore (where he studies), coming back to India when he had started transitioning meant planning everyday outings beforehand. Translation: doing a gender-neutral bathroom check before heading out to a restaurant.
For a person undergoing transition, which in itself is a fraught procedure, acquiring the required legal documents to prove your gender identity can be another long-drawn-out process. Being in what 21-year-old medical student and artist Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju defines as the ‘grey zone’, is even more harrowing: “As a pre-operative transgender Indian woman, my experiences using public restrooms have been mixed. (During) that initial period of ambiguity wherein it’s difficult for people to put you in a category and you push the boundaries between the genders and fall into a grey zone, restrooms can be a nerve-wracking experience. You don’t want to use the male washroom because you clearly do not fit into that zone anymore and using the female washroom is unsafe, because should you be mistaken for a man, you would get into trouble.”
One would think that on an institutional level, things may not be as grim. While workplaces in India’s metropolitan cities have become more transgender-friendly with time, schools and colleges haven’t made much headway, save for a few cases. “I started using the school restroom only after 7th grade. I would either hold it in or make sure that I was the only person in there as it was very embarrassing to use the restrooms assigned to females,” says Jamal Siddiqui, who studied in a Delhi Kendriya Vidyalaya, a chain of schools instituted under the aegis of the central government.
For Ritwik Datta, a 21-year old student of Noida International University, having gendered restrooms on campus means he cannot use them at all. "Being from the North East, it took me a lot of time to grow facial hair despite being on HRT but I feel more confident using the male washroom outside because my voice has deepened now," he says. Despite being on hormone replacement therapy for almost a year now, he can ‘pass’ almost anywhere but in college, as his legal documents have not been updated yet.
This brings to light another common misconception: for some transgender individuals, the struggle does not end with finally looking like the gender they identify with. Acquiring revised legal documentation to verify one's gender can be time-consuming. "I think my case is the first of its kind for the college authorities. No one has taken this up with them before," says Datta.
Although institutions are slowly warming up to the idea of building gender-neutral or even restrooms exclusively meant for transgender individuals, the fear of potentially hostile bathroom policies in a public space, now in direct violation of law, is still felt daily.
For members of India’s once-revered hijra community, who now mostly live on the fringes of society, relieving themselves at a public or community restroom exposes them to further persecution. Because sex work and dancing in bars still remains the primary source of livelihood for most of them, even considering sex reassignment surgery or HRT seem like ludicrous ideas. And with that, ‘passing’ for them, becomes more precarious. "Although I have rarely been stopped from using the ladies room, my friends from the hijra community have been told to use the men's loo at Bengaluru and Delhi airport. My question is, why are people so obsessed with knowing what's between our legs when they have no business to do so?" asks Shreya Reddy, transgender activist and capacity building officer, Humsafar Trust.
This brings to the fore a worrying aspect of using a loo situated in a public space — lack of safety — which, ironically, becomes more glaring as you move towards the commercial parts of town. "I remember being followed by a group of men inside a Kurla public toilet. They thought that because I belong to a third gender and specifically to the hijra community, I was going inside to offer sexual services," says Reddy, who has a Master's degree in Social Work.
Certain state governments have taken cognisance of the dangers that transgender persons are exposed to when using a public toilet, and have constructed separate restrooms for them. However, that still does not guarantee safe access to a community ostracised for years for not adhering to the gender-binary. Additionally, the community is often viewed as a cosmos that thrives in complete isolation of the mainstream society’s heteronormative codes. This insularity has also translated into governmental negligence and societal exclusion.
That, however, is a small part of a monumental debate. As simplistic as it sounds, bathroom talk is worrying and the solution is not a separate washroom for trans individuals, insists Kalki Subramaniam, transgender rights activist, artist and founder of Sahodari Foundation. “Law is one thing and culture is another. We do not need a separate bathroom at all because separation means exclusion. Bathroom violence is real and it needs to be addressed not by putting transgender persons in separate loos but by building acceptance. Teach people how to behave with transgender individuals,” says Subramaniam.
Using a washroom meant exclusively for transgender people would also mean outing yourself, something not all trans individuals may be comfortable with, points out Dutta. Furthermore, the mere possibility of not being able to find a gender-neutral restroom or not ‘passing’ limits the community’s social outings. Suppressing the urge to go or not going to the loo at all so that other gender-conforming individuals can do their business in peace means frequently catching urinary tract infections, or wearing sanitary pads for long hours.
Interestingly, some cisgender people’s concern with transgender individuals using public bathrooms turns into paranoia because the law has inadvertently favoured the male-female dichotomy. The law is still too weak to punish real predators, a stigma that is still associated with transgender individuals. “You are so insecure about the laws that prosecute sexual offenders that you’re willing to deny the basic human right to use the restroom because your rape and harassment laws will not protect people?” asks Haldar.
While navigating public spaces may be acutely distressing, some institutes in India have opened up to gender-neutral restrooms. Those that do not have gender-neutral restrooms in place, are gradually gearing up accommodate transgender individuals. Gauri Devidayal, co-founder of The Table and Miss T, two upscale restaurants in Mumbai's Colaba, says they have always had unisex bathrooms in place in both the establishments. "To be honest, I have no idea why all restaurants don't have individual unisex restrooms; it's so much more convenient for guests too, who don't have to wait for a specific bathroom to become available to them. When space is such a limitation for restaurants in Mumbai, and we're in the business of hospitality, it makes no sense to me why we don't follow this." She adds that when the spaces were being built, they did not think of the transgender community in particular but now that the bathroom debate has intensified, "gender-neutral restrooms are the way forward."
Gender-neutral restrooms are not unheard of in workplaces but are rare. "We have separate bathrooms based on the binary genders but we would happily accommodate transgender individuals hired anytime in the future, to choose any bathroom of their choice if we do not have unisex bathrooms (by then). We strongly believe in being diverse and inclusive as we are a global company," says Gunjan Agarwal, senior HR associate at Kaleyra, a multi-national communications solutions provider.
A key takeaway from these responses is that there is no one cure-all solution. Mindsets take years to change but till that happens, the transgender populace can be made to feel safer by having a gender-neutral bathroom in place, even if it means making a few others uncomfortable. Laws can be put in place as a corrective measure of actions, not systemic transphobia.
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