“It’s just like any other hostel. Some people are asking us for photographs of the hostel as if we are having a huge unicorn inside. We aren’t,” says Akunth, a first-year student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and a resident of the city’s first gender-neutral hostel space. Behind him, a poster for the Rainbow Alliance — a global student organisation advocating equal rights and inclusivity for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ+) and their allies — shares a wall with a picture of Dr BR Ambedkar.
There aren’t any unicorns in the ground floor of Hostel IV, which was set aside as a gender neutral hostel space by TISS earlier this year, but rainbows can be found aplenty, especially after the landmark judgment striking down Section 377 that criminalised homosexuality. Rainbow-coloured flags, scarves and posters adorn the walls of most of the 10 two-seater rooms occupied by transgender, gender non-conforming students and their allies. Peeking from clothes, notebooks and other personal belongings are hand-drawn symbols for gender-inclusivity, the male-female symbols intertwined to look like an infinite loop.
In April this year, the institute earmarked the ground floor of an existing girls hostel to accommodate gender non-conforming students admitted to the institute. In the months since residents of the hostel are working with the administration to make the space ‘inclusive’. Currently, 17 students reside in the hostel, with three seats lying vacant.
“It is a place for everyone but without the dysphoria of being segregated along the lines of gender. It is a liberal space in the sense that all students can come and chill,” says 20-year-old Akunth, ahead of his oath-taking ceremony. He was recently elected cultural secretary to the student union.
“In our daily interactions, we are not segregated naturally, biologically or socially, based on gender. It is the idea of ‘safe keeping’ at institutions that results in this crude segregation on the basis of gender, seldom leaving anything for the non-conforming identities,” says Akunth, who identifies as queer.
This hostel is the culmination of a long-drawn student campaign at TISS by Queer Collective (QC), an informal student body advocating a safe space for LGBTQ+ students, as well as the management. Last year, the QC worked with the students running for elections to the student union to include the creation of a gender neutral space in the election manifesto. A resolution was passed in the general body meeting in September last year. Negotiations with the administration began thereafter.
“The hostel is a collective effort by students, faculty and administration. It was a felt demand by students that was put forth to the administration through the union. Once we all agreed that the hostel was needed, discussions on the details of the hostel began,” says Asha Bano, dean, student affairs.
“There are many discussions on policy and law happening in India with respect to rights of the transgender communities especially since the Supreme Court’s landmark NALSA judgement, April 2014 that recognised transgender persons as equal citizens. These are, for instance, even reflected in the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) Prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and students in higher educational institutions regulations, 2015, that includes reference to transgender students as being vulnerable to harassment and discrimination in educational institutions. The gender-neutral hostel is in response to these policy and legal changes”, says Ketki Ranade, assistant professor, chairperson, centre for health and mental health and member of the Institute’s Gender Amity Committee that has been working with the students body to make TISS campus a trans-inclusive space
The Transgender Persons Bill, originally introduced in the Lok Sabha in August 2016, aims to prohibit discrimination against a transgender person. It proposes two years’ imprisonment and a fine for offences including compelling a transgender person to beg, denial of access to a public place, physical and sexual abuse. The UGC guidelines acknowledge that women employees and students and some male students and students of the third gender are primarily vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Ranade, who was part of the Expert Committee on Transgender Issues formed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2013, is currently involved in preparing a guideline for the functioning of the gender-neutral hostel. “The guidelines are being drafted to plan the hostel according to needs of the hostel, starting with the definition. What do you mean by a gender-neutral hostel? It is a hostel predominantly for people who may not necessarily fit into the male, female hostel as well as their allies,” says Ranade.
At the same time, it is important to ensure that the institute didn’t end up further compartmentalising LGBTQ+ students. “So, the first step is to keep it optional. A student who doesn’t conform to gender binaries or is transgender may choose to live in this hostel,” says Bano.
A committee has been set up to sift through applications and see that the ‘allies’ are sensitive. Residents of the hostel and members of the Gender Amity Committee are on the committee.
The quest for such a safe space has brought 25-year-old Mithoon to the hostel. “I identify as queer and am currently residing in one of the men’s hostels. But for some time I have been staying in the gender-neutral hostel on a trial basis. I feel more welcome in this hostel. There are people around me who are visibly queer and there are friends who understand my struggles. It gives me confidence to express myself,” said Mithoon.
In an institute where inter-hostel mobility in men’s and women’s hostels is restricted, the gender neutral hostel has emerged as the cultural centre for students. “In the men’s and women’s hostels, students of opposite genders are not allowed to enter. Here, students can come and go until 10 pm. So, naturally, many discussions and student meetings happen here,” says Akunth.
Providing for a safe space for the LGBTQ+ students is an affirmative action on the part of the institute but the larger goal of inclusivity is still a long way to go, according to Satya Rai Nagpaul, founder and facilitator of Sampoorna, a network for Trans* and Intersex Indians. “There is a hidden assumption here that transgender-gender non-conforming and non-binary persons coming together for residential purposes on an educational campus in itself will guarantee the ‘safe-space’. While the debates raised by these students is commendable, such a measure in isolation, and without simultaneously addressing the tenaciously surviving gender stereotypes and gender-based violence in hostel spaces will not result in the larger aim of gender inclusivity,” he says.
Residents of the hostel agree. “When such so called progressive spaces like a gender neutral hostel come up, how accessible they are to Dalits needs to be seen,” said another resident, who did not wish to be named.
Earlier this year, the institute gave graduating students the option to choose from the salutations of Ms, Mr or a gender-neutral ‘Mx’ in their certificates. Since last year, students applying to TISS could also mark themselves as the third gender in their application forms.
With a gender-neutral hostel in place, the QC has now moved on to its next agenda: gender-neutral washrooms on campus. “Currently all those individuals who are uncomfortable using a male or female washroom, are using the ones in the gender-neutral hostel. It goes on to say that there is demand for gender-neutral washrooms,” says Diti Lekha, a member of QC. On a trial basis two gender neutral toilets, one in each campus are planned to gauge the demand for now.
Meanwhile, the 17 residents of the gender-neutral hostel have found a space where they feel ‘less threatened and more welcome’. For them, it is a step in the right direction.
“There are some things which have societal acceptance and there are things which do not. Identities that do not have societal acceptance then claim marginality and try to move upwards. I think the hostel is one of those steps,” says Akunth.