Two and half years ago when Riya Isha came to Malappuram, most of the people there were embarrassed if not shocked wondering, “Oh why are these transgender people here?” They were still a society that wasn’t used to living with transgender people.
Fast forward to now, and the trans woman is a student of the Government College in the district in the northern part of Kerala. She joined the Economics course two weeks ago, and a couple of days ago, a toilet was assigned exclusively for Riya – the only transgender student in the college. Riya asked for it because she felt it is the right of a trans person to have access to an exclusive toilet.
The college authorities listened to Riya’s demand, and a ‘TG friendly toilet’ was assigned exclusively for her – perhaps a first in any college in the state.
Asked why she decided to ask for a separate toilet, Riya explains that it is a question of comfort and safety. “There are students who come from orthodox backgrounds, who don't like us using the same toilets as them. Some girls even turned their backs on seeing me. But there are others in the college – including the authorities – who are extremely friendly and helpful,” Riya explains.
What about the larger aim of inclusivity – does an exclusive toilet take away from it? Riya’s perspective on the issue is crucial: “Why do men and women have separate toilets even when we talk about gender equality? Equality is not advocated by using the same toilets there, is it? Having a separate toilet does not mean exclusion, and it will not lead to any kind of division. What should change is the outlook of the society.”
This is not the first time that Riya is fighting taboos. The 27-year-old – a native of Koorachundu in Kozhikode – decided to frequently visit Malappuram when she was told by her friends in the district that they wanted to shift to Kochi, where people are more aware of transgender people and where the visibility that trans people have is also higher. Then, Riya decided to live in Malappuram so that people become more aware and accept transgender people.
“Initially, they were like, why have these people come here from cities like Bengaluru. But now they are familiar with us, which is a big change. People from orthodox backgrounds still have a problem when they see us – but this is how change happens. We shouldn’t stay away from people, we should live among them,” Riya says.
A graduate in fashion designing and a fashion designer by profession Riya is now pursuing her second graduation. “We have a two-seat reservation in all government colleges. My personal view is that we should study in government colleges only, and should have access to the benefits that the government provides us.”