While the need for gender-neutral housing and spaces has been brought up multiple times at the university, apathy and inertia on the administration’s part has meant that no concrete action has been taken.

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Delve Gender Monday, July 12, 2021 - 14:35

When Sanjith, who is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Hyderabad University, came to the campus in 2018, he expected the campus to be more welcoming for queer persons. “But only some people were open to the conversation around gender and sexuality. Generally, there was a negative vibe around it. I didn’t feel welcome except in small pockets,” Sanjith tells TNM. Due to this lack of space, Sanjith (he/they), who identifies as non-binary, along with some others, was among the first people to start the Queer Collective (QC) in September 2019. The QC organised study circles and film screenings followed by discussions.

In December 2020, one of the students, Aruvi, wrote an open letter to the University of Hyderabad, asking for gender-neutral housing on campus. This resulted in a verbal agreement from the Pro Vice Chancellor of the university to convert an existing hostel to a gender-neutral one, and the toilets for persons with disabilities to be reconstituted as gender-neutral toilets, as TNM reported earlier

This was neither the first time that the lack of gender-neutral spaces at the university was voiced, nor the first time that these were demanded. Sayantan, a science journalist who was on campus from 2017-19, but connected to people at the university before and after that period, says the first time that gender-neutral hostels were spoken about was in 2015. A committee was set up the next year to look into issues concerning trans persons, reportedly after five students, who identified as transgender, applied for admission to the university. “This committee was supposed to look into all issues being faced by the trans community on campus, including affirmative action (such as gender-neutral housing) as well as punitive action — such as for sexual harassment cases, and deciding which body or committee should deal with complaints by trans persons,” Sayantan says.

However, the committee wasn’t particularly publicised – in 2017, when Sayantan came to the campus, they didn’t know of the committee’s existence. In 2018, after the committee completed its tenure of two years, it was reinstated. However, it was a struggle to get a student representative from the queer community on the committee, as there was only one place, reserved for a representative from the elected students’ union. Ultimately though, Sayantan says that they succeeded in having one trans person who was a student, on the committee.

Administration’s laxity and apathy

Though this committee was reinstated, it only met once – when there was a sexual harassment complaint by a trans student. “The discussion on gender-neutral washrooms and hostels did come up. But there was resistance against it – the chairperson of the committee at the time opposed this citing potential opposition from parents and other women in the campus,” Sayantan says.

Sayantan and some students who are currently studying at UoH say that this has been a recurring attitude from the administration – it reacts to the issue if and when a queer person voices the need, instead of institutionalising such spaces. For instance, the committee for transgender persons is no longer there per her knowledge, says a QC member, speaking to TNM on the condition of anonymity. Further, existing bodies such as GS Cash, which is the Internal Committee constituted by the university under the PoSH law to deal with sexual harassment complaints, are not required to have representation from the LGBTQIA+ committee.

The QC member adds that there have been complaints of sexual harassment from the queer community, but the GS Cash has often struck them down saying that the body is only for women. “There have been no attempts to make GS Cash trans or queer friendly. There is also no qualification required for a faculty to be GS Cash chair. They need not have prior knowledge or be aware of nuances of sexual assault. They are simply chosen by the VC and are often insensitive,” she says.

This leaves LGBTQIA+ persons on the campus to fend for themselves. Some have tried to have conversations around gender and sexuality to make the campus more inclusive. In 2019, there was some discussion again about having representation from the queer community in the university’s bodies. Then, after the pandemic happened, and the university shut down in March 2020, this didn’t gather much momentum at the time.

While UoH was given the Institution of Eminence title in September 2019, Sanjith pointed out at an interaction with research scholars from non-sciences organised by the Institute of Eminence Directorate on January 6, 2020, that the title wasn’t justified when the university doesn’t have basic queer-affirming infrastructure in place. “At the time, they said that they were doing what they could and would take our asks into consideration. The administration has had several chances to take this up seriously, but they keep treating it as a temporary issue,” Sanjith says.

Lack of inclusion, representation

It was in December 2020 when a virtual session was organised about the need for gender affirmative university spaces with Trans Rights Now founder Grace Banu, Dalit Queer Project coordinator Kaushal Bodwal, and Associate professor at Ashoka University, Bittu Kondaiah, that Aruvi first presented their case upon receiving an invitation from Sanjith, who was one of the organisers of the event. As TNM reported earlier, Aruvi faced harassment and humiliation in the absence of equitable housing on campus. After this, Aruvi began working with the administration to push for gender-neutral hostels on campus, reportedly with inputs from some QC members.

On April 8, 2021, after a meeting between the administration, students’ union, Aruvi and another queer student representative, it was decided to set up a committee to look into the matter. However, many students found themselves dissatisfied with the lack of adequate representation from the queer community and transparency in these discussions with the administration. The QC member says that while with Aruvi’s case, the administration appears more willing to listen and is more curious to learn about trans issues than before, the administration is also looking to be informed about the issues in the first place. There has to be diversity about who’s informing and educating them, she adds. 

Bittu, who previously taught at UoH, also says that despite multiple people bringing up the need for gender-neutral housing and spaces on university campuses, there is often apathy and inertia on the administration’s part which is why these things don’t get institutionalised. “Several allies over the years have said they will do something about this, but nothing happens till a trans student comes and voices the lack of such spaces after going through difficulties,” he says.

Students point out that whenever the students’ union elections happen, the parties and candidates come to queer persons to ask them for points to include in their manifesto. However, none of them really act on those points after being elected. Earlier, when some Left parties demanded gender-neutral hostels while campaigning, they excluded queer people, and made the demand for married couples only. “If there are only heteronormative unions and bodies deciding on gender-neutral spaces, how do we ensure that the rules are not queerphobic or transphobic?” the QC member asks.

“One of the biggest challenges now is how to get the ball rolling – who do we write to? Do we take existing hostels and make a gender-neutral wing? To navigate the bureaucracy is a challenge,” Sayantan says. Some members of the QC are planning to write to the administration asking for adequate representation in the committee that is set to look into gender-neutral housing on campus.

Why gender-neutral spaces?

As per Aruvi’s update to their open letter, the Pro VC, Prof Rajasekhar has given an assurance that security personnel in the campus will not stop or harass gender non-conforming students. Prof Rajasekhar had told TNM that there is a “procedure” and then “administration’s own mechanism” to be followed for setting up gender-neutral housing in the university.

The problem with the university’s approach to the issue is that queer persons find themselves disadvantaged when they spend a disproportionate amount of time feeling excluded, unsafe, and unwelcome.

When Sanjith came on campus, they say that they knew they would not get the administration’s support if something untoward happened to them. “There was an incident of assault against a trans person in the men’s hostel before the decriminalisation of section 377 of the IPC. The survivor was not supported by the admin, and it was a big precedent for people like me. This is why we started the Queer Collective – we thought we’d have a voice as a group. However, not everyone can be open about their gender and sexuality. Trans people from marginalised castes and other minority groups, for instance, are already vulnerable in society. It's hard to put yourself out there to fight for your rights when you expect backlash from your own community and don't have many avenues of support,” he explains.

Sayantan, too, remembers having no option but to stay in the men’s hostel during their time at the university. “It was traumatic,” they say. “Hostels also take time to ideate and build. The university should have these spaces ready for trans and non-binary people.”

Bittu asserts, “Apart from hostels, universities also need to have gender-neutral bathrooms that allow queer people with confidential ways to live their self-identified gender, and not feel compelled to out their identity. Being in gender-segregated housing for people who are non-binary or queer affects their day-to-day functionality and wellbeing. For people who identify in the gender binary, they can have the option of living in men’s or women’s only hostels.” He adds that it is possible that that violence faced by trans and queer people in gendered hostels could replicate in gender-neutral housing, but its likelihood is lowered, especially at graduate levels, when students are more sensitive and aware.

“It should be up to the self-identifying student to access these spaces once they exist, without any requirement for medical certifications. To prevent violence in gender-neutral housing, an anti-discrimination code and body can be set up to look into it, like an anti-ragging policy. The Transgender Welfare Committee can also work with the hostel administration and look into the grievance and redressal mechanisms if and when issues emerge,” adds Sanjith. 

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