Most Indian universities don’t have gender neutral hostels, and for transgender, queer and questioning students, this is a question of safety and respect.

A group of students at an education institute Image: Picxy.com/StockImageFactory
news Education Monday, April 26, 2021 - 14:10

“I was waiting at the Ladies Hostel at the University of Hyderabad for a friend, when a security guard threatened me,” says Aruvi, a student at the university. “She said I was not supposed to be there as it’s a ladies’ hostel,” the transgender student recalls, adding that she was humiliated by the guard. Aruvi doesn’t have access to equitable housing on campus currently, because the university — like most others across the country — does not have a gender neutral hostel. And to ensure that this changes, Aruvi is leading the fight to bring in gender neutral housing at the campus. 

“The issue of trans housing is a contentious one under the best of circumstances, and it is definitely exacerbated by a shortage of available housing both in the wider society and on campus,” Aruvi said in an open letter to the University in December 2020. “Outside campus, it has been my experience that it is very very difficult to find rented/paying guest accommodation as an openly transgender person — people reject us at the outset without any reasons, and if pressed, call us beggars and slurs for sex workers. Even if accommodation is secured, it comes at a great cost, with us being forced to pay higher rents and refused legal lease agreements, making the housing very precarious.”

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 prohibits discrimination against trans persons. The law itself isn’t perfect, as trans persons have pointed out several times; it says that education institutions that are state funded or recognised, should provide inclusive education, opportunities in sports, in recreation and leisure activities to transgender persons without any discrimination. It also prohibits discrimination in housing. Following the NALSA vs Union of India judgment of 2014, the University Grants Commission (UGC) also directed universities to provide facilities on campus for transgender students, including bathrooms. While neither the law nor the UGC guidelines specifically provide for gender neutral housing in university campuses, trans communities, activists and experts say that this is an important aspect of trans rights. 

Why gender neutral hostels

An independent assessment following interactions with the various students has shown that there are no gender neutral hostels or trans friendly spaces in most educational institutions and universities currently. Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai is an exception; after years of campaigning by the Queer Collective (QC) at TISS, the institute finally opened a gender neutral hostel in 2018. "The point of a gender neutral hostel is that people irrespective of their gender identity stay there,” says Kris, a resident of the TISS gender neutral hostel, “It creates a safe space without any segregation for people who are trans and gender non-conforming.”

“The violence of housing trans women in men’s hostels or trans men in women’s hostels is obvious — we are forcing a student to occupy a space for a gender that gives them distress and dysphoria, and exposing them to the prospect of violence and harassment,” Aruvi said in her open letter, “However, there is a subtler violence in putting trans women in the existing women’s hostels as well. Transgender people forced into rigidly segregated cisgender spaces face many issues ranging from intrusive curiosity to physical and psychological violence when perceived as wrongfully entering gender-segregated spaces, such as bathrooms.”

Further, gender neutral spaces break the male-female binary, explain activists. “Some transgender persons have binary identities (male or female), while other transgender persons have identities beyond the binary, including several identities and even a refusal to be fit into a single identity,” says Karthik Bittu Kondaiah, a professor at Ashoka University. “Some of us question even the entire power structure of gender and call for the annihilation of gender alongside the annihilation of caste and class.”

“For students who are still exploring their gender or sexualitye they should feel no pressure towards any identity and it is our collective responsibility to create a safe space for their exploration,” Bittu says. 

Kanaga V, a trans woman who works in a private company, puts it succintly: “If you say you want to have a transgender hostel along with male and female hostel, basically what you’re saying is let’s have three boxes instead of two boxes. That may not help a lot of people.”

“The question is about using the label ‘transgender’ also. You have people who are exploring their identities when they’re in school or college, people who may be gay or queer but the society only understands ‘transgender’ so they’re put into that box, or even heterosexual boys who may be effeminate… Creating a ‘transgender’ space does not help them,” Kanaga says. 

‘I was not given a choice’

"I thought there would be an option given to the students at the time of admission into the hostel, but that was not the case,” says a student from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) Hyderabad. “Gender neutral hostels/spaces will help end the discrimination and indifferent treatment of persons based on their gender or sexual orientation," she adds. 

While trans and queer students have felt the need for gender neutral housing on campuses for a long time, the refrain from student bodies TNM has spoken to at universities like EFLU, IISc, IIT Kanpur etc, is that there is ‘no demand’ for such hostels on their campuses. 

“Student unions have historically fought for the rights of all students. As persons from marginalized sections question even the composition of student unions and raise the issue of the marginalisation it becomes the duty of all unions to respond to such calls and ensure an inclusive environment and political representation of students from marginalized sections — this is the goal of every union,” Bittu explains.

Leading the change

At the University of Hyderabad, Aruvi’s efforts are leading to some change. After her meeting with the Pro Vice Chancellor of the university Professor Rajasekhar, Aruvi says the university has verbally agreed to convert one of the hostels into a gender neutral space, and to reconstitute disabled toilets on campus into disabled and gender neutral toilets. “Prof Rajasekhar...has given assurance [that] security personnel in the university be instructed not to stop or harass gender non-conforming students at the university gate or anywhere else in the university,” Aruvi said in an update to her open letter. 

When TNM reached out to the university, Pro Vice Chancellor Rajasekhar said, "We are just done with the meeting and finalising the minutes. There is a procedure to be followed, it has to go through various bodies of university, then we have to submit it to administration, and the administration has its own mechanism to go ahead."

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