Building homes through communities of care: A case study on trans accommodation from HCU

The systemic oppression, institutional disregard, and state apathy in a world shaped by capitalism, forces us to confront the question of whether homes can truly exist for the marginalised.
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The older root word for home is ‘Haimaz’ from Proto-germanic meaning ‘home village’. Haimaz comes from the proto-Indo-European word, tḱóymos, meaning village, home. Tḱóymos borrows from the root sound tḱey which means "to lie down”. 


On February 25, 2024, Hritik Lalan and Tikku, two transgender students from Hyderabad Central University (HCU), woke up to find their clothes burnt outside their hostel rooms. HCU has over 5,000 students as resident scholars in their hostels, and only a few trans students on campus who can be open about their transness. The burning of the clothes seemed to serve as a warning. Beyond just a manifestation of the perpetrators’ anger or need to induce fear, it was a ‘message’ to those who want to assert their transness.

For a trans person, clothes are not merely clothes. It is armour, a second skin, a rite of passage in a world that is still grappling with the humanity of a trans person. So invisibilisation such as this is the first and foremost form of violence enforced on transness.

Ironically, trans and queer visibility has been at the forefront of HCU for the past few years. Hritik became the first trans student representative in the HCU student administration in 2023 — holding the position of the secretary of the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GS-CASH) — marking a historic moment in HCU’s student body. She is also the current general secretary of the Ambedkarite Student’s Association (ASA) at HCU. 

ASA notably has a significant queer cadre on campus which includes Prajwal Gaikwad, the president of the previous student union. Hritik cites this as an important reason to have pursued her education at HCU as a resident scholar. 

ASA president Naresh, who is pursuing PhD in Sociology, says the organisation has a long tradition of active inclusion of queer and trans rights. While institutions like the State often disappoint when it comes to ensuring the rights of trans persons, they also gain tags of progressiveness using the same people they marginalise and discriminate against. HCU, like most central universities, exhibits traits of brahmanism, and it’s no small feat for ASA to have built the organisation while navigating caste violence every day, and championing the rights of queer and trans students on campus. 

Second only to the Osmania University student's protest in the 60s, HCU has a long history of being a centre for active politics in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In a 2014 video interview with the Dalit Camera, Dr Sukumar, professor at the Department of Political Science in the University of Delhi, talks about the radical movements that have existed on campus since the 90’s. One of the oldest student bodies in HCU was the Progressive Students Forum (PSF) which supported reservations, and the Anti-Mandal Commission Force (AMCF) which were brahmanical forces. Due to multiple splits in ideology within the two student bodies, ASA was started in 1994 by Rajashekar as an association specifically for Dalits. 

Student bodies, thus, often become communities of care and protection for marginalised students. They perhaps also turn into a ‘home’ and ‘retreat’ against State violence. While the State by its nature withholds and hoards power, communities are built to share power. Systems can merely act as a provider or distributor, so the state or institution is still only performing a role where it is required to ensure equal opportunity for trans persons in education, medicine, housing, employment, and recreation. This, however, doesn’t translate to care. 

So what constitutes a ‘home’ for trans persons?

A home cannot exist in fear. A home without safety is a façade and an illusion. Specifically for those experiencing multiple marginalisations, the necessity for a physical space of retreat in an unsafe world cannot be emphasised enough. The responsibility to provide it typically falls upon the State, which operates and works only through the mechanisms of control and fear.  Hence State-operated institutions cannot be considered or expected to have ‘homes’ that are safe. 

For trans persons, the question of home is perhaps ouroboros in nature. To feel safe in a space, one must feel safe in one’s body. Trans persons often confront the question of safety within their gendered bodies almost every day. Self-love will not suffice to create that home, and even if it does, everyday experiences and microaggressions do not allow for a safe home to manifest for many trans people. The systemic oppression, institutional disregard, and state apathy in a world shaped by capitalism forces us to confront the question of whether homes can truly exist for the marginalised. 

What alternate mechanisms can then exist for homes? In the case of HCU, mechanisms of allocating a hostel to trans students have come due to the negotiation of a radical community carrying the ideals of Ambedkarism and anti-caste ideology. Hritik speaks many times about finding safety and joy in ASA due to an ideological alignment between the members, even if it doesn’t necessarily consist of many trans people.

“ASA recognises the reparative mechanisms one must follow after an atrocity. It responds with justice, not simply a revolutionary idea of justice,” Hritik says. She adds that the organisation is merely continuing its tradition of building a Dalit leadership, and one of them just happened to be trans. “ASA recognised what it would mean to have a trans student leader and committed to it because it is committed to having a Dalit leadership. In student politics, you have to overcome a lot of disabilities while being a central university student. ASA was ready to deal with what comes with being Dalit and Trans,” she says.

Building such movements can be exhausting, but Prajwal calls it a “moral responsibility” for those who believe in the Ambedkarite ideology. “It’s the ideology that brought us here. The belonging we got in ASA in a university space is why we are in higher education.”

As Hritik rightly points out, all of India’s institutional spaces that fail to accommodate its marginalised students of caste and religion, cannot be expected to take on the problem of trans accommodation. After all, we must remember that Rohith Vemula spent his last days outside his hostel room in Velivada fighting against the HCU administration.

Dalit students dying by suicide on campus is not new. It is also precisely why communities such as ASA were formed, even when progressive radical movements against the government or state existed since the 30s in India.

Bogged down by exclusionary measures

One of the most persistent opinions about creating safe accommodation for trans students has been about tackling systemic and institutional barriers along with cultural sensitisation — a well-meaning thought that ultimately does not address the idea of home or in simpler terms, safety. The reason the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act exists in its current form is due to an extremely myopic focus on institutional mechanisms to solve the basic problem of safety and care. Trans people do not need ‘special’ education or housing, in the sense that they are not outside the margins to be kept in a separate hostel with exclusive names like “gender-neutral hostels”. 

The approach the State has taken to ensure a safe life for a trans person is through making exclusionary measures. The outline of exclusion under the guise of safety is an ancient approach for India, and it operates from the core of casteism. This exclusion is performed under the guise of guidelines requiring proof of identification, certification, and bodily [violation] proof under a State-appointed authority. The Trans Act endows an assumed supreme authority, whose only merit lies in power, to violate the bodily integrity of a trans person. 

The most exclusionary practice in the Trans Act has been to exclude trans persons engaged in sex work and beggary — a horrible guideline borrowing from the brahmanical notion of (false) purity. The measure enforces false respectability because it says one cannot perform certain actions in public view. If a trans person performs promiscuity within closed doors, is that acceptable? Will begging and asking for money within closed circles digitally or amongst friends be acceptable? The problem for the brahmanical mind and in extension the State is not sex work or begging. It only monitors the people indulging in such work, because they are often the people belonging to a group marginalised by caste or religion even amongst trans people. Sex work is work and begging requires rehabilitative measures, not exclusion from more public spaces. 

Garima Greh, the State’s solution to safe trans accommodation and care, disallows trans persons who perform sex work and begging from accessing the scheme. It also places an age restriction of 18-60 years. The State perhaps thinks older trans people disappear mystically after the age of 60 due to their divine powers, but the safer assumption is that the State is extending care and protection with a death sentence.

The reason for such a system is not solely because of Brahmin lawmakers, policy analysts, and people holding political power which is an easy dismissal to make. We know that for a group that hardly constitutes more than 7% of the total population, Brahmins cannot be omnipresent in creating the problem. Brahmanism and the exploitative power it carries are omnipresent because Brahmanism is not perpetuated singularly by Brahmins. If it were, it would have died a long time ago. By design, Brahmanism uses existing ideologies and uses every group in the varna system to perpetuate its atrocities against anyone standing against it. 

The measures that the Indian state has taken to ensure protection for trans persons have made little difference. As we celebrate the importance of establishing such measures, we know that this does not translate into acceptance. The increased visibility has often brought increased violence to the community, the incident in HCU is an example. 

It is unclear yet what causes such violence, unless the perpetrators themselves answer it. It could merely be the agitation from the idea that two trans students can stay in a hostel of their choice and pursue an education and have a college life like anyone else. Or, the perpetrators could have deeper transmisic tendencies that are more sinister to tackle. But the perpetrators won’t give those answers, and so it becomes important for the immediate community around trans persons to offer protection, care and thus, a ‘home’. 

Communities of care

Deepak Kumar Arya, the general secretary of HCU’s Students Union, rightly points out that marginalisation does not begin in an institution and does not end there. “The administration did not burn the clothes. While institutional measures are necessary for the improvement of security and safety of marginalised students, institutional interventions will always have limitations when it comes to addressing larger social issues,” he says. He adds that through his experiences, he has recognised that the ASA community gave him and others a more expansive view of providing care and support for oneself and the larger diverse community of students. 

Soon after the incident, organisations including the Students' Federation of India (SFI) and the National Students Union of India (NSUI) released statements criticising the university. The widespread outrage prompted the university to release a statement accepting all demands put forth by the Students Union, which outlined the pressing need for the safety of marginalised students on campus. The administration accepted all demands on February 27, 2024, and constituted a Transgender Committee to frame a transgender policy by May 31, before the next academic session.

Student organisations and bodies across the country have become important spaces where communities of care are built through a shared ideology. Perhaps, while thinking of trans accommodation, we must question who is required to provide care if not for the immediate people that surround us especially when the concept of family does not exist. And while we see the everyday violence, microaggressions, and atrocities against trans people — specifically Dalits and Muslims — we must extend the idea of trans accommodation to creating communities that are safe for all trans people. This requires privilege to be acknowledged, shed, and willingly given up because the State will not. This requires a cross-alliance and allyship respectful of differences and acutely aware of the privileges and marginalisations one carries within the self. Otherwise, the issue of safe accommodation or home for the most marginalised among us will always remain unyielding. 

Rachelle Bharathi Chandran is a writer and researcher exploring the complexities around the intersections of caste, gender, sexuality, disability and neurodivergence through the disciplinary approach of cognitive sciences.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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