“IT’S JUST like any other hostel. Some people are asking us for photographs as if we have a huge unicorn inside,” says Akunth, a first-year student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and a resident of India’s first gender-neutral hostel space.
Behind him, a poster for Rainbow Alliance, a global student organisation advocating equal rights and inclusivity for the LGBTQ community, shares a wall with a picture of Dr B R Ambedkar. Rainbow-coloured flags, scarves and posters adorn the walls of most of the 10 twin-bed rooms in Hostel IV, which is occupied by transgender and gender non-conforming students, and their “allies”.
In April, the institute earmarked the ground floor of a girls’ hostel to accommodate gender non-conforming students. Since then, residents of the hostel — currently 17 with three seats vacant — have been working with the administration to make the space “inclusive”. And last week, the Supreme Court struck down a part of Section 377. “It’s 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, who identifies himself as queer and was recently elected cultural secretary in the students’ union.
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The hostel is the culmination of a long-drawn 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, QC worked with students running for union elections to include a gender-neutral space in the manifesto. A resolution was passed in the general body meeting last September. Negotiations with the administration began thereafter.
Ketki Ranade, assistant professor and chairperson, Centre for Health and Mental Health, is currently involved in preparing guidelines for the hostel. “The guidelines are being drafted 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, who is also a member of TISS’s gender amity committee working with students to make the campus trans-inclusive.
“The hostel is a collective effort by students, faculty and administration,” says Asha Bano, Dean, Student Affairs, TISS. “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.
Residents of the hostel and members of the Gender Amity Committee are part of a separate panel that has been set up to sift through applications for the hostel. 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 LGBTQ+ students is affirmative but the larger goal of inclusivity is still a long way away, according to Satya Rai Nagpaul, founder and facilitator of Sampoorna, a network for Trans and Intersex Indians. “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. “For instance, when such progressive spaces come up, how accessible they are to Dalits needs to be seen,” says a resident, who did not wish to be named. Earlier this year, the institute gave graduating students the option to choose from 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.
The QC, meanwhile, has moved on to its next agenda: gender neutral washrooms. “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.