Push for gender-neutral spaces on campuses gains ground

The Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) organised a two-day queer festival on 25-26 March to raise awareness of the fact that most Indian universities do not have gender neutral spaces or student accommodation for queer students, which increases the risk of harassment and humiliation for gender non-conforming students.

The festival, named Rangavali (festival of colours in Hindi), was organised in collaboration with Saathi (companion), an LGBTQIA+ support and resource group at IIT Bombay which is striving to provide a safe community for LGBTQIA+ individuals on campus. Several panel discussions were held as part of the festival which aims to make the campus more caring and inclusive.

About 150 students from inside and outside the campus, as well as faculty members and parents of participating queer students, attended the festival. Queer students held a talent show, fashion show, poetry competition and art exhibition, as well as guitar jam sessions.

Vishvanath Falegaonkar, a PhD research scholar and overall coordinator of Saathi said the main motive was to improve student and faculty awareness of queer people and their challenges.

Falegaonkar, who calls himself a ‘proud gay’, told University World News: “There exists an inherent bias against LGBTQ on Indian campuses. The conditions may not be as bad in IITs, but as you go down the higher education campuses in small cities, you may not think about [be aware of] the kind of discrimination they face.

“But the gravity of the discrimination, with time, is becoming reduced,” he added.

A participating student requesting anonymity said: “IIT Bombay is an all-encompassing campus but at the same time shows a prejudice against gay and queer people, like many other higher education institutions.”

Saathi organises events throughout the year, including workshops, awareness days, movie screenings and informal meet-ups. Most of these events are open to all, irrespective of gender identity or sexual orientation.

It was decided to continue holding the Rangavali festival in the years to come and to request the IIT administration to appoint a separate dean of diversity to assist LGBTQIA+ students and provide a safe and supportive environment for them.

Increasing demand

While few have them, higher education institutes are now being forced to consider the creation of gender-neutral spaces because demand for such spaces is increasing.

A few campuses have introduced gender-neutral bathrooms and residences. IIT Delhi inaugurated its first gender-neutral washroom in January this year at the initiative of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual (LGBTQIA+) collective called Indradhanu (rainbow) and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at IIT Delhi. IIT Delhi now has 14 gender-neutral washrooms on campus.

In June 2022, Tezpur University in Assam, a centrally funded institution, also opened three gender-neutral washrooms.

Similarly, the Hyderabad-based National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, in a major step towards gender equality, last year decided to adopt a gender-neutral trans policy that goes beyond the binaries of women and men. Now lesbian, gay and transgender students can voluntarily live on campus according to their identity. The university awarded a certificate to a student for the first time seven years ago with the gender-neutral title Mx on it – rather than Mr or Ms.

Former NALSAR Vice-Chancellor Faizan Mustafa said at the time the university aimed to create a safe and inclusive campus. According to the university's administration, the university is planning a gender-neutral hostel.

Gender-neutral toilets

A campaign was also started in the north-eastern state of Assam by Rituparna, a member of Drishti, a queer collective, with the slogan: “Everyone deserves to pee”. The campaign was launched after queer people faced harassment when they wanted to use the toilets.

“There were innumerable instances when queer people had to hold their pee just in the absence of toilets for the non-gender individual,” Rituparna told University World News, adding that higher education campuses were no different.

The objective of the campaign was to convince policymakers to bring about a change in policy and give direction to educational institutions to provide inclusive infrastructure such as gender neutral washrooms for the trans community. “We do not want a separate toilet saying transgender but we want more gender neutral spaces in educational institutions,” Rituparna said.

Until a few years ago, transgenders in India could not declare their gender on any government form. In 2014, the Supreme Court gave them the status of a third gender. However, trans people often face discrimination and feel under pressure to hide their identity in social settings because they fear being looked down upon.

A 2021 survey of over 1,700 college and university students across India by the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Boston Consulting Group and Pride Circle found that 64% of LGBTQ+ students had faced discrimination or ridicule. Some 92% faced discrimination in the form of mocking, 59% were subjected to bullying and 26% faced social exclusion. A significant 36% of students reported that they did not ‘come out’ because they felt that their fellow students were not LGBTQ+ friendly.

NALSAR’s step towards gender inclusivity, which can encourage such students to freely participate in academic activities, has encouraged other law universities to follow suit, with some LGBTQ+ students citing changes in the attitude of university administrations. They hope this will lead to more of them making changes to help gender and sexual minorities.