Bathroom Justice and the Queer Toilet: The road to inclusive sanitation

For most people, using public toilet is part of an ingrained instinct – a non-negotiable pact with the conventional understanding of gender binary. Today, even though it is expected of men and women to share the public space in all areas of civic life, the public toilets continue to be the last bastion of gendered space that remains uncontested. The men invariably go for the men’s toilet, while women stick to the ladies’. What we often overlook in this matter, though, is the plight of the transgender people who have a trickier space to negotiate.

The transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary people will always find it challenging to choose between the toilet they think they should use, or go for the one that others think they should. Not conforming to societal expectations of ‘male’ and ‘female’ means their mere presence in a sex-segregated place will give rise to anxieties about gender and sexuality. Regardless of the choice they make, it is often the case that they end up having to deal with harassment in the form of stares, taunts and threats of violence – if not actual violence and abuse.

Historically speaking, gendered public bathrooms with their stick-figure depictions of female and male bodies have always stood to visually signify a gender binary. Toilets have often been used to segregate people and enforce social boundaries and are plagued with the most significant problem that arises in all socially segregated places – the threat of intimidation. Gendered bathroom spaces implicitly give others the license to police the gender identity of others. People feel entitled to be transphobic or interrogate an individual’s presence in a way that is not easy in spaces that are not so rigidly gendered. Research by Sheila Cavanagh shows that it has been observed that non-transwomen sometimes yell at or harass transwomen when they run into them in toilets. Other times male vigilantes, overprotective husbands or boyfriends, would barge into a women’s bathroom – threatening violence – if they saw a recognizably transwoman walk into that place.

Chances are if your gender identity does not fit the sign on the bathroom door, you are very likely to be a subject of harassment. And not just the transgender community, this threat extends to anyone who does not fit the conventional ideas about what it means to be a man or woman. For instance, it is quite common for females who do not conventionally dress or look like other women to be targeted with questioning glances or being confronted with verifications regarding their gender identity in spaces that are meant exclusively for women. However, when the correlation between the right to access and gender identity concerns a space like a public toilet where everyone should be able to go without feeling intimidated, addressing this issue becomes absolutely necessary.

According to 2011 census, there are 4,88,000 transgender people in India – although transgender activists estimate their number to be six or seven times the official count. However, in a country which guarantees equal access to public spaces, it has been difficult until recently for transgender people to get the government to pay attention to basic needs such as access to toilets. When civic bodies plan for the optimum utilization of their services, they are often the last ones to be thought of.

In 2014, a judgement by Justice KS Radhakrishnan noted that, ‘Seldom, our society realizes or cares to realize the trauma, agony and pain which the members of Transgender community undergo, nor appreciates the innate feelings of the members of the Transgender community, especially of those whose mind and body disown their biological sex.’

The transgender community in India is excluded from all basic civic amenities such as medical services, access to public parks, schools, and equal employment opportunities. Due to social prejudices, it is difficult for the transgender community to find rental housing and they regularly end up living in highly congested areas with few toilets. According to a report by WSSCC and FANSA presented in 2016, those who find shelter with a guru share a toilet with over 30 people and therefore often have no option but to defecate in the open. Those who live with their families usually have access to a toilet, but in rural areas some of them continue to practice open defecation.

Harassment, discrimination, prejudice and violence from their own family members, community members, the police and their clients is part of their daily lives, and drives them out of their family homes and community. More often than not, they are denied accommodation and forced to live in slum areas where access to water and sanitation facilities is poor. Resources to earn money and live with dignity available to them are very few and most transgender people are forced to engage in sex work or beg for a living. Since their work is considered illegal, it usually takes place in deserted places where there are no toilets. As a result, they have little choice but to defecate in the open.

But defecating in the open means they get further exposed to harassment and a multitude of diseases. Due to lack of adequate water and sanitation, they frequently contract various infections, such as skin and urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are common in transgender people who have undergone castration or sex reassignment surgery, especially if the surgery has been performed through crude methods. When finding a unisex toilet is rarely an option, the queer community goes to great lengths to avoid using public bathrooms. Not being able to use the bathroom makes it harder to go to school, to go to work, to buy groceries, to do everyday things that many of us who are cisgender take for granted. Many of them don’t drink enough water over the course of the day. As an interim remedy, they look for toilets where they feel physically safe and free of stigma. They get into a habit of timing their visits so that their toilet use does not overlap with other users and situations that may potentially lead to a conflict, often slipping into a routine that poses a threat to their health and safety.

Ideally, public toilets should have come to the rescue in such a scenario, but transgender people face a dilemma every time they have to use a public toilet, which are either for men or women. The transgender people are not welcome in either of the toilets, owing to the common misconception that they are seeking sex work when they visit public toilets. In the absence of gender neutral toilets, they have to use male toilets where they are prone to sexual assault and harassment. If they decide to use the ladies’ toilets, they report that they women often get scared when they see a transgender person in the toilet and start abusing. If not abuses, they are subjected to sniggering, taunts and humiliation. Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, therefore, impairs equality before law and equal protection of law and violates Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

In 2014, the Supreme Court accorded ‘third gender’ status to transgender people and an individual’s right to determine the gender they identify with. The verdict included a directive for separate toilets for transgender individuals in public spaces, including hospitals. As a follow up, in August 2017, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation issued guidelines that urged state governments to ensure that transgender people are recognized as equal citizens. It further added that they should be allowed to use the facility of their choice in community toilets.

So far, the absence of official rules to protect the rights of transgender community had only helped in legitimizing prejudices. Therefore, the transgender rights activists hailed the government’s decision to be a good start, but they also stressed on the need for these legal remedies to be backed by a strong education campaign that brings change in social attitudes. Most activists believe that when it comes to the rights of transgender community, India has a long way to go as there are not even enough public toilets.

Following the judgement by the Supreme Court, several state governments have ordered that toilets and bathrooms for the third gender should be built in areas with greater density of transgender population. However, there are people who believe that these efforts would in fact increase discrimination against transgender people as it excludes them.

Some believe that the solution lies in building unisex toilets that can be used by everyone. Most feminist studies on violence on women have shown that the safest spaces are actually gender-inclusive spaces that are open-concept and well-lit, with more than one door so that people can enter and exit in at least two ways. Another option for transgender people would be single seat, automatic toilets e-toilets that are made for use by one person at a time, rather than a public restroom with multiple stalls. These toilets are covered from top to bottom and cannot be broken into easily, thus ensuring safety. Transgender people can use them without fear of people barging in or being stared at.

However, it’s not simply a question of putting money and building infrastructure. The source of the woes of the queer community lies in deep-seated prejudices and gender discrimination. If the society accepted the queer people as they are, they could use the toilet of their preference without being humiliated of bullied. Cultural acceptance would ideally eliminate the need for a separate space and grant the transgender people the dignity and respect that they deserve.

But changes in the societal make up and norms do not take place overnight. So, for now, adding a transgender designation onto existing handicapped or family toilets could provide a sanitary place for trans people to go to the bathroom. Perhaps, a better solution would be to rework the existing infrastructure in schools and railway stations to make it more inclusive. Trans men should be able to use the men’s toilet and trans women should be able to use women’s toilets, as that is what gender inclusiveness would mean in its true sense.

The idea of a queer toilet depends on restructuring the argument around non-prejudicial access to public space, moving beyond the harmful gender-based prejudices that continue to hold a sway over popular imagination. It is imperative that awareness is followed by acceptance. As long as our society continues to view gender variance as an illness, we need to craft a new kind of public bathroom – and ultimately a new model of public space – that allows people to become informed and accepting multiple forms of gender expression by allowing them to freely mingle with one another.

Informing and educating the people in order to make a socially responsible and sensitized citizen of them goes a long way in doing so, as is demonstrated by Sobhan Mukherjee from Kolkata, who took it upon himself to retain spaces in public toilets for the transgender community. He earmarked certain stalls in the public toilets for the transgender community by adding internationally recognizable transgender signage to the doors, declaring them to be transgender friendly. He renamed these washroom as ‘Tridhara’. So far, his project has not faced any resistance or trouble and has been welcomed by the transgender community. Efforts like these prove that it is worthwhile to invest in new ways of thinking that will gradually shift the argument from gender neutrality to gender diversity and, ultimately, to human diversity.

About the Author

Ira Pundeer

A freelance writer and editor, Ira has written on invisible disabilities and sexual health and reproductive rights. She is interested in researching on memory and material culture, and is currently working as an editorial consultant for the 1947 Partition Archive.