The dormitories of most undergraduate residential colleges around the world are typically segregated on the basis of biological sex. Such gender-based segregation is neglectful towards those who possess non-normative identities such as Trans, nonbinary, queer…

In 2015 a circular was issued to the Vice Chancellors of all Indian universities in hope that adequate steps would be taken to install trans-friendly infrastructure in universities. Despite this, undergraduate residential colleges in India still remain sex-segregated into either male or female dorms. However, gender-neutral spaces such as residences and washrooms may benefit not just the LGBTQ+ community but students at large.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences was the first undergraduate residential college in India to effectively implement a gender-neutral floor as part of their women’s residence. And in December 2018, Ashoka University introduced gender-neutral washrooms to provide safer spaces to the LGBTQ+ community. I study student reactions to these spaces.

A space rid of gender

All participants unequivocally agreed it would be a good idea to have a gender-neutral residence. Shreya (names changed) believes such a residence would be pivotal in ensuring the safety and comfort of individuals.

Siddharth drew attention to the fact that the gender binary may be very restrictive and oppressive towards trans and non-binary people who do not fit into conventional gender norms.

Why is the gender binary considered “restrictive”? “Binary” implies either one or the other: in this case, either man or woman. For those who do not identify as either, the gender binary is a constant reminder that their gender identity is deviant, and is hence not accepted in society. Gender-segregated spaces such as washrooms and residences are exclusionary towards those who do not fall under this binary.

A gender-neutral residence is, therefore, a space devoid of gender: a space where one can exist without having to worry about “fitting in”. Siddharth notes, “If we have a gender-neutral dorm then ALL kinds of genders and sexualities would get a space too, there would be a space for them where they could just be, instead of trying to fit into some kind of… categorisation.”

A space with more gender

Sex-segregated residences maintain a certain distance between the sexes. This distance eventually leads to a feeling of unfamiliarity with the other sex, and may give rise to stereotypes.

Arya reports feeling a sense of discomfort when visiting the men’s residence, but also believes this discomfort was felt partly due to a general sense of unfamiliarity with men: “For me at least, it’s because of this interaction with people of other genders, people of the opposite sex, that I got more comfortable talking or interacting with men…”

If discomfort were to arise due to unfamiliarity, a possible solution would be to directly interact with the members of this “out-group”. A gender-neutral residence could open up the possibility of interacting with people of multiple sexes. This increase in interaction will then ensure that harmful stereotypes taught and held about other groups are unlearned.

Of the barriers to such residences, Arya said, “I think even on this campus, people will SAY that they support gender-neutral residences but when it comes to living in one, a lot of people would hesitate… I suppose because of discomfort.”

To address this concern, more research needs to be done on this feeling of “discomfort”.

Gender-neutral washrooms

Participant observation was used to track movement across the gender-neutral washrooms on campus. It was observed that all 21 women used the washroom on the left, and all 22 men used the washroom on the right. What could potentially explain this pattern?

Prior to the setting up of gender-neutral washrooms, the bathroom on the left was designated to women while the one on the right was exclusively for men. In December 2018 the signs reading “Men’s” and “Women’s” were removed and replaced with “Gender-neutral”.

Students who were already enrolled before December continued to segregate themselves on the earlier regardless of the changed signs.

As one looks inside the washrooms, one notices that the washroom on the right has urinals, while the one on the left does not. If a previously gendered space is to be converted into a gender neutral one, deliberate efforts must be taken to rid that space of its gender. This can be done both psychologically as well as infrastructurally.

Psychologically, associations between objects and genders, like associating urinals with “cis-men”, are harmful associations which need to be unlearned. It is not always the case that only cis-men use urinals: a transwoman might feel the need to use urinals but feel compelled to use the other washroom if they view the urinals as contributing to a toxically masculine space.

Infrastructurally, changes such as installing urinals across all gender-neutral washrooms need to be implemented to increase access to such facilities.

Moments of friction arise within these washrooms. Says Siddharth, “Whenever I’m using that washroom, and there are girls in there, I’m still aware of the fact that I’m causing some kind of disruption in the space… So I enjoy that. Because otherwise, that’s the whole point of the gender-neutral washrooms, to normalise. Like I have to deal with the disruptions now for it to ultimately get normalised.”

Sensitisation workshops could further aid this process of normalisation, by educating people on how to react to such situations. Shreya: “I think everyone including the student body, professors and admin itself should have to go through sensitisation workshops, because it’s important especially when creating a safe space… You can’t just create the physical space, right? You have to create the actual environment as well, and that includes the people.”

She believes that ultimately it’s people’s attitudes which contribute to creating a safe environment. To foster such attitudes, it is imperative that these workshops be held regularly for all members of the university community.

The step towards creating more gender-neutral spaces is to constantly engage with the communities benefitting from such spaces, through action such as sensitisation workshops and awareness drives.

This is not to say that everyone should feel comfortable in a gender-neutral space; that would imply looking deeper into the factors which cause such discomfort and assessing whether people across genders can coexist without feeling unsafe.

Finally, our attitudes tend to mirror the physical structures around us, and vice versa, so adequate infrastructural changes will go a long way towards learning to include marginalised communities.