India's transgender community still waiting for toilets it was promised

Arnav Srinivasan, 37, works in one of Thomson Reuters’ Bengaluru offices. He was born as Kalyani, a female, but identifies as a man. It was a big deal for him when the office introduced a “gender-neutral” bathroom.

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“My friend gifted me a water bottle and said, you can drink water henceforth,” he recalled. “I used to avoid drinking water for fear of going to the washroom.”

Using public toilets in India is less a matter of choice than of ingrained instinct for most people. Men use the men’s room, women the women’s. Transgender people have a trickier space to negotiate - go where you think you should, or where other people think you should? Choosing the latter means dealing with stares, sniggering, taunts and threats of violence. And finding a “gender-neutral” or unisex toilet is rarely an option.

In 2014, the Indian 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 places including hospitals. (The court ruling does not cover private businesses, said Danish Sheikh, a lawyer and activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.) Two years on, Mysore is the only city in India that boasts of a single “third-gender” public toilet.

There are 488,000 transgender people in India, according to the 2011 census. That’s less than .04 percent of India’s population, although transgender activists estimate their number to be six to seven times the official count. In the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru is located, the official figure is 20,266. But in a country that 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.

At last count, Bengaluru’s municipal corporation had 479 functional public toilets. None is gender-neutral or meant exclusively for people identifying as third gender. Dr. G.M. Vathsala, the city’s health officer, said public toilets don’t come under her purview, and referred calls to the engineering department, which did not return telephone calls.

“It is a basic right to have access to [a] sanitary and safe toilet. The government is doing nothing,” said transgender activist Akkai Padmashali. “All other government policies for welfare of gender minorities [are] meaningless if the state cannot even guarantee us a toilet.”

For Arnav, who identifies himself as a man but was assigned female sex at birth, venturing into bathrooms reserved for men was a perilous exercise. “It was a struggle. I would always ask a friend to accompany me and stand outside. There were times when men asked me what I was doing there.”

Transgender activist Uma has a similar story to narrate. Uma, who identifies as a woman but was assigned male sex at birth, runs an organization called Jeeva that provides counseling to members of the transgender community in Bengaluru. “I want to use female toilets but I am never allowed inside as I look like a man outwardly,” she says.

What about gender-neutral toilets? Uma says they “sound nice on paper. In reality, it would just lead to more cases of harassment against transgenders.” Uma says many transgender women have faced harassment in public toilets, mostly from men. Unisex facilities would allow both men and women inside, and could lead to trouble, she said. “Third-gender” specific toilets on the other hand would be safer places.

Data collected by groups that study transgender issues in Bengaluru shows that most assaults on transgendered people occur in public parks and toilets.

Another option for transgender and “third-gender” people are “e-toilets,” single-seat automatic toilets that are made for one person at a time to use, rather than a public lavatory with multiple stalls. Once someone gains access, the doors cannot be forced open. This ensures safety. Transgendered people can use them without fear of people barging in or being stared at.

The local municipal corporation has installed 75 e-toilets in Bengaluru and plans to install about 80 more with public and private funding, said S. Shekhar, whose engineering department is in charge of setting up e-toilets in the city.