The push for a more inclusive and diverse world has never been as comprehensive as it is today. The reason is simple; every human on the face of the earth is privy to fundamental human rights which ensure their dignity and freedom. As one of the most marginalised groups in society, the LGBTQIA+ continues to face an existential threat to their rights, livelihood and welfare. One such issue hardly ever talked about is the injustice faced at public toilets.

Most powder rooms, conveniences, and toilets found in public spaces usually come in two sets, designated ‘Male’ and ‘Female’, hence erroneously suggesting that every human must either be male or female and disregarding the welfare of non-binary or non-gender conformist individuals. This is what has informed the recent advocacy led by Rituparna, a member of Drishti – a Queer Collective and founder-director of Akam Foundation. All they’re saying is: “Everyone deserves to pee”.

The group, primarily concerned about the rights and welfare of the queer community, reflects on several cases of queer people who have had to endure ill-treatment and felt excluded when they needed to take a pee. On the other hand, there are tons of accounts of queer people who have had to hold their pee because there was simply no toilet for non-binary individuals. A petition launched by Rituparna for the cause already has thousands of signatures.

No more holding my pee: Assam LGBTQIA+ campaign seeks safe toilets
I have been holding my pee and so have members of my community, but we’re saying no more. We deserve to pee too: Rituparna, at the launch of the online campaign.

Can we just pee?

This is the question at the heart of the campaign which has now dominated conversations concerning LGBTQIA+ rights in Assam and even beyond. The importance of the campaign stems from the fact that this is the reality of most queer people. As Rituparna says, “The idea of this campaign came from my own lived experience and many stories I have heard about the exclusion of my community members from accessing toilets.

Being able to answer the call of nature is basic, it’s about universal access to WASH, and my community is excluded from this because the infrastructure is just not available. Just think about holding your pee for so long and how that makes you feel. There are available facilities for men and women, the he-her communities in public places, but a trans person feels threatened to access such facilities. I have been holding my pee and so have members of my community, but we’re saying no more. We deserve to pee too,” says Rituparna.

Beyond creating a safe space for LGBTQIA+ members to pee, there are plans to take the campaign a step further and penetrate the education space. There are plans to influence policymakers to create an environment conducive to queer people as well. Actions such as creating gender-neutral washrooms and allowing queer students to choose the kind of uniforms they want to wear are some of the demands of the group, which believes these are some ways to address systemic discrimination.

The #NoMoreHoldingMyPee campaign was launched on June 5, 2022, at the Dibrugarh Pride Walk and has now encouraged several queer people to share their experiences. As Pixie, a student of K.C. Das Commerce College, Guwahati, notes, many trans and gender nonconforming people have limited access to bathrooms due to the harassment, violence, and threat of arrest they experience in both women’s and men’s bathrooms.

“As a non-binary person, I don’t feel comfortable or safe using public restrooms for fear of harassment from other bathroom-goers. I feel gender-neutral toilets help build a culture where genderqueer, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people don’t have to pick a side — male or female — when using the restroom. It normalises the idea that using the bathroom shouldn’t be about gender and that people aren’t forced into socially-constructed boxes,” Pixie says.

This view gives credence to the need for collaboration with the Government of Assam and schools in the region to construct or designate gender-neutral toilets, as well as sensitising students and staff on the need to ensure the queer community feels safe. “Many colleges such as Kanoi Commerce College, Dibrugarh, Jorhat College, Jorhat, and Marigaon College, Marigaon have all indicated their intentions about taking necessary steps to make it possible,” Rituparna says.

The situation is pretty clear for these disruptors; being able to use bathrooms without the threat of violence or harassment is a human right, not a privilege. “Nowadays, more and more young people are defying gender norms, so there is a need for gender sensitisation programmes in schools, colleges, and other institutions, and workspaces.

Even after the anti-ragging act we are frequently harassed or bullied while using gendered restrooms in educational institutions as well as workspaces which later leads to low self-esteem, health issues, and self-harm,” says Pixie.

No more holding my pee: Assam LGBTQIA+ campaign seeks safe toilets
Being able to use bathrooms without the threat of violence or harassment is a human right, not a privilege, say the activists.

Human rights and dignity above sentiments

The importance of building a safe space in the educational space is seen as a first step towards building a more inclusive society. In an environment that prides itself in intellectual reasoning and moral upbringing, encouraging diversity and LGBTQIA sensitisation will go a long way. As Dr Samhita Barooah, also known as Sammy, of Tezpur University’s department of social work, explains, there is already a vibrant conversation and queer-driven action at the university.

“We practice sensitive, informative, and inclusive pedagogical methods in the teaching, and learning process. We have an open-access policy to create a supportive space along with the queer community. Gender-neutral toilets are very important for the queer community particularly other non-queer people as well to enable a safe space for creating sensitivity around gender identity. It will also open the educational doors to persons from the gender diverse spectrum beyond the binary who could find hope outside their sites of trauma and oppression,” ze says.

For Sammy, this is an important campaign because it creates many opportunities for engaging in progressive dialogues and clarifying myths around gender and access to inclusive toilets. It will also resolve many mental dilemmas regarding the problems associated with the queer community. It’s a good thing institutions like Tezpur University are already taking those vital steps, such as designating four (4) staff toilets with gender-neutral signage.

No more holding my pee: Assam LGBTQIA+ campaign seeks safe toilets
One of the four gender-neutral toilets in Tezpur University

Dr Anita Baruwa, currently an associate professor and head of the department of economics and international business, DHSK Commerce College, Dibrugarh, concurs with Sammy. According to her, the college environment needs to be able to create safe spaces for gender conversations and identity expression. “Students tend to need time to express how they identify themselves. During the inauguration of our Gender Champions Club, one of them opened up and it was an eye-opener for us. We are hopeful that more and more students will open up given the open arms attitude we have adopted on the college campus,” she says.

Speaking further, Baruwa says gender-neutral washrooms are important not only on health grounds but also for upholding human dignity and respect. “We have been working with the students’ union members. The induction of 15 Gender Champions in the last academic session by Rituparna, a noted gender activist and member of the LGBTQ community, has led to positive change in our campus when it comes to LGBTQ-friendly activities through the Gender Champions Club, the first-ever in the entire North East,” she adds.

The story of Amulya Gautam also strikes deep into the core of humanity. As a trans, the experience of sharing a toilet or washroom with other students at the South Point School in Guwahati has been extremely tough. “The behaviour of some people when I use the toilet is very uncomfortable. I’m glad that some of my classmates are exposed and show understanding towards the queer community. I am the only vocal trans person in my school. I try to create awareness and advocate for equal opportunities. The school has recently initiated a gender-neutral toilet and they’re working on it right now,” says Gautam.

The #NoMoreHoldingMyPee campaign was launched on June 5, 2022, at the Dibrugarh Pride Walk and has now encouraged several queer people to share their experiences.

Everyone has a role

Creating a safe community for all is crucial for peaceful coexistence regardless of individual differences. This means everyone has a part to play, from the central government to regional authorities and rights groups, to the common individual on the street. This is the point Srija Devthakur makes when she says the most important shift to make this work is a shift in mindsets. “All students, regardless of gender, need a comfortable space to use as a restroom.

“The washroom is where people feel the most vulnerable, which is why access is important. Gender-neutral washrooms provide a safe space for non-binary students. Often, a transgender or gender nonconforming student will attempt to use the washroom of the gender they identify with and be harassed or even beaten. This lack of security forces them to leave campus and find washrooms elsewhere or hold their pee. Providing gender-neutral washrooms for such students would allow them to stay on campus and feel safe,” says Devthakur, part of the Gender Champions Club at DHSK Commerce College, Dibrugarh.

Drishti core group member Ananya Mithi (centre) campaigning in her college, Marigaon College

Another perspective is the understanding that non-binary people have peculiar toilet needs different from gendered people. The view of Lipi Lahon, a postgraduate student of Women’s Studies at Gauhati University and a core group member of Drishti, deserves emphasis. “If a non-binary or a trans person utilises the toilets according to their biological sex, they are neglected by the binary people. And what about a person who doesn’t identify themselves as a man or a woman?

“From personal experience, I can say that I have been misgendered many times to use binary toilets. Also, for many trans and nonbinary people, when they come up to use the toilets, they cannot openly utilise the toilets the same way gendered people utilise them. Most people are not aware of this. They don’t understand what the real issue is. On my part, I have organised a session on gender awareness with the help of the Women’s Cell of Jagannath Barooah College, Jorhat, as well as raising my voice on choice-based uniforms,” he says.

Rituparna’s campaign and online petition hope to create more awareness on the issue. Furthermore, the aim is to get the attention of policymakers who can bring in legislation mandating public buildings and businesses to make provision for gender-neutral toilets. What’s more, the family unit must show support in this regard and ensure toilets are safe for non-binary members of their home.

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