The trans community and housing: A long and arduous journey
By Sankalp Dasmohapatra
As we welcome the first anticipated completely offline undergraduate batch back onto campus it is time we revisit an issue that has unfortunately been sidelined within the past few years; housing for transgender and non-binary* students.
*an umbrella term the article will use for non-binary, gender fluid, agender and all other gender non-confirming students
In 2019 the 5th House of Representatives (HoR), the Feminist Collective and other concerned students and faculty engaged in extensive discussions with the administration surrounding the accommodation given to trans and non-binary students. In a charter of demands submitted to the administration the HoR explicitly demanded, “a comprehensive official policy to safeguard the rights of trans, gender non-binary, gender non-conforming and gender queer students be sanctioned immediately.”
The Edict spoke to Priavi Joshi, a member of the 5th HoR and subsequently the President of the 6th HoR, who stated, “We learnt that in 2019 we had members of the incoming undergraduate batch openly identifying themselves as trans and non-binary with the administration. This was a huge step since it meant changes to policies for students. The idea was simple, there was a heteronormative categorisation of gender based on gender assigned at birth. We wanted the administration to allow people to choose housing based on their chosen gender and for non-binary students to have a gender neutral floor.”
She elaborated that, “The administration initially told us that we would have this implemented before the induction of the UG22 batch [Monsoon 2019] but when we requested an update right before O-week we were told that it wouldn’t be possible and that the administration was continuing with its roommate assignment as done previously. We were obviously quite let down and during the ‘Adhoka Protests’ in 2019 we submitted this Charter of Demands explicitly asking for the administration to look into this matter.”
A committee to formulate policy for transgender students was formed officially on 10th December 2019 and was composed of representatives from faculty, the office of admissions, office of student life, administration and was meant to nominate two members from the student body.
The Edict interviewed the chair of the committee, Professor Bittu, to learn more about the committee’s functioning thus far. Professor Bittu mentioned that to avail housing accommodation on campus the students must approach either the Trans committee or the Office of Residence Life and submit legal documentation as laid out by the NALSA judgement of 2014. While the committee was meant to formulate a policy by the Spring Semester of 2020 (as mentioned within the Charter of Demands) the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of campus derailed the progress that the committee was making.
An Edict article titled ‘The Trans Community and the Ashokan Myth of Progressiveness’ published on 25th July 2020 accused the administration of failing to follow through on its commitment to provide inclusive housing to trans and other non-binary students. The article states, “Initially, the admin agreed to the suggested reforms, but when students went to check up on how these requests were carried out, they were met with only disappointment – nothing had been done. Even as the monsoon semester began, no promises were carried out, and no reasons were given for it.”
Priavi adds that, “Communication during the pandemic wasn’t great, we’d send an email and get a response a week later. Conditions made it such that even when we did get a response it was either that the committee would get back to us or that it was hard for the committee to decide on a meeting time which worked for all its members, and so we didn’t get much information.”
Rhea, a member of the 7th House and currently serving on the Interim House, mentions that “Communication with the Trans Committee happens primarily through Professor Bittu. The administration has set up the Trans Committee and now it’s no longer their responsibility.”
Professor Bittu mentioned that these circumstances had delayed the committee’s functioning however, the committee has formulated a comprehensive draft policy extending to all forms of accommodation that trans and non-binary students should be provided on campus and are in the process of presenting the same to the various administration bodies for approval before its implementation.
Despite not yet instituting the policy for students, the Ashokan administration does advertise its gender diversity, particularly during its admission. This was seen on the Ashoka University Instagram page when they posted the gender ratio of the UG22 batch, allocating 1% to a “Gender Neutral” category. This post sparked immense outrage at the time with a comment on the post reading, “Why is this page deleting comments again? We brought up facts, like the 2 women in STEM faculty, the dismissal of caste diversity and lack of any effort to make it a decent living environment for all the marginalised groups they try to 'include' on their elite campus, and the uni's transphobia.”
Another body that similarly looks at such issues is the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee formed in 2021. The committee published its first report titled, ‘Inclusion, Diversity & Belonging Report 2021-22’. The report mentions that the YIF 2021-22 batch features 1.5% of students belonging to the “Other” category under gender classification, this number is 0% for the batch of 2020-21. The report also mentions that the number of trans students within the UG24 cohort is 17 and that the number for the UG20 batch is 5.
To better understand the experiences of trans and other non-binary students the Edict rolled out a survey to the student body. When asked about the administration’s response to requests for accommodations one student states, “They blatantly refuse to provide gender neutral housing options except for a staff floor in RH-1, and refuse to provide housing in the residence of one's self-identified gender. They are refusing to budge from allowing people to opt for housing of their choice without legal documentation. If you ever interact with the residence life team or literally almost any office of the administration, they are largely unaccepting of trans identities and are quite often transphobic and queerphobic.”
On the matter of the trans students being housed on the staff floor Rhea states, “The staff floor doesn’t fall under UGC guidelines. It’s a middle ground that allows them to avoid legal liability from parents while providing enough accommodation to mitigate student outrage. They don’t want to set a precedent that would later be overturned by the trans committee and so they push the issue asking us to wait for the trans committee. We’re a small enough minority that it’s not worth the effort to them.”
Another student mentions, “The DSA did not respond to my request or my follow-up emails when I contacted her. I received a response to a new email about 15 days later which was way later than I was expecting. This made the process more nerve-wracking than it already is and more expensive as well due to the increase in flight rates. I was also deadnamed and misgendered in the email despite beginning my previous emails with my name and pronouns, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
While the administration may be legally restricted from providing accommodations to students, respect and compassion towards trans and non-binary students and their identity is not a lot to ask for. As one student elaborates, “After a point, it feels like I am the one living a lie. The admin must be able to make some changes so that my identity is acknowledged or at the least, not completely rejected.”
When asked about the trans committee and the work that it is doing one student says, “The trans committee has a great draft policy in place but unfortunately that's all that it is - a draft. The administration is strongly pushing against implementing the policy and are refusing to proceed with providing housing to trans people without legal documentation.”
Trans and other non-binary students have been left largely disgruntled with the administration’s response to their requests. When asked about what they’d want the administration to do one student suggests, “They never acknowledge any decisions they push for directly, and always announce their disapproval of policies and requests through other bodies, for example, the trans committee. They need to talk to trans students directly and be transparent. They've already pulled off enough bullshit with their tokenistic and misleading acknowledgement of trans students in the university. They need to allow trans students to choose the housing option of their own preference, whatever it may be.”
The matter of obtaining gender affirmative documentation proves to be a major hurdle for trans and non-binary students. As one student explains, “This would require a lot of time (including the commute) and effort which can be psychologically and financially draining. Keeping Ashoka's vigorous academic this amount of time and energy would be a lot to sacrifice and could adversely affect your mental health or performance. It might also be unsafe, or even dangerous for some folks due to various reasons. It's not for the lack of want but most of us cannot afford to legally transition yet.”
With the draft policy now being presented to various administrative bodies the student body can be hopeful that its ratification by the Vice Chancellor and Board of Management happens as soon as possible. This does however mean that students will not be able to avail accommodations under this policy until (at the earliest) Spring Semester 2023, over 3 years after the committee’s formation.