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QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY

Trans toilet turmoil

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Separate toilets put trans people into a stigmatised category.

Whether it's the bathroom they should use or the jail they're thrown in, there's no escaping transphobia.

It often comes down to bathrooms. People may say they have no prejudices about transgender people. They may say they are ignorant or indifferent about their issues, or may shrug and say they think it's strange, but it doesn't affect them. But put them in a position where they must interact with people they know have changed, or are in the process of changing their gender, and it is remarkable how suddenly they start thinking about toilets.

It happened when a transgender activist was invited to a party at a prominent Mumbai club. Some club members objected and got the management to ask her to leave, leading to an outcry both within the club and outside. But one question that was asked by members trying to justify the club's action was, "which toilet would she have used?" Male members, who had hitherto shown no interest in the women's toilets, suddenly became concerned how women would feel if a trans woman popped in to use the loo or freshen her makeup.

This is a pattern that keeps coming up with transgender issues. In 2006, an Italian MP claimed she had felt violated when she encountered Italy's first transgender MP, Vladimir Luxuria, in the women's toilets in Parliament. In 2008, a transgender woman was arrested in Houston, Texas for using a women's toilet, despite a city ordinance allowing trans people to use the toilet that corresponded to the gender they now were. Last year, the UK supermarket Sainsbury's had to apologise after it refused to let a trans woman use the women's toilet, directing her to a special toilet for the disabled.

This has become a live issue on college campuses in the West, since many young trans people start the transitioning process when they turn 18 and can take charge of their own lives. This is also often when they are at college, so the shift is visible to those around them. But when they start using the toilets they feel comfortable in, they run into protests, prompting some colleges to designate certain toilets as officially genderneutral. This is like the transgender toilets which governments in Thailand and Tamil Nadu have considered creating, and it is a practical, if expensive, solution.

Yet such separate toilets aren't ideal. They put trans people into a separate, possibly stigmatised category, which many even don't identify with. For most trans people the essence of their dilemma is feeling themselves to be the opposite gender, which is what they seek to achieve, and not some mid-way category. The objections to their using the toilet of their choice also rest on the assumption that regular users are somehow at risk from trans people in them - transphobic campaigners have used ads showing cartoonishly menacing trans people entering toilets - yet if anything it's the trans people who are more at risk.
But annoying and humiliating (not to mention physically painful) as these toilet bans might be, they pale before the real dangers that people whose gender is being questioned face if they have to spend time in jail. This is when the problems of falling in the wrong category get compounded with the very real fear of sexual assault. Hijras, who are so often put in jail by the police, are sometimes put in special barracks in women's prisons, but far more often are just thrown into general cells in male prisons where they are very often subjected to assault and rape. Sometimes, the police join in.

Now with the case of Pinki Pramanik we're seeing this issue raised to a new level. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community has tried to keep some distance from this case, not from lack of concern, but more because no one wants to create more problems for Pinki;at a time when her gender is in question, she hardly needs further questions raised about her sexuality. Yet it is hard not to worry about the larger issues raised by her case about the treatment of gender by the authorities, which is why some activists have drawn up a petition asking for greater sensitivity to be shown in cases like this.

There is, for example, the casual way in which Pinki was first subjected to a gender test, and the way in which the highly questionable results of this test were released to the media (apparently including clips of her shown nude). There was also the second, more rigorous test she was to be subjected to - but biologists will tell you that at a chromosomal level male/female distinctions can show substantial overlap, and it's not clear to what extent these second tests can capture that.

And then there's the fact of her being held in a male prison - for now, in a solitary cell, but there's no guarantee this will remain the case. Going by the general police logic of putting hijras in male cells because they were biologically born male, why wasn't Pinki put in a women's jail, given that she had always been treated as a woman till then, by her family, in public and at sporting events?

This is a depressing example of how just the possibility of dealing with a trans person seems to stop all rational thinking in such cases. Why would one compensate for the notional risk that a possibly male Pinki might pose to women prisoners and warders - easily solved by placing her in a single cell - by substituting the very real risk she now faces from male prisoners and warders? And why are people who are uncomfortable about sharing toilets with a trans person really concerned what others in the same toilet with them are doing?

It's dealing with such irrationality that makes one grateful for the few examples that show how such issues can be dealt with easily and with grace if the intent is really there. At the recent Chennai Queer Film Fest which was held in association with Germany's Goethe Institute in that city, the usual question was raised about which toilets trans attendees would use. Karl Pechatsheck, the Institute's director, dealt with it by simply handing over his personal toilet for use as a unisex one.
That meant that participants could use the general male or female toilets as they wished, and anyone uncomfortable with that could use the unisex toilet. It was, I'm told, a completely problem-free event, with everyone involved, male, female, transgender and however else identified, interacting without problems both in the toilets and outside.

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