Access to safe and hygienic toilets is a basic necessity for every human being. However, not everyone enjoys this privilege equally. Many amongst us face discrimination, harassment, and violence when they use public toilets, especially those who identify as transgender, non-binary, or intersex.
You see our toilets are segregated based on a binary understanding of gender – male or female. People who are transgender, intersex or non-binary don’t fit into either bucket, and are hence, in the ‘wrong’ toilet. For these individuals, the simple act of going to the toilet carries with it the risk of being called out, being humiliated, being verbally or physically abused, being denied use of the toilet, and being targeted by phobics and haters.
Should going to the toilet be this stressful? Of course not. But for anyone who doesn’t identify as male or female, that is the sad reality.
Toilet Inclusivity as a Human Right
Toilet inclusivity is the concept of providing toilets that are accessible and welcoming to all people, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Toilet inclusivity recognizes that toilets are not just physical spaces, but also social and cultural ones. Toilets reflect the norms and values of a society, and can either reinforce or challenge the existing power structures and inequalities. Toilet inclusivity aims to create toilets that respect the diversity and dignity of all human beings, and that promote social justice and human rights.
One way to achieve toilet inclusivity is to provide gender-neutral toilets, which are toilets that can be used by anyone, regardless of their gender. Gender-neutral toilets can take various forms, such as single-stall toilets, multi-stall toilets with individual cubicles, or mixed-gender communal toilets. Gender-neutral toilets can benefit not only transgender, non-binary, and intersex people, but also other groups who may face difficulties or discomfort in using gender-segregated toilets, such as parents with young children of a different gender, or people who need assistance from a caregiver of a different gender.
Toilet inclusivity also requires policy reforms and legal protections to ensure that all people have equal access and rights to use public toilets without fear of discrimination or violence. This means enacting laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender identity or expression in public places, including toilets. It also means providing legal recognition and documentation for transgender, non-binary, and intersex people, so that they can access public services and facilities without hassle or humiliation.
Of course, the most inclusive toilet can be rendered unusable if it isn’t maintained and stocked appropriately. This involves providing adequate facilities and amenities, such as sanitary napkins, soap, water, and waste disposal systems. It also means ensuring that the toilets are well-maintained and cleaned regularly, by staff who are trained not only on the hygiene aspects, but also have undergone sensitivity training to better understand and help with the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, differently abled people, and other marginalised communities.
Furthermore, it means raising awareness and educating the public about the issues and challenges faced by transgender, non-binary, and intersex people in accessing public toilets, and fostering a culture of respect and inclusion.
India’s winds of change
In India, we’ve already taken the first step – legislation. In 2014, a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court of India recognized transgender persons as a third gender. This recognition has spurred dialogue around gender inclusivity in public spaces, including toilets and the Supreme Court has led by example: nine gender-neutral bathrooms have been set up within the august corridors of the Court itself.
The Delhi government, too, has mandated that all its departments, offices, district authorities, municipal corporations, state-run companies, and the Delhi Police have separate and exclusive washrooms for transgender persons. This order not only facilitates the establishment of transgender toilets but also states that transgender individuals shall continue to have the option to use gender-based toilets corresponding to their self-identified gender.
Universities have also taken up the mantle. One notable case is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, where gender-neutral restrooms were installed on campus as early as 2017. This initiative was championed by Saathi, an LGBTQ+ student support group at IIT Bombay, showcasing the power of student-led advocacy in fostering inclusivity.
Another institution leading the way is the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, which also introduced gender-neutral restrooms on its campus in 2017. The effort was spearheaded by Queer Collective, an LGBTQ+ student group at TISS Mumbai, emphasising the importance of student-driven initiatives in creating safe and inclusive spaces for all.
Today, several Indian universities are recognizing the need for gender-neutral toilets. Institutions such as IIT Delhi have taken the initiative to inaugurate gender-neutral washrooms on their campuses. In fact, IIT Delhi now boasts 14 such facilities. Additionally, Tezpur University in Assam and the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) in Andhra Pradesh have also embraced gender-neutral washrooms, recognizing the importance of providing an inclusive environment for all students. NALSAR goes a step further by adopting a gender-neutral trans policy and the recognition of a gender-neutral title, “Mx,” on student’s certificates, paving the way for other institutions to follow.
When our governments, universities, workplaces, movie theatres, stadiums, event venues, public transport hubs, toll stations, police stations, hospitals and all other public spaces create a physical space that signals their acceptance of the gender spectrum, it becomes a powerful statement of affirmation, and a potent signal to those who practise discrimination.
It also signals to the LGBTQ+ community that we stand with them, and that we are all allies.
Learning How to Be an Ally: Lessons from Harpic
Harpic, a brand that has nestled itself in the hearts of the Indian households as a synonym for cleanliness, decided to don the cape of change. Understanding the importance of both inclusivity and cleanliness, Harpic makes products that cater to everyone in our diverse and beautiful country, including the LGBTQ+ community.
Recognizing that education is the key to transforming attitudes, Harpic has launched inspiring campaigns that illuminate the beautiful diversity of gender identities. Through these powerful initiatives, society is awakened, nurtured, and encouraged to create environments where acceptance thrives.
Mission Swachhta aur Paani, a remarkable collaboration between Harpic and News18, transcends the concept of cleanliness alone. It is a movement that recognizes the profound significance of toilets, viewing them not merely as functional spaces but as beacons of safety and acceptance for the marginalised. This exceptional mission is built upon the firm belief that clean and inclusive toilets are vital for fostering a society that embraces and empowers us all, unconditionally. With unwavering dedication, Harpic and News18 actively include and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, propelling the message that every individual deserves access to safe and accepting spaces, where their dignity is upheld, and their presence is celebrated.
Creating cultural change takes work. But fortunately, there are so many of us to do it! Being an ally doesn’t have to involve grand gestures, it can start with something as simple as a conversation.
Start with educating yourself. Understand the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community, particularly with regard to access to public toilets. Learn about the different gender identities and expressions, and the unique challenges faced by each. Harpic and News18’s Mission Swachhta aur Paani initiative has some great content you can dip into.
As responsible citizens, it’s time to support this cause wholeheartedly. Our collective efforts can help in shaping an India where we are all treated equally – irrespective of our identities. Join us here, to know more about how you can play a part in this national transformation.