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'Where Do We Stay?': Transgender Students Fight for Inclusive Campuses

As Zena started asserting her identity, through clothing and socially, there was a 'threat looming over her safety.'

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“It was a few months ago that I started transitioning, both socially and medically. I started facing transphobia, death threats outside, and that’s why I wanted to stay in the hostel,” said 27-year-old Zena Sagar, who identifies as a transwoman.

After a month-long battle, she was finally allotted a room in the women's hostel of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata, West Bengal on 16 June.

Zena recently came out to the world with her identity.

The journey, however, was riddled with a number of challenges, including facing transphobia daily, a financial crunch -- and a lonely fight for amenities such as a room in the women’s hostel.  

Zena, a second-year student at the prestigious film institute, hails from Rajasthan and belongs to the Dalit community.

On 12 June, she told The Quint, "While my mother has been really supportive of my journey, I am not taking financial support from my family. For the first two years, I stayed in rented accommodations outside college campus but once I started asserting my identity, I felt there was a threat looming over me."

That's when she turned to SRFTI regarding accommodation, and an endless battle to fight for a safe space began.

Even though she has accommodation now, and will be shifting in a day or two, the fight is still on, she said.

"I will continue fighting until a policy for transgender students is formed. I am relieved that I got the room... now I can finally start focusing on other things like my course work, rather than fighting for a room," she remarked.

This is not Zena's story alone.

The Quint spoke to two other transwomen from University of Hyderabad and Panjab University about their fight for their rights in their respective campuses. At some point, each of them has struggled with the same question – ‘Where do we stay?'

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'Was Told I Wasn't Eligible for Room in Women's Hostel' 

Zena claimed that when she asked SRFTI's superintendent-in-charge Rita Lee regarding a room in the women's hostel, she refused.

“When I asked her, she looked at me up and down and said she could not give me a room. We then went to the admin officer... I had to explain to him that I am a transwoman. He said that a medical board will be formed to look into the matter," recalled Zena.

She then wrote a letter to the registrar as well as the West Bengal Transgender Board.  

On 14 June, SRFTI director, Himanshu Shekhar Kathua, told The Quint, “We are processing the student’s application on a priority basis. We hope to address the issue soon.” 

Two days later, Zena was allotted a room in the women's hostel.

'Faced Death Threats, Transphobia in Rented Accommodations'

Zena started asserting her identity as a transwoman a few months ago. Even though she was assigned male at birth, the 27-year-old does not identify as one. She began hormone therapy four months ago.

“Before that, I was living in a closet...” she said.

While her batchmates and friends are supportive, this sentiment is not reflected in the outside world. 

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She said, "I was staying in a single-room apartment. One day the landlord saw the person that I was dating. At the time, I was still living as a man... He realised I might be a queer person. I got threats to my life and had to leave. I was scared for my life at the time.” 

As Zena started asserting her identity, through clothing and socially, there was a 'threat looming over her safety.'

Zena received threats once she started asserting her identity.

(Vibhushita Singh/The Quint)

Soon after this, Zena moved to another apartment. 

“I then started affirming my identity via clothes. The landlords did not ask me to leave but I could see from their body language that they were not comfortable...,” she said. 

This rented accommodation is a few kilometres away from college and Zena does not feel safe commuting late at night. "The course is very demanding and we have to stay late at night sometimes. That's why I prefer a hostel room," she asserted.

'Wrote to Authorities, then to Transgender Welfare Board'

On 15 May, she wrote to the Registrar of the institute with snippets from the NALSA (National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India) Judgment of 2014 which declared transgender people as the ‘third gender’, affirming that they were entitled to fundamental rights granted under the Indian Constitution.  

She also cited ‘The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules, 2020,’ which clarifies that medical intervention includes any kind of ‘gender affirmative medical intervention’.

Referring to her current living situation, she wrote to the registrar, "These conditions are not ideal for me as a student studying in a residential course — as I have to ponder upon my mind about basic necessities such as safety, which is the essential pillar for creating a conducive environment for studies.”

She added that she is in the process of applying for a trans ID and attached her endocrinologist's letter to the registrar.

As Zena started asserting her identity, through clothing and socially, there was a 'threat looming over her safety.'

Zena claimed that when she went to ask authorities for a room in the women's hostel, she was told that she was 'not eligible'. 

(Vibhushita Singh/The Quint)

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She also reached out to the West Bengal Transgender Welfare Board about her issues. They responded via mail, a copy of which has been seen by The Quint. It said, “The behaviour of the authorities of SRFTI has been very transphobic as you have pointed out and they are unaware of the current transgender person's laws in the country.”

They reiterated her rights under the Transgender Protection Act 2019, which states the validity of the gender dysphoria certificate and the endocrinologist's letter, as well as the anti-discrimination rules that should be followed in all educational institutions.   

In response to The Quint, SRFTI director, Himanshu Shekhar Kathua, said, “Currently SRFTI does not have a specific policy for transgender students. We foster inclusivity and are actively working towards developing policies to support transgender students (in line with the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, by taking inputs from transperson development boards and other universities).”  

Regarding hostels, he said, 

The institute has two hostels with limited capacity, one for male students and the other for female students. Senior students are given priority for hostel accommodation on the basis of application and vacancy. Some students attend as day scholars. We are actively exploring how to identify a gender-neutral/ inclusive space in the hostels/campus for addressing the need.
SRFTI Director, Himanshu Shekhar Kathua

He refuted claims of discrimination, saying that Zena is being given all possible support. He added that they are working towards finding an "appropriate accommodation solution" and that the issue will be addressed soon.

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From SRFTI to Panjab, Hyderabad Universities: How These Transwomen Are Reforming Spaces

Zena’s desire to be in the film industry was fuelled by her hopes to bring in more representation of the queer community. A student of the 'Producing for Film and Television' course, Zena is currently working on a documentary with a queer narrative. “This will be my first film as Zena,” she said. 

Real authentic stories of people like me should be told by people like me rather than someone else representing us.
Zena Sagar

When she doesn’t get much support, she reaches out to others in her community like Yashika.

As Zena started asserting her identity, through clothing and socially, there was a 'threat looming over her safety.'

Yashika and Zena have regular phone conversations about their respective journeys.

(Vibhushita Singh/The Quint)

Originally from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Yashika was studying at Panjab University, where she completed her Master’s in HR Studies. There, she conducted qualitative research on ‘Inclusive Education for the LGBTQIA community in Higher Studies in India.’ 

When she came out to the world, her experience was similar to that of Zena's. She said, “Since my family hails from a rural area and people are not aware of our rights, many people looked down upon me. Relatives in the village started saying things like ‘Ise toh bhoot pakad liya hai!’ (She has been possessed by a ghost!).” 

While the situation was slightly better on campus, she was still not given a room in the women’s hostel due to the lack of a policy for transgender students on campus, even though she was on the merit list for the hostel.

Yashika's battle began in March 2022. She wrote to the Transgender Welfare Committee and the Ministry of Social Justice and filed a writ petition in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana. Upon intervention from the board and the High Court, the university provided her with free accommodation in the women’s hostel and free mess facilities on campus.

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Yashika told The Quint;

Our first two years of college were online. When I reached campus in March 2022, I did not get accommodation. I protested outside the V-C's office for two-three days and stayed there as I had no place to go... My Head of the Department (HoD) was very supportive and helped me financially too.

Then there is 22-year-old Hritik Lalan, a transwoman at the University of Hyderabad, who has been assigned a single room with an attached washroom in the men's hostel.

A member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), the Master's student said, “By the time I had joined college, I had learnt how to navigate the university space. I wrote to the authorities, and was allotted a guest room in the men’s hostel, but it was private and had an attached washroom... I am comfortable and safe."   

Hritik is also an elected GSCASH (Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment) representative. After Hritik entered student politics, she said people treated her with more respect.

She said, “There is still transphobia... Sometimes, the guards stop and interrogate me. This is not their fault, it is because of lack of awareness. The imagination of a university space does not encompass the rights of the transgender community.” 

As Zena started asserting her identity, through clothing and socially, there was a 'threat looming over her safety.'

Hritik said that there are still traces of transphobia at the university. She said, "Sometimes, the guards stop and interrogate me. This is not their fault, it is because of lack of awareness."

(Vibhushita Singh/The Quint)

Besides fighting for hostel accommodation, Zena, Yashika and Hritik also demanded free hostel accommodation for transgender students.

Yashika, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community, said, “Ever since I came out a few years ago, I have faced stalking, as well as verbal and physical abuse... I would hear casteist as well as transphobic slurs. On top of that, we do not have our family’s support so how are we supposed to pay for education and hostel? Transgender students should ideally be given free accommodation across campuses." 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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