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Wings of transformation: A post occupancy evaluation (POE) of India’s first gender-neutral (student) hostel

Wings of transformation: A post occupancy evaluation (POE) of India’s first gender-neutral (student) hostel

by Chan Arun-Pina (they/them)

Chan Arun-Pina (they/them)

One of the key tasks of my research/artwork is to visualize the trans potential of spaces, especially at the scale of higher education institution (HEI) and of domestic as they intersect in student housing. And, in so doing, to critically disrupt the socio-spatial reiteration of cisnormativity in urban residential landscapes. By cisnormativity, I do refer to the concerns raised by urban planners about the “gender tyranny” of binary coding of the urban, but also and more importantly, to the rigid assignment of boundaries and labels to definitively design how we must inhabit these spaces, just like our bodies. Trying to fit queer ways of living in cis-heteronormatively informed blueprints is comparable to the gender dysphoria experienced by trans individuals forced to fi(gh)t cis perceptions of their body, and may be understood as a form of spatial dysphoria. Trans homes then, may be thought of as spaces designed and/or creatively inhabited to enable and nurture the relationship between identities, expressions, and ways of living of the dweller and the dwelling. Here, the dwelling is crucially understood as an extension to the dweller’s body including their (sub)consciousness.

Dwelling as an extension to the dweller’s body and consciousness. Source: Author

The proposed theoretical formulation of trans homes meets Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, arguably, from the “other” end. Like Haraway’s concept of cyborgs that rejects the rigid boundaries between human and machine, trans homes also works to disrupt the rigid boundaries between the dweller’s body and consciousness and their dwelling. Whereas the posthumanist cyborg theory is invested in the future of humanity with humans as a datum (not center), trans homes is invested in the future of spatiality with the space of dwelling as a datum. My doctoral research work then, personifies homes and posits them to have their own spatial consciousness—though not rigidly separable from that of their dweller. Consideration of spaces as living has been employed by indigenous communities in fighting for the rights of natural entities within legal geographies of environmental personhood, as well as by an emerging branch of architecture utilizing neuroscience to better understand and design the built environment and of biogeography that studies the city as a living organism. Within geographies of gender and sexuality, the concept of bodyspace also offers a continuum of body and/in space. While these are each adjacent and inter-linked conceptual approaches, my work also explores psychogeographies of trans homes and spatial dysphoria for its creative and interpretive renderings of the invisible dimensions of the felt space.

Location of the Gender-Neutral Hostel wing in PhD Women’s Hostel in old campus, TISS University. Source: Author

In “Wings of transformation”, I study the administration and the architecture of two on-campus student hostels at TISS University, Mumbai. In response to the student-led TISS Queer Collective’s activism since 2016 voicing the spatial needs of trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) students on campus, in September 2018, the university administration re-allocated one of the wings of an existing PhD women’s hostel as what has come to be widely known as the “India’s first gender-neutral hostel”. Between 2018-2020, the ground floor wing of the gender-neutral hostel (GNH) housed about 17 trans/GNC students in ten two-seater rooms with a common gender-neutral washroom. In listening to 13 LGBTQ+ student-participants—who as members of the QC were directly involved in the on-campus housing activism as well as were residents for two years in the GNH wing—I conduct a post-occupancy evaluation of QC’s vision for a GNH and ask: what does the success side of a gender/trans-inclusive space look like? What exactly got lost in the spatial realization of QC’s vision for a gender/trans-inclusive space on campus? I utilize my trans-disciplinary training to draft 3D axonometric drawings of the Deonar campus in AutoCAD and digitally overlay it with graphic narratives of students’ spatial stories of the GNH before and after its inception in 2018.

DL, one of the trans-masculine student-leaders of the QC recollected,

Locating the ground floor GNH-wing in PhD women’s hostel. Source: Author.

"we did not think the location through, and it came to bite us later on…we think that the reason we got GNH assigned so easily is because it is right next to the office of the Hostel Section Officer, the Hostel Warden, and her secretary (DL, interview, December 12, 2020)."

DL marked an absence for a spatial consultant in the QC’s on-campus housing activism for GNH. This absence is at large disciplinary—the intersection between gender and sexuality studies and spatial disciplines, and between queer activism and housing activism in India remains thin. Queer discourses often lack spatial language and spatial discourses are deeply cis-heteronormative. One of the key aspects highlighted in this study then is the need for a queer/trans spatial consultant—i.e., one who is at once informed by queer/trans framework and spatial tools—for on/off-campus planning. A queer/trans spatial consultant would have perhaps mediated QC’s vision with alternative spatial strategies.

Since the GNH wing was also the only place on campus where all gendered students could stay, students rescued from frequent off-campus housing disputes were always temporarily accommodated in the GNH. Consequently, several queer, trans and non-binary students recalled imposition of excessive surveillance and tighter housing rules in the GNH. It became “the first place to be attacked” by the administration, claimed one of the transfeminine residents. Informed by cis-heteronormative moral sensibilities of the hostel warden and security guards, these exclusive rules made their living environment in the GNH-wing “toxic, scary and repressive” contrary to the university’s proclamation of it being “liberating, progressive and novel” (AF, interview, December 16, 2020) (Arun-Pina, forthcoming).

Gender-segregated Hostel V in new campus, TISS University. Source: Author

In contradistinction, I also analyze the trans-potential of yet another wing in the gender-segregated Hostel V in the new campus that is actively administered to function as a cis-normative space. Hostel V is a single nine floor building divided vertically with the right end as the women’s hostel wings and the left end as the men’s hostel wings. Each floor has 8 three-seater rooms in both gendered wings. On each floor, located between the men’s and the women’s hostel wings, is a huge dormitory hall that opens and connects on either side of the men’s and women’s hostel wings. However, on alternate floors the dormitory is modified such that it may be accessible only via men’s or women’s hostel wings, while the opening at the other end is closed with a non-load bearing exposed brick wall. These dormitories remain locked and empty until the annual student enrolment. If in a year the university receives higher women student enrolment, they would open the respective dormitories connected to the women’s hostel wing, and the other way round if men student enrolment was higher. What could have been a critical space of trans intervention was architecturally modified and annually administered according to cis-heteronormative sensibilities that would deepen the spatial dysphoria for trans/gnc student-residents.

Before the inception of the GNH-wing, several trans/nb/gnc students experienced spatial dysphoria in being forced to live in shared rooms in gender-segregated hostels. They were often followed by security guards to their rooms who did not respect their privacy and entered room with notice and without knocking. Trans-identifying students felt particularly violated when security guards invaded their privacy while they were changing in their rooms. In these incidents, trans/gnc students experienced a layered sense of body and spatial dysphoria.

Thus, it is observed through this study that trans-inclusion as an approach for housing activism although necessary, is not sufficient. LGBTQ+ student-residents continued to experience deep spatial dysphoria even in the “progressive” GNH-wing administered by “repressive” cis-heteronormative moralities as much as they did in other on-campus hostels being actively rid of its trans potential through architectural modification and spatial administration. It is argued thus that perhaps what is needed is envisioning gender-sensitive rather than necessarily gender-neutral student accommodations. This may involve attending to the psychogeographies of built, lived, and felt experiences of LGBTQ+ students in on-campus housing, and extend it to the gender-sensitization of campus housing administrative actors such as Dean of Student Affairs (DSA), Section Officer (SO), hostel wardens, and security guards, as well as other on-campus student and staff residents. Further, gender-sensitization must be also recognized as inevitably a spatial practice that calls for recruiting a queer/trans spatial consultant at the level of campus planning who could be approached by student-led on-campus housing activism.

This study is part of my doctoral research project titled, “Critical Geographies of Non-normative Homes: Student Housing in Delhi and Mumbai, India” (Arun-Pina, forthcoming). Preliminary parts of this study were first presented at the Graduate Research Day, 2021 at York University. This study will be further presented at the upcoming AAG 2023 conference as part of the paper session titled, “Visualizing Qualitative Geographies: Emerging Practices”.