Stand up or sit down? On Amnesty India’s gender-neutral restrooms


About a year ago, I had one of those life-changing moments. You know the one where something just suddenly clicks and starts making sense after you’ve been struggling with it for a while. It was at an LGBTQI film festival, which had a panel discussion on ‘inclusivity.’ The festival wanted to showcase the intersectional struggles of people affected by various systems of oppression. At the panel discussion, a disability rights activist from the audience said, “We need to move from trying to be inclusive to opening up.”

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. Inclusivity sometimes just becomes a re-drawing of boundaries, even when it’s not meant to be that – a checklist with the different marginalised groups we “include.” For example, many job openings run the disclaimer: “Women, people belonging to different castes, tribal communities and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply.” Some people will then critique this statement for not checking enough of the boxes in our politically correct list of marginalised groups, like those excluded, in society, based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

First of all, I doubt anyone can create a checklist that would encompass every such group. And second, this approach reaffirms narratives of “Who is more marginalised?” and “How many categories on this checklist does one person belong to?” These are counter-productive to what a lot of us try to achieve as human rights activists.

I will readily admit that I’ve been guilty of this way of thinking. And while it didn’t make complete sense to me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. This is why the statement about ‘opening up’ was so metamorphic for me. It became a one-sentence principle to guide my efforts towards elimination of boundaries versus their re-drawing.

I’ve been working with Amnesty International India for more than six months now. It’s a space that is definitely one of the more progressive and less bigoted work environments I’ve experienced. Having been a part of the LGBTQI support community for a while now, I was happy to notice during my interview that the restrooms here did not have the traditional Women/Men signs (For the purpose of clarity, I would like to mention that these are single-occupancy restrooms).

A month later, when I started working here, those very Women/Men signs greeted me at the restroom doors. And really, what is up with those signs? The Men/Women stick figures are hardly representative of what actual men and women look like. Not that other signs featuring men with moustaches and hats and women with nose pins and long flowing hair do any better and only reinforce gender stereotypes!

The hiring policies and work culture of Amnesty do not reflect this bias, but those restroom signs still had to go. Taking the point of reinforcing gender stereotypes and conformity further, the existence of separate restrooms provides challenges for some transgender and intersex persons. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. There aren’t just two genders of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ A person may not necessarily identify as male or female, and signage that does not recognise other gender identities can become an act of gender discrimination by limiting access.
  2. There aren’t just two sexes of male and female. Intersex people, who possess characteristics that do not correspond to normative standards of male or female, need not identify as male or female, irrespective of the sex assigned at their birth.
  3. A transgender person may not want to publicly reveal their identity, or may be going through a physical transition to conform to their true gender identity and/or gender expression. The Men/Women signage places them in a situation of conflict: of either having to use a restroom they do not prefer, or out themselves at a time when they may not be ready. And all this when a person may already be going through physical, hormonal and psychological changes and stress.

Also important to consider is the violence a transgender or intersex person might face in restrooms that have distinct and exclusively Men/Women multiple-occupant restroom stalls. A transwoman or hijra using a women’s restroom could be misperceived as a man using a women’s restroom he doesn’t have the right to or vice-versa. This makes it that much more necessary for both public and private spaces to also have individual gender-neutral restrooms (This does not, of course, take away from the need to have women-only – including transwomen – restroom stalls in certain locations, which may be desirable for various reasons, including safety).

After putting together a proposal to our HR department and a consultation with the senior management, we’ve now removed the Women/Men restroom signs in our office and replaced them with ‘all gender restroom’ signs. This step at the Amnesty workplace, and the call for gender-neutral restrooms in public spaces, complements the April 2014 Supreme Court judgment in the NLSA versus Union of India case that directed the legal recognition of transgender persons’ gender identities.

This judgment instituted the right to self identity, called for non-discrimination of transgenders and improved access to opportunities and public spaces. The Court specifically observed that access to public toilets was a problem for transgender persons, who are often forced to use toilets for men, where they are vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment.

International human rights law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. International human rights treaties that India has agreed to be bound by have been interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on these grounds. UN human rights experts have confirmed that international law prohibits discriminatory treatment in a range of everyday settings like workplaces, schools and hospitals.

‘Being inclusive’ also comes with the implication that it is a thing that you do. You either are inclusive (of certain people) or you are not, similar to the checklist reference, while ‘opening up’ implies more of a process. Nobody has it all figured out. No space is perfectly inclusive. Not even human rights spaces. I doubt anyone knows what such a space would even look like. However, it is important that we start the process – think, listen and act.

About the author

Shambhavi Madhan is a gender and queer rights activist based in Bangalore. She currently works in the programmes team at Amnesty International India.


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