Personal Stories

Who Really Owns The Public Space?

A public space is any space that is for the public. Parks, markets, public washrooms, public transport, the footpaths and the road, however only a few identities are welcome in the public space. While national and international law mandates, access to public space regardless of discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, caste, class, race, and any such identity is essential for the true liberty of people, the public space in India and the world is exclusive.

A park in the middle of the city. A dog chasing a squirrel up a tree, a mother strolling a pram as she catches up on the latest pop releases, a girl running a 6k after being stuck on a 5k for a month, old men in their yoga pants in the cobra pose, fake laughing as it nears dawn, a girl and her boy sharing a Cornetto and also sticky fingers in a sweaty handhold, a man trying to sell pani puri before the mosquitoes make the people go home, and all the queer people? Absent.

A public space is any space that is for the public. Parks, markets, public washrooms, public transport, the footpaths and the road, however only a few identities are welcome in the public space. While national and international law mandates, access to public space regardless of discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, caste, class, race, and any such identity is essential for the true liberty of people, the public space in India and the world is exclusive. LGBTQIA+ people have at several points in time being legally excluded from the public eye, and now it has transformed into a plethora of illegal yet forgivable acts of harassment, exclusion, violence and discrimination against such people. Public spaces, even in the most ‘progressive’ metropolitans are largely absent of queer expression, due to the omnipresent threats by both the general public and the officials, thus, visibility of the queer community is low, especially in their chosen forms of self expression and when it is, it is limited to larger groups and during daylight hours.

Theorists of the feminist theory and the queer theory have observed the public space to be gendered and hostile. To this day, the public space exists in a binary, of male and female, which is imposed either structurally or behaviourally and the culture created in these public spaces, is one that seeks to conserve gender identity that conforms to heteronormative patriarchal standards.

It is observed that spaces are inherently heterosexual, thus, even though when individually asked about acceptance of non heterosexual people, people may be accommodative, but as a group react negatively to anyone who differs from the norm. The whole ecosystem of individuals, businesses and institutions that propagate a mainstream and the other as deviant, is how some people remain more equal than other people.

LGBTQIA+ people experience alienation in these public spaces, owing to the lack of representation and accommodation. Furthermore, there is a normalized distaste- dislike of the public place due to fear of crime. Queer people tend to be vigilant all the time, severely anxious and this reduced experiences from leisure to that of necessity and obligation, completely robbing them of public experience. The public identity of queer people is altered, dimmed and muted, converted to one which is more con-formative and less noticeable as deviant. Thus, the public even when queer people are in it, maintains its heteronormativity. Several LGBTQ spaces do come up, as a result of opposition to these spaces, and to cater to those that are left out by them but these are largely hidden and inaccessible to many people of the community itself.

Different public spaces lead to different challenges for queer people.Though all LGBTQ people are subjected to harassment in some form, transgender and non binary people are at a greater threat of violence and discrimination due to visibility. There is also a significant difference in level of income between cis and non cis people, owing to higher levels of homelessness, lack of formal employment and discrimination at place of work. Thus, the experience of trans people and non binary people is very different from the experience of cis gender people. Broadly, they experience discrimination in the form of denial of entry into the space, denial of service , deficiencies in infrastructure that don’t cater to specific needs, harassment due to public and private officials and harassment due to public.

 Violence by state actors towards non conforming gender identity has persisted on the basis of redundant laws like criminalization of sex work and criminalization of beggary by Trans, intersex and non-binary people. A large portion of trans people that take to beggary are targeted by arbitrary police action. In one instance, a group of trans women were arrested in Mumbai for begging under false charges to meet the police station’s daily target of four cases. Trans people are also stereotyped as sex workers and criminalized as public nuisance and obscenity. In another instance, various queer people where detained in Sept 2018, after a public gathering to celebrate the scrapping of Article 377 under the charges of obscenity and immoral acts.

Another point of great distress are public toilets. Trans people face various attitudinal and infrastructural issues in accessing toilets. Firstly, toilets are always split into the binary of male and female. Attendants do not allow trans people to access the washroom of their choice. Inside, other users have at several times harassed trans people and falsely attributed them to being molesters and predators. Trans men can’t use men’s toilets if they haven’t undergone phalloplasty due to absence of private stalls. Even when washrooms that are strictly marked for trans people are present, there is fear of using them and revealing identity and being exposed to stigma, harassment and violence. The simple lack of accessible washrooms impacts travelling, employment opportunities and many recreational activities. Merely allowing trans people to use toilets of their choice is not sufficient to ensure equal access.

Frisking booths, or largely security checks in all places like monuments, metros, airports, malls are also split into the binary of male and female. Unlike washrooms, the gendered queue which trans people have to choose is completely decided by the security person working there. In several instances, trans people have been asked to go to the other queue, and been reduced to an open point of debate and discussion for deciding which queue is fit for them. Several transpeople also report sexual harassment in these queues, being groped inappropriately and being asked to strip. Airports are places where this discrimination is even aggravated with additional questioning, privately conducting security check and other such intrusive methods used due to the supposed ‘criminality of trans people’.

Public transport is another space that is elusive of trans people . Due to lack of documentation that is congruent with their chosen identity, they face several barriers at all steps of the process, booking, security, availing boarding passes, at immigration checks etc. The ladies compartment of metros is hostile to transwomen and in the general compartment they are often leered or targets of sexualized comments. Continuous unlawful surveillance of LGBTQIA+ people in public spaces like malls, markets, metros is often experienced, due to perceived threat and criminality of such identities.

Restaurants, beauty parlours, movie theatres, places that are privately owned but open to the public oftentimes refuse service to trans people or charge them higher. These places, though private are still subject to general law of the Indian constitution and thus, non discriminatory in idea.

Violence, is overtly experienced disproportionately by trans and non binary people and majorly by those that belong to muslim, dalit, tribal and lower income groups. Police is often an accomplice to this violence and if not, overlooks it both in action and while filling cases. There is also a public indifference to harassment and violence towards non binary and trans people and people are much less likely to intervene or make an attempt to stop the violence. In May 2019, two Manipuri trans students were gang-raped by three men in Delhi. In Jan 2019, a trans woman was shot by an autodriver for resisting sexual assault. Several cases like these exist but largely ignored by mainstream media or law agencies.

In an effort to create alternative spaces queer people have created several safe spaces for themselves that are both commercial and cultural. Yet, these spaces are also very exclusive. Even the queer spaces that exist are inherently masculine, and exclude transpeople, non binary individuals. Queer people that lie on the intersection of other marginalized identities are excluded. These spaces are also exclusively middle-upper class, savarna, urban and english dominated. Thus, this shared space is also devoid of intersection and homogenous in a different way.

 It is essential that the public space becomes inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The inability of experiencing streets and parks also violate the rights of LGBTQ persons to take part in cultural life, which encompasses the right to participate in, access and contribute to cultural life, which included queer pride parades, and festivals that celebrate queer identities and rights. The supreme court also prohibits sexuality and gender identity  to be ground for discrimination of individuals. But this is not conveyed in programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan which work towards sanitation, public transport projects etc.

Gender inclusive planning recognizes the how gendered spaces are created and how the same spaces can be moulded to make them gender inclusive and accessible for all people regardless of heteronormative or patriarchal expectations. Planning of public spaces, training of officials to be non discriminatory and promotion of gender neutral spaces will help in structurally attacking the  gendered nature of these spaces. Perhaps, the greatest antidote to lack of visibility is visibility itself. And the onus of this visibility should not lie on queer people alone, but also on allies to queer heterosexual spaces so that the public space becomes truly public.

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Anureet writes poems and research papers; none of them really well. She aspires to write a book someday, until then, an economics undergraduate, her life is a series of awkward handholds, too many hand poems and ofcourse Adam Smith's invisible hand.
Anureet Watta

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