On March 17th, motion 408 was passed by the NUS, which encourages LGBT+ societies who have a gay men’s rep to drop the position, as gay white cisgendered (non-trans) men ‘do not face oppression […] within the LGBT+ community’. Although this motion is badly worded and controversial , it raises an important discussion about prejudice and division within the LGBT+ community that – amidst the outraged responses – has not yet been widely acknowledged.
Motion 408: Defending Safe(r) spaces and No Platforming has passed
— NUS LGBT (@NUS_LGBT) March 17, 2016
Of course, the purpose of a representative is to speak for the issues that effect their group and undoubtedly gay men face numerous issues that function to oppress them. As well as homophobia, they suffer toxic masculinity, poor mental health and blood donation inequality. Needless to say, these issues must be acknowledged and tackled. The NUS motion however, is specifically concerned by oppression within the LGBT+ community. And this is where it gets a little more complex, as most discrimination within the LGBT+ community (as a general rule) is aimed at minorities such as people of colour, transgender and bisexual people, as these groups are less represented within the community, and therefore less understood. Indeed some discrimination is without malicious intent and purely down to a lack of understanding.
You may ask why this matters; you might call this conversation a fruitless exercise of “oppression Olympics”. But is it not the LGBT+ community’s purpose to provide an inclusive safe space and equal representation for all LGBT+ people? As problematic as the NUS motion is, it does draw attention to prejudices such as racism and transphobia within the LGBT+ community. Indeed the motion states the following conference beliefs:
Misogyny, transphobia, racism and biphobia are often present in LGBT+ societies. This is unfortunately more likely to occur when the society is dominated by white cis gay men.
Gay men do not face oppression as gay men within the LGBT+ community and do not need a reserved place on society committees.
Although the wording of the former statement appears to place blame on white cis gay men for the prejudice in LGBT+ societies, it does raise an important issue that I have not yet seen acknowledged in responses to the NUS motion. Due to the lack of representation of people of colour, transgender, bisexual, pansexual and asexual individuals (to name a few) within the LGBT+ community, there is also a lack of understanding and respect for these groups. White cis gay men are significantly more visible and understood in society, as well as the LGBT+ community, meanwhile society still has far to come in terms of accepting and understanding, for example, the transgender community. It is important to acknowledge how the experiences of each group within the LGBT+ community differ. And if a society is dominated by only one group within LGBT+ then inevitably, it is less likely to be as inclusive, representative and welcoming as it would be if all groups were represented equally.
Some have argued that the NUS motion is creating new divisions within the LGBT+ community. Jack Matthews, a gay representative at the University of Manchester said to The Times;
The only way the LGBT community has been able to achieve their rights is by standing together as a community. We need to take the torch from our elders and carry this on. We shouldn’t be starting internal conflicts and segregating ourselves.
Whilst this perspective is completely logical, what Matthews does not acknowledge is the internal conflicts and segregations that are unfortunately already present within the LGBT+ community that the motion is aiming to tackle. Matthews’ statement that the NUS is ‘starting’ internal conflicts and segregation is naive. Discrimination of various kinds already occurs within the supposed ‘safe space’ of the LGBT+ community, particularly with regards to racism, transphobia and biphobia. Indeed, Robbie Young, NUS LGBT+ officer sheds light on the NUS’ decision in a Pink News article:
In order to ensure minority voices are not excluded, specific roles on committees have been created for women, bi people, black people, Trans people and so on.
Other places were designated ‘open’ (available to anyone), and very often these were taken up by gay men, but crucially were not restricted to them. That’s about it.
Robbie Young for Pink News
So the NUS motion should not be considered a serious threat to gay men being accepted and visible in the LGBT+ community, as they stand as one of the best represented groups within it, which is not likely to change simply because the NUS is ‘encouraging’ societies to open up committee roles for minorities. Besides, the NUS does not speak for all students (the University of Southampton are not even members of NUS) and this motion will not dramatically alter how LGBT+ societies function at university. Worrying about the prospect of the best represented group within LGBT+ being expelled from their community is fruitless and unwarranted, and detracts from the issue at hand. Gay men do not need to justify their place in the LGBT+ community, and to do so only panders to the divisions the NUS is unintentionally instigating.
To move forwards and learn from this controversy, we must listen to various perspectives on this issue and respond to the NUS motion by enforcing a zero tolerance policy on any form of prejudice within all LGBT+ university societies. Hopefully this article can contribute to moving the discussion surrounding motion 408 towards tackling the existing divisions in LGBT+. We must acknowledge and understand privilege within the LBGT+ community and work harder to amplify the voices of those less represented within the community.