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Tuesday 22 July 2008 LGBT

Some people continue to question the need for LGBT officers, LGBT groups/associations, and the NUS LGBT campaign and officers. Whatever the reason, it’s useful to be familiar with their arguments. Here is a list of common questions and queries about students’ union LGBT representation, and some standard responses.

Why do we need an LGBT Campaign? Lots of legislation has been passed – aren’t LGBT people equal now?

It is true that lots of legislation has been passed in the past few years, and that is a cause to celebrate! However, legal and social inequality persists on a massive scale. Discrimination in goods and services on the grounds of sexuality has been outlawed for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but not for those who identify as trans. It is clear from the debates in the media and Parliament around this issue that there is a lot of work to be done. Many people still feel it is perfectly reasonable to bar someone from their pub or hotel, simply for being gay or trans.

In addition, homophobic hate crime is rising, homophobic bullying is reaching endemic proportions in schools, and LGBT students still face difficulties gaining funding for higher education if they are thrown out of home by their parents.

All in all, equality is a long way off!

Why isn’t there a ‘Heterosexuality Campaign’?

You might think no one would ask this, but the first heterosexuality officer has been appointed in a students’ union in Australia!

First of all, heterosexuality isn’t under threat! The most generous estimates suggests that 10 per cent of the population self-defines as LGBT, and recently the Department for Trade and Industry put this even more conservatively at six per cent. The LGBT community is a minority that faces systematic discrimination in all areas of life including work and education. A system that assumes heterosexuality as the norm, and in which the LGBT community is underrepresented in democratic and government structures, damages everyone in society and needs constant challenging – this is what the NUS LGBT Campaign is for.

Straight people may suffer discrimination but it is likely to be because of another factor (eg. they are a disabled/female/black/a single parent). It is worth asking the question, “What would a heterosexuality officer actually do?”

Sexual health issues are covered by welfare officers and heterosexuals are not disadvantaged due to a dominant and embedded culture that discriminates against their sexuality and has a long history of doing so – LGBT people are!

What has all this got to do with students?

LGBT students are part of a society that systematically discriminates against them. Among LGBT students there are high numbers of victims of hate-crime, those who are refused insurance or a GP appointment because of their sexuality, and students who are harassed and bullied by academic staff and fellow students, to name but a few examples.

And unfortunately, LGBT students do experience discrimination that relates specifically to their student lives. For example, anonymous marking is still not mandatory - allowing for homophobia in the marking process. LGBT students face losing all funding if they come out to their parents, since HE funding relies on parental assessment.

NUS LGBT operates on the principles of solidarity and hopes that even those LGBT students who do not feel personally and directly affected by homophobia will act on their concern that it is happening to other students.

Why are most NUS LGBT events for LGBT students only?

There are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, autonomy is key to the campaign and a central principle of NUS. We believe that only LGBT students should decide their priorities and campaign aims – that is why events where motions are debated and become policy can only be attended by LGBT students.

Secondly, NUS believes that it is important to provide a safe space for LGBT students where they will be free from homophobia and will not have to ‘out’ themselves to their heterosexual counterparts. It is a misconception that all members of the LGBT Campaign will be out. In fact many come from places and institutions where being out would put them at risk of discrimination, bullying or harassment. Safe spaces such as training days, networking events and conferences provide an opportunity for LGBT students to develop their work as officers and activists in a discrimination-free context.

This doesn’t mean that heterosexual people cannot support the campaign and there are a thousand ways that they can protest against homophobia in their daily lives and through campaign work.

Surely an equal opportunities officer could represent the concerns of LGBT students?

Many union equal opportunities officers do a wonderful job managing a large portfolio, and the creation of an equal opportunities officer is a useful first step to creating awareness around equalities issues in a union. However it is unrealistic for any one individual to fully understand and represent the needs and interests of all minority groups. Effective representation needs to include members of disadvantaged groups themselves. Otherwise it is open to accusations of tokenism.

We believe that specific representation of the LGBT community is essential, as self-defining leaders will have the broadest knowledge of the issues that face our community. We believe that in tackling discrimination, the greatest achievements have been community-led.

There are plenty of LGBT members of the union exec. They can represent LGBT students.

Although other union officers may self-define as LGBT, they are not elected by other LGBT students to represent them specifically and to ensure that LGBT issues are raised and addressed by the union. An officer whose primary role is to concentrate on this is often the best solution, although that does not of course absolve other officers from their duty to inform themselves about equality and diversity issues and to work in an anti-oppressive manner.

Autonomous LGBT space discriminates against straight people – it’s against equal opportunities!

Closed space is a positive action to redress the balance between LGBT and heterosexual people. Homophobia describes a systematic experience of discrimination /oppression, and must have power behind it to be discriminatory. LGBT groups in general, and NUS LGBT in particular, do not have that power to discriminate against straight people and are not part of a systematic process discriminating against straight people as a group.

Ensuring equal opportunity does not mean treating everyone the same. If a particular group is disadvantaged, it may need particular representation to overcome this. Having LGBT officers or an LGBT group is not about giving LGBT people more power than anyone else; it is about redressing the balance.