NUS LGBT Conference: going through the motions! (part one)

Tomorrow is the first day of NUS LGBT Conference 2013. It will be the last NUS conference I attend this year; quite possibly the last NUS conference I will attend ever; certainly the last for the foreseeable future. I have a lot of personal musings about this, but for now – it’s policy time!

In the post that follows, I’m going to offer some opinion and analysis on some of the motions which have been submitted to this year’s conference, in the hope that this will be useful (or at least interesting) to this year’s crop of delegates. The conference details are all available on NUS Connect; a direct link to the motions document is here.

I am writing from a perspective that is queer, trans, feminist, and unaffiliated to any faction within NUS. I’m not going to cover all of the motions – some of them aren’t areas on which I feel qualified to comment, or on which I feel comment is necessary. And it’s 40+ pages of motions, which is a pretty tall order! (And, for clarity: I wish I’d been able to do this with Women’s Conference: in writing on one but not the other, it’s not that I’m prioritising the issues of LGBT students above women students – it’s just that as a member of Women’s Committee, behind-the-scenes organising in the run-up to conference took precedence!)

Edited to add: I have already offered apologies on the conference hashtag, but I’d like to do so here as well (albeit belatedly).
Firstly: my initial intention (as above) to cover only the motions on which I felt “qualified to comment” was because I felt I should be speaking in terms of the jurisdiction of my committee position (that is, women’s issues and trans issues), and that I did not have the right to comment on e.g. motion 103, submitted to the conference by the Black Students’ Campaign: as a white person I am not part of their membership, and to take a position on Black Students’ Campaign policy seemed to fly in the face of the autonomy of the four NUS Liberation Campaigns. I now recognise that this failure to comment was a mistake on my part. Given that I ended up commenting on many things which were not related to my committee place, this post (and its sequel) became more of a general round-up of the upcoming motions to be discussed, and was shared by various people as an introduction to the approaching conference. In this context, my early decision not to comment on motions submitted by the Black Students’ Campaign resulted in effectively erasing the contributions of Black students. In addition, having not engaged with motion 103 (adding a reserve place for disabled students in delegations) and 104 (adding the position of “Black Students’ Rep (Women’s Place) to the LGBT Committee) at the start of writing this post skewed my perception of the relative importance of motions which were close to my heart (particularly motions 105, 108, and 109). I now recognise that my attempt to bring 108 and 109 forwards to the start of their zone (in an attempt to sidestep the inevitable prolonged debate over motion 101, and on the (false) assumption that they could be concluded in a couple of minutes) was utterly inappropriate. While I still consider 105, 108, and 109 to be important motions, as the language we use should be as inclusive as possible, they are absolutely not as important as tangible measures to improve representation of marginalised groups on conference floor and on the LGBT committee. I apologise unreservedly for screwing up here, and failing to recognise what was most important in this case.

Secondly: had I known how motion 304 (the Lucy Meadows motion) would go, I would have spoken to my co-submitters of the motion (other members of the NUS Trans Working Group, comprising elected members of various NUS committees who are trans) and withdrawn it from the conference floor. As intimated below, I ended up deciding that I would ask to remove the parts about releasing a statement, in accordance with the wishes of Meadows’ family, and I informed the other submitters of the motion before that I intended to do so. Just seconds before conference floor re-opened, another trans activist (who I admire and consider a friend) told me she intended to move that the question be not put to conference floor at all. We ended up with a protracted debate (involving a number of procedural motions) between trans people over the specific manner in which we should mourn/acknowledge Meadows’ death. Given that the actions mandated in 304 (condemning press transphobia and demanding better) were broadly covered by motion 313 (fighting transmisogyny in the movement and in the media), and how the extended debate was upsetting, draining, and time-consuming for many people, I regret not having thought to confer with the other submitters of the motion and remove it wholesale from the order paper. I believe that the way the debate around this motion unfolded is partly an unfortunate result of the way NUS conferences work – that’s a rant for another day, but basically, I wish there were more ways to foster constructive debate and education around motions before (or instead of!) the structured and bureacracy-delimited practice of “for” and “against” speeches.

Finally, I do not retract the spirit of anything I said about Stonewall: I think they have proven time and time again how little they value trans people, and – especially while they continue to hoover up the vast majority of LGBT funding – that LGBT organisations should be taking a principled stand against working with them. However, I apologise for the wording I used in describing them, as in the flush of anger I used an ablist word.

So, there we go. I don’t believe in doggedly defending questionable views/actions, and I am not interested in the kind of NUS careerism that means pretending that I have never said/done anything wrong – so hopefully I’ve managed to practice accountability by taking valid criticism on board and being aware of the repercussions of my actions. This isn’t to say that the conference was a litany of errors (mine or otherwise) – I feel that I also managed to do some good, and the conference as a whole was a very mixed bag (particularly from a trans perspective), but I hope that at least some good groundwork has been laid for the next year of NUS LGBT’s activism.

Rules Revision Zone

101 – changing the name of the campaign to “LGBT+”. For new conference-goers: this has been a raging debate within the campaign for years now, and everyone and their dog has an opinion on it. Broadly, I think that the campaign already solved the core issue of membership and inclusion that this motion seeks to address when it expanded the campaign’s membership definition, which I quote from the Standing Orders – “Individual Members who self-identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi and/or Trans or Undecided/Questioning or Queer, or who self-define as any other marginalised romantic/sexual orientation or gender identity (including but not limited to Asexual, Pansexual, Bigender, and Genderqueer), or who choose not to define their romantic/sexual orientation or gender identity shall be considered the Members of the Campaign.” Adding a “+”, “UA+”, or “Q” is (in my opinion) more of an icing-on-the-cake issue at this point. That said, I’m personally in favour of the “+” (but not “UA+” – it’s unwieldy and less recognisable, and if we’re adding any letter it should be a “Q”) while taking the point that collapsing all other identities into one glyph isn’t perfect. So, my view is YES to Motion 101 and Amendment 101a, and (thus) NO to Amendment 101b (changing the name to “LGBTUA+”).

102 – making conference affordable. I will be taking parts to REMOVE Conference Further Believes 2 (“NUS Women’s Conference has reduced costs and introduced a two option approach for delegates going to conference. This includes a conference only option priced at £29 or £19 for HE and FE respectively, with the option of an extra night with a meal and awards night priced at £80 (excluding VAT)”) on the basis of factual inaccuracy. NUS Women’s Conference’s extra night for extra cost was not the awards night – which took place on the first evening of conference and was open to every delegate – but an option for delegates who wanted to come up the night before the official start of conference. I would also vote YES on Amendment 102a, as I do not believe that a tiered pricing structure (to make the celebratory aspects of conference more expensive) is an appropriate way to treat delegates. The campaign should seek increased funding from NUS to better reflect its size, and external funding from ethical sponsors, rather than perpetuate economic hierarchies within the conference space.

105 – following the NUS Women’s Campaign definition of ‘woman’. Just a note to say that I am really pleased about this motion appearing, based as it is on my own changes to the NUSWC’s standing orders, and would obviously advise voting YES.

107 – creation of a Men’s Caucus. Sigh. This is another old chestnut in NUS LGBT – essentially, my (unsurprising?) view is that gay/bi/trans men are not oppressed as men, but as gay/bi/trans people. I think that there are certainly valuable conversations that can and should be had about the interactions of maleness/masculinity with GBTQ status, but that this is a job for a workshop or fringe meeting rather than a caucus. (NUS jargon alert: a caucus is a timetabled session for members of a specific group that is marginalised within the membership of the campaign (so, for example, Disabled Caucus or Trans Caucus) which usually (but not always) elects a representative to the committee; a workshop is a timetabled educational session open to all comers; a fringe is an informal meeting that can be called and convened by any delegate, on any topic they wish. Unlike a caucus or workshop, a fringe does not have an allocated slot on the timetable, but a time and place is passed on to Steering, who then announce it at conference floor. There have been bear fringes, poly fringes, various faith and party-political fringes, as well as fringes which function as informal workshops. They’re awesome, and more people should run them!) So, NO to 107, and YES to 107a (delete-and-replace amendment calling for the erasure of this motion).

108 and 109 – new membership definitions for Bisexual and Trans caucus. These two are pretty self-explanatory: I was involved in writing both of them, and essentially in each case it’s about expanding the definition to be as inclusive as possible for those who experience the relevant oppressions. As the motion on Bisexual Caucus notes, way back in 2010 Bisexual Caucus voted to change its name to ‘Bi Caucus’ and define itself as open to those who are sexually and/or romantically attracted to more than one gender; this didn’t get recorded or implemented for whatever reason, and then in 2012 as part of Steering’s rules revision was officially defined as “Bisexual Caucus may only be attended by delegates who identify as Bisexual” (and similarly, “Trans Caucus may only be attended by delegates who identify as Trans”). The proposed new definitions are “Trans Students’ Caucus may only be attended by those in the campaign who self-define under the trans umbrella (including but not limited to the following identities: agender, androgyne, gender-fluid, genderqueer, transgender, transsexual, transvestite, neutrois, non-binary) and those in the campaign who are questioning their gender identity” and “Bi Caucus may only be attended by those in the campaign who experience attraction (sexual or romantic) to more than one gender. This includes( but is not limited to) students who identify as bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual, queer (and attracted to more than one gender), biromantic, panromantic, polyromantic, and omniromantic.” A bit of a mouthful, but as per my thoughts on motion 101 (and my work in NUS Women’s Campaign), I think having clearly inclusive definitions is very useful – so please vote YES on 108 and 109.

Education Zone

204 – supporting students in the acquisition of gender-neutral titles or title-free options. Obligatory “I’m genderqueer and I support this motion” comment – the ability to use one’s preferred titles is important to students who are legally transitioning, and this should be made as smooth as possible by university structures. If you’d like to read more on this, I recommend having a look at the Think Outside the Box campaign (which began in Cambridge University). Amendment 204a (a delete-and-replace amendment), however, makes me annoyed enough that I’m going to quote it in full:

204a: Stop Wasting Time Trying to Acquiesce with Hetero-Cis-Normativity: We Demand Liberation NOT After-thought Equality!
Conference believes:

1. The founders of the modern-day gay rights movement championed liberation: they did not wish to pander to second-class heteronormal equality
2. Titles and patronage are part of an out-dated autocratic, anti-liberation class system that subjugates people – all people
3. Tracking back through history – a bloody and oppressive history of Western Christendom – patriarchy is the founding ‘father’ of the aristocracy, nobility and the creator of titles
Conference further believes:
1. There are people, usually oppressed middle class heterosexuals, that cling on to titles as a way of defending and extending patriarchy and promulgating a Victorian quasi Presbyterian subjugation of women by using married and un-married female titles like Mrs and Miss
2. We should defend the founding principle of our movement: liberation not simply a carbon-copy of out-dated and patriarchal institutions, titles and systems.
3. We need to smash patriarchy. Now.
4. We are queer. We are here. We are proud.
Conference resolves:
1. Campaign for a society which is liberated, free from patriarchy and free from meaningless titles: Mr, Miss, Mrs, Misc, Mx
2. For postnominals such as PhD, LLM, BSc etc, our people have earned these, but they also should be free from patriarchy and sexism: to campaign for inclusive postnominals, gender neutral and liberated
3. To stop pandering to heteronormal patriarchy.

I suspect this amendment has been submitted by the same person behind 304a, as in both cases, it’s an utterly inappropriate use of a trans-related motion to further a tangentially-related ideological point. While I am in favour of a world without titles – in a far-future utopia sort of sense – it is utterly naive to think that NUS LGBT campaign has the power to create such a world merely by passing vague policy to ‘campaign for’ it. In the world in which we live, titles are widely used, and in this context it is imperative that trans people should be able to use titles which accord with their genders, whether Msc, Mx, Mr, Mrs, Ms, or – gasp! – even Miss, if they want to. I would much rather the NUS LGBT Campaign allocate resources towards campaigning for material changes in universities which will bring measurable benefits to trans students, than making grand demagogic statements that contain no concrete action that will tangibly increase the lives of its membership. So, YES to 204 and NO to 204a, please.

Society and Citizenship Zone

301 – condemn Stonewall for their trans erasure, lobby for them to become inclusive, and refuse to work with them on campaigns which aren’t trans-inclusive. A heartfelt YES to this one. If you’d like to know more about Stonewall’s failings, good places to start are this link and this one.

302 and 302a – campaigning for the recognition of non-binary gender identities (in various practical and well-defined ways). Another obvious YES from your friendly neighbourhood genderqueer NUS-er.

304 – condemn the press for their treatment of Lucy Meadows, a trans primary school teacher who was hounded by the press and found dead recently. Another obvious YES – I fought to give this motion more teeth than I think it currently has: I don’t think it’s appropriate or useful for NUS to ‘release a statement in memory of Lucy Meadows’ given her family’s wishes on the matter (and would even consider taking parts to remove Conference Resolves 1), but I do think we should be condemning the press and demanding a formal apology and an agreement to do better. And then, as I mentioned above, there’s another awful amendment, which (again) I’ll quote in full:

Amendment 304a: Neo-fascism alive and well in Ofsted regulated religious schools
Conference believes:
1. It’s sickening to hear of the brutal and untimely death of LGBT people at any time and it makes our stomachs churn up when we know it is more likely than not that a person’s demise is because they are LGBT.
2. Lucy Meadows, a transgender primary school teacher had transitioned over Christmas. Lucy informed the school of her “gender reassignment”, and the school took it upon themselves, following Ofsted policy, to write to parents informing them that “[birth name] would be returning to the school as a woman after Christmas” and that children should “address her as Miss Meadows” in future.
3. Lucy was found dead on 19 March 2013, with the results of the post mortem currently with a Coroner. Police are not treating the death as “suspicious”
4. That yet another trans person has died in the prime of their life.
5. That the Church of England runs the primary school (St Mary Magdalen’s in Accrington, Manchester)
Conference further believes:
1. That the Church of England, like many organisations based on superstition, is far from a champion of trans rights.
2. That pulpits across the country, filled by hate-figures like Cardinal O Brien and Reverend Roy Patterson, spouting out the Devil’s work to instigate further oppression and the prayed-for extinction of LGBT and Queer people.
Conference resolves:
1. To send our love, condolences and solidarity to Lucy’s family and friends

The only resolution from this motion is something that is toothless and (as discussed above) utterly inappropriate given the wishes expressed by Lucy’s grieving family; much of ‘conference believes’ is nothing but restatement of the original motion, with added (highly inappropriate) mention of Lucy’s birth name, which Steering thankfully have chosen to remove as part of the compositing process; the remaining content of the motion is tangentially-related invective against the Church of England which a) serves no purpose, as it does not carry anything into ‘resolves’ about e.g. working with faith groups to tackle institutional prejudice and b) is offensive to (and erasing of) the many Christian members of (and allies to) the LGBT community and the work they already do. So please vote YES on 304 and NO on amendment 304a!

305 – inclusion of non-binary trans people in the NHS. This is a useful motion and I’d broadly urge a YES – but also, taking parts to REMOVE Conference Resolves 2, which reads: “To mandate the NUS LGBT Campaign to stage peaceful demonstrations outside Gender Identity Clinics around the UK highlighting the need for non-binary recognition and treatment within the NHS.” Absolutely not – protesting outside GICs will intimidate the people who are accessing those services, and has too much potential to be twisted into something awful by the media. It’s also an inefficient use of NUS LGBT’s limited resources, especially when this motion also calls for focused lobbying of the NHS and GMC, which is much more useful.

306 – moving beyond the Gender Recognition Act. Rather than explaining this one, I’ll quote it in full:

Motion 306: Smash the Gender Recognition Act
Conference Believes
1. Following Christine Goodwin v The United Kingdom, Case No 28957/1995, the Gender Recognition Act (2004) was introduced to allow trans men and women the right to privacy and marriage. Under the Act, a person seeking recognition must provide evidence of having lived in their gender for 2 years to the government’s Gender Recognition Panel
2. The Act implicitly excludes intersex people, and makes no provision for non-binary gender identity
3. The Act was an historic advance in protection for some trans people, but can only be a stepping stone to full trans equality
Conference Further Believes
1. Following European rulings on insurance and pensions, and with the advent of marriage equality, there is no legitimate reason to record sex as a matter of legal fact
2. Treating gender as a matter of legal fact impedes the struggle against sexism, heterosexism and violence against women
3. Government regulation of individual gender is an attack on the autonomy and right to personal identity of all people
4. Government recording of individual gender and trans status places trans people at further risk of oppression and violence
5. Ending government regulation of gender does not preclude voluntary acknowledgement of gender to target services, support and protection for vulnerable groups
Conference Resolves
1. To campaign to end the mandatory, immutable recording of gender on birth, marriage (or partnership) and death certificates
2. To campaign to end the legal notion of gender as a regulated list of acceptable identities
3. To demand the replacement of the Gender Recognition Act with a system of self-identification and the strengthening and extension of the protections that the Act affords to persons of all gender identities and histories without need for government registration
2. That all of the above will be pursued in a way which actively reinforces the struggle against sexism, heterosexism and violence against women.

I didn’t write this (although I’m named as a submitter, I just provided feedback) and am definitely behind this one – yes, it’s radical, and it’s asking for things which the LGBT campaign is unlikely to be able to materially effect, at least in the immediate future: but it is, in my view, a sensible mixture of principle and pragmatism. It does not ask that the campaign stop working to support trans people within existing legal structures (unlike amendment 204a), but does give the campaign a principled stance on where we would ideally like to see legal understandings of gender end up.

308 – supporting ‘pink parents and pink families’. I’ll offer a cautious YES to this one – I think that LGBT parents certainly deserve support and representation – but with a few caveats: a YES to amendment 308a (replacing the terms ‘pink parents’ and ‘LGBTQAU parents’ with ‘LGBT parents’) and taking parts to remove Conference Believes 4, which reads: “Marriage is essentially a false construct, based on patriarchy which needs to be opposed by the LGBTQAU community.” Now, there’s a lot to criticise about marriage as an institution – both in its roots and in its current incarnation – but to call it a ‘false construct’ is insipid and reductive. How is marriage any more ‘false’ that any other social construct? I don’t like that marriage is one of very few accepted routes towards legal recognition of kinship (and the attendant rights), or that it’s seen as the apex and natural conclusion of a loving relationship – but this powerful legislative and cultural position is precisely why we simply cannot dismiss it as ‘false’. While marriage continues to occupy such a powerful place in society – while it is something that confers rights upon couples – then I am in favour of the tactical short-term goal of extending and expanding the benefits afforded by marriage to as many relationships as possible, while also maintaining the longer-term goal and principled stance that there needs to be radical sociocultural and legal change. (And no, I wasn’t in favour of the LGBT Campaign picking ‘equal marriage’ as its priority campaign last year – but nor do I think that we should ignore the tangible benefits that marriage can bring to so many LGBT couples.)

310 – “self-definition is the only definition”. I’m broadly in favour of this motion: essentially, it reaffirms the campaign’s committment to the self-definition model of identity, while also drawing a line against the appropriation of the language of self-definition (as in the recent UCL Women’s Officer election). That said, I have some problems with the language: Conference Believes 3 reads “Self definition is not a speech act, it is a way of putting into language how we understand and conceive of ourselves in a society which lacks the frameworks“, while Conference Resolves 1 reads: “To reaffirm our commitment and belief that self identification is the only meaningful way of understanding gender and organising space within the NUS LGBT Campaign and wider society.” Hmm. I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that defining oneself is necessarily not a speech act; I also think that it’s short-sighted to characterise self-identification as the only meaningful way of understanding gender. I consider it to be at the bedrock of my understanding of gender: however, to call it the only meaningful way of understanding gender precludes analysis of (for example) how gender operates as a power structure, or as a semiotic system. So, I say YES to this motion, but would consider taking parts on CB1 and CR1 (and lament the inability to edit rather than remove the text, as I’d prefer to keep them in an altered form than remove them entirely).

311 – “reclaiming Reclaim the Night”. This motion characterises women-only Reclaim the Night marches as trans-exclusive and denying of the fact that men, too, can be survivors of rape and sexual abuse; it asks for NUS LGBT to take a principled stance against women-only marches, and to work with the Women’s Campaign to promote all-genders marches; it also provides a claim (un-cited) that an organiser of Reclaim the Night Cardiff said that “only women can be raped”.  So – I certainly agree that men can be survivors of horrendous abuse, and that it’s obviously false that rape is always and exclusively perpetuated on women. But I don’t think it’s the place of the LGBT Campaign to be dictating to local grass-roots RtN marches (with their long history of being organised and operated by women’s groups) what they should be doing. NUS Women’s Campaign has made its opinions very clear on trans inclusion, and there’s a diversity of RtN marches out there – for example, London is (as stated in the motion) women-only, whereas Brighton is all-genders. Luckily, some wonderful bright spark has written the below amendment:

Conference Believes
1. Reclaim the Night (RtN) is an internationally held march intended as a protest and direct action against rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women, that has been held since the 1970s
2. While some RtN marches are women only, others have a variety of ways of including people who do not identify as women, from entirely mixed marches to supporters’ blocks and mixed after parties and rallies.
Conference Further Believes
1. Organisers of RtN marches take varied approaches to the inclusion of non-binary identified people. Most RtN marches organised by Students’ Union’s rely on the NUS Women’s Campaign definition of ‘woman’, which includes all self identified women, trans* women and those with complex identities that include ‘women’
2. The NUS LGBT Campaign reinforces its commitment for those who are oppressed in society to organise within their liberation groups, including women’s only spaces
3. Hijacking the essential struggle for the inclusion of binary identified trans* women, and those with complex gender identities that include women, in women’s only spaces in order to attempt to make space for cis men, is appropriative
Conference Resolves
1. For Women’s Reps and Trans* reps to work alongside the NUS Women’s Campaign to support those who are organising Reclaim the Night marches in their Unions, supporting them to make women’s only marches and blocks inclusive of all who self identify as women, in particular by supporting these organising groups to make links with local LGBT organisations
2. To reaffirm our commitment for the right of all oppressed people to organise with their own liberation groups, including women’s only spaces
3. For the NUS LGBT Campaign to have a presence at RtN marches across the UK

… so, YES to Amendment 311a, please!

313 – tackling transmisogyny in our movement and in the media. I wrote this; it’s an altered version of the emergency motion I submitted to Women’s Conference 2013, which was passed. Here are the resolutions – please vote YES to this!

1. To stand firm against transphobia and transmisogyny.
2. For the NUS LGBT Officers, Trans Reps and NUS Trans Working Group to work with Trans Media Watch on issues of trans people and media representation (as promised in NUS LGBT’s statement on Burchill).
3. For the NUS LGBT Officers, Trans Reps and NUS Trans Working Group to produce a briefing detailing ideas on how to campaign around this issue, including information on how to make a complaint to a broadcasting agency (as promised in NUS LGBT’s statement on Burchill).
4. For the LGBT Committee’s Trans Rep(s) to work with the NUS Women’s Officer and the NUS Trans Working Group to produce a briefing on tackling transphobia and transmisogyny within the feminist movement (as discussed in a version of this motion submitted to NUS Women’s Conference).

314 – The 10 Billion Person Planet. This is a sensible motion about making sure that LGBT parenting rights aren’t impinged upon by the (understandable!) concerns about global over-population, but it has some wince-inducing wording in places: Conference Believes 5 reads “LGBT people make excellent parents, and LGBT families are excellent units in which to raise, foster and support children” (really? always? unilaterally and uncomplicatedly, with no instances of abuse ever, because being LGBT automatically makes you a saint?) and Conference Further Believes 3 reads: “With heterosexual breading [sic] out of control globally, the fear is that LGBT reproductive rights will be sacrificed as part of the panicked debate on birth control. The humane way to control reproduction is through education – not through sterilisation, oppression or curtailment of rights” (which… yes, good overall point, but can we please phrase this in a way that doesn’t present people in different-sex relationships as unthinking spawn-spewers?). There are two proposed amendments which fix my problems on this: so I’d say YES to 314, 314a and/or 314b, with parts to remove CB5 (on the basis that saying “LGBT people make excellent parents” without qualification erases the reality of abuse within LGBT families, and the good work done by organisations such as Broken Rainbow).

… I’m now half-way through the motions document, and I think it’s time for dinner. 😉 I aim to write on the rest of the motions before the start of conference tomorrow – but either way, hopefully this is a useful read, and (as ever) I welcome further discussion on these issues either here in the comments or privately.

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