Sunday, 2 March 2008

The National Union of Students (NUS) and the struggle for gay liberation

In order to understand the prominence of commitments to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) rights within the organizational structures of the National Union of Students an understanding of the historical trajectory and emergence of such rights is necessary.

The formation of Gay Liberation movements during the 1970s reflected a rising level of 'radicalized' anger among marginalized of LGBT minorities, influenced most clearly by the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York. The Stonewall Riot followed a 'raid' upon a gay drinking establishment in Greenwich Village, as punters turned their attention to the invading police force and met the routine harassment with resistance. The Stonewall Riots would influence the formation of 'Gay Liberation' movements within both America and the United Kingdom.

Despite the eventual dissipation of the Gay Liberation, under the pressure of conflicting internal differences, the organization would prove influential. Its legacy is expressed, albeit in a partial and conditional form, in the formation of a gay and lesbian 'movement' within NUS. As the NUS document 'Liberation officers in Every Union' notes, while there existed no "formal national campaign" in the early 1970s during the movements height, by 1971 the "first explicit policy on lesbian and gay liberation was passed by annual conference", while by the mid 1990s a specific LGB Campaign had been formed [1].

A degree of representation of minority groups has been ensured by utilising organisational structures for this purpose; regular LGBT conferences are meant to "democratically set the policy that gives the political direction to the campaign" alongside the election of LGBT officers [1].

While there rightly exists structures to ensure the representation of marginalized groups within the NUS, part of the proposed Governance Review of 2007/08 includes proposals that would attack 'Liberation' sections such as that of the LGBT Campaign.

Proposals include attempts to split the existing NUS national executive into a "board" and a "senate" in which the senate will include representatives of each liberation campaign, in contrast to the 'non-political' board that will meet a limited number of times a year and be comprised in part by external appointees. The board has been created to over-see "legal policies, the “strategic planning framework”, the wages of senior management, development of budgets and estimates, scrutiny of financial performance, scrutiny of senior management and appointments" [2]. It remains the case within the existing proposals no Liberation officer is ensured a place on a board that will possibly scrutinize their work.

Communists must be at the forefront of those defending the autonomy of the campaigns as the most consistent supporters of the rights of minority groups, however beyond simply seeking to defend the existing structures of NUS, questions must be raised about the reasons for dwindling LGBT conference sizes and the failure of many of the Liberation campaigns to resonate with students.

Priority campaigns are those said to be "based on the policy" decided upon at NUS LGBT conference meaning broadly that the LGBT committee, proposed of those elected at LGBT conference, "decide upon the priority areas for the year ahead" [3]

The existence of many of the campaigns remains unknown to most students, while the limited scope and visions they express reflect a growing apolitical trend within student politics. The mismanagement of these campaigns is assured by a situation in which so-called ‘independents’ have been able to secure election as LGBT officers. This is a process aided by the general lack of awareness of most students that annual LGBT conference is even taking place.

Accommodation by the left to the narrowness of the campaigns proposed is likely to result in the depoliticisation of many students, who have and will continue to turn away from the increasingly sectional, individualistic and apolitical politics pursued by the campaign.

The need to raise demands that speak to everyday existence of LGBT students remains clearly evident. As Lenin once noted Marxists must seek to "react to every manifestation of Tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects"[4] on the basis of an understanding that the project of Marxism is the project of human emancipation, possible only on the basis of collective liberation in which the opportunity for each individual's self-development is recognized and made a reality. This remains the only way that emancipation, irrespective of individual sexuality, may be won and sustained.

[1] A Liberation Campaign In Every Union


[3] NUS LGBT Priority campaigns 2005-06

[4] Lenin, What is to be done?


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