Activists have expressed their concerns about a motion passed at last week’s National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT conference.
The motion, which now becomes NUS policy, made a series of controversial statements in relation to free speech and about the privileged position of white cis gay men.
It defended no-platforming of “known oppressors” in addition to stating that “marginalised students should not be expected to debate what are often uncomfortable and/or triggering issues”. It added that using free speech and academic freedom arguments to oppose the policy of refusing to allow a platform to “prejudiced” people “further marginalises oppressed groups.”
It also states that prejudice is “more likely to occur when the [LGBT] society is dominated by white cis gay men”, and that “gay men do not face oppression as gay men within the LGBT+ community.”
It also included the following resolutions: to “loudly and vociferously defend the concept of the safe(r) space and no platforming”; to “actively support Student Unions in implementing safe(r) space and no platforming policies”; to “encourage LGBT+ societies that have a gay men’s rep to drop the position”.
This follows the controversy in February when Fran Cowling, NUS LGBT Officer, refused to share a platform with veteran activist Peter Tatchell. Tatchell, who has campaigned for LGBT rights for 40 years and who has been the victim of several homophobic assaults that have permanently damaged his health, was accused by Cowling of being transphobic and racist. Tatchell has vehemently denied both accusations.
Cowling’s accusation of transphobia is based on Tatchell supporting free speech unless the speaker is calling for violence against others. He has on numerous occasions criticised those who, like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have made transphobic comments but he defends their right to make those comments, arguing that the best way to defeat such ideas is to challenge them in debate. The “racist” tag seems to be based on Tatchell’s criticism of Muslim clerics who promote homophobia and transphobia. Perhaps Tatchell’s critics are unaware that he has been equally vigilant in criticising Christian groups who engage in homophobic and transphobic speech.
Speaking to KaleidoScot in relation to “no-platforming”, Mr Tatchell said: “No platform and safe space policies often have honourable intentions to protect the weak and marginalised from intimidation and to enable their participation. The problem is the sweeping draconian way they are sometimes interpreted and enforced – ways that inhibit free speech and censor opinions.
“Free speech does not mean allowing bigotry to pass unchallenged. It should always be refuted and protested. The most effective way to do this is by defeating bigoted ideas in open debate and thereby winning the public to oppose bigotry. No platforms, safe spaces, bans and censorship suppress bigotry but fail to expose and counter it. I hope the NUS will revise – not scrap – its no platform and safe space policies to make them consistent with free speech.”
He continued: “No platform and safe space may be legitimate when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a rapist or tax fraudster – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence. As the German communist Rosa Luxemburg argued, freedom of speech means nothing if it doesn’t exist for the person who thinks differently.”
He also criticised the proposal to remove the gay men’s rep from LGBT student societies, telling KaleidoScot: “No one supports the domination of LGBT+ society committees by gay men. That’s wrong. However, to say that there should be no reserved place for gay men on the committees is a mistake. Like other sections of the LGBT+ community, gay men have special unique issues, including higher than average rates of HIV infection, drug and alcohol misuse, smoking, mental ill-health and worrying levels of sexual and domestic violence. The case for having a gay male representative on committees is strong, to ensure these issues are addressed for the nearly half of LGBT+ students who are gay men.”
Concerns were also expressed by representatives of the Highland LGBT Forum, which covers the largest geographical area in the UK and which last year was shortlisted for two community group awards. Its chair Darren Rutherford, secretary Sandra Owsnett and committee member Paul George told KaleidoScot that they believed the NUS motion to be short-sighted.
They said: “We believe it is factually incorrect to say gay men do not face discrimination within LGBT communities. Those who do not conform to stereotypes can face prejudice, as can gay men with disabilities and older gay men. It is important that as wide a spectrum of people are represented and involved in the running of LGBT groups. We endeavour to achieve this and our committee consists of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans people and includes people of various ages, occupations and life experiences. If groups downgrade the importance of gay male oppression, they will be damaging their own effectiveness.”
They were also concerned that “the NUS may have only limited awareness faced in remote rural areas like the Highlands.” They referred to an Equality Network report which showed higher rates of discrimination and prejudice of all LGBT people in rural areas.
Like Peter Tatchell the Highland LGBT Forum supports free speech, believing “Safe places are not for the protection of those who may be offended, but to ensure a balanced debate and to prevent the unlawful incitement of hate crimes.”
The NUS policy also criticised Spiked Magazine, a humanist and libertarian online publication that publishes university free speech rankings. The ranking system was described by the NUS as “vile, misleading and wrongheaded”.
Ironically, the LGBT+ Officer for Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Ada Wells, who supports the policy of no platforming, was herself accused of hate speech and forced to apologise after a tweet that included a word generally considered to be anti-Semitic. According to the Jewish Chronicle, the EUSA has investigated the matter but is refusing to publish its findings.
Despite repeated attempts by email and phone, no one from the NUS was prepared to provide KaleidoScot with a statement.