I spent one and a half years involved with the LGBT scene at University. I'm away on my year in industry at the moment, so can't be so involved, but I'd still consider myself an interested party. One of the things I experienced was the NUS LGB liberation campaign and so got a unique insight into the joys of autonomy.
The NUS has some odd ideas. It's a very strange organisation, due to the way it's evolved over the years. One of the things it gets off on is calling things "liberation campaigns". The other is this concept called autonomy. Certainly sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? You'd think an autonomous campaign is one that runs itself, with no outside intervention. In its own way, it is - you see, autonomy really means that only those who seek to be liberated can take part. In the case of the LGB campaign, this means that only those who self-define as LGB.
Let me lay my cards on the table: I am very comfortable with my sexuality. Unfortunately for the LGB campaign, I am straight. This means that I cannot attend NUS LGB conference, be involved with the liberation campaign, or attend training for LGB representatives. While autonomy seems like a good idea, I believe that it's deeply flawed. Here's why:
One of the central tenets to NUS is its democracy. Scratch the surface, however, and you soon find that it's just a veneer. Because I* am not LGB, I cannot stand for election as LGB officer, nor serve on its Executive Committee - the constitution forbids it. I take the view that it's up to the members to decide who represents them, not the rules of the organisation themself.
Likewise with training and the conference. If the students of my Union elect me as their LGB officer, I wouldn't be able to go to conference. Even though I've been chosen democratically I would not be allowed to attend, and nor would I be welcome at the training.
I am not sure why my sexuality is of any relevance at conference, either. If I'm attending, I'm acting as a representative of the students at my parent organisation. My own position should be irrelevant.
"We want to be accepted for who we are, and not discriminated against based on our sexuality! We want to be seen as equals because we are!"
"Sounds great, I want to help out and be involved!"
"Err... Sorry, you can't be involved. It's because of your sexuality. You're not gay enough."
When one of your main campaign goals is to stop people being excluded based on their sexuality, I would have thought the last thing you should do is exclude people from your campaign based on their sexuality.
By excluding a broad swathe of the population, you're throwing away a large proportion of the thoughts, skills, and sheer manpower available to you. I am not sure why my skills as an organiser, web designer, campaigner, or placard-waver are less useful because I happen to be straight. The involvement of non-LGB people would help the campaign - "This is not just an issue that concerns LGB people," and so on.
I thought that student politics was all about getting involved, doing what you can to change the world for the better (I'm a naïve optimist, I know). By acting as a closed shop, people who want to get involved and change things are being tripped at the first hurdle.
The main argument employed by those for autonomy is that because I'm not LGB, I haven't got the required perspective to be a part of the movement. I would disagree. While I can appreciate that I probably would not be the best "leader" of the movement the idea that my opinions are completely invalid is very offensive. Homophobia affects us all. It affects the society we live in, I've seen my friends come across it, and I've encountered it when people leap to conclusions about me. Furthermore, I don't believe that you need to have direct experience of something to hold a valid opinion about it. I am not a citizen of the US, but I hold an opinion about their politics. I am not a woman, but I would campaign and support the battle for equality of the sexes. I will not be affected by top-up fees myself, but I have protested against them and lobbied against them. My opinion is not rendered invalid and my skills made irrelevant simply because I am not directly affected. The weighting given to my opinions and skills might be reduced, but it does not invalidate them.
It encourages heterophobia.
Heterophobia is a weird thing that sounds very theoretical, but it's out there. Through a variety of mistakes, I have been on an NUS training event. It was a closed (ie. LGB people only) event, but the person in charge of organising it didn't realise that when they invited me. It was a real culture shock to be dropped into such hostile waters.
The University of Kent's LGBT Society is open to anyone, regardless of sexuality. This seems like A Good Thing™ to me. Turns out a lot of LGB societies don't have this in their constitutions, though. A lot of societies exclude non-LGB(T) people from attending, as I found out:
"So, do you have any straight members of your [LGB] society?"
"Oh, no no no no no. We don't allow it. I would be most uncomfortable to have any straight people attending our meetings."
I listened to this, and in the back of my mind there's a voice saying, "Shit, I'm a committee member. They would lynch me if they knew."
"Does your Union have an equal opportunities policy?"
"Of course. We take it very seriously."
"And yet you exclude people from your society based on their sexuality?"
"Err... Well, when you put it like that..."
Point is, heterophobia is just as bad as homophobia. Encourage a heterophobic mindset, and you do your movement harm. All that happens is that it becomes its own little insular group, seperate from the rest of society - the exact opposite of what it's trying to achieve.
It's not necessary.
The other main argument used by those in favour of autonomy is that if the LGB campaign was open to non-LGB students, then they would instantly be deluged with bigots and homophobes denouncing them. Or - horror of horrors - the bigots could take over the movement!
Well, it just wouldn't happen. For a start, the delegates would have to be elected by the students at the University. Even if the homophobic candidate managed to get elected, (s)he is just one person, and would most likely be voted out at the next election once their true agenda became known. For homophobes and fascists to take over the campaign, they would have to be elected in hundreds of universities across the country simultaneously. And if that looked like it would happen, you can bet that every students' union across the country would mobilise to raise awareness and campaign against it, and balance would be restored. If anything, such a move would work in the favour of the campaign - it's these little shake-ups that motivate fresh people to get involved and take a stand.
So, in summary, I am very much against the autonomy of the NUS LGB campaign. I believe it's doing more harm than good and is in need of a radical rethink. However, as the Buddhists might say, change must come from within. So by default nothing will happen, and given the sheer lumbering inertia of NUS beaurocracy it wouldn't happen for years. Convenient, that, isn't it?
* This is the first time in my listed points that I've used the word "I". I'm going to be using it a lot, I'm afraid. Whenever you see a reference to myself, please be aware that I'm just using myself as a convenient example. All my points extrapolate out to refer to anyone who wants to be involved with the NUS LGB movement, but explaining that every time would soon get clunky.
Basically, I'm not just whining about my tough luck.