Autonomy and the Need for the Queer Space

BY STUART FERRIE, Originally published by Woroni on March 25, 2013.

So, a number of people over the years have raised concerns that the Queer* Department doesn’t involve straight people and that there isn’t a Straight Space.

These concerns all boil down to autonomy. Autonomy in the context of the Queer*, Women’s, Disabilities, Indigenous and International Student Departments refers to the fact that all of these departments of ANUSA are that minority exclusively. The membership is identifying or registering as that minority and being a member of ANUSA. There’s no prerogative to engage with the departments you are a member of nor does it mean that they run exclusively autonomous events, but that they do organise autonomously.

I, as well as many active members of each of these departments, agree that autonomous organising is important, as we are the ones affected by the day-to-day struggles associated with being in a minority. The lived experience is of real importance here. That isn’t to say that the role of allies isn’t important: they’re extremely important, however the ability to autonomously organise is also extremely important.

Not to be prescriptive, but I believe one of the best things an ally can do is listen. To be supportive, you do need to know what you’re supporting. Take for example, equal marriage, it’s great that there are so many supportive straight people, but it’s by no means the only, nor the biggest concern in queer communities. Police violence against queer people has again become a big concern after there were a number of incidents of excessive force used against people after the Mardi Gras parade and the intense policing surrounding the after party. People who don’t present themselves as unambiguously male or female feel unsafe on our campus and after some of the reports I hear, they’re justified in it. Mental illness is still disturbingly common amongst queer people, with a much higher frequency than in straight people. This is just a sample of some of the many problems queer people still face on a day-to-day basis. These necessitate a queer-only space to be free of these issues, as the entire wider world is a straight space.

One sure-fire way to get people on the defensive is to flat out condemn the Queer* Department for not letting straight people be members. The departments are not simply social clubs nor interest groups. The idea is to get people together and work together when you all know from experience what you’re facing. As I’ve explained, you’re not a member unless you’re part of that minority and unless you decide that you’re queer, you can’t become a member. Being able to intellectualise the issues surrounding it is important for understanding, however it cannot replace the lived experience. For example, I am not a woman, so I do not have the lived experience to join the Women’s Collective, but I do identify as a feminist and provide support when it’s asked for, not try to push my own beliefs about what women want onto them.

However, there are other avenues to engage with queer politics around the ANU and Canberra. Ally@ANU runs training sessions which you can register for. The Diversity Learning Community run a number of events with the collectives. These events are non-autonomous, which you are perfectly welcome to go to. The AIDS Action Council always want more volunteers to help out with safe-sex packs. These non-autonomous bodies are incredibly valuable and a way for people who are not queer to help out the queer cause.

Now, to address the issue of the Queer Space. The Queer Space has existed on campus for much of the Queer* Department’s nineteen year long history but the reasoning why the Queer Space exists still hasn’t changed.

The Queer Space is a safe space for queer-identifying students on campus to escape the homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism of the wider world. Homophobia is a concept most people are familiar with, while transphobia is active discrimination against people who identify or present as trans. Heterosexism is a much subtler form of these: the assumption that everyone is straight and the privilege that comes with that. Heterosexism is the biggest barrier for equality for queer people. The wider world is very much a heterosexist space, so this is why a Queer Space exists.

Despite the way it may seem sometimes, I can’t think of a single queer person who has no interaction with straight people. The Queer Space is only a tiny little room on a very large campus. We have to leave sometimes. There’s always bread there, but I can’t eat bread as I’m coeliac, so I have to leave to eat. Throughout its long history, queer students have never been seriously isolated from the rest of the wider community solely via the Queer Space and Queer* Department.

In all honesty, it’d be an interesting world where there was no heterosexism or straight privilege. There’d be no need for a queer space really, although I think it’d still be nice to have one, but by no means necessary. It’d probably be a retreat for queer people to only associate with other queer people rather than have to be out there in the wider community, where they’d be totally accepted. Unfortunately, queer people aren’t totally accepted. As I’ve alluded to, there are still structures in place that enforce the gender binary and heterosexism onto all of us.

In response to“Positive Discrimination Going Undetected in ANU Societies” [an old Woroni article from 2013], I’d disagree that it’s “morally repellent and ultimately a huge step in the wrong direction, away from equality.” Going back all the way to the Stonewall Riots, which were one of the founding moments of the queer movements and closer to home, the first Mardi Gras in Sydney thirty-five years ago this year, the organising was autonomous against a rather homophobic world. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then, but there’s still a very long way to go.

I will concede however that there probably haven’t been as many non-autonomous events as we could run, but it’s the kind of thing that isn’t my decision as we operate under a collective model of organising. It will definitely be seriously discussed though. Our event for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on the 17th of May will definitely be open to all, but there will be further details to come.

Ultimately what I hope comes out of all of this is that people gain a bit more of an appreciation of why there are Queer and Women’s spaces on campus and why the Departments organise autonomously. We don’t hate straight people, most of them are great in fact. We don’t want them to not exist. We just want a bit of space sometimes.

Queer* Department meetings are held at 5pm on Thursdays on even numbered weeks in the Queer* Space. For more details, contact sa.queer@anu.edu.au.

 

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