Comment: Do LGBT+ Societies need Men’s Reps?

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This post was written and contributed by Ada J Wells, EUSA’s incoming LGBT+ Liberation Group Convener. If you would like to contribute at post please email sarah.moffat@eusa.ed.ac.uk for more information.

There’s been a lot of controversy around a motion (408) passed at NUS LGBT+ Conference 2016, rooted in the misconception that the NUS is trying to “ban” men’s reps, which is untrue. The motion simply encouraged LGBT+ societies to examine for themselves if they need a men’s rep, and made the recommendation that they probably don’t. I’m disappointed that NUS Scotland LGBT+ Conference voted to condemn it, and I’d like to take the time to present a more nuanced perspective on the issue of men’s representation in LGBT+ societies.

Every LGBT+ society, and therefore every committee, has slightly different purposes, needs, and contexts. But broadly, we can break down the aim of a representative to a subset of the following:

  1. To ensure a committee isn’t formed without a representative from a specific group;
  2. To advocate on behalf of an under-represented group;
  3. To organise social events for a specific (sub-) group;
  4. To look after the welfare of a specific (sub-) group;
  5. To run external campaigns for the liberation of a group.

Almost all reserved places on committee fulfil 1-4, and some fulfil 5. For example, most LGBT+ societies have a women’s rep whose space on committee is reserved to ensure that women in the society aren’t neglected or ignored in the decision-making processes. Their space is essential because LGBT+ spaces are often dominated by men, and even where they aren’t, often first and foremost cater to the needs of men.

Depending on the size of a committee, open places (e.g. Chair, Treasurer, Secretary, Campaigns, Welfare etc.) which can be filled by anyone, are likely to guarantee that there will be some men on any given committee, because most LGBT+ societies have more men than women, and thanks to patriarchy, it is universally true that men are more likely to run, and more likely to be elected when they do run. If a committee is too small to guarantee a position for a man, there are other groups whose representation should be tackled first before the representation of men is examined.

So, a men’s rep does not exist to fulfil aim 1 or aim 2.

Men’s socials don’t need to exist – there’s no activity specific to men, or to gay men, that people of other genders should be excluded from participating in. Running events exclusive to men is misogynistic – and in most cases, is also likely to exclude trans people or make them extremely uncomfortable.

So, a men’s rep should not even attempt aim 3.

Depending on the structure of your society, you may have a specific welfare officer, or your committee members might not bear any welfare responsibility. It might also be the case that the whole committee is expected to look after the whole community. In larger societies with large committees, it is probably reasonable to share the welfare responsibility across the men already on the committee, rather than have a position just for the welfare of men. If your committee isn’t big enough to (statistically) guarantee at least one man on it, again, your priority probably shouldn’t be to cater first to men – there are likely to be many other categories of people whose welfare and representation you should tackle first. If you’re creating a men’s welfare rep before you have a disabled rep, or a BME rep, you might need to reexamine your priorities.

So, you probably don’t need a men’s rep for aim 4.

Aim 5 is specific to societies that do lots of externally targeted events. Societies that run educational events that non-LGBT+ people are invited to, or societies that do campaigning and activist work, might want a rep specifically to target the homophobia that gay men face in wider society.

It is worth considering, though, that any event, place, or organisation that is successfully inclusive of lesbians or bi women is almost guaranteed to be a comfortable environment for gay/bi men. Anything inclusive of disabled or BME gay men is definitely already inclusive of able or white gay men (respectively). And anything inclusive of trans women, or non-binary people, is guaranteed to be comfortable for trans men.

Targeting your activism at intersectional groups that include a proportion of gay people or gay men is likely to be a more effective, and much more radically inclusive change. If you’re running a society or a campaign that manages to include and prioritise the needs of disabled BME lesbian (or bi) trans women, which you really should be aiming for, you’ll have already achieved inclusivity for everyone else.

So, you might want a men’s rep for aim 5, but there are almost always better and more radically liberating ways of achieving aim 5 without a men’s rep.

The NUS Scotland LGBT+ Committee co-opted intersectionality to justify men’s reps, using the argument that the original motion doesn’t take into account the needs of trans, disabled or BME men – while simultaneously throwing those groups under the bus. The Committee utterly failed to acknowledge that for the most part, men’s reps do not represent trans, disabled or BME men – and when challenged on this by members of those groups at conference, dismissed their criticisms off-hand.

It is shocking to me that the Committee, while claiming to act in the best interests of the “intersectional members of our community”, were willing to stand in front of Conference and argue that we should have men’s reps, but refuse to take a stance on having disabled, BME or trans reps – then saying that they can’t speak to the needs of individual societies and putting autonomy above intersectional liberation.

How each LGBT+ society decides to organise their committees is, ultimately, up to them. The NUS can only make recommendations. I hope that anyone this reaches can now better understand the intent behind Motion 408, and understands why the NUS Scotland LGBT+ Commitee’s condemnation of it was at best an ill-conceived point-scoring exercise that made no attempt to improve or clarify the original policy. It achieved nothing more than upholding the status quo.

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