Trans Liberation and the Student Movement

Tal Moskowitz, 8, below, a transgender child, holds a sign as his parents Faigy Gelbstein, left, and Naomi Moskowitz, upper right, of Long Island, hold separate signs during a rally in support of transgender youth at the Stonewall National Monument, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in New York. They were among demonstrators The crowd gathered Thursday night in front of the Stonewall Inn. The family were speaking out against President Donald Trump's decision to roll back a federal rule saying public schools had to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender identity. The rule had already been blocked from enforcement, but transgender advocates view the Trump administration action as a step back for transgender rights.

This is the text of an introduction by NCAFC activist Luke Dukinfield for a session at NCAFC’s recent Winter Conference

The intention of this session is to begin to open up a conversation about trans politics within NCAFC. This fairly vague starting point, of course, might deprive the aim of focus: however, marking out the ground that needs to be covered and mapping out its contours might provide us some sense of direction, especially as the data on transphobia in education is so threadbare. Indeed, the broad materiality of trans life is still disacknowleged – we lack even some of the most fundamental legal rights and protections, are habitually subject to state and gendered violence, are besieged by the most vicious forms of media hostility and fearmongering, comprise the majority of the victims of LGBTQI+ homelessness, and suffer disproportionately high rates of ill mental health and suicide.

The pervasiveness, gravity and brutality of the discrimination encountered by trans people in every sector of society lends this conversation urgency, with a fraught political landscape of austerity, neo-liberal dispossession, a resurging far-right, and Brexit heralding an entrenchment in discriminatory practices that deny us access to public spaces and resources. With the recent (progressive) proposed updates to the Gender Recognition Act – the process by which a person can officially change the gender on their birth certificate and thus have their gender honoured for all legal purposes – the vitriolic scrutiny, derision and hatred waged against trans lives has escalated. This reactionary backlash has been reminiscent of the moral panic around Section 28 – which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by schools and local authorities – wherein the most virulent tropes casting trans people as abusers, interlopers and enemies-within have been ruthlessly invoked.

As such, for all the discussion of a trans ‘tipping point’ in 2014 – indicating a positive shift in the landscape of media and cultural representation for trans people – we recognise how fragile these shifts can be, and indeed that they must be consistently defended and underpinned by a material restructuring of the power relations in society. We must of course celebrate where gains have been won, and the affective impact for many (especially young) trans people of positive representation cannot be emphasised enough – however these gains have not coalesced into a coherent social movement on the ground. Again, this is not to underplay the advances within LGBTQI+ movements around trans politics, and the important campaigning undertaken by various groups such as No Pride in Prisons or Action For Trans Health – but this has not borne the scale, collectivity or strategic scope of historical liberation movements. It is important to note that particularly the LGBTQI+ liberation movement was indeed initiated and sustained by many trans people of colour, and the fact that the rights and freedoms of trans people are still lagging so far behind the rest of our community attests to the contours of marginality and neglect that are replicated from society across our movements, the wresting of their political trajectory by the trends of neo-liberalism and so-called ‘respectability politics’, and the disqualification of narratives of trans history and struggle.

This, I think, is in evidence, too, across the student movement. Though in many ways we have incorporated trans and queer politics more effectively than many mainstream left institutions – perhaps due to our unique proximity to radical enquiry and spaces of (relative) cultural and political independence – we have not been immune to the aforementioned trends and indeed specific tensions are posed by both the dynamics of ‘student politics’ and the academy as an institution. Sometimes we are complacent around the political landscape of trans politics, taking as given that trans liberation is implicitly embedded in our movement’s praxis, whilst foregoing an understanding of how insidiously transphobia can infiltrate our spaces, and indeed sometimes eliding the more difficult question of what happens outside those spaces.

It’s perhaps beyond my scope here to precisely delineate the current character of trans politics within all the varied institutions, groups and societies that loosely comprise the ‘student movement’ – though I would invite discussion on that topic – but it appears to me that trans politics within universities have been largely confined to and undertaken by Pride and Feminist societies (or supportive social networks and micro-communities). Each of these communities have their own unique tensions, of course – with, for example, the former sometimes overshadowed be the overarching depoliticization, pacification and commercialisation of the legacy of Pride, and the latter often still beset by hangovers of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) ideology. One can critique these specific tensions, alongside the sublimation into the plane of the purely discursive and cultural that societies, especially as institutions bonded to defanged SUs, often entail – whilst also reckoning with the fact that this sublimation is not simply a product of but a response to dominant political trends, an indispensable seeking out of community, affirmation and sanctuary from the debilitating rituals of everyday bigotry, and also a response to the failures of a dominant left that has long neglected trans oppression and trans struggle.

The spectre of ‘identity politics’ is invoked to characterise some of the modes of political conduct within liberation societies – and, to be completely frank, I do not think these critiques without merit, especially as universities as spaces lend themselves towards a politics of ideological purification and secessionism rather than one of solidarity and struggle – however we should be wary of how this claim is cynically deployed to denigrate the very notion of liberation politics in and of itself, and how this charge has been levelled historically by the left and right to delegitimize marginalized struggles. Part of our efforts towards trans liberation in education must surely be thus rooting ourselves in these communities and uniting the affective significance of alternative cultural spaces with the collective empowerment of an orientation towards active political organization.

This kind of intervention has been raised frequently within NCAFC’s own LGBTQI+ caucus – though, it seems, executed with limited success. Indeed, discussions around trans politics have been fairly absent within our spaces, though the incorporation of non-binary people within the previously women’s caucus has brought interesting ideas around trans politics into the fold of the organization. Despite this, the conversation is underdeveloped – it’s why we are all here, in this largely unprecedented session dedicated solely to trans liberation, and similarly why activists have engaged in a trans liberation intervention in the motions debate happening tomorrow. Again, I think we must be generous in our critique (but critical nonetheless) – the women and non-binary occupation of Senate House in 2015, for example, provided active and empowering welcome to trans people within the kinds of women’s spaces that have traditionally excluded us. My organizing with this caucus has been predominantly affirming and sometimes frustrating, frequented by both interesting conversations and pressing interventions around gendered oppression within education coupled with a neglect of some of the basic necessities of trans inclusion within these spaces such as the preparation of gender neutral toilets.

The politics of militancy, solidarity and pluralism historically embodied by NCAFC drew me into its spaces, with the inspiring activism undertaken by the women and non-binary caucus testament to this, but the still underlying questions of trans liberation and its role within the vision and struggle for free education went, and continue to go, largely unanswered. To this end we have actually fallen behind some institutions within the student movement in the context of trans politics. Not only must we reaffirm the commitment within our caucuses to trans liberation, we must also ensure these debates do not solely occur within caucuses, but herald more long-term cultural shifts within our organization, recognizing the fact that – not least because our rights in society are so threadbare and a movement to assert them lacking – there is an institutional foregoing of trans politics that must be redressed. The development of this conversation, here, must be sensitive and diligent – grappling with the vulnerability and exclusion trans people often feel within left institutions that have traditionally forsaken us, addressing the complex questions of the most effective formats for trans organizing, and balancing the impulse for bottom-up autonomous organizing with collective institutional responsibility over the fate of trans politics, etc.

This conversation must also be expressed through a specific analysis of the dynamics of transphobia within education. The analysis offered here will focus on Higher Education, as that is the environment to which my experiences are relevant – though examining and tackling institutional transphobia within primary and secondary education is even more crucial a task, because this kind of discrimination within such formative years can be even more fatal. Theory borne out of our other caucuses can be useful in orienting and grounding ourselves here – the women and non-binary caucus has always asserted that free education is a gendered demand, for example, because marketization entrenches draconian, degrading and precarious work practices wherein disproportionately male Vice Chancellors and management luxuriate in obscene salaries at the expense of maltreated, low-paid, and outsourced female migrant cleaners. The LGBTQI+ caucus has asserted that the degradation of financial support consequent to a marketized model of education, such as the cuts to maintenance grants, disproportionately affect queer students who are often estranged from unaccepting family, and that living grants for all – a lynchpin of our vision for free education – would benefit us the most.

We can directly extrapolate these two examples to trans students: due to disproportionate levels of financial hardship we are often compelled to take on work as we study, almost uniformly in increasingly casualized service sector jobs. The systematic dismantling of employment protections combines with overt employment discrimination and the insidious material marginalization of feminized, affective labour to create a hostile and brutal set of work relations for trans people. As universities are compelled to act more and more like businesses, with all else subordinated to the profit motive, the axes of social division through which capital thrives to discipline and dispossess labour embed themselves within the educational landscape. The gutting of financial support affects trans students especially acutely, with many of us severed from family resources due to deep-seated transphobia. This, coupled with astronomical rises in rent and living costs ushered in by privatisation, increasingly prices poor and vulnerable trans people out of Higher Education.

The logic of the market surrenders the public good, such that gender studies departments are luxuries to be cut, health and support services that trans people disproportionately rely on are severely overburdened and underfunded, gender neutral facilities are superfluous, and specialist gendered training for support staff is an unaffordable expense. Education-as-commodity does not serve the ends of personal transformation or collective empowerment to challenge injustice in society, but rather that of processing indebted consumers and compliant graduates into market relations. Hence space to explore ourselves and form communal subjectivities becomes more and more limited in the neo-liberal university, with spaces for collective association and support infrastructure for trans students more and more sparse, trade unions decimated, and alienation, atomization and disempowerment fracturing our institutions.

The spectre of police becomes evermore present as our universities resort to force to aggressively root out dissent and defend their reputations, impacting marginalized people historically subject to state hostility – especially trans people of colour – most acutely. Our campuses thus become ever more securitized, with bureaucracy, monitoring and registering practices proliferating and entailing constant fear of misgendering and deadnaming for trans students. Mental health issues widely afflict university populations due to the academic and financial strains and pressures of education as a frantic competition, disproportionately affecting trans students already subject to widespread prejudice. All the while, TERF ideology and curricular erasure of trans histories and struggle continue to fray academia, culturally disqualifying us as participants in and bearers of knowledge. Bullying, harassment and abuse are widespread, with 1 in 3 trans students reporting to be the subject of this violence, a transphobic enmity deepened by the rise of alt-right and ‘lad’ culture on campuses.

Despite the very material dispossessions encountered by trans people within education and society at large, the dominant narratives about trans lives are frequently infatuated with questioning our reality and validity. This is especially relevant to how transphobia is constituted through Higher Education: trans, especially non-binary, identity is ridiculed as a delusional novelty, coddled by elitist academic spaces detached from the rest of society. HE has thus become an arena of scrutiny and contention around trans politics, with this set of politics scapegoated for an ostensible fostering of entitlement and narcissism (the entitlement of wanting secure work or self-affirmation, seemingly). Thus, dominant narratives have promoted some of the most pernicious historical tropes deployed against the LGBTQI+ community by both left and right, through the prism of Higher Education, to deride, trivialize and undermine trans politics as a set of frivolous sideshows, bourgeois affectations and cultural pretensions. HE thus forms one aspect of a backdrop justifying cultural belittlement.

Whilst we should reject the reactionary terms of this debate entirely, forming a materialist narrative of trans liberation in education that refutes the idea that universities are havens of trans rights, careful not to collapse leftist critiques of liberal identity politics into trans politics as a whole, we must also reckon with the social stratification our universities prop up in society – gentrification, work casualization, reproduction of capitalist cultural hegemony – and assert that we demand the complete transformation of society, not simply universities as sites of cultural refuge from its worst excesses. To this end the student movement must unite with the labour movement, with renters’ unions, with campaigns against prison, police and state violence, with campaigns for the decriminalization of sex work, to intervene in the multifaceted material injustices wracking trans life, armed with the recognition that class struggle is and should be a demand for trans liberation.

So, by way of conclusion, some pressing questions that underpin the conversation for me are: how does transphobia manifest internally within the student movement and how can that be tackled? How does transphobia manifest on an external basis, systematically within our institutions and in society at large, and how can we address that? And, finally, what are some demands for trans liberation in education, how should we construct and wage struggles against transphobia, and what are the pitfalls in the existing structures of the student movement to this end? I hope, with more sessions like these, we can begin to answer these questions and many more – with the understanding that not only is the free education struggle incomplete without trans liberation, it is also weaker without it. This task is urgent, and we must rise to it – we can rise to it.

NUS LGBT+ 2017: When virtue signalling trumps fighting for liberation

NCAFC activist and UCL student Ben Towse writes about last month’s NUS LGBT+ Conference. This is an opinion piece – what do you think? If you want to write a response or another article on this or another topic, get in touch via [email protected].

NUS-LGBT-logoNUS LGBT+ conference this year was a surreal experience, and one that left me and others with severe concerns about the ability or willingness of activists in our union to fight for liberation. What I saw was a tendency of student unionists more concerned with signalling their virtuous principles than putting them into action, who confuse representing people and their needs with actually fighting for their material fulfilment, and who in general are fostering a deeply inward-looking inclination in the campaign at the expense of taking action to defend and extend the rights, needs and material interests of LGBT+ students.

Perhaps the most illustrative and absurd episode of the two days was the conference’s rejection of a proposal to campaign for accessible and ultimately free childcare, and the arguments used to call for this.

Rejecting the childcare campaign policy

Motion 404, from activists at Durham Uni, called for representation of student carers – rightly highlighting that this includes both those caring for children and adult dependents – and for research and campaign activity to tackle problems facing them. NCAFC activists sent in what we considered a friendly amendment, removing nothing from the original motion, only adding on top a specific commitment to campaign for colleges and universities to cover their students’ childcare needs, and ultimately for free universal childcare to be provided as a public service (as proposed by the Labour leadership), funded by progressively taxing the rich and business.

We were relatively confident of passing the motion, and expected that if opposition arose it would come from a minority right-wing perspective (“You can’t just point at things and tax them!”, “This is a lefty pipe-dream, be realistic!”, “If people can’t afford childcare they shouldn’t have children!” etc etc). The proposing speech was handed to NCAFCer Mark Crawford, who is doing solid work around the issue on our campus as UCL Union’s Postgrad Officer.

What followed floored even the most jaded cynics within the huddle of NCAFC activists present. Delegates took to the stage to harshly denounce our proposal – not, they said, because they disagreed with it, but because adding to a motion about all carers with an issue specific only to some carers, would “dilute” the main motion and detract from the representation of carers of adults. We were accused of “conflating” parents with all carers, and told that it was offensive for us to have submitted this as an amendment, rather than a separate motion [1]. The amendment was rejected by a landslide vote, despite not one speaker raising objections to its actual content.

This betrays a couple of deep political problems:

  • First, a desperately limited, inward-looking understanding of what our union can do for its members. To some of these people, the “big win” for student carers would be attaining official recognition and representation by the national organisation, and the fact that this recognition equally noted carers of children and of adults. To defend the needs of carers of adults was not, at least in this debate, about campaigning in the outside world to secure their real material needs (for instance, financial and other support, or combatting the chronic underfunding of adult social care), but about ensuring a nice, right-on document could be posted in the conference minutes on NUS Connect.The substitution of improving representation for improving material reality is a persistent problem in student politics and much of the left. There is a stark juxtaposition in this political culture, between the harsh (often – let’s face it – performatively vitriolic) denunciations of liberalism’s tokenistic responses to oppression and disadvantage, and frequency with which this tokenism is reproduced, albeit with a superficially radical veneer. Other examples in recent NUS LGBT+ conferences include the prevalence of election speeches that prioritise listing aspects of the candidate’s identity over concrete policy, strategy and tactics; or the disproportionate amount of time spent discussing the acronym under which we organise. This is not to ignore the value of representation in democratic organisations, but to emphasise that it is valuable only insofar as it results in the represented groups’ needs and interests not just being performatively noted, but effectively tackled.
  • Second, a hackish obsession with some very particular abstract standards around motions (I say this as something of a union procedural nerd myself) and a failure to understand that the purpose of a democratic union conference needs to be not producing a policy document, but collectively discussing and deciding what we as a union should do to change the world beyond the walls of the Sheffield Holiday Inn conference centre. It is absurd to imagine that anyone struggling to care for their dependents in the outside world, gives a flying fuck what part of a motion document contains their union’s commitment to fight for them and with them.We saw this tendency crop up at other points in the conference. For instance, it was apparent when delegates voted to remove a reference to the fact that LGBT+ people are more likely to be atheists than non-LGBT+ people, because the document did not include a citation, even though they did not dispute the fact and specific research was cited in proposers’ speeches and can be found easily via Google: e.g. here, here, here (although, given this was followed by a – thankfully unsuccessful – attempt to cut recognition that leaving a religion and religious community can be difficult and distressing, it probably also had something to do with certain student lefties’ reluctance to acknowledge any negatives whatsoever about religion). And it was apparent when some delegates got up to give lecturing speeches about how others’ motions hadn’t been drafted precisely in the format they’d have liked.

    This attitude is obviously completely unconstructive, both because it tends against focussing on effective action to make concrete change in the real world, and because it is exclusionary and alienating to anyone who wants to bring a meaningful proposal for action to their union, but isn’t experienced in writing motions (or, indeed, isn’t familiar with the precise preferences and obsessions of some particular hacks at one conference).

You need a movement to make policies a reality

This was the third (and last) annual conference of the campaign I’ve attended, and in all that time, even when good policy has been passed, serious discussion about what kind of movement we’d need to win radical change, and how to build it, has been largely absent. For instance, a student union movement capable of fighting for LGBT+ liberation would need large, vibrant, militant LGBT+ groups on every campus, vigorously debating the issues facing us in order to develop – and then act on – plans for political advocacy, protest, direct action and so on. Clearly, we’re lightyears away from this on most campuses. But you wouldn’t know it from conference discussions – talk of the actual power of our movement to extract concessions and force change, and how to build that power, is basically not on the radar.

Of course, another big problem is the widespread hostility to the idea that any of us should ever engage in discussion with people who hold bigoted or reactionary views, limiting the campaign’s ability to win hearts and minds as well. This conference again aggressively rejected our motion critical of the way no-platform tactics have been used. I won’t go into detail but check out this article for an explanation of NCAFC’s take on the issue.

What is to be done?

US Catholic school students protest church homophobia & the sacking of their gay teacher

US Catholic school students protest against church homophobia & the sacking of their gay teacher

A union that passes policies for righteous causes but devotes little attention to how we can either convince others of those causes, or build the forces needed to win them, is a union that’s going nowhere. And a union that refuses to even pass good policies because of obsessions around virtue signalling through the particular arrangement of motion documents, is one that’s going backwards. So what can we do?

First, keep arguing within NUS LGBT+ for a materialist perspective – one focussed on the world outside the conference room walls, and on serious, rational consideration of what will and won’t change it. NUS LGBT+ Conference is treated as the centrepiece of the organisation, when it should be merely the beginning – where we decide the activity that we will actually go out and do, together, in the real world.

Second, lead by example. NCAFC LGBT+ caucus has discussed how we can transform campus LGBT+ groups into activist organisations that turn outwards and fight to force change and change hearts and minds. Other organisations and networks are also doing great work in LGBT+ activism – from migrant solidarity to fighting for trans healthcare – but, barring some honourable exceptions, campus LGBT+ groups are not substantially involved, let alone leading. We need to get these groups organising local protests over the NHS, occupying local government offices against cuts to community sexual and mental health services, building tenants’ rights and social housing activism, and fighting to stop the detentions and deportations of LGBT+ and other asylum seekers and migrants (for instance, taking inspiration from the Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants activists who grounded a deportation flight recently).

Realistically, we won’t change NUS LGBT+ from above, but from below. We will transform campus groups into grassroots campaigns, conducting meaningful fights that defend and extend our material interests and needs – creating the concrete examples that illustrate our arguments to change the politics of the national union.

[1] Ironically, we had also been speaking with an NCAFC activist who cares for an adult about putting together a second amendment about material assistance for students caring for adults, but this effort missed the submission deadline – due, of course, to that activist’s time commitments. [go back and continue article]

NUS LGBT+ Conference Bulletin

Today our LGBTQ caucus is at NUS LGBT+ conference! Check out their bulletin below (in both PDF and text format), with articles about living grants, freedom of movement, and the no platform debate.

Download the bulletin here (PDF)

Grants not debt!

LGBT+ students need universal living grants

grantsnotdebtTHE last government abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (which provided a small amount of financial assistance to poorer young students in further education), and now the Conservatives have cut the maintenance grants of the poorest undergrads. We don’t just want to stop and reverse these cuts, because those schemes were never enough. NCAFC demands a grant – non-repayable and offered to all – that is enough for every student from further education to postgrad to live on. This is the only way to ensure that finances are not a barrier to anyone accessing and staying in education, and to make sure that every student has a decent standard of living.

How would we fund this? There’s a huge amount of money available for this and other public services – the only problem is that it is currently kept in the hands of a few. We say, tax the rich and take the banks under democratic control. The wealthy shouldn’t just pay for their own education, but everyone’s.

There are lots of arguments in favour of this, but one is particular to LGBT+ rights.

We’re often told that means-tested financial support is good enough. That’s where the government decides how much support you need according to your parents’ incomes.

First of all, the support provided now doesn’t cover full living expenses even for the neediest students, so even if we accepted that argument, much improvement would still be needed. But means-testing assumes that parents will always financially support students if they can. If a bigoted family won’t support their LGBT+ offspring, that student can face a choice of living in poverty – because the government says they don’t need full support even though they aren’t getting family help – or being stuck in the closet, hiding so that their families won’t cut them off.

Supposedly, such students can gain “estrangement” status from their parents and be funded as independent from their families. But the estrangement system isn’t just broken, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that can never work. To get it, we have to provide proof that we have completely cut ties with our parents for some time. Evidence can be hard to find and the process is difficult and often deeply distressing. And even unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation have been held against estrangement applicants.

But it also assumes everyone’s whole family is either entirely supportive or completely estranged. How could we fix such a system? Will we means-test intolerance, with a sliding scale measuring how bigoted or supportive a student’s parents are?! This system requires young LGBT+ people struggling with their families, or even just individual family members, to completely give up on their entire families and cut them out. A bitter irony, given how those same authorities constantly moralise conservatively about the importance of the family unit.

And this isn’t just an issue for LGBTQ students. What about students whose families don’t disown them for their sexualities or gender identities, but just refuse to support their ambitions for education, for any number of reasons – from disagreeing with their offspring’s choices in life and career, to conservative sexist parents who don’t believe their daughters should be educated? Everyone deserves the ability to be financially independent.

We support universal living grants, as well as living wages and so on, because we aren’t just fighting to hold off the particular attacks being made on education right now. We are fighting for a radically liberated, socially just society, in which everyone has the freedom to fulfil their hopes and potential, be who they want and live as they wish.

Freedom of movement is an LGBT+ issue

EVERY now and then a story makes the headlines, high-lighting the mistreatment of LGBT+ migrants by the Home Office. We hear of deported individuals being told to “act straight” in a country that bans homosexual relationships, or of asylum seekers forced to show their private photos to prove their sexuality. Shocking cases like these usually cause short-lived outrage, sometimes inspire a petition in defence of a specific person. Calls for a radical change in migration policy which could really prevent such appalling abuses are still nowhere to be seen in the political mainstream.

But these, however far from isolated cases, are just the most extreme examples of the inherent oppressive-ness of border controls. Then there are countless stories that never make the news, of both EU and non-EU citizens crossing borders to live the life they want. LGBT+ migrants moving countries to be able to marry their partner, or to be recognised as their real gender without undergoing sterilisation. People who travel abroad to escape abusive families or to be out in the workplace without fear of discrimination. Although no country is free from structural oppression, for many migration is the only way of accessing the rights and freedoms that others enjoy.

Borders are not only racist – they are also sexist, ableist and LGBT-phobic. That’s why the LGBT+ movement needs to be unapologetic in our demand for free movement of people – not depending on how much one contributes to the economy, on whether or not they’re a model citizen, or on their victimhood and how much their story can move hearts. True liberation means the freedom of everyone to be true to themselves and in control of their lives, regardless of what their passport says.

Grassroots groups like Movement for Justice, or Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants, have been highlighting the links between border controls and the oppression of LGBT+ people. Let’s join them in resisting detention and deportations, and fight for a world where one’s nationality does not determine their fate.

The debate about no platform

At this conference, we’re supporting the motion “Defend and Extend Freedom of Expression and Organisation”, to tackle a range of threats to our political and union freedoms on campuses. Most of these are from the government and college/university managers – like Prevent – but the motion also discusses our own movement’s use of no-platform tactics, arguing that these are only appropriate as a self-defence tactic against groups – mainly fascist groups – that organise to use physical violence against progressive movements and against marginalised groups.

WE believe that open discussion and free expression are the lifeblood of left-wing and liberation struggles. We want to change the world for the better, and that means confronting, tackling and defeating a host of bigoted, right-wing and regressive ideas. Parts of the student movement think that one way to do this is through the use of “no platform” policies on our campuses and in our unions, to shut out the people who believe those ideas. We think that instead, we need to beat those ideas through argument and protest, and change hearts and minds to change the world.

What is no-platform?

No-platforming is a tactic adopted originally by activists against fascist organisations. It means refusing, as a general blanket rule, to permit a specified group any platform to organise, promote their ideas, or act on them. This could mean everything from turning over a street stall, to disrupting a meeting, to denying them an invitation to speak in a student society event. It also includes refusing, again as a blanket rule, to ever have representatives of your organisation or movement share a platform with that group.

The left and liberation struggles need to fight a battle of ideas

Our movements exist precisely because reactionary ideas and bigotry are not marginal but dominant and widespread across our society. So changing minds – billions of minds! – is therefore completely vital to what we want to achieve. There is no shortcut and we can’t proceed by hoping to gain control of various little pockets of society (like student unions) and make them ideologically pure through imposing regulations from the top down. No regulation or speaker policy can change hearts and minds. The left has to confront the world as it is, and debate and discuss with people to win them over.

At worst, attempting to apply no-platform policies to widely-held ideas means denying ourselves a platform. When we refuse to share a platform with people who hold bigoted or right-wing views, very often our opponents get a free ride. It is our job as a movement to go out and compete against them to spread our ideas.

It can be exhausting and distressing to go out into a hostile world and confront dominant ideas that attack our freedom and our very right to exist. But that’s why we build a collective movement. No individual can or should be expected to fight every battle, but organised together with everyone contributing as much as they are able, as a collective we can meet those challenges.

Open discussion within the left and liberation movements is also vital – it’s the only way to ensure that our movements are democratic, and that we constantly challenge ourselves to re-examine, refine and improve the ideas that drive them.

Attacks from the authorities

More broadly, progressives and the left always face attempts to silence us. Political freedoms on our campuses are already under attack from the government, from education bosses, and from the marketisation of education.

We need to stop these attacks, and an argument about defending free enquiry, free debate and free speech is essential to winning that fight. There are differences between restrictions imposed by the state and those by student unions, but we can’t win the argument for the value of open discussion if we are inconsistent, if we are simultaneously imposing our own regulations of which ideas can and cannot be expressed. Our best defence depends on building, and embedded as widely and firmly as possible, a consensus in favour of defending open discussion and free speech.

What’s different about fascists?

We don’t think that fascist ideas cross some arbitrary line of being too distressing or offensive to be heard: we don’t want to ban fascist texts from libraries. Nor do we think that policies attempting to silence fascists would be sufficient to beat fascist ideas anyway – we will never beat ideas with anything other than different, better ideas.

Instead, we are committed to no platform as a physical self-defence tactic – part of a militant anti-fascist strategy. Fascist groups are an organised movement of physical violence in the streets, fighting to terrorise, crush, and ultimately murder oppressed groups, the workers’ movement and the left. Antifascists are forced to respond by doing whatever we can to disrupt fascists and their efforts.

Importantly, this is a tactic that the left and student and workers’ movements can use to fight fascists from the grassroots up. We don’t, for instance, call for the state to step in and ban fascist organisations and demonstrations for us. We know we can’t trust the state in the fight against fascism, and experience also shows that state-imposed restrictions on the far-right are easily turned against the left too.

In certain circumstances, we may apply similar tactics to other physically threatening and violent groups and individuals which confront us. Again, this is about physical self-defence.

Reclaiming the issue from right-wing hypocrites

Recently, right-wingers and bigots – from Tory student campaigns to press outlets like Spiked! – have draped themselves with the banner of free speech against the left of the student movement. This has been possible, in part, because of the abandonment of that banner by parts of the left. But the right’s defence of political freedom has, in most cases, been deeply hypocritical and inconsistent. These commentators rail at student union no platform policies – too often because they actually support the bigoted and reactionary ideas that are usually the targets of these policies – but have little or nothing to say about Prevent, university and college managers cleansing campus spaces of visible politics, or the victimisation of student protesters and trade union organisers.

We want to show up these hypocrites, and build a consistent, left-wing campaign to defend and extend freedom of speech, debate, organisation and action on campuses. One that will facilitate a flowering of student and workers’ organisation and struggle. Join us!

Read more about the campaign for freedom to organise and freedom of expression on campuses: 

What is the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts?

THE NCAFC is a democratic network of student activists on college and university campuses across the country, fighting for free, democratic and liberated education that is funded by taxing the rich and business.

We’ve played a pivotal role in mobilising the student movement and supporting activism since the 2010 wave of occupations and street protests. We’ve been heavily involved in building everything from the ongoing NSS boycott against the higher education reforms to 2014’s #CopsOffCampus movement.

We help activists build for action on campuses, we join together to argue for our causes, and we organise action, such as major national demonstrations and 2015’s anti-austerity bloc on Pride with Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners.

Talk to us or find us online for more info!

[email protected]


Why we’re marching for housing rights on Pride

On Saturday 27 June, we’ll be marching on Pride in London with the trade unions and Lesbians & Gay Men Support the Miners – join us! All supporters are welcome regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Details here.

rent controls bannerBy RV, NCAFC activist

This Pride takes place in a year when the number of people living in hostels has reached a seven year high. This Pride takes place in a country where people pay the highest private rents in Europe. This Pride takes place in a year where the Tories have won and could remove housing benefit for young people.

This is why we have to use Pride as a mechanism of resistance instead of a corporate pinkwashing exercise. We have to take to the streets, not so that Barclays can give themselves a pat on the back and celebrate their inclusiveness, but as a start towards dismantling a housing system which puts LGBT people on the streets.

The last 5 years have been a brutal assault on young LGBT people; coalition policies have removed housing services that are vitally needed by vulnerable LGBT people. Under-35s are restricted to claiming housing benefit if they are living in a shared house. In a society that is deeply LGBTphobic, this can mean living in unsafe spaces, with housemates that harass or bully you. At the same time LGBT voluntary organisations have faced up to 50% cuts in their budgets, including housing charities. This means a lack of specialised support for LGBT people when they need it most.

If the Tories abolish housing benefit for under 21s, expecting people to return to their family homes, it is LGBT people who are most likely not to have a family home to go back to. It is LGBT people who need most of all cheap rents, in order to be able to have control over the safety of their environment.

25% of homeless people are our LGBT comrades.  We must fight the social aspect of the battle and change people’s ideas, but we must fight the material aspect just as vigorously: that is, fight for homes for ourselves.

The theme of this years’ Pride is ‘heroes’. The hero that must emerge is our collective strength in demanding all of us as LGBT people have a home, both through increased housing benefit and through a mass building programme of social housing.

LGBT+ activists call on NUS to fight for free education

warwickThis letter has been written by LGBT+ student officers and activists since NUS LGBT+ conference voted to support free, liberatory education and living grants, and to call on NUS to organise a national demonstration this autumn to fight for them. LGBT+ activists can email [email protected] to add more signatures! We hope this letter will be useful in lobbying your NUS delegates to vote the right way!

Dear NUS Conference 2015 delegates,

We’re writing as LGBT+ officers and student activists to urge you to support free education and living grants, and vote for NUS to call a national demonstration in November 2015 as a vital part of campaigning to win them!

Education is a fundamental right. It transforms lives. And it’s a social good for all of us – imagine living in a society where nobody learned to build bridges, create art, programme computers or investigate the mysteries of the universe. So it must be freely accessible to everyone, funded by those in society who can well afford it – by properly enforcing taxes on the rich and their businesses!

This year, NUS LGBT+ conference overwhelmingly voted to support free education and living grants, and to call on NUS to organise a national demonstration in November and a week of action early next year. Why is this an issue that LGBT+ students in particular want NUS to fight for? It’s not just about the price tag, it’s about liberation.

Education is a tool for our liberation. Education can help equip us to analyse and fight oppression – to understand the world and to change it for the better, which is why we also urge you to support motions to liberate our curricula, making sure we include the voices, perspectives and histories of marginalised groups and our struggles.

Living grants can be a particular lifeline for LGBT+ students. With the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance, Masters funding non-existent, apprentice’s wages kept down and undergrad loans and PhD stipends being eroded, financial support for students to access and stay in education is an issue for everyone. But especially for LGBT+ people, whose intolerant families may refuse to support them, or who are forced to stay in the closet to maintain their families’ support, living wages for apprentices and universal living grants would mean being able to access education, free ourselves from the closet, and not be faced with living in poverty.

Asking politicians, employers, principals and vice-chancellors for our liberation isn’t enough. We have to fight for it. Betrayal after betrayal has shown us we can’t rely on politicians’ pledges and the ballot box alone. Whoever wins the General Election, we will need to get our issues on the table and force change with a strategy of both local and national protest, direct action and lobbying. Calling a national demonstration this autumn will not be a magic solution, but it’s a vital part of the plan. Bringing together students from across the country in a national demonstration with clear demands – free education and living grants paid for by taxing the rich – will help raise our cause up the agenda and put pressure on the government and political parties. It will also inspire and train activism on every campus that gets involved, helping to build a movement that can carry on the struggle beyond a single day of protest, as far as it needs to go to win. We know from other countries where students have won free education that this is the kind of movement we need to build.

Abolishing fees and introducing living grants is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to liberating education – we must also tackle issues such as access to childcare, disabled students’ support and the BME attainment gap – but it is an essential piece. Please vote for NUS to put words into action, and fight for it!

In solidarity,

Fran Cowling, NUS LGBT+ Officer (Women’s Place)

Raquel Palmeira, NCAFC LGBTQ Rep

Beth Redmond, NUS Presidential candidate & NCAFC Women’s Co-Rep

Tom Robinson, UCLU LGBT+ Officer & NUS LGBT+ Committee (Disabled Rep)

Chris Pike, NUS LGBT+ Committee (Disabled Rep-elect)

James Elliott, NUS NEC & NCAFC Disabled Co-Rep

Ben Towse, NUS Postgrad Committee & NCAFC National Committee

Luke Allison, NUSU LGBT Officer, Welfare & Equality Officer-elect

Lorcan Bevan, Brighton SU LGBTQ+ Officer-elect

Jack Chadwick, York University Students’ Union LGBTQ Officer

Cerys Way, Birmingham Guild of Students Chair of LGBTQ

Rachel O’Brien, Birmingham Guild of Students Community Action Officer & NCAFC Disabled Co-Rep

Jack Saffery-Rowe, Royal Holloway LGBT+ officer 2013-14 & NCAFC LGBTQ rep 2012-14

Fred Craig, NCAFC National Committee

Helena Dunnett-Orridge, NCAFC National Committee

Kate Bradley, LGBTQ Rep for Oriel College, University of Oxford

Ashley Reed, University of York LGBTQ Network Committee

Joe Baines-Holmes, NUS LGBT+ Delegate

Dario Celaschi, NUS London Trans* Officer, NUS NEC

Holly Staynor, Welfare, Community and Diversity Officer at Union of UEA

Rowan Davis, Trans Representative on the Oxford University Women’s Campaign and LGBTQ Society

Tommy Snipe, Reading University Students’ Union, LGBT+ Part-time Officer

Josh Lang, Reading University LGBT+ Society, President

Limor Best, Liverpool Hope Students’ Union Vice-President Welfare & Community

Hannah Baker, Liverpool Hope Students’ Union President

Charley Hasted, LGBTQ officer Lambeth College, NUS LGBT+ Committee (FE Rep Elect)

Molly Maher, Vice President Welfare and Campaigns The University of Brighton for 2015/16

LGBT+ activists can email [email protected] to add signatures

Young LGBTQ people need the right to live independently: defend benefits from Labour leaders’ attacks

Ben Towse, NCAFC LGBTQ caucus

Content note – this article discusses homophobic and transphobic intolerance and abuse within families

Photo of Liam Byrne MP (Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills) at a podium

Liam Byrne, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, last week reiterated his party’s intention to deny 18-21 year olds access to Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). In his essay on post-16 education and training policy, “Robbins Rebooted”, he wrote that instead, young people out of work or education should be given a “Youth Training Allowance”, which would be means-tested based on their parents’ income, and which would be taken away if they did not accept training programmes and stay in them.

Like the Tories’ previous attempts to cut housing benefit to under-25s – which Byrne and Labour themselves criticised – this is a foul assault on all young people. Such policies blame young workers for their poverty and mass unemployment: as if by bullying us into “rolling up our sleeves” and getting stuck in, decently-paid jobs will magically appear for us to fill. But even more perniciously, because these policies are founded in the assumption that young adults should remain dependent on their families, they threaten particularly acute consequences for LGBTQ youth, among others. Labour is not only abdicating, once again, its supposed role as champion of the working class, but also its claim to a positive record on LGBTQ liberation.

The assumption that parents will step in to support young adults is all very well for those fortunate enough to come from families that are financially secure and accepting of their childrens’ identities and lives. But many families, for all sorts of reasons, either refuse to support their children, or make their support conditional upon their own views of who their children should be or how they should live their lives. This is not to mention those simply unable to supply the necessary level of support; some always fall through the gaps in means-testing systems. For LGBTQ young people hiding their sexuality or gender identity from intolerant families, some in fear for their safety, these policies mean prolonging the pain of being trapped in the family home. And many young people who are out of the closet are subject to intolerance and abuse, or are simply prevented from living as who they are. Financial dependence is frequently used as a tool by abusers to control their victims and prevent them taking action or leaving. Easy availability of financial independence from the family is a key class struggle demand for LGBTQ liberation.

Labour’s policy is based on proposals from the “progressive” IPPR think-tank, which says the system should mirror means-tested access to undergraduate maintenance. That system supposedly allows students who cannot rely on support from their parents to be recognised as estranged and funded as independent. However, to do this you have to convince Student Finance – and presumably in future your Jobcentre – that you are completely estranged from your parents and have been for some time. The burden of proof is, of course, entirely on the applicant (proving such claims can be difficult to do and a distressing process in itself), and if recent history is any indicator, harsh targets for cuts will be set that push assessors to reject the claimant. Moreover, none of this is any help to those who are in the closet, still living with intolerant families or even just keeping in touch: even unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation have been held against applicants. In this way, the system demands that young LGBTQ people struggling with their families, or even just individual family members, completely give up on their entire families and cut them out. A bitter irony, given the conservative moralising of the major political parties about the importance of the family unit.

And if young people don’t comply with the training “offered” to them, they will be cut off entirely. There is no guarantee that what’s provided will be remotely useful or relevant to each individual forced into it, and as with other benefits sanctions this is yet another example in which something painted as an opportunity becomes a moralistic stick with which to beat disadvantaged people, or cut them off to save money. Moreover, the IPPR proposals would fund this involuntary training by “redirecting” up to £1.5 billion from skills and apprenticeships for older adults: voluntary opportunities are to be raided to fund involuntary programmes! Parents’ access to Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit will also be cut back from age 20 to school-leaving age, so they will be expected to support their adult children while having the means to do so removed.

Byrne only mentions JSA and doesn’t say whether Labour plans also to cut almost all young peoples’ access to Employment & Support Allowance, which the IPPR does advocate as part of the same reform. ESA supports those unable to work due to illness or disability*. Replacing it with a system that demands they “take responsibility” for training their way into work or lose the support they need to survive is dangerous and cruel, and in many cases nonsensically so.

The ruling class’ media and politicians rail against a “culture of entitlement” as they launch these attacks. The members of that same ruling class live lives of incredibly disproportionate privilege and luxury. The exploited working class of our world produces more than enough wealth for every human being on the planet to exist very comfortably. So it is not too demanding, but extremely modest to feel entitled, at minimum, to whatever share of that wealth is needed for us to live decently, and with the liberty to be who we want and live as we wish.

That means, from at least age 16, living stipends for every student, living wages for every worker, and full living benefits for those not in work or education.

Student and trade unions, left activist organisations, and advocacy groups like Stonewall – have a responsibility to take up this struggle. We should fight tooth and nail everyone pushing them, but Labour leaders who claim to stand for us, and who are theoretically accountable to the labour movement, must in particular be made to feel the weight of our anger and whatever pressure we can bring to bear.


*[CORRECTION: ESA is not only for those unable to work, but also those with a limited ability to work]

Alan Turing’s pardon: No more than a gesture

Alan Turing has been granted a posthumous royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for consensual sex with another man. If this provides a degree of comfort to some living LGBTQ people, then it’s perhaps a welcome gesture – but it’s no more than a gesture.

Neither Turing nor the many tens of thousands of others whose relationships were criminalised had done anything wrong. A pardon serves no purpose for a sentence already served. It is in effect an assertion that the conviction was correct, and that the convicted is “forgiven” their crime. In Turing’s case and the others not deemed worthy of equivalent treatment, the state should be seeking, not insultingly presuming to grant, forgiveness.

A picture of Alan Turing

It emerged this week Moazzam Begg, who sued the British government over his extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay, was stripped of his UK passport. Royal Prerogative – the same authority on which Turing was pardoned – was invoked by the Home Office on the grounds that his freedom of movement was “not in the public interest”. Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who signed the request for pardon, has – just in time for Christmas – banned prisoners from receiving parcels and packages.

Just as we oppose police brutality and repression against our political opponents, LGBTQ people can take no comfort in the state granting us freedoms by the same means it uses to abuse the freedoms of others.

State oppression of LGBTQ people in the UK of course didn’t end with the decriminalisation of similar-sex relationships. This is the first year that anyone who began secondary education in England after the repeal of Section 28 will graduate from university. Instead of fighting to rid the country of its shadow of ignorance and prejudice, we are having to fight its reinstitution through web filters, which are blocking access to basic information on LGBTQ health and well-being – bitterly ironic given Turing’s own immeasurable contribution to computing.

The web has given LGBTQ adults access to the information and support networks we needed to plug just some of the gaps in a generation of neglect. We should in turn demand that LGBTQ youth are allowed unfettered access to vital information about their own sexual/romantic orientations and gender identities. Simple “ok to be gay” platitudes are not enough. LGBTQ people – all people – deserve free and open access to a health service which promotes their mental, physical and sexual health.

Nor has the state divested from intrusion into and regulation of our orientations and identities. LGBQ people seeking asylum – if not told to simply leave and pretend otherwise – are made to prove their orientation in the courts. Trans people seeking basic legal recognition of their identities must pay for the privilege of the Courts and Tribunals Service prying into – and adjudicating on – the legitimacy of their gender. These submissions are no less of an intrusion than Turing’s own 5 page confession. We are who we say we are, and no government holds the authority to say otherwise.

The ceremony of the pardon then – “reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements” or not – stands in clear contrast to the reality of this (and all previous) UK government’s bureaucratic acceptance of LGBTQ people’s lives, and civil liberties more generally. There is plenty yet to be done in spite of the veiled triumphalism of today’s announcement.

For now perhaps the most fitting ministerial pronouncement to LGBTQ people past and present is that offered to Alan Turing in 2009 by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

We are sorry, you deserved better

No to anti-semitism! Defeat support for “Zeitgeist” at NUS LGBT conference!

The following statement is being distributed at NUS LGBT conference by Jack Saffery-Rowe, one of the NCAFC LGBTQ Officers. Please circulate widely. [Read more…]

USI Congress 2013 – Report from Aisling Gallagher, NUS USI Women’s Officer

NCAFC are republishing this statement and report from USI Congress, by Aisling Gallagher, NUS USI Women’s Officer

[Read more…]

Daily Transphobic Fail

Daily Failings

By Thais Yanez, NCAFC LGBTQ+ Officer, Trans* Place


The death of Ms. Lucy Meadows is not just another statistic or tragedy we have to protest against, it is the result of a campaign of bullying and discrediting led by the Daily Mail and Richard Littlejohn who would have Transgender people like Lucy disappear quietly and move away from their neighbourhoods. According to the columnist Lucy Meadows was “not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job”

In addition to the constant hateful reference to Lucy as a ‘he’ (as though if he said it enough ‘she’ would go away indeed), no attention was paid to her record as a teacher or the fact that parents, pupils and colleagues might have been supportive of her decision to transition. Littlejoh is in fact the actual man in totally the wrong job as he has dismissed his duty to truth and investigative journalism and used his column to spread his personal views which are fiull of hatred, bigotry and transphobia.

Last year we in the Trans* community had to mourn 267 of our sisters and brothers lost to transphobic hate crime which was largely ignored by the media. And that is the ones we know. Suicides seldom go reported as transphobia. We are in constant mourning as a community but it is ther families and friends whose lives have been shattered and whose loss we feel and we send our most heartfelt sympathy.

It is said there is no clear link between Lucy’s death and Littlejohn’s article of media coverage but the Guardian reports activists in the Trans* community received e mails from Meadows complaining about the stress she felt after her private and difficult transition became national news thanks to the Daily Mail. A heretofore competent teacher was portrayed in the triggering article as a ‘selfish’ ‘man’ who should have had “ the operation and then return to work as ‘Miss Meadows’ at another school on the other side of town” . Like if it would have been so easy to find another job. Unemployment in the Trans* community is high and thanks to bigotry like this is likely to remain so.

The Trans* people who go through with transitioning will testify how the process is not only stressful and lengthy but invasive and even dehumanising, as well,  as they are pathologised. Littlejohn hismself asserts he is ok with ‘sex changes as long as they are a medical necessity’. Thanks, then.  Trans* people are forced to justify their very existence to professionals that have never gone through anything alike. As queer/non binary person I can only imagine and sympathise with sisters and brothers who are put through this but I would not attampt to describe their feelings and experiences.

And like if this wasn’t enough Littlejohn patronisingly implies that children, who still believe in Father Christmas, he says, are too dumb to understand gender identity. I wonder if he would have them being brought up with his transphobic values instead, if they are not too young to be taught hatred and discrimination. Why does not safeguarding of children extends to the very paper on which he writes whose page 3 shows these children half naked women and teaches them thus that women can be objectified and exploited? Why does he not safeguard children from prejudice and intolerance that destroy lives?

His false cries for freedom of speech should not be louder than ours for freedom to exist.

Bigots don’t seem to realise they are harming children to the point of it being abusive by raising them up to hate others and have total disregard for other people’s rights. Why doesn’t Littlejohn complain about EDL members raising children. Why did not he show outrage when the French right wing Le Marif per tous held a rally in Trafalgar square to protests agains equal marriage on 24th of March and the dozens of children as young as three shouting against LGBTQ people getting equal rights. This group, which is banned in France, did not catch the attention of Littlejohn who seems to be only in the lookout for someone to bully to death. And he found Lucy. Rest in Peace, Miss Meadows.

e, Miss Meadows.