Women’s Autonomous Organising, Queer room safety and the post-VSU Student Union

Over the course of semester one, and in particular towards its close the conflict around autonomous time for queer women in the queer room reached somewhat of a climax. This conflict is centred on the desire of some women to have access to the queer room without the presence of men and the surprisingly fierce opposition to this posed by some. What is interesting in this conflict is the way that ‘safety’ is used and more particularly why. A discourse of safety is used to disguise a deeper conflict between a social clique defending its fiefdom from people interested in undertaking political activity on campus. Asking why the issue of safety is the discourse of conflict for those seeking a political milieu and why the space is given so much attention by them reveals a certain problematic that, while always existing, has come to the fore in the post-VSU university environment – at least at Monash.

Before delving into the issues that this conflict raises it is worth attempting to define the conflicting groups and offer some account of the content of the conflict. Without formal membership of any sort, beyond social affiliation, it is difficult to use words like groups or parties. It is only around the issue of queer women’s autonomous access to the queer room the groups come to definition. As of 2004 the queer room has had one hour of the week, 1pm on Tuesdays, as queer women only, during 2006 this was altered to a ‘queer women’s day’ with the whole of Tuesdays given over to queer women’s autonomous access. This autonomous access constitutes the issue, broadly speaking, those for it see that it is necessary in terms of queer and women’s issues on campus while those opposed to it argue that it is unnecessary and therefore unfairly impedes the (necessary) access of male queers. The respective camps denote each other as the queer room boys, for those against the autonomous times, and the rad’ fem’s (radical feminists)1 for those for the autonomous times. These names suggest a certain gender division and/or political unity, in reality both delineations are blurry; nevertheless, for our purposes here we shall adopt these names. This conflict seems to be never-ending, and in some respects this is true, however over semester one the conflict over this issue certainly seemed to have intensified.

A brief summary of some of the main points of conflict quickly reveals this intensification. Seemingly in response to the autonomous times some of the boys have felt that it is appropriate to raise the already questionable levels of misogynistic harassment to heights that rival the achievements of the annual masculinity and beer festival – ‘green week’. This has included semi-organised harassment outside of the queer room during the women’s times. Further, allegations of harassment were brought before the ‘all powerful’ Monash Student council against the queer officers, complaints seemingly associated more with the Officers support of the queer women’s times then anything else, but nonetheless probably having some basis in ‘nastiness’.

In an attempt to resolve the issue the parties decided to hold referendum on a proposal to abolish the women’s day. This prompted a zine to be produced by the rad fems, arguing for a no vote, which included on-line forum quotes. Despite the forum being unrestricted as it is, generally unknown outside the University queer world and the great difficulty to match quotes and online ‘handles’ with the real world a number of the boys felt that ‘the danger of outing’ served as a suitable pretext to break into an office and burn the zines. The response to this by the rad fems was a poster which associated the burning of the zines with Nazi book burning. This led, of course, to a charge of racism because the poster contained a picture of Nazi’s burning books – thus making the poster racial offensive to Jewish people. When the referendum finally came around, 45 voted with 33 voting yes to the abolition and 12 no (with one informal). The semester ended with the release of a 2nd zine by the rad fem’s which, despite the victor’s claims to the contrary, suggested that the issue was not over.

The discourse of this conflict has centred on the queer lounge as a ‘safe space’ for queers. Thus, those against the wom*n’s autonomous time suggests that a such time in queer men being without a ‘safe’ space on campus, seen for instance in this post on the Queer lounge online forum:
”Seems to me that queer men are more likely to be victims of hate crimes and need a safe space more than us.
[… ]
Do not impose this lovely queer women gathering on other queers who want to spend time in a SAFE SPACE that is for ALL QUEERS”
Additionally, the rad fems are countered in terms of the women’s autonomous access being a concern for ‘safe space’ for queer women away from queer men. Following this approach, it is argued that any ‘unsafety’ is due to the arguments for a women’s time, or more particularly the advancement of those arguments, which create “tension” and result in “natural allies [being] alienated”. Seen in statements such as:
“[I am]…firmly of the belief that it wont solve anything, and will only lead to MORE antagonism between the rad fems and the rest of us.”
And,
”How about they discuss why they’re so hell bent on alienating the very people who are most likely to be their closest allies in their struggles?”

Similarly, those highlighting the misogyny in the queer room point to this making the space unsafe for women and thus the need for time without men (and misogyny) as providing a time of ‘safe’ access. Somewhat moving beyond this, they also suggest that the wom*n’s autonomous times are necessary for organising to combat the misogyny and make the space ‘safe’. This is evident in the material of the wom*n’s zines, such as here:
“As a womyn the queer scene is not safe for me. The monash queer space is not safe for me”.
And here:
“Pride in male privilege, sexism and misogyny are real within this space. Women’s right to autonomous space to organise is also both real and necessary.”
The argument does however become more complex in that here the end is not safety in the ‘queer space’ but:
”Ideally a women’s day in the queer space would not be needed, but alas, we do not live in a post-patriarchal, nor post-gendered world.”
However, despite this allusion to activity beyond the queer room, the activity of the rad fems seems to be centred upon that room. Working from this oddity the spectral nature of this ‘debate’ quickly becomes evident.

Since it is fairly self-evident that a single day as women only in the lounge is hardly going to solve a ‘safety’ problem the question as to what the basis of the push for a women’s hour/day is raises itself. Some argue that what underlies the quest for wom*n’s only times is a commitment to separatism. This seems to be nothing more than a rhetorical conflation of ideas of autonomous organising with seperatism –made possible by ignoring the commitment to ‘fighting misogyny’ repeatedly expressed by the rad fems and an ignorance of the ‘why just one day/hour’ question. However, from what is stated by these people it is far more plausible to suggest that the conflict is centred on a desire for the space to be politically active rather than simply a safe space. Although not argued directly it is a position that is fairly clear, this from the Female Queer Office Bearer’s monthly report is perhaps the most direct indication:
“It seems strange that these peoples problems (of assault) stress me out less than – Oh, my god we can’t go into that tiny cum plastered closet on Tuesdays because queer women we never see in there are actually using it to be politically active and support each other”.
This is also evident in some of the criticisms issued by those opposed to the autonomous times in the previously mentioned forum:
“They have consistently shown me, through their actions, that they want to be in a constant political shitfight.”
And
“I feel that they get this reaction from the guys because the only time they make contact with them is to lecture them or try to make a point in some other way.”
Thus underlying the arguments for a safe space for women is a drive not for a ‘safe space’ but a space or milieu that is actively politically and/or theoretically engaged with sexuality and gender in terms of students. Such a change in attitude within the space would, render the question whether women should be able to organise independently of men a non-sequitur. This conclusion is perhaps further reinforced once the discourse of those against the day is looked at.

Those arguing against the women’s time within the Queer lounge are, from all evidence, simply trying to maintain a secure social space for their particular social network. Fairly accurately the female Queer officer stated that
“They have created their own little hierarchical world where they get to sit on top”
and that
“They just use that space and MSA money to fuel their social life.”
The discourse of safe space thus reveals itself as a tool for maintaining the domination of social space by and for a particular social group. The connection to queer politics of these people seems to be an afterthought at best. Maintained only through a general identification with queer sexuality on the part of those within the circle and perhaps as part of an attempt to re-create the high-school hierarchies and power plays that queer kids may have missed out on as a result of homophobia within high-schools. It is hard to believe that those that claim that queers need access to a safe space all the time actually believe that. Why would anybody wish to be forced to remain isolated within a small room on campus? Further, if there is such a big threat on campus of homophobic violence it hardly appears on the radar beyond the arguments directed against those seeking to use the space for political organising. And if the issue is being able to talk about non-heterosexual sex comfortably it is perhaps more to do with those around a person – ie the melieu of queer identifying students facilitated by the meeting together in the room rather than by uninterrupted access to the space.

Thus we are forced to ask what is this ‘safety’ that the boys are looking for and why is the space so important? An approach to the first question is suggested by one forum participant by stating, in reference to the question of safety:
”I just try to talk about other, happier, not political things.”
Safety can thus be understood as the effacement of conflict and politics , ie ‘not political’, under the cover of discussion in conformity with a pre-existing group discourse and values, ie ‘happier things’. The answer to the second question seems perhaps more obvious given the monetary issue as well as the convenience of having a ‘club room’ that comes with the space. No doubt, this is not the explicit motivation, but one can certainly say that without the financial benefits the group would dissolve and that the group is bound more by its hierarchy and social rules than anything else.

In summary, talk of ‘safety’ within the queer space is a cover for a deeper conflict. What amounts to a social clique uses this discourse as part of its efforts to pretend it is not a social clique in order to access financial benefits that they are able to enjoy. Causing this social clique problems are people seeking to use the space as part of attempts to engage with sexuality and gender issues. But if this is the basis of their activities more questions arise. Why is it that people are seeking to gain a ‘cum encrusted’ space in order to create a critical social situation that is more politically engaging. It certainly can be argued that access to a space assists in organising activities but such access is only helpful and possible if there is an appropriate situation to make use of it. If we consider that the critical social situation is something always prior to the space, and that a strong situation would mean the space would be obtained by de-fault, the issue of access to the space a non-issue. Thinking about why this emphasis upon the space is made, proves to be more interesting than the specific quarrels being engaged in and considering that those emphasising the space are the most (if not only) left wing tendency at Monash University, informative with respect to the post-VSU situation within this Universities.

To pin down a particular reason for this emphasis on the space is impossible, what is possible however is to describe the situation in which decision’s are made. Firstly, it must be acknowledge that there is a certain inevitability of taking such an attitude insofar as office bearers are the foci of political engagement on campus. Secondly, it is possible to discern a certain strategic logic behind such engagement, where the emphasis is ultimately directed towards an attempt to consolidate a dissipated level of political engagement on campuses. Thirdly, a certain attitude towards the institution plays a somewhat limiting role in terms of the realm of possibilities for activity that people envisage. To pin cause to any point in particular is impossible, however, despite not being able to reduce cause further, it is worthwhile looking at each of these points in order to more readily understand the situation.

Firstly, insofar as the activity in regards to sexuality and gender are tied to the Queer Officers such activity can be seen as chained to the politics and social dynamics of the queer lounge, to understand this predicament it is necessary to understand what these positions are. The Queer Officer position is one that is institutionally tied to the ‘queer collective’ which in turn is the institutionalisation of the queer space itself, bolstered by a legitimacy founded upon the claim that it is the representational manifestation of ‘all queer students’, this combined with around $25,000 in office bearer pay and budget is the ‘queer department’. This institutional structure creates the spectre of a real situation. Whilst existing as a rather amorphous social clique its dominance of the space confers, through the spaces institutional association, a spectre of unity. This spectre of unity, includes the title bestowed upon the group – ‘queer collective’ – as well as its institutional authority as the political manifestation of queer students. Thus, the above identified social clique, if able to dominate the space, is able to utilise the rhetorical tool of ‘a mandate from students’ seen for example in the use of the referendum, and moreover the continued use of ‘all student’ rhetoric. The power of this spectral authority seems to be able to sustain itself despite the voter turnout being around the 0.1% level. The Office bearer is thus in a position of: ‘working with the collective’ which amounts to conforming to the social rules of that group and maintaining the cliques interests; not doing so and hence being charged with ‘being lazy’, wasting ‘students’ money and deserving ‘sacking’; or, trying to navigate the rules of the group towards political ends which results in either those political goals becoming ‘social events’ or all social occasions becoming political battles.

The institution’s response to this analysis would be: ‘so what of it’ and in terms of the means to access the institutions resources this is hard to challenge. The problem can be seen as one where the political left, is too weak to escape the problem – a weakness evident in the fact that this is the only example of progressive politics at Monash2. Hence, we can understand a second force acting to ensure engagement with this fight – in that there is a certain strategic logic to fighting for the access to the space. It can be argued that in fighting for a space to organise, people interested in political projects can coalesce and realise possibilities for engagement through the struggle for the space itself. The limitation here is that it presupposes the authority that the institution confers onto the space. The importance of the space is only visible if one is on the ‘inside ‘ and already engaged. From the outside, engaging with this social clique appears, if not a source of S&M pleasure, absurd. Thus rather than coalescing a large group this ‘strategy’ is perhaps only ever going to succeed in maintaining a surface level of politics in a declining milieu.

The third situation fills a gap that the other two have signaled. This gap was first signalled when it was stated that it is only insofar as activity is tied to the queer officers such activity is tied to the queer space. This insofar as is an attitude to the institution characterised by faith and fear.

Faith, in that the institution, in this case, the Monash Student Association, is treated as the site of social struggle and the source of a potential (student/social democratic) utopia, despite a lack of supporting experience. This faith is manifest in the belief that changes to the institutional structure equate to or at least lead to social change. In the case of the queer space this can be seen in the idea that the institutionalisation of say a women’s day or hour will create a more critical and active situation. To use the word utopia is certainly a bit of exaggeration and there is widespread criticism of the institution – usually summed up in the phrase ‘the MSA is fucked’. Yet upon reflection these seem more like ‘doubts of a true believer’ – such sentiments are based upon a certain failure of perceived possibilities on the part of the institution and in the end function to support that faith in it.

Coupled with faith is fear; fear in the potential loss of all possibilities and consequent dystopia from the loss of the institution or control of it; fear that is maintained, like faith, despite the lack of supporting experience. This is expressed in the idea that if people withdrew from the struggles revolving around the institution that “things will get worse” or “we will loose what we have”. So in this particular case the fear is manifest as “women will loose all access to the space” which is, of course, inseparable from the above mentioned influences, and also a conflation of women and people interested in political activities.

These two points imply that there is an ‘abyss of the act’ concerning distancing oneself from the institution but also that these attitudes limit the ability to act and think critical about broader social situations, studenthood as well as personhood itself within capital. Why these attitudes exist or why they are so strong is certainly beyond exploration here, however that they should be overcome, that is the implications of their existence are an issue that is worth articulating. This attitude constitutes a bondage to the institution. which limits the possibilities of critique and action to such an extent that a determinate direction can be discerned that is broadly in step with the process of neo-liberalisation within the university.

Having had the protection of compulsory amenities fees removed the student union, in every act, is accompanied by a question of the continued reproduction of the institution. The words “in a post-VSU situation” accompany every decision made within the organization and they are the manifest form of concern for the institution. This is a quest for a guarantee that is impossible to find and which entails conforming every issue to the reproduction (and guaranteed reproduction through expansion) of the institution alone, as institution. This means that every act is made only on the basis of the reproduction of the institution. Consider for instance the case of the former Monash Bar, after closing in 2005 it was subsequently squatted and operated by students, this year the Monash Student Association has purchased the bar and intends to make money from it for its ‘survival’. The political content of this space is likely to be effaced or capitalised upon, either way, its political history is reduced to a consideration upon that histories affect upon the reproduction of the institution – as liability or asset. In this trajectory any perceptible differentiation between the University as ‘degree factory’ and the union exists in name only. All acts bonded to the institution of the union are similarly reduced.

As long as action and thinking are tied to the institution they will necessarily be limited to the reproduction of the institution of the union, and due to its subsumption into the university to the reproduction of the logic of the ‘degree factory’. This is discernable within the queer room debates, in the primacy of the ‘safe space’ discourse which is functions to maintain the institutional image of the queer department and in turn the union as a whole. This is also clearly evident in the Wholefoods restaurant – beyond its function as a space for a social clique the restaurant, traditionally a site of political activity, seems to exist as a laboratory for a certain niche marketing. Perhaps, symptomatic of these shifts within the space; anti-zionism has now being conflated with anti-semitism and the Monash Security have become a regular feature as the restaurant finds new ways of dealing with ‘issues’.

Unfortunately, identifying the forces of a black hole – as this bondage appears to be – is far easier then breaking away from them. Beyond what has been discussed here perhaps it is worthwhile trying to develop a more sustained critique of the institution, the union and the university at least, as well as some more general thinking of the institution per se. Such an understanding, it seems, is crucial in any approach to understanding Universities and political activity in ‘the post-VSU envirionment’ and could perhaps be the first approach at escaping action defined by this institutional bondage.

[1] Previously, most of 2006 feminazis was the designation. Luckil;y this was changed prior to the book-burning incidents…

[2] Some would argue that this is a too narrow definition of progressive political action. The student run Wholefoods restaurant is currently in a squabble with the union over its operations, some may argue that this is a political conflict. But the potentiality for action here does not constitute political activity itself – currently the situation is best described as a family business threatened by another business. Additionally, the ‘political’ campaigns around environment issues and the one going by the name ‘Fair go for all’ are more advertising campaigns then political contestations.

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About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

8 Responses to Women’s Autonomous Organising, Queer room safety and the post-VSU Student Union

  1. drugsinclass says:

    Thanks kernel. The expansion of the topic of the institution is good.
    I’m going to link from my blog.
    The quote that starts “It seems strange that these peoples problems…” seems to be the only one not in quotation marks. That’s a little annoying.

  2. Pingback: Queer Lounge Debates « Drugs in Class

  3. chrisfiore5 says:

    hello barking coins,

    just dropped by to check out the latest entry in your blog…

    hope all is well.

    peace.

  4. womyn says:

    hey,
    just wondering who this is? I liked your article… Its funny cause all the stuff i normally see on the web is that awful forum! drop us an email?
    zine creators

  5. drugsinclass says:

    i wonder if zine creators realises that there isn’t an email (or much of an identity) to write to? perhaps they assume you’ll know who they are.
    Careful kernel: for good or bad, there are power hungry people around.

  6. another zine creator says:

    Hey,

    You have given me a lot to think about.

    There are some things I would like noted however:

    First, it is important to remember that the group you name ‘queer room boys’ involves women too. Indeed, the petition to end womyn’s day was created by a woman and the first match was lit by her too.

    Second, the importance of the term feminazis is paramount. This was the name they gave us. And subsequent nazi references hark back to what a fucked up label it is.

    P.S. Drugs in Class – the email is there it is just not published.

  7. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  8. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Pertinaciously!!

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