Article Title:Stacking the student deck: They've got the numbers
Category:Features
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:15th October 2004 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:451
Text:An on-going investigation by GayNZ.com's Chris Banks into a conservative Christian takeover of Otago University's Student Union and its disturbing effects on glbt student support and advocacy at the university. PART 2: Blind to the cause Otago University's queer support group UniQ receives annual funding from students to run its office. This includes the salary of co-ordinator Nathan Brown, who works a 20-hour week in the role. The total annual funding would come to around $15,000. "UniQ provides some peer support for students that are starting to question their sexuality, they can approach UniQ and we can link them up with other students, just to share experiences about coming out and to perhaps link in with the queer community in Dunedin," says co-ordinator Nathan Brown. "We also run campaigns, mainly the idea of that is to promote acceptance of queer identities around Dunedin." These days, Brown says, he's finding more and more time taken up by dealing with Student Choice. Some enquiries border on the obtuse - when a local Tui beer billboard in Dunedin was altered to read "There's nothing wrong with Brian Tamaki - yeah right", UniQ received an email from Glenn Peoples asking whether they had any comment to make on it. "These three people are the only people that seem to have any problem with what UniQ does, and it's just really frustrating," he says. "They claim to be Christian, but they're brewing a very antigay atmosphere by constantly challenging the validity of a service such as UniQ. UniQ is simply a welfare service for queer students, and queer students are an identified minority group that have particular vulnerabilities in a campus environment." Student Choice object to compulsory student funding going to groups they see as political, even if some of their objectives are welfare-oriented. "I have no problem, for example, with people trying to stop homosexual suicide, anymore than I have a problem with people trying to stop youth suicide," says Flannagan. "What I think is problematic is when those services are tagged to an organization which has political or ideological stances that it wants to lobby for. It's a bit like, suppose a church provided really good services, you wouldn't then say well look, let's force everyone to join the church." This is why, when it came to the student general vote on the Civil Union Bill, Student Choice helped to ensure a negative result. "There's no question about the fact that we stacked that meeting," says Peoples. "We stacked it because we were sure that supporters of the motion would do exactly the same thing, and we were right. General student meetings are so unrepresentative of the student body that unless you stack it you won't win it." So stack it they did, with conservative religious students, including members of the Destiny Church, who turned up in their familiar colours - the black "Enough Is Enough" t-shirts. The Otago Daily Times described it as the largest student meeting in two years. "We're opposed to any group that is funded by students receiving special privileges that other student groups don't get," says Peoples. "We don't think that their political or moral agenda should be pushed by the association any more than mine should. And because it was the moral views of those Christian students that I thought was under fire, it only made sense that they would be the ones to defend themselves against this." But it was queer students who found themselves under fire at the meeting, and afterwards. Anna McMartin, a straight Christian student, is concerned at the methods Student Choice is using to push for VSM. She says many of the queer students were left feeling despondent after the meeting. "I know of one guy who found a shit in his letterbox with an offensive or threatening note - that was pretty horrendous," she says. Having uniformed Destiny Church supporters at the meeting so soon after the intimidating Destiny march on Parliament was ill-advised, McMartin feels. "You can't march 8000 people wearing black up the street and not expect people looking on to feel intimidated. You can't tell children that being gay is a perversion and an affront to God and not expect them to go to school and bully their peers whom they perceive to be gay. One almost automatically leads to the other." She doesn't think Student Choice can be let off the hook by absolving themselves of responsibility for the actions of others. "There's a pretty close link between this insistence on individual rights, saying don't coerce me into doing anything, don't tread on my conscience, and the idea that it's ok to attack someone else's lifestyle," she says. "For them the abiding principle is individual choice, personal choice, and for me the abiding principle is always other people's welfare. I would never assume that my personal choice was more important than queer people feeling safe on campus." The heavy scrutiny of UniQ activities by Student Choice has made it difficult to draw the line between the organisation's VSM principles, and the Christian beliefs of its core members. A recent protest by members of Dunedin's local queer community - including UniQ's Nathan Brown - outside the Destiny Church saw Student Choice issuing a press release suggesting that gays might be using student money to picket the churches of other students, and that the protest was rumoured to involve gay students stripping in front of Destiny parishioners. It turned out to be a misunderstanding - one of Student Choice's informers had misinterpreted the meaning of "flash mob". Peoples asked Brown whether the rumours were true when he turned up at the protest to take photos of it, and was told they weren't. But by this stage, the Student Choice press release had already gone out. Matthew Flannagan was at the protest, and insists the protesters were impolite and disrespectful; something disputed by both Brown and at least one Destiny churchgoer who emailed GayNZ.com to say how proud he was of the "well mannered and civil" protesters. Anna McMartin has looked on in dismay at the goings-on. The cumulative effect of antigay rhetoric nationwide was enough to prompt her to organize an ecumenical church service called "Love Is Enough", in support of queer students. "I just wanted to put an expression out there of how much people like me value our queer friends and colleagues, and family members and so on," she says. "I've been delighted to see over the last couple of years UniQ has just flourished, and it's that sort of thing that would be the first to go under a voluntary regime. I think if we're serious about the welfare of students, then we need to retain compulsory membership." That argument has no truck with David Bisman, Student Choice's queer supporter. He admits that UniQ would probably go under a voluntary system, but doesn't see this as a bad thing. "I remember what it was like before there was any compulsory funding for gay support groups and in fact it was easier because we were seen as individuals," he says. "What happens now is that because you've got this organization called UniQ, everybody thinks, well they're getting the money, they know what queers think. So if something comes up, they go to UniQ. And they ask them, and there's no room for dissent. There's no room for honest debate." Queer students at Otago will survive without UniQ, says Bisman. "As long as it's needed, there are people going to be about doing those things. I'm involved in a lot of organizations that don't get funding from anybody, but we think that they're necessary, so people make them happen. For centuries, queers have survived in queer communities without anybody compulsorily funding them." Flannagan agrees. "There's plenty of evidence that in student politics, a person can stand and say I'm queer, or I'm a woman, or I'm black or white, or whatever, and be able to get into office. At Waikato the year before I stood, something like 70%, probably 80% of the current executive were queer students." UniQ Otago's co-ordinator position is currently vacant, with Brown heading off to Australia. His successor will have to be prepared to deal with not only the welfare of queer students at Otago, but those who oppose them. McMartin thinks its time for Student Choice to calm down. "I'm not suggesting that these people be censored, but I am putting it to them that when they use their right to speak freely that they do it with a sense of responsibility and compassion and concern for the welfare of the people they're talking about," she says. "Freedom of speech isn't a licence to go about being a dick and making comments that are hurtful for other people. With freedom comes responsibility as the old adage goes, none of us lives in a vacuum, and we've got a responsibility to be decent to the people around us." Next week: The basis of the Flanagan's objection to legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Chris Banks - 15th October 2004    
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