Politics change but legacies can’t: GUU’s murky past continues to haunt

Published

The Glasgow University Union Main Staircase

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Dasha Miller

Steven McFeat
Writer

On Saturday 19 August, Glasgow was transformed into a technicolour wonderland as rainbow flags flooded the streets. Pride rolled into the city with bombastic style as hundreds took to Glasgow Green to join in the annual festivities, marching to celebrate their identities and sexualities. This year, Glasgow Pride held a particular significance, as Nicola Sturgeon became the first Scottish First Minister to speak at Pride – an occurrence demonstrating just how far the gay rights movement has come. The Duke of Wellington even sported a rainbow traffic cone. However, as well as the many celebrations taking place globally, Pride remains particularly poignant in 2017 Britain. This year marks a noteworthy milestone: 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country.

Indeed, in today’s uncertain political landscape, the LGBTQ+ community appears to have little to celebrate, from President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service persons to the worrying reports of gay concentration camps in Chechnya. Despite increased awareness and progress regarding LGBTQ+ issues, the journey towards equality is far from over. This is precisely why Pride still matters – the fight is far from finished.

Even at our own university, homophobia and prejudice remain an inescapable part of life within the LGBTQ+ community. With the troubling news of a homophobic attack recently taking place in the West End, it appears that prejudice cannot simply be eradicated with the wave of a rainbow flag. The University of Glasgow proudly displays this symbol behind the main building, communicating values of solidarity and acceptance for its many LGBTQ+ students, staff and alumni, and yet the legacy of homophobia persists in university life. Only thirty years ago, an LGBT society was denied affiliation with the Glasgow University Union. Although the social context of the 1980s might make the union’s decision sound par for the course, the decision was met with outrage from other universities across the UK. At the time, the now-celebrated alumnus Liam Fox, current Secretary for International Trade and former member of GUU and the SRC, was quoted as saying ‘no poofs allowed’. Whilst this is clearly no longer the stance taken by the union in 2017, it is interesting to consider just how much (or indeed, little) has changed within the GUU, and within our university community as a whole.

Glasgow University Union itself is no stranger to controversy. Only four years ago, a nationwide furore was sparked following a debate within the union, where two female debaters were heckled and jeered at by a small group of male students. Much more worrying was the response on campus, suggesting that this behaviour was simply part and parcel of GUU membership. Gender dynamics have long played a role within the union structure here at Glasgow: tradition dictated that the two unions be separated by sex, a rule not eradicated until the late 1970s, even then to some protest.

Despite an amendment in 1979 which allowed female members, the GUU continues to be haunted by its reputation as the ‘men’s union’, where “lad culture” dominates. While this image has eased in recent years, due to an increased commitment to diversity on behalf of the committee, some LGBTQ+ students still would prefer a quiet drink in QMU’s Champions Bar instead of the Beer Bar. The “lad culture” ambience surrounding life at the GUU is something which I have long felt alienated from: it has definitely improved in recent years, but I can’t help but think back to how intimidated I was as a closeted fresher walking into this environment, desperate to ‘pass’ this invisible and undefinable test of my masculinity against complete strangers.

It is clear that in 2017, both unions are here to support their LGBTQ+ student base. Could more be done? Of course. Does that make one union “better” than the other? Absolutely not. A strive for equality and inclusiveness should be at the heart of any student union, especially at Glasgow, where people from all walks of life come to spend arguably their most formative years. Laws have changed, attitudes as well, but the ongoing struggle for full equality continues and legacies persist.

The poignancy and significance of UK Pride in 2017 does not go unnoticed. As a gay man, the world has been opened up to me and I am no longer afraid to express my true self. Fifty years on from a world in which I would have been declared mentally ill, I now look forward to the prospect of my future. What matters to me most is that the most arbitrary things are accessible to me as a gay man living in 2017, and I can live a life that is remarkably average without being seen as a novelty or a freak of nature. In such uncertain times for our community, a network of support is a blessing that, thankfully, both unions provide. That being said, the legacy of the GUU, despite its best efforts to liberalise, may still be daunting for LGBTQ+ freshers, as its troubling past is not as distant as we might think.