It is standard practice at a lot of universities and the National Union of Students (NUS) to have groups which are specifically for marginalised groups to come together and organise on issues pertaining to them, and there are two very important principles behind this which must be respected: autonomy and self-definition.
To this end, EUSA has four liberation groups – women’s, LGBT+, black and minority ethnic, and disabled and mental wellbeing (although I refuse to call it that because “mental wellbeing” erases the specific issues which mental illnesses bring with them). These groups cater to the very specific needs of those who are marginalised because of their gender, sexuality, trans status, race or ability, and face obstacles and oppression at university and in wider society because of this.
We need these liberation groups because otherwise there would be very little way of ensuring that our voices are heard in a structure which does not privilege us. We need these safe spaces to come together and organise for ourselves in an environment which does not reproduce the structures and ideas that these groups are trying to survive in and fight.
And we need these spaces to be autonomous, otherwise we cannot truly claim these spaces as ours and our needs would never be prioritised. Some of the ways this autonomy is enshrined are the fact that only people who self-define into these groups can vote on their conveners, conveners should only be people who define into those groups, and, while some group events may be open to all, the vast majority of organising will be led only by people who define into those groups.
Self-definition itself is not a perfect concept, and there are flaws in EUSA’s current system. For example, people currently have to self-define when voting, which I am personally hoping to iron out next year – although this still remains a much better way than just drawing all this information from the university database, because the way identities are often classified in such databases is based on outdated and oppressive definitions.
Self-definition is contentious and tricky to describe as it applies differently to all four liberation groups. With gender and sexuality, self-definition is more clear-cut because these identities depend on being identified with by individuals, whereas with race the identity is forcibly imposed on the individual by society and cannot be escaped. Disability and mental illness balance self-identification with diagnosis and a host of ethical questions which also mean self-definition is not a one-size-fits-all concept. This is something else we need to iron out, but the main point remains: only people who belong to these groups should be making decisions within them, and this is a principle which needs to be followed in order to respect our right to having these autonomous spaces.
A lot of people do not know the liberation groups exist, or what they are for, which is a shame and something which needs work. They also might not know or respect the vital principles of autonomy and self-definition which lie behind them, and abuse the system by running for positions which are not for them and soliciting votes from people who do not belong in those groups.
This is disgusting: all it does is harm those who engage with and need these spaces. Only people who identify into the groups should vote on and stand for them, because they know best their needs should be dealt with, in the same way that only people within a constituency can vote on which MP represents them because they know local issues best. It is as simple as that, and if you care about the rights of marginalised groups, you will respect that.