“I wanted a place where I could really talk about how I felt and I didn’t have to worry about hurting someone or protecting them.”
“In a support group, you can talk to somebody about it and you can meet up with people who may be worse off than yourself.”
I offer these quotes in response to Natasha Seymour’s article ‘Positive Discrimination Going Undetected Within ANU Student Societies’. These quotes are not taken from Queer literature, but from the Cancer Council NSW’s website. More on that a little later.
The primary concern I have with Ms Seymour’s article is the assumption about the purpose of the Queer Space. Before I tackle this, however, I need to call out Ms Seymour’s shallow representation of the Queer Collective as “…one of the only societies that turns away some of its eager potential members”. We do include non-Queer members in some events, but retain the Queer Space as our own room. Further, the Women’s Collective, the Postgraduate and Research Students Association and the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre are all examples of other organisations within ANU that ‘discriminate’ by excluding outside members. It is interesting that Ms Seymour chose to single out the queers, and not women, Aboriginals or post-graduates, in her argument.
All of these groups, including Queer Collective, have a fundamentally different purpose from what Ms Seymour presents in her piece. The Queer Collective is not a society. We don’t get together to improve our job prospects. We join together to improve our life prospects. Whilst activism is a key concern of ours, the Queer community must empower itself before it can tackle society-wide problems. A similar principle is seen when Islamic-Feminists resist intrusion from Western counterparts; the support of the latter does not necessarily empower the former.
For the Queer Collective, the single best method of empowerment is through the creation of an autonomous space (Queer Space). The power of autonomous space lies in its ability to give support for those that may not feel comfortable elsewhere. This is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s argument in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In her dramatic lecture, Woolf argues that it is only by having a quiet room away from her daily chores and enough money to keep her financially independent that will see the modern woman able to write great works of fiction. An independent space supports a woman’s, and the Queer communities’, desire to be empowered.
However, many of you are probably still thinking that you can support us by joining the collective; after all, you probably support gay marriage, hate queer hate and most likely have been to Cube. Surely you, in all your social progressiveness, can understand the plight of the queer people?
Ultimately it comes down to the difference between empathy and sympathy, and this is where my quotes at the beginning come in handy. Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others, but it mostly involves imagining what it must feel like to be in the position of another person. Empathy is a much deeper feeling, a more mutual sharing of suffering, most often because of similar experiences. This is where support groups, made up of just those who have had similar experiences of suffering, are so important. One of my best friends has described how after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour she felt isolated from her friends, unable to share with them the pain she was going through. Canteen and Camp Quality, made up of young people who have experienced cancer in their lives, provided her with the support network she needed to share her pain. And it’s the same with the Queer Collective. Sharing experiences of discrimination, coming out stories, gender questioning and so on is a delicate exercise, and one in which I feel much safer expressing in the company of those who can empathise, rather than sympathise, with my experiences.
Ultimately I do understand that people are just trying to reach out and be supportive, and I thank you all for that. But we still live in a society that is safe for straight people, but not necessarily so for us queers. Until that glorious day approaches, when we can all feel safe, what we Queers need is a room of one’s own; a safe space in which we can simply be.