Words || Cameron Colwell
Macquarie University’s Queer Collective is in something of a quiet crisis. After a brief discussion with current interim secretary Paul Russell, I discovered that the Queer Collective, the student group responsible for the QueerSpace, was almost faced with disaffiliation due to a number of inactive executive members. This is in the process of being fixed.
However, the inactive executive has led the Collective to an inability to fund events, which has led to dwindling engagement with students throughout the first semester of 2017. Ben Dickens, who at the beginning of the year was elected convenor of the Collective, has consistently not been present at meetings or within the QueerSpace itself, and has dropped out of contact with everyone from the space.
Russell, the SRC’s LGBT representative, stepped in as interim-secretary and was able to secure funds to send a number of students from the Collective to Queer Collaborations in Wollongong, but it’s undeniable that there’s been much missed opportunity this year, and the amount of students who make active use of the QueerSpace has fallen as a result.
The QueerSpace has been my hub at campus since I drifted in towards the end of 2013 as a first year. As time went on, I’ve made a number of invaluable friends within the space. The real draw-card for the space is that it’s not sexualised in a way that most queer spaces are.
In conversation with queer students at Macquarie, the emphasis was on the freedom to be themselves and the comfort found in the QueerSpace. However, the lack of visibility and a feeling that the space was locked out by cliquey insiders indicates that, on a structural level, there is not enough being done to welcome new members to the Collective and users of the space. With the leadership issue and the matter of the QueerSpace moving to a new building due to the Campus Hub being knocked down soon, it’s important to kick off a discussion about what university identity-based safe spaces and collectives are for, as well as what they ought to provide students.
If the function of a QueerSpace is to provide a safe environment for GLBTIQ people, and there’s a vast majority of queer students who don’t see it as necessary, what’s gone wrong?
In my queries, one of the recurring answers to the question of why people don’t participate in the space and Collective’s events was a lack of visibility. Some students asked why there were few high-profile events, or noted that the Facebook page seemed inactive. A few students mentioned that they were aware of the space’s presence on campus, but did not know where it was.
So what does it take for a Queer Collective to be relevant to a wide student body?
What seems like an ideal model for what an identity-based collective should be is the Macquarie University’s Women’s Collective. While there are inevitably more women than queer people on campus, WoCo has thrived recently, particularly under the leadership of Jasmine Noud. For Noud, what makes the Collective and the Women’s Room which belongs to it so welcoming is its variety of uses: “People are comfortable using it for a variety of reasons and I feel like there’s very little pressure. A lot of people can be intimidated by the concept of a safe space. What’s worked really well with the women’s room is that people use it for whatever. People use it for a small meeting or to do a group task or just have their lunch. While it can be a social space it is also a safe space that all women-identifying people can use. There’s very little judgment in the space.”
The Women’s Collective has hosted a number of successful events recently, including Women in the Workplace, where a number of prominent women spoke about their careers, including NSW’s first female premier, Kristina Keneally, Kat Dopper, the founder of Heaps Gay, and Amanda Farrugia, Captain of the Sydney Giants AFL team.
The Women’s Collective had been in a similar state to the Queer Collective just a few years ago. “Frankly, for the last few years, not many people have known that the collective existed,” says Jasmine. “This was not unfair because those who were running it at the time were very inactive. It only existed in the form of a Facebook group that people weren’t engaging with, which defeated the purpose of the collective as a whole. But I think now more events are being held, now that the collective is putting its name out there a bit more, and now that these kinds of conversations about gender, about equality, are being had on campus, more people are wanting to be engaged.”
I also asked about the Collective’s engagement with the Queer Collective. As an early success, the two collectives sent a combined group to Mardi Gras this year.
“There’s been basic interactions like advertising each other’s events. There’s quite a bit of overlap between members of the two collectives, but beyond that? There hasn’t been a lot of engagement, not for lack of trying on my end, I must say. There’s multiple instances where there’s been a really good opportunity for collaboration…we’ve just not heard back. We’re looking at Sex Week, mid semester-two, and we haven’t heard back.”
Jonathon Papadopoulo, who was previously a member of the Collective and held the role of GLBTIQ Coordinator in the university’s Equity and Diversity Unit, discussed the practical challenges of engaging students with the Space:
‘The question is, do we want to make the space itself more engaging so more students use it, or do we want to make a more engaging identity network of queer students on campus? Very different things. Some students are really comfortable using the space but don’t want to be identified outside of the campus, and other students are like ‘I’m here, I’m queer, I’m used to it, I don’t need to be in that room.’ It’s complicated to give people what they want…But it comes and goes.”
I also spoke to Connor Parissis, Queer Officer at the University of Sydney. USYD is a very different context from Macquarie; their collective equivalent, the Queer Action Collective, is dedicated to political action, with a different group, Shades, being the social group.
“No matter what, our identities are politicised… I think it’s quite ignorant to hide away from the political side of your identity when it’s so integral. Being queer is to be political. You can’t escape that.” As with Noud, Parissis emphasises the importance of an active leadership in making a space engaging: “The queer officers now are passionate…I’m constantly showing that I’m willing to put in the effort, and people admire that.”
While some queer students were certain that a QueerSpace was not for them, there was a general consensus that the QueerSpace remains absolutely necessary. While the Collective may be in a latent phase, I have a firm belief that it can change and be an active community with a relevant presence on campus. However, the future of the Queer Collective ultimately rests on its members, both present and future, and what they believe it should be.
The QueerSpace is located on Level Two of the Hub Building and welcomes all students, regardless of whether they currently identify as queer or are part of the Queer Collective.
Since the publication of this article, the writer has become the Interim Secretary of the Collective, and had a hand in organising both the ‘Queerness 101’ event and Macquarie University Queer Collective marriage equality plebiscite campaign.