Why the NUS shouldn’t have scrapped its Trans Campaign
How a short-sighted financial decision has pulled the rug from under the feet of Trans students
We've all grown so used to hearing it trotted out: "We just can't afford that". It's less of an argument than a cudgel, a blunt instrument of authority to say that whoever controls the budget of an organisation controls its priorities, its voice and its function.
That's exactly what's happening in the NUS right now. Amid a financial crunch, it has decided that the first thing to go is the full-time Trans Officer and along with it, the entire Trans Campaign. It's not necessary, in the sense that they're retaining less vital posts like the VP for Union Development. It's an expression of where the NUS' priorities lie, and it's a disaster for the wellbeing of trans and non-binary students at Cambridge and around the country.
As it stands though, we at Cambridge are lucky. The campaigning work that has happened, ranging from pressuring women's colleges to update their admission policies, to demanding the provision of gender neutral bathrooms across the collegiate university, has made massive improvements in a very short space of time to the wellbeing and safety of trans students. It's a testament to the success of CUSU and its liberation campaigns. It's easy to imagine, in our own context, that we don't really benefit from something so far removed from us.
The problem arises as soon as we step even a little out of our immediate surroundings. Even when trans people can have our presence affirmed and respected by fellow students, we still face drastic and vitriolic opposition to our very existence. Whether it takes the form of drastically inaccessible healthcare, the vastly increased likelihood of being cut off from family support, or a wider media environment that views trans women as inherently threatening, it's still a desperately precarious time to be a trans student. University is often a site of refuge for trans people – an opportunity for self-discovery and affirmation that wouldn't be possible without the independence that we get afforded. At the same time, we can't pretend that the hostility of wider society necessitates thinking about universities as a site of 'refuge'. We have a duty to carve out a secure place for trans people to buttress against the rampant and pervasive transphobia we'd face in pretty much every other public institution.
This is exactly where the NUS plays an absolutely crucial role. In being such a large representative body, the force with which it can argue and campaign for accessible and dignified healthcare for trans people is unparalleled – it certainly can't be replicated on the level of a university campaign. Similarly, the Gender Recognition Act's consultation prompted a huge mobilisation, in which the NUS' work, both in understanding and producing responses to the consultation and activating student unions around the country, provided a crucial part of the buttress against a sustained campaign to deny the legal rights of trans people. No other organisation can advocate on behalf of so many trans people, and do so with genuine force and tenacity. It's a unique position in the public sphere, and we know just how impactful it has the capacity to be.
When so many public institutions treat the lives of trans people as marginal and peripheral, someone has to take on the responsibility to placing our interests and welfare as central. The NUS should absolutely be that body, given the young trans people who make up its membership and the way universities and higher education institutions sit at the frontline, protecting and safeguarding their welfare.
If the NUS is really serious about standing up for the most vulnerable of its members, it needs to keep the Trans Officer and Campaign funded.