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NATIONAL LESBIAN AND GAY COMMITTEE REPORT TO THE 11TH NATIONAL LESBIAN AND GAY CONFERENCE

CONSULTATION ON WHETHER THE UNISON LESBIAN AND GAY GROUP SHOULD BECOME A LESBIAN, GAY BISEXUAL AND TRANSGENDER GROUP

TO LGBT OR NOT TO LGBT?

SUMMARY

Consultation within UNISON's lesbian and gay group has made clear that members want a debate at this year's Lesbian and Gay Conference on becoming a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group. A majority of members appear to be in favour of such a change. There are strongly held views on both sides. The debate must be conducted in a respectful manner.

INTRODUCTION

This report to the 11th National Lesbian and Gay Conference gives information about the consultation undertaken this year by the National Lesbian and Gay Committee on whether to extend the remit of the self-organised group to include bisexual and transgender members. The document summarises the consultation process; degree of engagement; responses received; arguments that have been made for and against change; and the resulting proposal put to conference by the NLGC.

All this still represents only the beginning of a process. Questions have been asked about how exactly we would go about making the change, should it be agreed. This report - like the consultation itself - does not seek to answer these questions. However, the NLGC recognises that some assurance is needed that this will be properly addressed, so has included a brief final section on the way ahead. It may be possible to bring a further report to conference, with more detailed proposals on this, though any proposals would be subject to consultation.

BACKGROUND

Since UNISON came into being in July 1993, the rules have allowed for certain groups of members to ‘self-organise' at branch, regional and national level (Rule D.4). These groups are black members, disabled members, lesbian and gay members and women members. There is no ‘test' as to who qualifies for membership - how black, disabled or gay you have to be! It is up to individual members to decide whether they identify as part of that group.

The 10th UNISON Lesbian and Gay Conference debated a proposal for a rule change, which would extend the lesbian and gay group to include bisexual and transgender members. The proposal was not carried. Much of the debate centred not on the proposal itself but on the rights and wrongs of debating a rule change before there had been full consultation and discussion of the issues within the self-organised group. The National Lesbian and Gay Committee therefore agreed to lead such a discussion and bring any proposals to the 2003 Lesbian and Gay Conference.

The National Lesbian and Gay Committee had a full discussion about the arguments for and against change at its Policy Weekend in mid March. Representatives of eleven out of the thirteen regional lesbian and gay groups and both the black and disabled lesbian and gay members caucuses participated in this discussion.

Following this discussion, in April a consultation document was circulated to regional lesbian and gay groups. This document set out the legal framework; the timetable for consultation; the arguments for and against change that the NLGC had identified; and sources of further information on bisexual and transgender issues. The legal framework and arguments for and against change are reproduced as Appendix A to this report. The document made clear that the NLGC also welcomed responses from branch groups and individual members.

It was recognised that some regional groups had already begun to discuss the issues. However all groups were asked at that stage to hold full discussions in order that they could feed back to the NLGC by the 9 June. The consultation timetable is attached as Appendix B.

The matter was also discussed at the regional lesbian and gay group convenors day on 10 May.

RESPONSES FROM REGIONAL LESBIAN AND GAY GROUPS

Most regional lesbian and gay groups invited members on their mailing list to a meeting at which the issue was discussed as the sole or major item on the agenda. Many groups choose to circulate the NLGC consultation document to all members on their mailing list and encouraged comments from those unable to attend the meeting. Some groups had more than one meeting. A number of regional groups invited bi or trans people, or representatives from other union's groups that have already become LGBT groups, to assist them with their discussions.

Debates were reported as being lengthy and intense, with emotive and complex issues being discussed.

Written responses - which were received from 12 out of the (then) 13 regional groups - varied greatly in formality, length and detail, ranging from one sentence to many pages! This range (and informality of some) makes it inappropriate to include the responses in full and difficult to fairly summarise their contents. The following table summarises their conclusions:

Broadly or strongly in favour of change to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Group

Eastern

Greater London

Northern

South East

South West

West Midlands

Majority in favour of change to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Group

Yorkshire

On balance or strongly against change

East Midlands

North West

Members of the group evenly split between those in favour of change to LGBT group and those in favour of no change

Cymru/Wales

Scotland

Southern

 

Many of the responses reiterated points made in the consultation paper. Other points included:

‘There was a strong view that, if the change were made, then it must be real, not just adding one or two letters [to the name].' (Greater London)

‘Everyone agreed that it was important that there was a full and informed debate at Conference.' (Northern)

‘We hope that the debate at Conference this year will be a full and frank one, but one within which all members feel able to express their views and opinions in a constructive and acceptable way.' (North West)

‘There were some reservations expressed about the organisational and social/behavioural issues that may arise in the event of this change but the group noted that the NLGC were committed to further implementation consultation and were content to wait to make further contributions at that point.' (South East)

‘UNISON is a Trade Union and as such gives support to its members but it is not a support group' (South West)

PROPOSALS TO 11TH NATIONAL LESBIAN AND GAY CONFERENCE

The NLGC considered the responses from the regional lesbian and gay groups at its meeting on 5 July. The NLGC recognised that there is a range of feelings about the change and strongly held views, both for and against. However, what came through was a strong expectation and desire that there be a debate on this matter at this year's lesbian and gay conference.

The NLGC therefore agreed to submit the following motion for the preliminary agenda proposing a change to a LGBT group:

Conference welcomes the comprehensive consultation exercise on a possible extension of the lesbian and gay group to include bisexual and transgender members and the report that has been produced as result of that exercise.

This Conference believes the UNISON lesbian and gay self-organised group should become a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender self-organised group, and that the rules should be changed to facilitate this.

Conference instructs the National Lesbian and Gay Committee to:

1. draw up practical proposals for the implementation of this change;

2. to consult widely on these proposals;

3. actively encourage the involvement of bisexual and transgender members in the consultation that takes place;

4. bring recommendations on changes to the group's organisation and structure for approval at the 12th UNISON Lesbian and Gay Conference. ‘This Conference believes the UNISON lesbian and gay self-organised group should become a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender self-organised group.

Conference instructs the National Lesbian and Gay Committee to draw up practical proposals for the implementation of this change, to consult widely on these proposals, and bring recommendations on changes to organisation and structures for approval at next year's conference.

In addition the NGLC will submit a proposal to Lesbian and Gay Conference to change Rule D4.1.4, which defines the group, to go forward to the 2004 National Delegate Conference (NDC). The NDC is the supreme decision making body of UNISON, and is the only body that can change the union's rules. To fully effect the change, it would be necessary to amend other rules as well. If Lesbian and Gay Conference agree to the change, the NLGC will ask the NEC to submit the other rule changes in the name of the NEC, as Lesbian and Gay Conference may only put two proposals to each NDC.

In thinking this though, the NLGC has realised that the rules anyway need amending to make explicit the whole union's commitment to seek to ensure equality for, and tackle discrimination against, transgender people, whether or not the lesbian and gay group becomes a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group. The NLGC will raise this with the NEC.

CONDUCTING THE DEBATE AT CONFERENCE

To provide for informal discussion of the issues prior to the formal debate on the motions, the NLGC has requested that the Standing Order Committee timetable the debate for Sunday morning. This will give the opportunity to discuss more informally during the discussion groups on the Saturday afternoon, and there can be some debate in regional and service group meetings, as well as around conference.

It is important that everyone feels able to participate in this debate, whatever their experience of the issues or views on the preferred outcome. However, it is of paramount importance that the debate is conducted respectfully and in accordance with UNISON's rules on equality of treatment and anti-discrimination. There is a vital distinction between strongly held personal views and prejudiced views. Sometimes it may seem as though there is a fine line between these two, but it is vital that we stay the right side of that line.

The Conference Guide will, as usual, include guidelines on working together which every person at conference is expected to follow at all times.

THE WAY AHEAD

If the motion is carried at Conference, the NLGC will draw up practical proposals for discussion on the organisational and structural changes that will be needed to make the transition from a lesbian and gay group to a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group. The NLGC realises that in order to be meaningful, the change must be much more than in name and who is entitled to membership.

As well, as consultation within our group, we will speak to other trade unions and organisations which organise as LGBT groups. It will also obviously be vital to find ways to involve bisexual and transgender members in the discussions.

APPENDIX A

EXTRACT FROM CONSULTATION PAPER

LEGAL FRAMEWORK

As we start these discussions, it is important to be clear about the legal framework in which UNISON operates. We cannot choose structures that would be unlawful. Anti-discrimination employment legislation applies to unions as well as employers. Legislation allows for positive action to address disadvantage, which is why it is lawful for the union to provide opportunities and facilities for certain groups of members, such as lesbian and gay members. However, the union must provide such opportunities and facilities without discriminating on any other ground. For example, the lesbian and gay group must be open to ALL lesbian and gay members, irrespective of their gender identity (transgender status).

To put this more plainly, transgender members who identify as lesbian or gay are welcome to participate in the lesbian and gay group. A small number of lesbian and gay transgender members have been active members of the group since UNISON started.

This consultation is about whether to extend the group to include ALL transgender members, not just those who identify as lesbian or gay.

ARGUMENTS FOR STAYING AS A LESBIAN AND GAY GROUP

What follows are not necessarily all or even the best arguments for staying as a UNISON lesbian and gay group. But these are some of the arguments that the NLGC has identified which may help discussions.

  • The group works well as it is, so there is no need for change

When UNISON came into being ten years ago, it was agreed to form a self-organised group for lesbian and gay members. Nothing has changed since then that calls that decision into question. If it was right that it was a lesbian and gay group then, it is right that it is a lesbian and gay group now.

  • Some transgender people don't want to work with lesbians and gay men

One of the ignorant attitudes transgender people have to face is people making assumptions about their sexual orientation. Transgender people may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, or in a period of questioning their sexuality, just like every other human being. Some transgender people who identify as straight do not want to organise with lesbians and gay men.

  • Bisexual and transgender members could set up their own self-organised groups

We recognise the benefits of self-organisation in tackling discrimination but believe that - just as lesbians and gay men have done - bisexual and transgender members should set up their own groups. The very nature of self-organisation is that members of a particular self-organised group share the same oppression.

  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual workers face discrimination because of their sexual orientation. Transgender workers face discrimination because of their gender identity. These are not the same.

There is widespread confusion amongst the general public about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Changing to an LGBT group would reinforce this confusion. The law recognises the difference - protection for transgender workers is under the Sex Discrimination Act, an Act which has never been successfully used to tackle sexual orientation discrimination. Transgender workers have been protected by the law (albeit to a limited extent) since 1999. Protection on grounds of sexual orientation will not come into force till December of this year.

  • A European Court of Human Rights ruling means the UK will be forced to change the remaining laws which discriminate against transgender people

Lesbians and gay men continue to face discrimination under the law in many areas of our lives. Lawful discrimination against transgender people will soon be a thing of the past. This makes a fundamental difference between work in the two areas.

  • Extending the group will mean our work loses its focus and effectiveness

The lesbian and gay group is already stretched by the number of issues we have to deal with. We have a great challenge in building effective lesbian and gay organisation at branch and regional level; we want to reach isolated members; we need to have more impact on the bargaining agenda; we need to address issues of under-representation within our group, such as improving involvement of lesbians, and of low paid and part-time workers; we want to ensure all UNISON representatives understand our issues and that lesbians and gay men are represented in all parts of the union. We are campaigning against Section 28, against the long-term repercussions of discriminatory sexual offences legislation, for equal pensions, for comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, for effective statutory promotion and enforcement bodies - the list goes on. Taking on two whole new groups of members and their issues would stretch our limited resources to breaking point.

  • Extending the group would risk losing the sense of it being a safe space

One of the benefits of the lesbian and gay group is that people can do at least some of their union work in a group of people with the same experience of discrimination. This means we do not have to constantly explain ourselves or be on our guard against others' ignorant attitudes. This makes the group a safe space for lesbians and gay men experiencing discrimination at work to come for help. Some may have already had a bad experience with other UNISON members. Extending the group would jeopardise this.

  • It would make our organisation so complex as to be unworkable

Our group already has caucuses for lesbians, gay men, black lesbians and gay men and disabled lesbians and gay men. If we extend the group to include bisexual and transgender members, the need to provide for proper representation of them as well would make the structures unwieldy if not unworkable.

  • If we extend the group to an LGBT group now - where would it end?

ARGUMENTS FOR CHANGE

What follows are not necessarily all or even the best arguments for changing to a UNISON lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group. But these are some of the arguments that the NLGC has identified which may help discussions.

  • Extending the group is the right thing to do

No one disputes the fact the bisexual and transgender workers face prejudice, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. We believe that self-organisation plays a key role in tackling discrimination. Bisexual and transgender members should have access to self-organisation - the only group that can offer this is the lesbian and gay group.

  • Bisexual and transgender members want the lesbian and gay group to become a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group

This may not be the view of all bisexual and transgender members, but many have expressed this view over the years.

  • Bisexual members and transgender members will never be able to form their own self-organised groups as the numbers are just too small

Nobody knows how many bisexual people there are. What we do know is that bisexual groups are very small and few in number compared to lesbian and gay groups. The transgender group Press for Change estimates that about 5000 people in the UK have changed gender in the last 30-40 years. And even if bisexual or transgender members were able to get together to lobby for their own group, UNISON would be extremely unlikely to agree the principle of new self-organised groups for these members, let alone the necessary resources.

  • The laws may be different but workplace issues facing lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender members have enormous overlaps

Being lesbian or gay and being bisexual are not the same. Indeed the experience of being a lesbian worker is not the same as being a gay worker. But in terms of the employment discrimination these groups face because of their sexual orientation, the similarities far outnumber the differences.

Transgender workers face discrimination because of their gender identity, which is not the same as their sexual orientation. But there are enormous overlaps in the manifestation of this discrimination. Few of those who harass and abuse lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender workers stop to ask themselves whether they find the person so unacceptable as a colleague on grounds of their sexual orientation or on grounds of their gender identity. What fuels their abuse is fear and ignorance of anything that challenges their security about what ‘real' men and women should be like - ie dressing a certain way, acting a certain way, with appropriately feminine or manly body language, and having sex with people of the opposite sex only.

LGBT workers all face issues of outing and confidentiality, non-recognition of our families, a wall of silence or intrusive questioning about our private lives, prejudice about our suitability to work with vulnerable people, discrimination in recruitment and promotion, pensions provision - the list goes on.

  • The fact that some of the ways the law discriminates against transgender people may be changing does not mean that discrimination will end

Decades of sex and race legislation have not made discrimination go away. And the proposed changes - while welcome - are unlikely to cover all transgender people, just those who have undergone surgery.

  • UNISON is increasingly out of step on this issue

Most other unions, the TUC, ILGA and the wider community, now organise as LGB or LGBT groups. Many bodies (including the TUC) have changed over the last few years. The groups that have made this change have not found it has damaged their focus or effectiveness. Rather, it has added to their reach and authority.

  • Fears about losing a safe space are unfounded

Such fears demonstrate an unrealistic idea of what we have now. The UNISON lesbian and gay group is already a very diverse group and already has the need and the ability to welcome difference (be that of gender, political opinion, race, disability, age, class, occupation or whatever) and to tackle prejudice and discrimination between members of the group. We should also remember that we are a trade union, not a support group.

  • Fears that change will make our organisation impossibly complicated are unfounded

If the principle of change is agreed, we can then work out how to reflect this in our structures and organisation. Other groups have managed this - we can work it out.

  • We don't all use the same labels to describe our sexual orientation, and some of us use different labels at different times in our lives

Although many lesbian, gay and bisexual people are very clear about how they describe themselves, others find the labels set up artificial barriers. This may be particularly true for people outside the metropolitan centres. Some regional groups say people find it ‘easier' to identify as bisexual than lesbian/gay, particularly when they first come out.

  • There is nothing to fear from change!

 

 

Appendix B

TIMETABLE

14-16 March

National Lesbian and Gay Committee Policy Weekend agrees its view of the main arguments for and against change

1 April

Consultation circulated to regional lesbian and gay groups

10 May

Discussion at regional convenors day

9 June

Deadline for responses from regional groups

5 July

NLGC considers responses and agrees any proposals to Lesbian and Gay Conference

1 August

Deadline for motions to Lesbian and Gay Conference

26 September

Deadline for proposals for rule changes to be submitted to National Delegate Conference from Lesbian and Gay Conference

28-30 November

11th National Lesbian and Gay Conference

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