BY SIMON BUTLER
SYDNEY — Thirty students from the University of Technology, Sydney were arrested and charged on August 9 after occupying the acting vice-chancellor's office. They were protesting University Council's rejection of official UTS participation in the 2001 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The chief opponent of an official UTS float has been the university's chancellor, Gerald Brennan, a former chief justice of the High Court. In his submission to the University Council, Brennan argued that the partial funding of a Mardi Gras float would not fulfil the university's educational functions.
According to Brennan, it would be "inappropriate for the university to support an external organisation which sponsors or espouses a particular belief, opinion, attitude or lifestyle" which has "no educational significance".
Although the Mardi Gras may not be as political as it has been in the past, many contingents use the event to challenge racism, bigotry and homophobia. The Mardi Gras is an opportunity to challenge prejudices and to educate people about gay and lesbian rights.
How is the UTS Rowing Club, for example, of greater "educational significance" than an official UTS Mardi Gras float? Is not the university Catholic chaplain an example of the university supporting "an external organisation which sponsors or espouses a particular belief"?
Brennan also argued in his submission that "among the staff and students of the university, there are many Christians, Muslims and others who would regard the celebration by the Mardi Gras of gay and lesbian sexuality as morally undesirable, perhaps offensive".
Without doubt there are some in the university who have similar homophobic prejudices as those which Brennan puts forward in his submission. The Mardi Gras is one of the few annual events that can be a forum in which such backward and reactionary views can be challenged.
There is also a minority on campus who find the eating of meat "morally undesirable, perhaps offensive". Will Brennan ban meat products from the university cafeterias to protect the delicate sensibilities of these students?
In a section of his submission titled "Prudence", Brennan claims that official university support and funding for the Mardi Gras would potentially "alienate many on whose favourable opinion the future of our educational efforts depend".
Earlier in the submission, however, Brennan wrote that "the university must neither authorise nor condone any adverse discrimination against staff or students on the grounds of their sexual orientation."
If he believes this, Brennan would not seek to avoid funding cuts motivated by homophobia by pre-emptively denying gay and lesbian students' rights, but would forthrightly condemn any government funding cuts imposed on the university as a result of its support for the right of gay and lesbian students to openly express their sexuality.
If Brennan is concerned that corporate sponsorship of the university will be affected, then UTS management should join staff and students in the campaign against the federal government's privatisation agenda.
Under the cover of legal argumentation, Brennan is promoting his own conservative morality regarding gays and lesbians. This is not the first time he has done so. In 1997, as chief justice of the High Court, Brennan ruled that a man accused of murder was guilty only of manslaughter because the man he killed had provoked him by making a sexual advance. This judgement enshrined the "homosexual advance defence" as a precedent in the Australian legal system.
UTS students are determined to overturn the University Council's decision. In just three days of campaigning, more than 2000 students and staff have signed a petition condemning the council.
President of the UTS Student Association Ryan Heath told Green Left Weekly, "Students are prepared to campaign for the next six months if necessary".
The University Council's decision has also been condemned by the National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU). Kath Murphy, a member of the NTEU lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender caucus, expressed support for the actions of the students and pledged to canvass for wider union support at the coming NTEU national conference.
The UTS Out Action Collective is demanding that:
the acting vice-chancellor Tony Blake (who is responsible for the day-to-day administration of UTS) agree to allow the use of the UTS name and logo on a Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras float organised by UTS staff and students, and that the University Council confirm this; Blake apologise in writing on behalf of the university for any offence caused to queer-identifying staff and students as a result of the submission to the council meeting; as supervisor of the UTS Equity and Diversity Unit, Blake make a written commitment to support the unit (with financial resources if necessary) to undertake projects and/or programs to address homophobia and other sexuality-related issues at UTS; and Blake commit the university to designating all UTS buildings as official "Queer Safe Spaces" and establish a working party, half of whose members are from the Out Action Collective and which includes academic and general staff representatives nominated by their trade unions, to implement such spaces.