The Glasgow University Union has once again made headlines this weekend over the treatment of two female debaters visiting the university from Edinburgh and Cambridge for the GUU Ancients Debating Championship. The two women, Rebecca Meredith and Marlena Valles, were victims of sexist heckling and misogynistic objectification from a small number of male GUU members.
Whilst this news may have shocked the majority of people, including the women themselves, I'm ashamed to say that I, and probably a fair few people here at Glasgow University, was not. It is one incident in a line of many that members of the GUU have been involved in over the years, with a minority of its members embodying everything that was unfair, regressive and unequal in society throughout much of the 20th century. Indeed, the 'lad' culture on which the GUU prides itself stems from the fact it was once a male-only Union and refused to admit women until 1980.
The misogyny witnessed at the GUU Ancients is only the most recent example of the sexist culture that continues at the GUU. Last November saw the hosting of the Last All Male Board dinner, an event which invites current board members and those male members who were on the board before the first female board member was elected. The event, though seemingly innocent, is just another excuse to remember and celebrate the Unions dark sexist past.
Then there's the 139 Club, so named after the 139 male members in 1980 who voted against allowing women to join the Union, despite mounting pressure from the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Had the decision not passed, it may have resulted in the closure of the GUU - a consequence the 139 males who voted against would apparently have preferred. The decision to ban the meetings of the 139 Club within the GUU was only made in 2011, a staggering 31 years after the initial vote. Despite this ban on meetings on campus, I think it highly likely that these meeting carry on elsewhere, albeit privately, continuing to embed the gender inequalities.
It's not only women who are the victims of GUU backwardness. Glasgow alumnus Liam Fox, a prominent member of the British Conservative party, also revealed his homophobia in his days as a student. The Union refused to affiliate the "Gay Society" in 1982, leading to a protest against this decision. Fox, then a member of the SRC, agreed with the decision made by the GUU, stating: "I just don't want the gays flaunting it in my face, which is what they would do."
However, this is not say all members of the GUU are equally sexist, homophobic and generally against anyone who isn't a white middle-class male. I do not mean to tar all members with the same brush. Yet the fact that these other members, including many women, are willing to tolerate such behaviour and explain it away as 'lad' culture or 'banter' is simply unacceptable. The GUU has a murky past, perhaps no more so than any other institution, but the toleration of such misogyny essentially accepts it. This type of occurrence shouldn't be "par for the course" and shouldn't "be expected". It should be openly rejected, and those members of the GUU who were heckling the female debaters should be banned, or at least disciplined, by Union management. An example needs to be set. To get away from it's sexist past, the GUU and its members should actively seek to do so. The GUU has supposedly been changing and getting better in this respect for years - but when can we actually expect this change? When can we actually say it has gotten better?
Something needs to be done, and soon, or else Glasgow University risks losing a special part of its history. The behaviour of members will begin to alienate more and more students, leading to less and less profit and eventual decline. The Union may have it's problems, but I doubt many students - old, current or prospective - would actually celebrate the downfall of the GUU. I urge current Union management to seriously reconsider the behaviour of it's members and make attempts to forever rid of the sexism and misogyny exemplified this weekend.