A gathering of attendees at the Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) has called for a boycott of the Queer Collaborations (QC) Conference beginning today in Canberra, citing the organisers’ failure to ban an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment, among other equity grievances.
The call to boycott QC was moved a gathering of attendees at NOWSA’s recent annual conference (which did not reach quorum) in Hobart condemning QC’s organisers for “fail[ing] to adequately prioritise or respond to concerns regarding the safety and well being (sic) of delegates”, in particular by allegedly refusing to ban individuals accused of misconduct during previous conferences.
In a response on their website, the QC organisers dispute the claim that they had failed to enforce prior bans, stating that “no delegates, to our knowledge, who have been previously banned, have registered for QC”. They acknowledged, however, that they had received requests this year to ban two people who had been involved in incidents in the past. These requests to implement bans were not acted on. Furthermore, NOWSA spokesperson Innes Finn disputes the number of requests received by QC, claiming knowledge of more than five requests.
Of the two confirmed requests, one regarded an individual whose behaviour at previous conferences had been “extremely predatorial (sic)”, involving “inappropriate and unconsensual (sic) touching”. The 2015 organisers refused to ban this individual, stating the claims don’t sufficiently “constitute a clear and significant threat to the wellbeing of QC delegates to the level of requiring that [this person] be excluded from QC.” Instead, the organisers committed to “alert the Grievance Collective to these concerns and personally remind [this person] of the Participant’s Agreement and Safer Spaces policy.” The other request concerned an individual who had not registered to attend QC 2015.
Speaking on behalf of the QC organisers, Stuart Ferrie said “the belief that the QC organising committee has significant power to stop an individual sexual assault is misplaced… We believe the risk that [the person] will reoffend is better mitigated by appropriately engaging with them and having the community keep a close eye on them, rather than punitively banning them.” Stuart also noted that “the usage of bans at QC last year contributed in an extreme way to the generally traumatic nature of the conference last year…bans should be the last step when mediation has broken down, not before any attempt to mediate has occurred.”
The Participant’s Agreement and Safer Spaces Policy, which was not accessible on the QC 2015 website and only made available via Facebook on July 6, states that QC “is not a space for violence, for touching people without their consent”, and sets out guidelines for delegates. In case of a breach, the Grievance Committee is empowered to exclude individuals from the conference. The Grievance policy also states that in such situations, their responsibility is to the “aggrieved party, and to their needs and desires.”
The individual who requested the bans wrote on Facebook that they felt the QC organisers had “deemed [their] sexual assault to be insignificant.” At the time of writing, QC organisers had not responded publicly to these comments.
In a screenshot of an email provided by NOWSA, it was clear the organisers have failed to respond to a number of emails, including a ban recommendation from a 2014 Grievance Officer. Another ban request was denied, as “after consulting legal advice, it has been found that we cannot act.” It is unclear whether this is the same legal advice referred to in a separate email from QC, which stated that “we requested legal advice from the ANUSA lawyer which indicated that we were under no obligation to ban people.” This advice was later retracted, and the retraction was never communicated to the initial requester of the ban.
On top of these concerns regarding grievance procedure, QC has been under fire for its failure to provide accommodation, an unexplained rise in ticket prices and a lack of organisational transparency. According to Stuart Ferrie, the lack of information regarding the organising committee is due to organisers not yet being publicly out, and a concern at the publicity and “extensive harassment” occurring due to the boycott.
A lack of consistent communication also contributed to a misunderstanding about the provision of an AUSLAN interpreter for Deaf or Hard of Hearing attendees. The delegate requiring the interpreter had initially assumed that QC would provide an interpreter in 2015, as they thought it had in past years. However, they were subsequently informed by email that an interpreter could not be arranged, without any public announcement made informing participants, or offer to refund the cost of accommodation and tickets to the conference. According to the organising committee, an interpreter was never confirmed but only floated privately as a possibility. “I believe that there was miscommunication between the [person involved in the discussion] and the delegate in question which led the delegate to believe that we had secured AUSLAN interpretation,” Stuart Ferrie said.
The range of grievances aired, combined with QC’s lack of responses, have fuelled NOWSA’s call to boycott. The media release specifically encouraged a number of student groups to boycott QC. Of those, UTSSA, UWS Student Association’s Queer Department, the Queer and Women’s Departments at The Arc at UNSW, the UTas Queer Women’s Collective and USyd’s Queerkats have notified their members of the motion. Blacademy has shared NOWSA’s release and encouraged the boycott, and National Union of Students National Queer Officer Isaac Foster has withdrawn registration, and will be supporting a boycott in Canberra for the duration of QC 2015.