Bi Academics at BiCon

At Manchester BiCon we put aside a whole afternoon for discussion of things academic and bisexual. By the time Sunday afternoon came around Alessandra (my co-facilitator) and I were less certain that this was a good idea, suffering as we were from the after-effects of the night before. We decided to suggest a shorter session followed by informal chat in the bar. However, the session was so popular and the participants so enthused that we managed to wake up and we all kept going for pretty much a whole double session. Next time though I definitely want to put anything academic on the first day of BiCon so I can give it my full attention.

Many thanks to all who attended the bi academic session. Last year there were about six of us, whereas this year I counted over twenty, and I know that there were a few more academic-y types floating around BiCon who were even worse for wear than Alessandra and myself so didn’t make it. Participants in the discussion ranged from lecturer/researchers like myself to therapists, masters students, statisticians and just interested parties. We came from a diverse range of academic disciplines from the arts and humanities through to the sciences. Given the level of enthusiasm and the range of expertise I feel that we can really begin to start making a mark. Here’s an overview of what we talked about in the session and some of our big plans for the future.

After going round and introducing ourselves and our areas, a few people spoke in some depth about their individual research. I hope that some of them will take the opportunity to write more about what they’re doing for future issues of BCN. In the meantime I will briefly mention a few of the things that are going on.

Individual projects
Steve spoke first about his research on bisexual identities and behaviours. We discussed, at some length, the difficulties in determining the number of bisexuals in the UK because of the problems getting a large enough sample of people and the difficulties of definition (are we counting people who call themselves bi? Who are attracted to men and women? Who have had relationships with the same and other gender?) The statistics that Steve has found so far, in his review of surveys which have asked about sexual behaviour, suggest an increase in bi behaviour in the last decade or so. Some of us questioned the wisdom of trying to quantify such things at all but, as Steve pointed out, many social and health policies take no account whatsoever of bi needs and we do need to provide some facts and figures in order to justify our claim that they should be designed with bi people in mind. Alessandra and Laurence were keen to find out more about the overlap between bisexuality and other categories like gender, class, age, culture and ability. This also requires more quantitative research. We’re hoping that Steve will get funding to continue his review of the area and will keep us up-to-date on the most recent research.

Helen then went on to tell us about her research into the history of the bi movement and bi identity politics. She’s particularly interested in the relationship between academic and political work on bisexuality. There are so few books in the area that both groups (academics and activists) tend to refer to each other’s writing. Helen is keen to know of any empirical work that is being conducted in the UK on bisexuality and to continue to examine who is setting the bi agenda and how this shifts over time.

Esther told us about her interest in the stories and narratives bi people tell and how these relate to widely available stories like the coming out story and the rather negative stories about bi people in the media, where we seem to be the bad-guys in contrast to the good-guys who come out ‘properly’ as gay. Esther is looking at how such available stories may both open up and close down options at the same time and also at how political processes (such as working towards relationship or gender change recognition) may be seen as stories in themselves, as can sexual interactions. Like me, Esther is keen to get her ideas out to a popular as well as academic audience and is planning a book with this aim in mind.

Next Alex spoke about his work. His PhD focuses on the way that branches of political sexuality groups (like Stonewall) deal with the problem of representing all the lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. people within their areas. Alex has also carried out a review of the literature on bisexuality which he presented at the recent ‘Pleasure and Danger’ conference which I also attended. He spoke about this work and some of the theories which argue that bisexuality subverts gender and sexuality categories (male/female, straight/gay) or doesn’t (because it is still based on the notion of there being two genders and that a person can be attracted to both). Alessandra spoke about the idea that sexuality and gender cannot be separated because sexuality is all about the gender a person is attracted to.

Surya spoke about a funded project she is involved with looking at sexual equality in local government. Initially bisexuality was not included in the project but she ensured that it was taken account of. She’s found that there is a high level of exclusion and ignorance about bisexuality with some still claiming that bisexuality doesn’t exist, although some people are arguing for more inclusive policies. Surya has also written about trans identities in a book called ‘Gender Politics’ to be out next year, and she is interested in tensions between groups within communities as well as how they work together. She’s hoping to conduct more funded research focusing on bisexuality in the future.

Ange talked about the Bi Media group (see their regular BCN column) which focuses on the media coverage of bisexuality. They search newspaper databases each month to find out how bi is being represented out there. Members also compare notes on any TV programmes, magazine articles, etc. Interested people are welcome to join their yahoo group including as collaborators to help with analysing and writing up. Ange also spoke about the need to re-examine the way people are using words like ‘bi’ and ‘queer’ since this is one of the main suggestions made by this year’s BiCon attendees.

Joint projects
There are also a number of joint projects going on within the bi academics group. We were updated these:

Kay told us about his bi history project. He is collecting material from the bi movement in Britain over the last 25 years to create an archive that researchers and activists can use in future. He’s also planning a book for people in general to be based on this project and to cover the history of the UK bi movement, as he explains, ‘this is what we did, what the media said and how we saw ourselves’. Kay is very interested in hearing from anybody who would like to be involved in the book and in collecting any material people might have for the archive ([email protected]). The projects have 35 volunteers already which is great news.

Laurence talked us through the questionnaire survey that a group of us designed and gave out to all BiCon attendees. We’re planning for this to be a regular part of BiCon so that we can trace the kinds of people who attend over time. Some of us are also interested in working up a qualitative questionnaire to be given out on alternate years to explore what people expect from BiCon and what they get out of attending. So far we have around 100 questionnaire responses to the quantitative questionnaire and the findings will be published in BCN. Ange also mentioned that several people had written in the margins of the questionnaire about how they felt they did or did not fit into the boxes that we suggested. We’re pleased that people engaged so actively with the questionnaire and plan to analyse that data too and to keep adapting it as the years go on.

Alessandra and Camel conducted a taped discussion at BiCon about ‘safe spaces’, particularly those at BiCon and within the bi community. This was a very interesting workshop indeed and there was a lot of debate about how people might be directly or subtley included or excluded from such groups. They’ll be writing this up for an academic audience and for BCN.

Finally, I am working with Ani on a series of focus group discussions looking at the overlapping bi, poly and BDSM communities. We’ve held three discussions so far and have several more planned. I’ve been asked to write a chapter about the research for a book called ‘Out in Psychology’, so I’m going to explore what members of the bi, poly and BDSM communities can tell psychologists (and people in general) about sexuality, gender and love. We posed this question specifically to a group of bi people at BiCon and tape-recorded their discussion. We’re very grateful to all who took part and will write about what came out of it for BCN as well as for the book chapter.

Where do we go from here?
We rounded off the session with a list of aims for the future which I will summarise here. These are in addition to our continued work on the projects outlined above.

1. To increase membership of our bi academic email group and keep the momentum of all these projects by encouraging collaboration between members of the group. We’d be pleased to hear from anybody who is interested in joining our BiBlio yahoo group whether or not you attended the BiCon session.

2. To continue reviewing the literature about bisexuality so that we can write a list of FAQs to put on the web and a press release give to journalists asking for information about bisexuality. Specifically we want to cover the issues of identity/behaviour, the extent of bisexuality, biphobia, and the complex relationship between bisexuality and mental health. We’d like to include quotes from experts (i.e. ourselves!) that journalists could use if looking for informed soundbites.

3. To put on an academic bisexual conference either before BiCon or separate from it. We’re thinking initially of having a day school where people present papers and run academic workshops. We’d like to open this up to people outside the UK, to both academics and activists, and to those of us who are just starting out in this area as well as some of the bigger names in bi research. The conference could produce a special issue of the Journal of Bisexuality about the state of bisexuality in the UK/European academic world. Hopefully it could also become a regular event and increase in size.

4. Something we didn’t mention but which came out of previous bi academic meetings is the idea of putting together training workshop material on bisexuality which we could all have access to and could use to increase awareness in various voluntary and other organisations.

So all-in-all a very successful session and we hope to keep everyone informed about our progress from now on.