BiCon: All things to all people?

Another Bicon, and time for nervous newcomers to worry if they’ll enjoy it, and old-timers to debate what it’s for anyway.

Like it or not, Bicon is now an event with a distinct identity. Attendees expect a 3-day residential event, with 5 or more sessions to choose from throughout the days, a coffee lounge or bar to hang out in, self-catering facilities, and entertainment laid on in the evenings, with at least one night where dressing up to the nines and beyond is encouraged. This has become more fixed as years have gone on. It means that if you don’t want to attend a residential event, or any event with over 200 people, or one where many people are more concerned with the bar opening times than activism, Bicon may not be for you. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a reminder that the bi community is not the same as Bicon, and should encourage people to set up more events that will appeal to a more diverse population. One event will never please everyone.

However, it’s important to remember what Bicon has achieved over the years. It’s created a focus for bisexuals who were both ostracized by straight society for queerness (Section 28 being a manifestation of that), and rejected by the gay communities they sought refuge in (e.g. Tom Robinson being booed off stage at London Pride in 1997, and the biphobic comments from lesbians at multiple Pride events in 2009). But it’s brought people with other things in common together, too. Being created by broke geeks meant Bicon was publicized online before that was common – leading to a place where computer geeks could talk about their interests without fear of ostracism, and people who are happier with written communication – deaf people, some with Asperger’s or similar traits – could make friends online before attending. By 1997, my first Bicon, the registration form asked if you needed a sign language interpreter and if so which sign language. I don’t sign, but seeing the question for the first time in my life made me feel that here was somewhere where I probably wouldn’t be laughed at for not hearing and needing anything repeated or written down. I was right.

It turned out it was also a place where many other things that would get you laughed at or worse in mainstream societies were accepted or encouraged:

  •     Dancing to 80s disco music before it became retro-chic.
  •     Being fat and dancing anyway. In a short skirt.
  •     Women who didn’t feel the need to be on a diet just because the media says they all should be.
  •     People finding people of all shapes and sizes attractive and not worrying what their mates would say.
  •     A wider variety of ages than you’d have from your school or college friends or the workmates you go down the pub with.
  •     Liking corsets.
  •     Cross-dressing.
  •     Wearing PVC or rubber.
  •     Goth music. Being a goth.
  •     Talking about sex.
  •     Conversations about contraception and STDs.
  •     Knitting.
  •     Sitting in a corner and knitting when it all gets a bit much.
  •     Having a panic attack and simply being helped to a quiet space until you’ve recovered.
  •     Having depression or other mental illness.
  •     Talking about having mental illness.
  •     Providing quiet social areas besides the main events.
  •     Being pagan, atheist, or vegan.
  •     Providing a smoke-free venue long before the smoking ban came in.
  •     Officially accepting transgender people as being of their self-defined gender.
  •     Having a sliding scale for costs of the event.
  •     Not asking for proof of being on benefits or otherwise unwaged.
  •     People willing to call themselves feminists.
  •     People involved in politics or activism and don’t just assume all politicians are the same and activism is a ‘bit sad’.
  •     Having information on concepts like gender and SM that people might not be familiar with.
  •     Making it clear that being into consensual sado-masochism or kinky sex is OK.
  •     Not having a gender or behaving in ways usually expected of your sex is fine too.
  •     Studying for a second or third degree, or in the evenings, and not being derided as a spod.
  •     Geeking about trains, computers, sewing, anything and not being deemed a nerd.
  •     An environment where knowing stuff is cool.
  •     Accommodation near the session and social spaces for ease and for people who have trouble walking.
  •     Camp straight people. Other straight people.
  •     Gay people who find the bi scene less appearance-based or clubbing-based than the gay scene.
  •     Providing counsellors for people who need them.
  •     People from all over the British Isles, and expats living in the UK.
  •     Visitors from Holland, Denmark, Spain and beyond.
  •     City traders to civil servants to committed full-time activists.
  •     Wannabe politicians to experienced prostitutes.
  •     Encouraging explicit consent to everything, starting with the suggestion in the Code of Conduct, ‘A useful phrase is “Would you like a hug?”’
  •     And, of course, fancying men or women or anyone else isn’t worthy of comment.

I’m not aware of any professionally-run conferences that make anywhere near the amount of effort to look after its attendees – you’re usually lucky to get suggestions on places to eat, not a bowl of bananas and snacks on the registration desk and reminders to eat. There’s limits to the amount of nannying Bicon can be expected to do. We’ve had complaints that Bicon wouldn’t buy someone a train ticket and tell them what train to get – offering to lend money for it and providing information on transport options wasn’t enough.

The London Bifest survey this year found over 50% of people who completed it (about 1/3 of attendees) identified as having a disability, which must be some kind of record for a non-disability event – I noticed a dozen people with walking sticks, a huge rarity among a non-elderly group.  So we must be doing something right – and that was with a venue that isn’t going to be used again because of repeated accessibility problems like no signs to find the level access to the very small lift.

I’m not saying Bicon is a diverse paradise – there’s few over-50s, way more white people than you’d expect somewhere like London, not many parents manage to come, and not many people from the SouthWest or Northern Ireland either. The London Bi Group had more of an age range, so older bisexuals are clearly around. People do complain that they feel out of place if they don’t dress up, but not-dressing-up is perfectly fine for them all through the rest of the year, whereas people who want to cross-dress or wear feather boas and rubber don’t have that opportunity, so I think that’s something people have to accept.

Making eye contact and saying hello to newcomers, however, is vital. Given the community includes many people who find this very difficult, it’s all the more important for those of us who can do it, but just get distracted, to welcome new people. And not immediately putting them off with “Who are you on Livejournal?” or the offensive “Where do you really come from?” Or taking the mick out of ‘popular’ celebs or TV that people may well enjoy, such as laughing at someone’s choices of names for a ‘Who am I?’ game – I admit I didn’t know what exactly Kerry Katona was famous for either, but I doubt the guy who chose her name as a famous person people would have heard of will be back after that.

Two-thirds of Bicon attendees each year have been before. We’re obviously getting a lot right. At Bicon 2007, three people told me Bicon had prevented them from suicide. It’s important to not put other people off.

The Kumquat