Bi Britain: Where are we going?

BCN 88 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 88, Dec 2007.

Where are we going?

BiCon Treforest included a panel session on “the future of the bi community”. a panel debate about how to take the UK bisexual community into the next decade and beyond. It’s the kind of discussion that really needs a wider audience than the forty or so people crammed into the workshop room – so we present a slightly cut-down transcript.

The panel

Ian Watters, “been around the bi scene for about 21 years” and is running BiCon 2008.
Jen Yockney, “editor of Bi Community News since about 2001”, ran BiCon 2004 and the International BiCon in 2000, and has run local group BiPhoria in Manchester since 1997.
Marcus Morgan, principal organiser for the international BiCon in 2010, and ran BiCons 2003 and 1996. Recently authored the manifesto for BiCon organisers of advice from previous organisers.
Meg Barker, a “bisexual boffin”, runs Bi Research Group, and involved in planning BiCon 2010’s academic day.
Paul Crowley, treasurer for BiCon 2007 and runner of London BiFest and PolyDay.

Where we are

Ian: We’re good at having very nice events a few times a year, like BiCon or BiFest. They are very useful for some but not the majority of behavioural bisexuals. We’re good at being right about things – the transgender issue, where we were years ahead of lots of other queer-identified groups. We’ve been very good at having some things change without us doing anything about it. Things like – at one point Unison’s lesbian and gay organisation was rabidly lesbian and gay, and now it is not; London switchboard was another source of a huge amount of whinging because if you identified as bisexual they wouldn’t touch you, and now it does. Pride London, the Pride Trust changed basically without us – there was some lobbying but they took the decision.
We are very good at having strong links to a whole diversity of groups from Queeruption to MIND to the Sexual Freedom Coalition. And we’re quite good at having sex with each other.
We are bad at doing very much apart from having nice events. We are very bad, outside of BiCon, at making decisions. I have no idea how you would make a decision outside a BiCon. You could mention it on a LiveJournal, on a mailing list and so on but – who reads it?
We are bad at expanding. This BiCon is the same size as one a decade ago, for example, and smaller than one fifteen years ago. Why isn’t it bigger?
We are bad at politics things – but then most lesbian and gay people aren’t interested in politics either. We are bad at looking after mental health, some serious issues we haven’t done much about. We are bad at getting serious amounts of money: we get a little but we don’t get much. We are bad at commercial stuff – there are plenty of people making money out of bisexuality and it’s not us! We’re bad at things like getting advertising; at remembering we outnumber lesbian and gay people; at having a media profile; and keeping info around beyond people’s memories.
We need a database of the community’s skills and positions, what they do, contacts and so on: so if you want to do something you can find out who has those skills, knows that person, and so on. We are bad at accountability and skilling up. We’re bad on the vision thing: the last time I remember a discussion about “what do we want” was a direct action group called Bionic which discussed what they wanted, from “the end of capitalism” to “more bigger snacks now” – and they put some stickers on the Underground and that was about it.
We’re bad at fitting into other people’s requirements for giving us stuff, like having a charity for instance which would make some money sources easier. And we are bad at some sorts of diversity – good at some but not good at others.

Reinvention

Audience member: As Ian says, it would be helpful to have an ongoing resource of what we’ve done in the past.
Meg: We should just have the workshop plans for the workshops that come up at BiCon every year, to save on reinventing the wheel every year.
Marcus: With a lot of the workshops on what we want we wind up discussing how we ought to reinvent the wheel. Come back next year, see if we’ve reinvented the wheel and what colour it is – and then we all go away and come back next year and no, we haven’t, and we all go “oh, we should really do it this year!”
Something that’s come up a few times is that we are very bad as a community at preventing burnout. People come into the community and have an idea; people tell them that it’s a really good idea, but then two months down the line they’re not getting the support and they’re the only person running it and they burn out. I think the workshop resource is a brilliant idea, I’d be happy to rustle up the plans from some of the workshops I’ve done.
Audience: Reinventing wheels – BiCon is no exception. Each year, each team writes their own website; each geek writes their own financial system; this year we’ve had two fantastic geeks, each with their own mutually incompatible systems which only they can use. It’s not the principle, it’s the implementation. And the problem is, we all agree, but we cannot agree on how to implement things, even on a minor point we will carry on for six months or six years arguing about it.
Paul: I propose to write something now as a web applet that will serve as a BiCon booking system that I will maintain from year to year. And if one year’s team doesn’t like it – they don’t have to use it and I won’t try to make them, but it will be there for the next year’s team and the team after.
Audience: I agree with Ian’s point about a directory of skills. I’ve been at BiCon for about ten years and have skills as a photographer; I tried, last year, to set up a group to bring anyone who wanted creative skills or had them to offer. There is a yahoogroup that I set up, I‘ll post about it to the BiCon LJ group to make sure that future organisers know where we are and that if people look there, there will be some current information about it. There’s no reason why there can’t be others like a writers group. We can use the internet to be able to take advantage of others skills, wherever we are.
Diversity
Meg: I was thinking about that diversity issue, and what we have to offer other to other queer, lesbian and gay groups, and I came up with this idea that the bi community doesn’t seem to have such strong hierarchies of queerness, who is more valid to be in that community. I think it’s a more welcoming space because of that. We have people who come who aren’t bisexual. We’re good at not being a commercialised scene and we’re much less hierarchical in terms of appearance: gay communities particularly have a lot of that, that people are better because of their looks, the pretty people. Those are things that make up a critique that we can offer those communities but I also came back to what’s problematic. BiFests are interesting; some of those have been more diverse than BiCons, but BiCon in particular – it’s very white, quite middle class. And age – there are not many younger people coming in – is that because it is not something they see as relevant or what?
Audience member: I think the introduction of BiFests is making BiCon more diverse, it is affecting our community diversity.
Audience: I’d like to ask Ian – you said we outnumber lesbians and gays – where do you get that data from?
Ian: In terms of number of people who have bi behaviour there are far more behaviourally bisexuals than there are behaviourally homosexual people. Even if you look at “let’s only consider the last five years” or whatever rather than the whole of your life. In terms of identity, it depends who asks. One of the problems we have is the vast majority of the people with the behaviour do not have the identity, and a huge wodge of them do not have any sexual identity.
Audience: One issue of diversity of course is multiculturalism, the fact that we are mostly white. Now if there was an obvious answer to that problem – I mean, I’ve never met anyone in the community who doesn’t want us to be more diverse – we would have done it by now. Though, let’s have an open mind and see what comes up.
Some political issues have been won, but I think there are some dangerous issues that are still out there that we’re not confronting at the moment. I think a really big warning sign was in Holland when all of a sudden Pim Fortyun emerged from the extreme right in Dutch politics. His politics was anti-Islamic and appealed to a lot of gays, and in some respects you can imagine why that is. That could happen anywhere in Europe, that could happen in this country. BiCon did invite someone from the Muslim LGBT groups to come along – hardly anyone came to those workshops. There’s a complete lack of debate on this. There’s also the issue of Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, inviting this Islamist cleric – they say that he’s homophobic. There’s an issue that some might see the anti-capitalist stance of radical Islam as attractive and maybe carving out the issue of gay rights. In any case, there’s a complete lack of debate and I think we have Holland as a warning; we need to be putting a lot more attention to that.

What’s Activism?

Paul: I have to say: the talk so far is about changing things, like Stonewall and such. And the activism I do, things like PolyDay, I don’t think of it as activism. Largely I run these events because I know I’m going to enjoy them and I know a lot of other people are as well. I’m not actually here to change the world: if I wanted to change the world I’d be doing something else. It is worth running something like BiCon even if only the people who come here get something out of it.
Marcus : Running an event which enables bisexuals, or polyamorists, sadomasochists, transgender people, to go to and meet other people like them and get confirmation that you can get whichever adjective it is and meet other people and see that it’s a valid part of yourself; and to enjoy yourself with worrying about being called that thing being off the table – is promoting and supporting that. Attending bifest is promoting bisexuality because you are enabling other people to see that bisexuals exist, can be happy, can even be stressed about their bisexuality. I would totally call social organising activism.
Audience: I’m a director of a national mental health charity and on an NHS Trust and I fight in those very heteronormative environments for a whole gamut of queer rights and it’s exhausting to do that, battling a lot of prejudice and ignorance. Just coming to these spaces and talking is a safe and re-energising thing for me. In that way, activism stems from these spaces.

Demanding… What?

Marcus: I’d like us to consider something – as this is our only real chance to discuss properly in a group. When we go to another organisation and they say; “well, you’re a bisexual. What do the bisexuals want?” We normally say things like, “well, I’m only one bisexual, I can’t speak for us all”. Wouldn’t it be nice to say, “Well, actually, we had a discussion about this and what bisexuals want is – these things…” Because often when put on the spot like that we have to say; “we want to be included in things; er… and a biscuit”.
We don’t have as a community – I’m trying to avoid the words “mission statement”. Maybe it’s time that we had things that we could say: well, what bisexuals want, or what some bisexuals say they want, or boiling it down to “at a workshop about what bisexuals want I asked what bisexuals want and what those bisexuals want is…” and have an answer to that.
Audience: Don’t knock “we want to be included in things” – whenever you talk about groups that include bisexuals say bisexuals, and when you don’t still say it through what you say, like “men who sleep with men” instead of “gay men”. But include us, because we know we exist but we like to know that you know we exist.
Marcus: Too many organisations think they can just stick a B in their acronym.
Ian: Or worse, just stick the word in their grant application and nowhere else
Marcus: Then they think, we’re including bisexuals because we say “gay and bisexual men”, now here’s a leaflet about sex with men.
Meg: The history of this is the two aims of the bi movement – the bi identity as a separate identity, and the more queer aim of saying, we want to move beyond these boxes of gay straight male female and show the world there are more ways to be. That’s what I meant when I said that it’s exciting that the bi movement is a space that shows the world that you can do that. And other boxes; do we have to be sexual at all; love and friendship and so on; that’s my agenda and I think the bi community is the only space I’ve found that actually does that well.
Where that overlaps with the Queeruption agenda I think we do it in a different way. And it’s not everyone’s agenda; and you do the identity politics of it: should we use the word bisexual when it has sexual in it, which not everybody is, and the word bi in it when that suggests two. But, as Marcus says, bisexual is the word which everybody knows. It’s useful for visibility because everybody knows what it means.
Ian: I would like to see the outside world recognise the reality of the diversity of behaviour that’s really out there. The bi stuff, for a start, and I would like to see more of the money heading our way.
Audience: What’s important for me is for the outside world to recognise bisexuality as a valid identity for life. That yes there are people who are bisexual as a transitory thing – changing from gay to straight or straight to gay or straight to straight, whatever, or because they are young and confused. But there are those of us who have been bisexual for life – so far! And there are those who have been other things and become bisexual and are, and that is as valid as any of the others.

Political Objectives

Jen: We’re at an interesting point where a lot of the lesbian and gay legal battles have been delivered to some degree – ten years ago we’d have been talking age of consent, section 28, and so on. Now – yes, civil partnerships aren’t exactly marriage and so forth – but the “what we want” for the lesbian and gay community: a big swathe of that has been done. So for them too, there’s a question of “what do we want next”. And what we and they want next is a bit more complicated, like tackling health inequalities, mental health inequalities. We’ve got those issues too and often we’ve got them more. And those needs have been researched about lesbians and gays and occasionally, like the MIND report, researchers have mentioned bis.
What we have talked about so far are quite woolly things – our aims. In talking to other LGBT organisations, and people with political power, if we have just aims we are not talking their language: we need to have objectives, to assess the different needs of bi people and from that say “these are the things that we need, this, this, and this, these are our priority areas for addressing”, and make that wider than about the perhaps 2,000 people who in recent years have been to a BiCon, BiFest or local group. Otherwise we’re just talking about how people who go to BiCon would like a bouncy castle. It isn’t the bisexual agenda, it’s the BiCon agenda.
We need to take some time out both at the activism weekends and at BiCon to talk about things that – from what Ian’s talked about – twenty years ago BiCons talked about but these days we don’t. What are our objectives and how do we influence the people with the power to bring those about. We can make a start at the next activism weekend in November.
Ian: Over a series of BiCons we have moved from a liberation agenda to a personal liberation event.
Jen: Though in response we’ve spun activism off into separate weekends.
Ian: What I’d like is some stuff we could measure: ‘Oh yes we have achieved that’, or ‘Oh no you haven’t achieved that’. Like on the age of consent.
Audience: I think a lot of these organisations that exclude bisexuals – it’s not because they are biphobic but because they know what they want to achieve on lesbian or gay issues, and they guess that that covers bisexuality. We need some idea of what we want to say – what we want these organisations to do to change laws or to increase awareness of bisexuality- and to communicate it as well.

A National Voice?

Audience: I’m a political person; I’ve been in various trades union bodies at regional and national levels, on both the disability and LGB committees, and I’ve always been an out bisexual on all these things. One of the big problems such organisations have, when they want to get a bisexual viewpoint, is we don’t have an organisation that speaks for bisexuals. I think, if you are lesbian or gay you’ve got Stonewall, or you’ve got Pride, or various organisations that put themselves forward as speaking for the community. We don’t have that. And that’s a major disadvantage in terms of journalists or anyone approaching us.
I’m not saying we should do this now: I’d like to come back to the next BiCon with some ideas in mind rather than invent it too quickly. But I think there should be people who we elect at BiCon each year, who serve for the next year. There are people that we respect in the community. It then gives us a point that we can publicise to journalists, of someone to go to. We accept that people will make mistakes and we just have to deal with that and accept it.
Marcus: I am very much reminded of the part in Time Bandits where Randall turns to them and says, “you want to be in charge?” “No, no – we agreed, no leaders” “Right. Then do as I say.”
That’s the trouble with national leadership, because then you’ve got to have national membership. But perhaps, I think one way ahead with what you’re talking about is akin to a speaker’s bureau. So a publication can say, hmmm, we need a bisexual viewpoint, maybe we could ask a bisexual what they think. For now I’d say that you point them towards BCN because BCN already does very good work both for providing quotes and links, and for getting speakers for things.
A couple of years ago I did a workshop for the Department of Constitutional Affairs for their LGBT equality group, which was me being put in contact with them because they got in contact with BCN for a speaker.
Audience: With regard to setting up some sort of organisation – two to consider how they have done it. They are Press For Change which doesn’t claim to speak for all the trans people by any means but I think most trans people in the UK think that they say mostly the right things and we’re happy for them to say them, or at least they think they are doing good work.
The other would be GenderPAC in the States, which was the brainchild of Riki Wilchins who fight for gender rights and the freedom to express gender. They now speak with the two houses and are doing some excellent work. In both cases it’s not been that someone said “we have a national remit” just that “this needs to be done, I’m, we’re going to do this”.
Paul: The problem I have last time someone tried to say “we are the national organisation, I’m the chair, they’re the treasurer, we’re going to hold these places for two years and then going to hold an election” everyone said: we don’t feel we have confidence in you to say yeah, go ahead and do that and we’re happy. We feel much more that you didn’t talk to anyone; the first we heard of it was you standing up and saying right, we are the representatives of you all.
Audience: That’s exactly what GenderPAC and PFC haven’t done. They just sat there and lobbied, done their thing, and people have gained respect for them and they’ve become these larger things.
I think if someone well-known here stood up here at a plenary and said, “I’m going to do this, I’ll have the details by next year’s plenary but what do you think?”
Jen: That’s assuming such an organisation needs BiCon’s approval for legitimacy. When Stonewall was set up, did they assemble the lesbians and gays of Britain and get their confidence?
Marcus: I’m involved in a couple of online places. One is LiveJournal, one is Second Life. They are quite different. One way in which they are very similar is that both have recently had a mad, headless chicken panic about one particular issue due to a pressure group saying “we’re going to mess you up over this…”. It was a group with a name like Warriors for Innocence, I think. There are probably more people in this room now – probably five times more people in this room now – than are actually in that. But, here is the thing which I want to bring up from that and comes back to picking one issue and going and getting it done.
If I go to an organisation and say, “I’m Marcus Morgan, I’m a bisexual activist, I’m really annoyed that I can’t on your website put down that “I’m married to” and then pick a link that connects me to somebody of the same sex as opposed to opposite sex – then I am Marcus Morgan, one person.
If I go along and say “hello, we are the Bisexual Task Force, and we’ve taken a note of all your advertisers. By the way, I’ve noticed that they have these policies in their equal opportunities documents, and you don’t”, it could still just be me. What we don’t have that many other people have is a big name that we’re standing behind. If we had that – and membership badges and cards – and in the past we have jokingly set up these organisations because it’d be really cool to have a badge that says “the Bisexual Liberation Front” and we get as far as thinking it’s really cool. But we need to be taking something like this and being really stubborn; and taking one issue – I agree with that – and then continuously calling everyone on that one issue.
Meg: Stonewall being a really good place to start.
Marcus: So I am in this workshop rapidly getting to the idea that we need to pick a name. Or two?
Jen: We’re talking about two ways of doing organisations as if we could only have one organisation. There is no reason why we can’t have a “bisexual Stonewall” and a “bisexual Outrage”. The bisexual Stonewall is officially voted on by BiCon and is all recognised and the Outrage is the people who go, that’s the respectable one over there that will talk to the primary healthcare trusts: we’ll be the ideas wing. That is the B*R*A wing, that can take on stuff like poly that might not be strictly bi, so people can do the narrower, Stonewally thing, and which could happen like that just like Press For Change, seven of us could decide we are it – the Bi Furious Ninjas.
When the Simon Hughes stuff hit the press, I got a letter in the Independent because I wrote a letter and stuck “Editor, Bi Community News” on the end of it. It was a brand name so “oh, right, you must know what you’re talking about – we’ll put you in”.
Look, there’s enough of us in here. Let’s cut this table down the middle: you lot are bi-Stonewall, us lot are bi-Outrage, let’s go. And you can secretly have membership of both – but one of the things the press like is a debate. I would love instead of a debate of “bisexuality is real be nice to us” versus “no you’re just undecided” – two different bi groups arguing with each other from the positions of, of course bisexuality is real but what do we do about it, arguing about priorities.
If you look at the Outrage and Stonewall agenda, it’s 80% identical. We’ll still all come to BiCon and drink and party together.
Audience: Stonewall was started by a bunch of activists saying, we’ll go and do it. It wasn’t started by people asking communities, they just did it. There have been repeated Pride organisations – no-one asked about it, they just said we’re going to do it. Press For Change, I was around at the start – we just did it. BiCon was started by a bunch of people who just decided they wanted to do it! There is no sense of legitimacy about it like that – I know it’s the trades union model but that’s not how it actually works in terms of activism on the ground. If we wanna go and do it, and do, in two years time you’d come back to BiCon people would either say “God, that’s shit” or “Fantastic job, carry on”.
Audience: In some ways I don’t care which method so long as it happens, so far we’ve been going on the “Hopefully someone will get up and do something”, and “hopefully” hasn’t happened. I’m not saying it’s a bad way of doing things, but so far it hasn’t been an effective way.
Marcus: Back to the legitimacy of a BiCon vote. I think that for people who need the confidence to go out and say, yes people want me to do this – having BiCon behind them is great. What I would not want is for people to think that you can’t organise something unless BiCon has given you permission. I want to make sure we get away from the idea that there’s lots of things the community does or needs or wants and that BiCon needs to tell them they can have. I’d be very keen to see BiCon’s support as “yay you” not “yes you may”. That’s an important difference for me.

Renewal

Paul: Pat Califia, one time I got to hear her speak, says that the first job for activists is to find their successors and train them. Even if you’ve just taken something on, you need to find others and get them on board.
Audience: Should BiFests and such link better into other organisations. One of the reasons they lack more energy, if we got more community and creative organisations working with us we might draw more people in?
Audience: To let people know of a project I’m going to start working on and aim to share with people in the next six months. When I was at university years ago and involved in the lesbian and gay society, I was filled with passion to be an activist but I had no skills for it at all – so I worked hard at it and duly burned out, and ever since then have taken a much more backseat role in such things. I think it’ssomething that carries on these days: lots of people come to things, to BiCon and BiFest and such, and want to change things, to make a difference in the world – be that bisexuality, transgenderism, social issues, whatever. But there’s no training in the skills that you need to work as an activist. So I’ve been studying how people who are effective activists work in history; the skills that Gandhi had that made him so effective are much the same skills that Jamie Oliver has, so what I want to do is to write a training course in how to be an activist. I will be teaching the skills, like a one-day course with pointers to how to further develop those skills.
So what I’m saying is, as well as what we have said about doing things, we need people to be able to say: I don’t have the skills. In about six months I hope to be spamming the mailing lists with information about that!

Many thanks to all the participants in this discussion, panel members or otherwise – and apologies to anyone who didn’t get to make their point during the meeting or who got edited out of this abbreviated transcript – the full one would have filled an entire BCN, and been harder to follow as we have edited the order of speech so that things said fit into topic headings.

We don’t want to leave any of the ambitions for the bi movement debated at the workshop there, and we don’t believe that everything that we as a bi community want was necessarily raised in the meeting.

To add your voice, whether a short comment about the debate or a longer contribution, use the Contact Us feedback box.

 

Jen blogs about her bi volunteering (and other things) here.