A Sense of Direction

At the recent Bi Activism Weekend in Milton Keynes, we spent much of the weekend discussing where our bisexual communities are heading, what our aims are (or should be), how we fit in with other groups, and how we might move forward in terms of meeting some of our aims.

Laurence summarised the various strategies that a social movement like ours might have. We might want to completely transform the entire political or cultural system (for example, challenging taken-for-granted ways of seeing sexuality, gender and relationships), we might want to change social and political systems through legislation relating to equality and rights, and/or we might want to make changes at a personal/local level in terms of increasing awareness and empowering individuals and small groups.

We generally agreed that our aims were to increase awareness and visibility of bisexuality as a sexual orientation, to increase acceptance of bisexuality and decrease biphobia, and to challenge assumptions around sexuality, gender and relationships linked to bisexuality. For example, we might want to challenge assumptions people make about the gender of people’s partners (and how many they have), or about the sexuality that children will have when they grow up, or about what bisexual people are like (questioning stereotypes of promiscuity and wickedness), or about the importance of gender (in relation to partner choice and in general).

After an overall discussion, we divided into three small groups to discuss specific issues around bi activism. Our group focused on the issue of how the aims of bisexual communities might fit in (or not) with those of other communities, and what useful links might be made with other communities and organisations in relation to meeting our aims. We divided ‘other communities’ into four and looked at the positive and negative aspects of working with each of them. The four other communities were:

1. Fairly accepted queer communities, such as lesbian and gay (LG) groups/organisations
2. Less accepted queer communities, such as poly, trans and SM communities
3. Straight groups and organisations
4. Communities not related to sexuality but which seem to have some overlap with bi communities, such as Goths, Pagans, geeks, etc.

Working with Lesbians and Gay Men
In relation to lesbian and gay groups and organisations, we agreed that the positives of aligning with them were that they have a certain amount of money and power due to their existing recognition in society. Also they have a lot of common ground with us in terms of wanting acceptance and recognition of same sex relationships/attraction and a decrease in homophobia. Also, if LG groups recognised bisexuality more it could make life easier for bisexuals who begin by approaching those groups.  The problems of aligning with LG groups is that there has historically been biphobia from many lesbians and gays who see bisexuals as having it easier than them (since they can pass as straight), or as muddying the water (since it is important to divide people simply into either gay or straight), or as promiscuous or in other ways non-monogamous (which could take away from the aim some LG groups have to have recognition of monogamous same sex relationships and to be seen as ‘normal’ and the same as heterosexuals in everything but the fact that their relationships are same sex).

We concluded that it was important to increase awareness in LG groups about bisexuality in all its forms. There are divisions in both the LG communities and bi communities about monogamy/non-monogamy. Also, perhaps it is important for all groups to recognise that people may equally go through a bisexual stage on the way to identifying as gay/straight, or a gay/straight phase on the way to identifying as bisexual (as many of us have experienced).

Other Queer Communities
In general, the positives of aligning with poly, trans and SM groups were that we have a history of relations and mutual acceptance with them and our communities overlap to quite a high degree. A fair number of bicon attendees fall into some of these categories including several who are not self-defined as bisexual. However, some bi groups do not include people who fall into the above categories but aren’t actually bisexual. Like bi people, poly, trans and SM people all have experience of being rejected by straight and LG cultures alike, perhaps because they can all be seen as troubling ‘common-sense’ ideas about the way identity and relationships work (that people are either male or female and either straight or gay and that the normal relationships are between two people, generally of opposite sex, with the man more active and the woman more passive).

The drawbacks of aligning with such groups are that they don’t necessarily have much money, power or recognition, and our aims as bisexuals may get confused with their aims.  Also, poly, trans and SM are all potentially a lot more threatening to the mainstream than bisexuality is alone. If we ally ourselves with these groups we could stand less chance of being accepted, more chance of being seen as strange and threatening, and we could potentially alienate monogamous, vanilla, non-trans bisexuals.

Polyamorous people share some of the prejudices that bi people face in terms of being seen a promiscuous and ‘having their cake and eating it). They also may be invisible due to people assuming they are monogamous, since that is the norm, just as we are often assumed to be straight. Polyamorous bisexuals may be the most recognised bisexuals since monogamous bisexuals may be assumed to be straight (if in an opposite sex relationship) or gay (if in a same sex relationship). The problem with associating with poly groups is that people may come to see all bisexuals as non-monogamous (exacerbating one of the stereotypes that already exists). It may also get in the way of recognition of same sex relationships (if that is one of our aims).

Trans people share with bi people the potential for questioning the importance of gender. Some bi people argue that gender is not important in partner choice it’s just ‘who the person is’. Some trans people argue for recognition of genders other than, or between, simply man and woman.

However, some bi people do see gender as very important and believe in two and only two genders, having very different types of relationships with men and women. And some trans people see the notion of two and only two genders as very important, feeling that they are in the wrong body for the gender they are and wanting to change to be in the right one. So there are divisions in both the bi and trans communities on such issues and thus potential areas for major collaboration and major conflict. Some positives of aligning with trans communities is that we are often put with them anyway, when ‘BT’ is added to ‘LG’ in the title of a group. They also have some existing organisations and magazines fighting for change. We might want to align with trans communities if we see gender and sexuality as very interlinked, but not if we see them as very separate issues.

SM communities have already fought major legal fights that bi communities have not (e.g. Spanner), so they have useful experience of this. They also have their own pride, magazines and a rich commercial scene. We could be seen as having similar agendas in terms of sexual freedom. In some SM groups there may also be a shared recognition that gender of partner is unimportant, although some SM play is very clearly gendered. The problems with aligning with SM groups is that they are very demonised in our society and seen as perhaps the most dangerous and threatening sexual group after paedophiles. Misunderstanding and misinformation about SM abounds, and there are still legal and medical restrictions against SM activities. Age issues mean that some may be concerned about younger bi people associating with or learning about SM. Also, the bi scene seems more youth-oriented and the SM scene more oriented towards older people. With both poly and SM there is the difficulty that many people see these things as being something a person does (an activity) rather than something they are (an identity), which tends to be the way that bisexuality is seen. Although I personally define myself as bi, poly and SM and would question the distinction between things we do and things we are.

Working With Heterosexuals and With Mainstream Organisations
Perhaps the most fruitful discussion came out of our consideration of how we might align with straight groups. First of all we considered who we might be talking about here. We came up with organisations like the gay/straight alliance, support groups like FFLAG (family and friends of lesbians and gays), and counselling/volunteer organisations which might come up against bi issues like Relate, Childline, the Samaritans and the NSPCC. We felt that there was much potential here for mutually beneficial relationships. We could target such groups and organisations with information about bisexuality and offers of further training in bi awareness. In return, we may be able to access funding from these organisations, many of which have money to put into education and research. Bi workshops for counselling, education and voluntary organisations have a potential for helping a large number of people since the increase in awareness and decrease in biphobia that we would hopefully achieve with the groups we talk to could go forward into all the people they work with. Obviously we may still face biphoba from these groups and they may not want our input. However, my experience so far with FFLAG suggests that such groups do want to be more aware of bi issues.

Alas, we didn’t really get around to discussing our links with other non-sexuality based communities which we overlap with, but this could be a fruitful area for future discussion.

See p9 for the next activist conference

This originally appeared in issue 66 of BCN, in April 2004.