Reaching out to the NHS

How just a little activism can snowball

This is a story about how little bits of activism can become big things.

As you may have read in a recent BCN, Manchester BiPhoria went to Oldham Pride last summer.  It was an overwhelmingly positive experience, made so party due to the attention we got at our stall.  Where a lot of people and groups recognised each other, we were spotted for being something unusual and new there.

A representative from Pennine Care — the mental health care NHS trust covering parts of Greater Manchester — was one of our stall’s visitors.  He asked if we were interested in doing a presentation on bisexuality and mental health for an upcoming day of staff training.

Four of us nervously volunteered to help out: Emily, Ollie, Em J and me.  When we discussed what to talk about, we realised we had a lot of expertise on the subject.  From our own lives and discussions at BiPhoria, we were well aware of the assumptions and stereotypes that are made about bisexual people.  Some of us have experienced mental health problems ourselves and I’ve also worked for a mental health trust, so we brought varying perspectives, but all of us cared about raising the profile of bisexuals’ unique concerns, distinct from those of lesbians and gay men.
We put together some information and perspectives we thought were important to issues that might specifically affect bisexuals’ mental health and their treatment for mental illness.

We were pleased at the interest from the Pennine Care staff who attended this seminar, and the positive reaction we got there. The audience, who admitted to being mostly heterosexual and never thinking about their sexuality or the impact it can have, were often not consciously aware of the stereotypes they held.

Some of the BiPhoria volunteers felt nervous or uncomfortable speaking in front of so many people (there were a lot! it’d had to be moved to a larger venue because there was so much interest), but their contributions were read out by others and their support in coming along was greatly appreciated.  This too is a small step to activism: not everyone is suited to flip charts and powerpoint presentations, and that’s okay because there are other ways to be involved and supportive.

For this presentation we created a handout that, revised and expanded, you can now find at  Emily and I used this as the basis for a workshop we ran at Manchester BiFest in January, which was very successful and got positive feedback.  We are also hoping to run a similar workshop at BiCon later this year, which is another example of how a little activism can go a long way: I haven’t even been to BiCon so far and one of the most persuasive reasons I can think of to attend it now is that I’d like to be one of the facilitators of this workshop.  Perhaps an unusual motivation, but you never know what will make it seem like a good idea to go to BiCon!

In the meantime we are glad to have our efforts available online, because it’s important to have this information accessible to people who are attracted to more than one gender, and those whose services are meant to include any such people.
This is vital as not everyone who is attracted to more than one gender would consider themselves bisexual, and not all bisexual people participate in the LGBT communities who are often asked for input into studies or academic research. In addition, someone’s sexual behaviour may not neatly match their sexual identity.  They might identify as gay or lesbian but have relationships with people of different genders or identify as straight but have relationships with people of the same gender.  Plus, as many BCN readers will be aware, groups that are intended to be inclusive of bisexuals do not always live up to the lofty aim.  Another woman who spoke to those on the BiPhoria stall at Oldham Pride ran an LGBT group for older people, and said no bisexuals had ever attended.  When the BiPhoria-ites heard the kind of biphobic comments made and unchallenged in her group we were no longer surprised at this lack of B presence, as any bisexuals who happened along would seem unlikely to speak up or attend more than once!

In creating this resource, we realised that it’s vital to reach out to such people who have a well-intentioned remit but a lack of understanding or ability to encourage bi positivity, Though originally intended for health care providers, most of the information and advice we give would be (with perhaps minor tweaking) applicable to workplaces, councils, support groups, and so on.  It is not just mental health care people who need to how to ensure bisexuals feel welcome to access services, or the importance of avoiding stereotypes and their negative implications and consequences.

One of the facets of our presentation that got the best response at the staff training seminar was the personal narratives we included to illustrate particular occasions when the four of us, or people close to us, had found our bisexuality caused problems for us in accessing NHS services.  (They can be found at the beginning of the online version.)  Unfortunately we were able to find relatively little rigorous research on mental health issues that included bisexuals but did not just lump them in with gay men and/or lesbians, so while we included what we could, we benefited from the anecdotes quite a lot as well.

While we have confidence in the good intentions of written policies and occasional training days in attempting to instil best practice in employees, we’re also aware that the ideal situation isn’t always what we experience in real life; a particular individual you see or speak to might profoundly affect how you view large swathes of health care services.  Thus we emphasise how vital it is to increase awareness of the perspectives bisexual service users are having and what we’re thinking, to as many people as possible.

From a stall at a relatively small local Pride festival, to volunteering to help NHS employees consider perspectives they may never have thought about before, to a BiFest workshop and perhaps eventually becoming a part of BiCon, from things specifically relating to mental health and then out to other contexts,  gaining confidence in speaking out and discovering the usefulness of sharing our real-life stories with people who otherwise don’t know what to think of us… little bits of activism can grow into surprisingly robust and wonderful things.