BiReCon: The first International academic conference on bisexuality?
Meg Barker, Christina Richards and Rebecca Jones (of BiUK) report back from BiReCon
One highlight of the day for me was realising just how international the event was. When planning the conference we simply tried to get the call for submissions out to as many people and countries as possible. In the presentations I chaired (in room Canada) the four presenters represented six different countries between them (Britain, Iceland, Finland, Spain, Denmark, and Germany)! First, Anna Einarsdottir took us through her fascinating research on how people who formed civil partnerships in the UK had met. There were marked gender differences, with women being more likely to meet through friendships or colleagues and men more likely to meet in social spaces. Also, Anna was able to make comparisons to the Icelandic situation which she studied for her PhD. This linked in very well with Jenny Kangasvuo’s work on Finnish bisexual relationships between 1999 and 2009. It became clear that the legislation in various countries had a big impact on people’s relationships, for example people in ‘same sex’ relationships rushing for relationship recognition or marriage when it first became available, or striving to have children if there was a danger of adoption or fertility rights being removed. This could put relationships under additional pressure. We also heard about cultural and generational differences in the ages and reasons for obtaining relationship recognition, and the impact of being involved in activism on the course of people’s relationships.
Miguel Obradors then gave a great presentation on biphobia where he went through the overlapping and multiple different kinds of discrimination and phobia which bi people may be up against (homo-, hetero- and bi-phobia; phobia relating to gender as well as sexuality; and discrimination on many different levels from symbolic to overt). This linked extremely well with Christian Klesse’s work on biphobia and bi relationships, which included consideration of specific issues bi people face when discussing their relationships compared to heterosexual or lesbian & gay people. For example, he spoke about the possibility of family hoping that bisexuals would choose an ‘opposite sex’ partner eventually, and echoed keynote speaker, Robyn Ochs’, contention that bi people would be considered risky partners by many.
I also liked the way we were able to start BiReCon by talking about fairly smallscale local research we have done (such as the BiCon survey, and our analysis of bi representations in the British media) and end the day hearing about the much larger scale research which the American Institute of Bisexuality (AIB) has been funding. John Sylla presented some very interesting research from the days before the AIB about the fact that many lesbian, gay and straight identified people are regularly and/or recently sexual with both men and women. He asked the question following each slide ‘who are the bisexuals?’ He then told us about recent developments following the problematic research a few years ago which was reported (in the New York Times) as demonstrating that bi men were either ‘straight, gay or lying’. Apparently the research has recently been re-conducted using a better form of participant recruitment and more appropriate materials, and has found that bi men do show a different pattern to gay or straight men: the difference between the amount of arousal they have to their ‘preferred’ and ‘non-preferred’ genders is smaller. Some of the audience questioned the understanding of gender in the study (that people are either male or female and attraction is based on this). The researchers said that this study was just the first step towards more complex and nuanced research, and pointed out the political value in overturning the previous, problematic, findings. John Sylla also presented recent work by (in)famous researcher, Michael Bailey, whose most recent brain studies suggest a different range of activity in bi brains to those of gay or straight men.
Although I took a much more supportive role in the planning of the conference (thanks Meg!) I was privileged to be the chair on the day of BiReCon, especially as there were so many high quality presentations. Some of these created a great deal of debate, which, at times, required a firm hand from the chair, but I think that is all to the good in a conference of this type, which brings together such diverse audiences and perspectives. I was particularly struck, not only at the depth of knowledge within the community, but also at the varieties of knowledge which intersected including social sciences, neuroscience, literature, and the pragmatic concerns of third sector and statutory organisations.
I also chaired one of the presentation streams (in room Germany) which included an engaging and eloquent presentation by Helen Bowes-Catton on visual methods research where she reported her findings about how bisexuals feel ‘at home’ and ‘able to breathe more’ in bisexual spaces like BiCon, when compared to their everyday life. George Voss spoke about her, and Camel Gupta’s, experiences of Brighton Bifest events, echoing keynote speaker Serena Anderlini D’Onofrio’s contention that bisexuality has an important role to play in challenging and overflowing the heterosexual/homosexual binary and is consequently productive in relation to both LGBT policy and practice, and also queer theory. Beth Roberts reprised some of her ongoing work which had previously been presented to a past BiCon on bisexuality and the cinema. It was interesting to see her continued academic reflection upon the meaning given to bisexuality in contemporary cinema, as well as the visibility or invisibility of bisexuality and the ways in which the technology of cinema may be used to address this. Finally, in these presentations, Kaye McLelland presented her work on Shakespeare. Rather than getting into the debate about whether Shakespeare himself was, or wasn’t bisexual (given that such a concept would have made very little sense at the time) she concentrated on possible bi readings of his work and on the lives of people who he based his characters on. She concluded that, because Shakespeare is so commonly studied in school, it is important for young people to see bi identities reflected in the work of such a great cultural icon.
A highlight was the keynote by Eric Anderson on the attitudes of heterosexual male youths. Eric had a very engaging presentation style which, I’m sure, enabled him to relate to the participants in his study on a topic which may not have felt comfortable to them. He stated that he wanted to find ordinary people (not from any special event or space) and so he went onto street corners with his colleagues and shouted that he would pay for people’s opinions on bisexuality. He said that having done this many thousands of times in a variety of places he had only had one negative response. His interesting findings were that young men seemed much more comfortable physically expressing affection, for example kissing one another on the lips than in the past, and indeed that male bisexuality generally did not seem to be viewed in such a negative light as it has in the past.
I was also very interested in Eric Anderson’s keynote, although I found I was struggling to square his optimism with what we know about homophobic bullying in schools. But it was certainly encouraging to hear that things may be beginning to change, at least in some contexts.
I chaired the presentation stream on workplace issues. Nicola Wood from the University of Leeds and Ruth Hunt from Stonewall gave interlinked papers about bisexual people’s experiences in the workplace, Nicola’s paper focusing more on what bisexual people said and Ruth’s more on what employers can do to be more inclusive of their bisexual staff. Ruth presented the findings and recommendations of Stonewall’s recently published guide ‘Bisexual people in the workplace’ which is available from the Stonewall website. Surya Monro from the University of Huddersfield reported on her recent study of how LGBT equalities work is approached within local government. Finally, Heidi Bruins Green and Nicholas Payne introduced the large-scale international survey they are currently conducting into the workplace experiences of people who identify as bisexual (and allied identities) – I think you can still take part here: http://outandequal.org/bisexualsurvey One of their initial findings is that if an employer has a policy on sexual orientation that doesn’t include gender identity, bisexual people were no more likely to be ‘out’ at work than if the employer had no policy on sexual orientation at all. I was interested in this because it suggested to me the ways in which bi and trans identities often overlap.
Another highlight for me was Robyn Och’s keynote presentation ‘Why we need to ‘Get Bi’’. I was very interested in her technique when running workshops about bisexuality of asking people ‘what have you heard about bisexuality’ rather than ‘what do you think about bisexuality’. That sounded to me like a very good way of enabling people to express biphobia that you can then counter, without them having to admit to having those biphobic opinions themselves. So thanks for that, Robyn, I’ll definitely try that next time!
The other major part of the day for me was running a data gathering workshop for my current research into how bisexual people imagine their own old age and later life. I asked people to create pictures of their imagined futures, using coloured paper, stickers, glitter pens etc and participants made some real works of art! (In that case… – Editor) (Yes, Jen, I promise I will write up what I’ve found out for BCN). I felt really privileged to have such a diverse group of people spend time and emotional energy thinking about something that fascinates me. I came out of my workshop, and the day as a whole, on a total high. Which may have contributed to the fact that I agreed to be one of the organisers of BiReCon in 2012…
If you are keen to join in ongoing discussions on these matters, please join the following groups at the weblinks provided:
National (UK): https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A0=BIRESEARCHGROUP
The websites of the keynote speakers (for examples of their writing) are:
Robyn Ochs: www.robynochs.com
Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio: www.serenagaia.com
Eric Anderson: www.ericandersonphd.com
Thanks again to all of the people who helped on the day, particularly to the marvellous BiCon 2010 team, the University of East London staff, Erich Schultz, Sarah Wilmott, Helen Bowes-Catton, Esther Saxey, Tracey Plowman and Caroline Walters. Also many thanks to the American Institute of Bisexuality and the Open University for sponsoring the event.
Key discussion points from the day
- What questions about bisexuality has research already answered and how can we get these across to communities themselves and to the wider population?
- How should researchers instrumentalise bisexuality for research purposes? Should they focus on people who are attracted to men and women, for example? Or should they use the kinds of definitions which come from bi communities such as ‘attraction regardless of gender’? Or should they focus on fluidity of sexuality rather than bisexuality per se?
- What research needs to be done for bisexuality? Should the emphasis be, for example, on physiological research trying to prove that bisexual people exist or have a certain brain pattern, on survey research into the demographics of bi people, and/or on in depth qualitative research on bi experiences.
- How do we get beyond bi communities to bi people (or men and women who have sex with men and women) who don’t attend BiCon and similar events? Is shouting on street corners the answer as in Eric Anderson’s research? Might online possibilities be another way forward as in recent biological research which recruited from couples-seeking-singles websites?
- How can the gap between what research the communities want, and what resources are available to carry out that research, be bridged?
- How can bi people engage with issues of sustainability? How does bisexuality relate to ecosexuality (sexualities and relationships structures that aim to be environmentally and socially conscious)?
- How can we best engage with bi media and mass media?
- Who should fund bi research? To what extent might their agenda impact on the results and conclusions?
- How can we continue international dialogues about these issues?
BiReCon: The Programme
10.30-11.00 Welcome: Christina Richards and Meg Barker, and introduction to bi research in the UK
Nichola Wood – “…apparently you can’t be bisexual”: Bisexual experiences of inequality, prejudice and discrimination in the workplace
Helen Bowes-Catton – Visualising bisexual spaces
Anna Einarsdottir and Brian Heaphy – ‘A date or a drink?’ How Civil Partners meet
Ruth Hunt – Bisexuals in the workplace: Applying the research
George Voss – Activism in queer and bi spaces
Jenny Kangasvuo – “It’s Like a Wave, This Thing Called Bisexuality.” Comparing the Experiences of Finnish Bisexuals in 1999 and 2009
Surya Monro – Where are all the bisexuals? Bisexuality and local government equalities work in the UK
Beth Roberts – Imag(in)ing Bisexuality in the Cinema
Miguel Obradors – Deconstructing Biphobia
Heidi Green – Workplace survey: bisexuality, pansexuality, many gender loving, MSMW, WSMW, fluid desire.
Kaye McLelland – Towards a Bisexual Shakespeare
Christian Klesse – ‘I did my way …’ – Creating Bisexual Intimacies in the Face of Heteronormativity and Biphobia
12.45-1.15 Keynote talk: Robyn Ochs – Why we need to “Get Bi”
2.30-3.00 Keynote talk: Serena Anderlini D’Onofrio – Gaia & the New Politics of Love: Notes for a ‘Bi’ Planet
Workshop 1: 3.00-4.00
Ruth Hunt and Louise Kelly – Bis in the workplace
Ele Hicks – Supporting and finding the bisexuals
Lindsay River – Issues for older bisexual people
Hartmut Friedrichs – Political strategy: bisexual or queer? – a two-eyed approach
Workshop 2: 4.00-5.00
Rebecca Jones – ‘When I get older’: Imagining your bisexual future
Surya Monro – Bridging the Gap: The bisexual community influencing policy making
Richard Lohman & Carola Towle – Working for bi equality – how can we use the 2010 Equality Act?
Sue George – Bi blogging
5.10-5.40 Keynote talk: Eric Anderson – Heterosexual men, bisexual behaviour
5.40-7.00 Panel discussion: John Sylla (American Institute of Bisexuality) and keynote speakers – The future of bisexual research and theory
7.00-onwards Conference end, socialising, supported by the American Institute of Bisexuality