Selected (and expanded) Remarks from the Opening Session of BECAUSE 2015

(I adjusted these remarks as I spoke due to technical issues as well as time considerations–this is the original text I had intended to present)

Welcome to BECAUSE 2015!

Our theme this year is Developing Leadership to Empower Communities and I want to take a little time tonight to talk about leadership and what it is.

First, why do I talk about developing leadership, not leadership training? Often we hear about leadership training. Using “training” implies leadership is something that can be standardized, taught in steps, and understood through continuing education classes. The truth is that leadership is developed, nurtured, mentored.

Leadership comes in a lot of different forms and some people embody more than one type. When we start talking about leaders, we often think of elected leaders, business leaders, or the leaders of organizations of our community. Those leaders share some characteristics: vision, the ability to bring people together around ideas, and the personality to move work forward. Those types of leaders are important—you’ve heard a few already tonight and you’ll be hearing from more throughout the conference. But that isn’t the only kind of leadership there is and it isn’t the only kind we need to develop.

Depending on the community you grew up in, you might identify people with a lot of life experience as leaders. I call them elders, sometimes to their chagrin. People with a lot of life experience can provide leadership by virtue of their experiences. Our history informs our present,which shapes our future. Understanding how we got to where we are now is vitally important to moving our community forward.

I’d like you to think about those people you know that don’t have a title, who haven’t sat at the head of the table, who’ve never been elected. However, when they walk in the room, people gravitate toward them the way plants turn to the sun, because they are a person that other people want to be like. This is another kind of leadership.

There are people who are leaders because the jump in and get things done. When they come to the meeting and the chairs aren’t set up they don’t wait to be told to move chairs, they move them.

These are just a few of the ways leadership shows up in community. I want to recognize all of the ways people are leaders and explore them this weekend. I even have a couple of people on my board who don’t think of themselves as leaders, but their ideas and their work are shaping what we as an organization are doing. That’s leadership, too.

I’ve inviting a couple of attendees up to share their experiences with leadership. They both came to where they are now by very different routes and they are examples of different kinds of leadership.

I first met Aud Traher last year at BECAUSE. They have made a mark writing for both their own blog, Even Aud, as well as guest blog responses to a number of high profile events in the past two years including the Task Force’s “Bye, Bye, Bi” which the Task Force published on Celebrate Bisexuality Day in 2014.

[Paul Nocera introduction off the cuff due to technical problems. Among other things, Paul is facilitator of Bi Request NYC]

…and of course our amazing keynote speakers Andrea Jenkins and Eliel Cruz will be sharing their thoughts on leadership.

I also want to speak to you about the unofficial theme of this years conference: exploring the impact of intersectional identities in our community.

There is a lot of discussion about radicalism in the circles I spend time in. For some people, the volunteer work I do to stand up in front of strangers and talk about myself and our community is very radical. To me, the people like Act Up! and Queer Nation were radical. #BlackLivesMatter shutting down major highways, that’s radical. I’ve never been a front line agitator. I like to have permits for my marches, signup sheets at my meetings, and I want to know the rules, even if I choose to break them.

I was talking to a long time acquaintance of mine a little while back. She asked me why I did all these things: hours of volunteering for Bisexual Organizing Project, speaking engagements, organizing conferences. Why couldn’t everyone just live together? She didn’t care if people were gay or trans or bi or whatever. Why couldn’t everyone just live together and let these things be.

I only had one answer to give her: we’re not living together, we’re dying. In Minnesota, 20% of bi identified teens have attempted suicide. [BiEssentials Suicide.110614] My trans siblings are dying at the hands of people who are angry and afraid and hateful and by their own hands. Our health statistics are terrible: cancer, depression, the list goes on and on. We have to change the culture we live in so it is hospitable to our lives.

It took me a long time to say I was an activist. I was more comfortable identifying as a “community organizer.” Then I realized, activism comes in many forms, just like leadership. You being in this room is a radical act. For most people, understanding their own sexuality is a radical act.  It requires breaking down so much of what we have been told, saturated with. I attended a workshop last weekend and one of the questions we discussed was: “What has given you the permission to question?”

So what has given you permission to question our hetero-normative society? To consider that you might not be a part of that narrative? To question the models of gender, of gender roles, of relationships?

After we start understanding ourselves, coming out to other people is a radical act. People say to us: “if bisexuals would just come out there wouldn’t be any more bierasure and biphobia.” As if it was that easy. You all know what we face. I’ve been coming out for over 25 years. There are days when I don’t know how to do it right. There are days I don’t want to do it anymore. Because our reality is we have to come out all the time. That is part of what wears our community down, it’s part of why we struggle with mental health issues, and it’s part of why we don’t come out. It is also the reason we have to have spaces like this, like BECAUSE, where we can be ourselves, where we are with people who get that part of us that most people never get. We must have local community spaces, online community spaces, and spaces within LGBT organizations and events where we are not always on the precipice of having to come out. Again.

After we come out to ourselves, and then to at least a few other people, what’s next? For some people that’s enough. They find their support network, their chosen family, their circle of friends and they are done. They have what they need, they feel they are insulated from the harsh world, they have their safe havens where they are loved and understood. And there they stop.

But a lot of us look for a wider community. We want to meet other people like ourselves, we want to understand the breadth of experiences there are in living as someone who is attracted to more than gender. Forming these communities beyond our immediate social circles is a radical act. It’s subversive.

If it wasn’t subversive, why would there be so many forces working against us? If we get together, if we understand what we have in common, if we celebrate our differences and still choose to work together, we are a dangerous force that questions some of the most basic foundations of our society: the roles of men and women, the binary understanding of gender, the family structures that have and raise children.

Sometimes, something happens when we seek out a wider community. Sometimes, they turn into our personal circle, our support network, our chosen family. This is no surprise. We work on projects together, we celebrate our accomplishments and survive our disappointments together. We work in community and sometimes we draw that community closer to us. This is not a bad thing—some of the people I love most in this world are in this room and I would never have met them if it weren’t for this work we do for the bi+ community.

The problem arises when we forget that working in community is about more than the people you like and it’s about more than the people you already know. Our best estimates right now is that, when asked privately, 3 – 4.5% of the US population identifies as something under the bi+ umbrella. That’s not even talking about behavior, just labels. And that’s a lot of people. You aren’t going to like them all. Sometimes, they are going to do things you don’t like. But they are ours. My bi+ community is everyone who is attracted to more than one gender. Period. Think about that. Everyone attracted to more than one gender, period. I know that makes some of you uncomfortable but I challenge you to take a broader view of community than just the circle you want to know.

I tell my board of directors that I surround myself with people who make me uncomfortable. I surround myself with people who make me uncomfortable because I want to be kept out of my comfort zone, I want to be challenged to grow and change and understand more about things I think I’ve already figured out. It keeps me on my toes.

I feel a responsibility to make sure my community, especially the most vulnerable, are getting their needs met. You’re going to hear a lot about intersectionality this weekend because the board of Bisexual Organizing Project has taken a strong position: we believe that we must educate ourselves and our community to be more inclusive in real, substantial ways.

So this is the next step: we have to change the structures of our organizations to be representative of our community and support the organizations started by and run for the empowerment of the most marginalized identities in our community. I say this as a person with a presence on both sides of this issue. As a bisexual person, I hold LGbt organizations accountable for all too often ignoring the needs of bisexual people in their work and for not having inclusive leadership. As the leader of an organization, I hold myself accountable for moving our organization to a place where our leadership and our programming reflect the intersectionality of our community. This is the true purpose for learning about privilege. We do not learn for learning’s sake but learn to understand the changes that need to be made and to promote social justice.

We want to be a part of creating structural change in the world not just on bi+ issues but on issues of social justice for marginalized communities because bi+ people are everywhere, and they are all ours. Will we always get it right? Of course not. It may take us a long time to make progress—this isn’t a goal, there is not endpoint where we can look around and say, “There, we’re done.” But we’ve started taking actions.

We’ve started with training for our leadership and eventually we will have funding to offer inclusion and access training to our entire community at no charge to attendees. Our training goal? Create more spaces for bi+ people with other marginalized identities where they feel welcomed and included. We are changing the way we hold our monthly meetings to serve the needs of more of our community. We’re changing how we pay for BECAUSE and what we ask from our attendees to make it more economically accessible. We’re creating connections with other organizations and offering to show up in the ways they want us to show up. We’re training organizations in bi+ cultural competency and working with them to expand their programming to include bi+ specific programming that is created within their own community to meet their own community’s needs.

Do we have enough people and money to do all these things, much less all these things as fast as I want us to do them? Nope. But we’re working on that, too.

These are just a few things that organizations can do. If you believe as I do, that our progress must include our entire community, and we know that parts of our community are being left behind not just in queer organizing, but by our society, then I challenge you: what are you personally and organizationally doing to change? You can’t just invite people of color in and expect them to join your board. You can’t just tell trans folks that they are your closest allies and expect they will attend your events. This isn’t about being a good person or having the best of intentions. This is about working to understand the needs of bi+ people in all our diversity. It starts by believing people who are attracted to more than one gender have enough in common so that we have a responsibility to each other to create a more hospitable world for all of us. And once you have expanded your community to hold all bi+ people, you may find that all marginalized people have enough in common with each other so that we have a responsibility to create a more hospitable world for all of us. That’s radical.

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