The Future of Bisexual Activism

Back in August, I was contacted by QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking. They wanted to publish an article that reflected on the past and looked to the future of bisexual activism. I consider myself a community organizer first and an activist second, but I definitely had some thoughts on the subject and accepted the challenge. While I write this blog and contribute to the blog for Bisexual Organizing Project, I had never produced a 5000 word article on any topic.

I consider the topic of the “future” of anything to be a moving target. Written before the tragedy in Ferguson and the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, this article begins a discussion of social justice both for the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and unlabeled (bi+) community as well as the social justice we must work for within our community.

However, there is a lot to do. While I obviously suggest you read the entire article, there are two parts I want to highlight. First, a summary of what we need to build strong supports for our activism:

There are four key elements needed to move bi activism forward. First, there needs to be a better understanding by grantors and other institutions about the needs of the bisexual community. Second, the bi community needs to have organizational structures in place to allow grantors and institutions to work effectively with bisexual organizations. Third, bi individuals need to understand
where and how they can get involved as activists and why it is important to do so. Fourth, there must be high-quality research on the bi community to identify needs and provide evidence about the disparities experienced by bisexuals.

And my vision for the future:

The future of bisexual activism will require a new set of skills, a new level of organizational commitment, and a broad vision. However, it builds on both a rich history of an inclusive community and a new commitment by activists to national coordination and leadership. Bisexual activists will be creating more types of organizations to support this work, including political fundraising organizations, research institutions, and foundations. Although this vision is ambitious, the energy, momentum, and expertise present in the bisexual community today provides just the place to begin such an ambitious undertaking.

I hope this article sparks conversation and energy in the bi+ community and inspires more people to become organizers and activists.

Future of Bisexual Activism


Triggered by Pain

What do you do when your kid’s painful experiences trigger you? I try to compartmentalize and be the grownup in the moment but how about after the moment passes and you’re left with a heart aching for both of you in a complex tangle of primary and secondary trauma? What if it’s hard to separate your different pains or the combined pain is more then you know how to handle?

Let’s start with compartments. I’m usually good at compartmentalizing. Sometimes, I’m so good I forget I need to unpack the compartment later. Stealth compartments, that’s me. I spent most of my adult life being just fine with all my yucky emotions tucked neatly away, I didn’t even know I was doing it. I’m a lot healthier now, but the skills, and sometimes the habits, persist.

In situations where I’m managing the pain of someone I care about, if I fully close the compartment and keep my shit together through the whole incident, I think it can make me see cold or indifferent. Plus, I get to pry open the compartment later to rummage around and see what happened. If I don’t get the compartment closed, there will come a time in the discussion when I will likely be overwhelmed with the weight of the combined pain. Being overwhelmed means I loose most of my capacity to stay calm, problem solve and be patient. Staying calm and in control of my actions is really important to me, so being overwhelmed is awful in many different ways.

This situation with my son is a classic case of history repeating itself. I grew up with unidentified depression and anxiety. By 5th grade, it was affecting me on almost a daily basis. The depression and anxiety got steadily worse until I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my early 20’s and treated with talk and drug therapy. I struggle with it to this day. As a teen, I never had a large group of friends and often felt isolated and without peer support. I got through the days pretty well but the effort left me sleepless and anxious too many nights. While the anxiety drove me to be an excellent student, it left me out of tune with most of my peers. I finally got help in my early 20’s when my then boyfriend (later husband, now ex-husband) gave me an observation and an ultimatum.

Observation: most people do not come home and cry every night.

Ultimatum: go talk to a professional or I have to leave (for my own health).

[I generally frown on ultimatums. However, he correctly judged that in this case it would take a shove that hard to get me to get help.]

Now, my 13 year old son struggles with many of the same problems I had. Fortunately, he is not undiagnosed nor untreated and he has four loving parents supporting him. However, treatment to manage depression and anxiety in young people means trying to hit a moving target. Think of a soldier crossing an open area under sniper fire: moving fast and  constantly changing directions. What works today may not work tomorrow or may even make it worse!

Some of what he is going through breaks my heart because I’m a parent watching my child suffer through hard lessons. However, I also have heartache because I’m being triggered about my own past. Untangling that little snarl of trauma is a challenge. I keep hoping the untangling will get easier with time, but I find as his challenges change, they tap into new parts of my own experiences…some of which I haven’t thought about for a long time.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten much better at sitting with the pain. That’s the way I describe the process where I let an icky emotion be experienced without trying to solve the problem, push it away or rationalize it. I let it be icky and in time it will start to ebb. Only after the icky begins to ebb do I start to consciously work on how to make the icky better, if there are options. Sometimes, all you can do is sit with the ick.

When I’m triggered, it is all emotions, not specific incidents or memories. It reduces my capacity but is rarely incapacitating. So the challenge is how to keep myself as healthy as possible while parenting in a situation that too closely mirrors my own troubles as a kid and is reminiscent of things I still struggle with.

I haven’t come up with any magic answers yet. What makes me most sad is that I’ve started having anxiety about my kids. They live with their dad half time and my wife and I half time. When it is time for them to come back, I start to feel anxious. Of course, I have good reason to be anxious. Going through these episodes with my son is painful and hard. However, I don’t want to feel that way about my kids coming home so I feel badly about my anxiety and worry I’m making it worse by…worrying. Sit in the icky or worry in circles? The options are underwhelming to say the least.

I do have my general depression/anxiety prophylactics: talk to my closest people, take my meds, get enough sleep, and set aside time to take care of myself (quiet time, book time, nature time). I try to separate my stressors so I can deal with them sequentially instead of in parallel. I also write and hope that my thoughts on the situation help someone else. However, the details about how to deal with this situation with my son and I will have to be improvised. I’ll keep unpacking the damn compartments, try to keep my personal pain from spilling onto my son and try to learn some grace in managing our shared experience. In the last month, I’m 0 for 3 on the grace part, but I’m sure I’ll get more practice.

My Small Corner of the Ferguson Discussion

There is so much analysis about Ferguson going on right now: it’s about white rage, it’s about how a prosecutor can manipulate the system, it’s about militarized police. And of course: it’s about racism, it’s about more than racism, it was never about racism.

As a white ally-in-training I stand in solidarity with the black community in their anger over the shooting, the crassness of leaving the body in the street, the handling of the days after by the Ferguson police, and now the grand jury process. It is the black community that is standing at the center of this issue as the injured party and I will listen when they tell me it is about race. Most importantly, I will listen when they tell me this is systemic—not a Ferguson problem, not a police problem, but an American problem.

Although I hate going to marches and protests, I will be going to the protest tonight at the 3rd Precinct Station in Minneapolis. This is the moment when people are writing about why this has happened and how it’s happening all over the US, all the time. Even more importantly, people are reading it and talking about it and if this protest keeps those conversations alive, I want to support it.

That’s probably not why most people will be there; they will be there because they are angry. I think they have a right to be angry. I think I have a right to be angry, but I don’t do angry activist well so I’ll stick to my strengths. I’ll go and listen and learn more about how to talk about what is happening. I will be another body to stand and represent because I can go, and I know that is part of the privilege I have. If I’m not using my privilege to challenge the problem, then I’m a part of the problem.

Listening to the coverage today on National Public Radio, I kept thinking about how broken our society is. If we can’t get indictment of cops that are part of the problem, I want an indictment of the society that leads militarized police departments to view the public as the problem, that shapes the thinking of a policeman to be afraid in a situation where he should be in control, that gives a young black man good reason not to trust the police, that oppresses a neighborhood until they have nothing to lose, that encourages the media to cover the neighborhood riots but not the neighborhood helping each other.

If you are white and you are not speaking about the injustices in Ferguson, you are part of the problem. Yep, you. It’s past time to begin understanding the complexity of the problem and how urgently we, white people, need to start working on it. It’s been 400 years in the making, it’s going to take a long time to change us to where we need to be.

So, tonight I’m going to a protest to stand in solidarity. I may not have many answers right now, but I can see a problem, and I will not avoid it. Only by engaging can I be a part of the solution. I will listen and learn and center the voices of the black community as they speak their truth.

The Task Force Apologizes…Sort Of (reblogged)

Last night I wrote and posted this for Bisexual Organizing Project.

Yesterday, October 13, the National LGBTQ Task Force issued an apology to the bisexual community. Unfortunately, the apology was almost three weeks after the offensive incident and, as apologies go, it wasn’t a very good one.

Let me be clear, the Task Force needed to make a public apology and they did. There was much rejoicing on bi social media and many positive comments posted on the Task Force’s blog in response to their apology. A few of us were not so jubilant. My issue is with the text of the apology, the amount of time it took to get the apology, and the amount pressure that had to be applied before they made this apology.

In case you haven’t been haunting certain bi activist Facebook groups or the Task Force’s blog, let’s back up and recap what happened. September 23rd is Celebrate Bisexuality Day (also known as Bisexual Awareness Day and Bi Pride Day). Celebrate Bisexuality Day started at an international LGBT conference in 1999 and has been celebrated around the world for 15 years.

This year we had the first ever Bisexual Awareness Week September 21 – 27. A media plan was put together and content to be distributed was coordinated with a number of organizations, sites and individuals. BiNet USA took it as an opportune time to schedule bisexual cultural competency trainings, including for the Task Force. On the same day as their training, on Celebrate Bisexuality Day, the Task Force posted an entry on their blog by one of their staff. It was titled “Bye Bye Bi, Hello Queer.”

The post has been taken down, but to summarize, it explained one individual’s reasons for not using the label bisexual, put forth a lot of incorrect information about the bisexual community being discriminatory to trans and genderqueer individuals, and encouraged people to stop using the world bisexual based on a biphobic and incorrect understanding of both the word bisexual and the bisexual community.

The blog post caused an uproar. There has been a growing online community who has been coordinating responses to biphobic articles. Primarily through social media; organizations and activists around the country have been coordinating responses to everything from the New York City pride parade’s bi-erasure to biphobic articles on Slate, After Ellen and other sites. Articles have been taken down, editors have issued apologies and a lot of education has happened for both the media and big LGBT organizations. In response to “Bye Bye Bi,” individuals with personal connections to Task Force employees and directors reached out. Other people tried to post in the comment section of the blog but no comments posted when they were sent.

In the community of people who are attracted to more than one gender, there is always an ongoing discussion of labels including queer, pansexual, bisexual, polysexual, omnisexual, fluid and no label at all. Call them the bi+ community. The article posted was nothing new, contained no striking insights and perpetuated stereotypes of bisexuals as only being attracted to cisgendered individuals. This stereotype is used to drive a wedge between different parts of the bi+ community as well as between bisexuals and the trans community. The bisexual community has never put forward a definition of bisexuality that denied the existence of, or bisexual’s potential attraction to, all genders. In fact, the 1990 Bisexual Manifesto clearly challenges the idea of binary gender.

So, why were people upset with the blog when we have these conversations all the time? The Task Force’s timing sucked. There is ONE day a year that we ask organizations to focus on bisexuals. ONE day that we celebrate our community. And on that day, the Task Force posted a biphobic article which spread harmful and hurtful misinformation about bisexuals.

The Task Force’s first response to the direct questions about why they had posted this was approximately: we felt it was fair to post different views of bisexuality. This is an interesting response since I have never seen anything posted on their site denying homosexuality or questioning the ways gay and lesbian people identify themselves. In response to complaints, the Task Force invited a blog response from the bi community, which was written by Aud Traher. Aud clearly spelled out the problem:  “The idea that the word bisexual somehow reinforces the western gender binary, and thus is harmful to trans people like myself, is such a common way biphobia is expressed that it currently is next to ‘Photograph’ by Nickelback on my personal list of things I can’t stand to hear any more.”

However, more then a week later, the comments on the “Bye Bye Bi” blog post were still not published and the Task Force had not issued an apology. After significant prodding, the Task Force eventually said they found all the comments. Apparently, they had been stuck in a spam filter. The comments posted. Still, there was no apology or acknowledgement of any kind that they had done anything offensive.

Yesterday, Eliel Cruz posted an Op-Ed on calling for an apology. Finally, after almost three weeks, the Task Force posted a very brief apology on their blog. After all that time, I would expect it to be a really great apology. In my opinion, their apology is pretty weak. At its heart they said: “…we recognize that this blog offended people. For this we sincerely apologize.”

There are web pages and blog posts all over the internet about how to make a sincere apology. First and foremost, you need to acknowledge that what you did was wrong. “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” is not a  sincere apology. The Task Force avoided taking direct responsibility for their specific mistakes by saying (and I paraphrase): We are sorry that this blog offended people.  After three weeks, I expected a more substantive, direct, meaningful apology that clearly indicated they knew what they did wrong as well as why it was wrong. What the Task Force should have said was that they were sorry they posted a biphobic blog entry that encouraged erasure of bisexual people on Celebrate Bisexuality Day.

The other part of the apology I take issue with is this: “Our commitment as we move forward with our partners in the bisexual community is to continue to raise awareness of the realities and history of the bisexual community and bisexual people’s lives.” (Emphasis mine)

This does not sound like a promise to empower bisexuals, improve disparities or support the bi+ community. It sounds like “we’re going to keep doing what we think is right with this new awareness we have of bi+ issues.” It is, however, a start. A few years ago, we would have been ignored and counted ourselves lucky to have a private conversation with the Task Force about what happened.

I’m also uncomfortable that the original post was removed. While many people took issue with the content, and had serious problems with the timing, no one at any point disputed that the writer should have the freedom to express her feelings about the labels queer and bisexual. It reinforces my feeling that the Task Force doesn’t really understand what they did wrong.

Clearly, I’m not enthused with how the Task Force handled this situation or about the apology they wrote.  It seems written in such a way to mollify the bi community, not out of an understanding of what went wrong. I can only hope that a deeper understanding will come with further engagement between the bi community and the Task Force.

The Power of Spoken Word

Last night I attended a workshop on spoken word led by Tish Jones, had a lovely dinner hosted by Metro State’s Lavender Bridge with new friends, and enjoyed a night of powerful spoken word from celebrated writers as well as poets just trying their first performances. Powerful stories were told and I was honored to be included in the audience.

I decided to try my hand at performing. I do presenting, leading workshops, moderating discussions but I’d never stood up to speak my poetry except at my wedding (I wrote my wife two sonnets.) The workshop had helped me focus on some important things: evoking images, making it personal. Here’s what I wrote over dinner and performed last night.

Coming Out, Coming In

“You’re a lesbian,” he said with authority and my gay friend took a small step back with a small smile. Did he expect an explosion? I took a breath to sigh on the inside. Coming out, again.

“You can have the white picket fence, and the house, and the kids,” he said, writing himself out of the idyllic photo he wished to be in. And the man in my mind morphed, became Stephanie, 2 floors up, down the tile hall of our dorm. Do I come out? As what?

Two weeks later the image changed again and was the boy next to me in French. Coming out to myself, again.

“I’ve had a crush on you longer then I knew,” I said. “I’ve been waiting for you to figure it out,” she said. Coming out, but I didn’t need to. Someone could have told me and saved me the pain of discovery.

“I have a proper appreciation for the human form,” I said. “Men? Women?” she asked. “All,” I said to the department gossip and the coming out was done for that time and place.

I wrap an organization around me and I come out every time I introduce myself.

Coming out can be strong. I have twenty-three years of coming out. But now my passion is coming in: coming into community, coming in to our own time, coming into our own power. Empowering others with community to empower them to come out, to be out, so some day we’re all out. And we’re all in.I hope everyone had a good National Coming Out Day 2014.

I hope everyone had a good National Coming Out Day, 2014

Bi Erasure or Why Presidential Hugs Don’t Mean We’re Visible

This week was historic. For the first time a national bi leader was on the podium at the signing of an executive order affecting LGBT people employed by the government. Faith Cheltenham, chair of BiNet USA, stood closest to President Obama and even caged a hug when he turned around and greeted each of the representatives standing behind him. That was pretty great.

What wasn’t great was the coverage that talked about the historic executive order protecting gay and transgender federal employees. raises hand Excuse me…feeling a little erased there! Gary North wrote a great comment about it at this NPR story.

If you know who Faith Chletnham is, then you knew that we had bi representation at the signing. And she was standing with some pretty important people, which gave her great access to continue the ongoing project to get bi awareness training to all the organizations she can. But if you don’t know who she is, you would never know if there was bi representation there or not. In fact, I’m sure most people thought she was a lesbian because that’s what we do. Even a room full of bisexuals gets it when you show photos of two men or two women and ask, what are you seeing? Retraining your assumptions to allow for non-monosexual representation is work, even for non-monosexuals!

So when a person who has been problematic with regards bi erasure in the past posts on FB that he is “done being patient with people whining about being erased” I feel pretty done with assholes who didn’t understand the problem to begin with and now think everything is fine because a bisexual person stood near the president. [Sorry, I had to paraphrase that because the OP has been pulled down]

Bi erasure is complicated. It is done to us when bisexuals are relabeled as gay, lesbian or straight by the media or historians. It is done to us when headlines, event announcements and “inclusive” pride parades don’t say bisexual. We do it to ourselves whenever we allow someone to assume that we are straight, gay or lesbian.

It’s that last one that is the most insidious. I was recently having a very good conversation about this very topic. We were discussing how you decide when to come out and when you just let things lay. Coming out can be exhausting and can feel really disruptive in some ways. When my kid starts a new school do I walk into a PTA meeting and announce, “By the way, I’m bisexual?” How about at my local community theatre when I’m doing my crew orientation? I find it a little awkward to insert “Please don’t assume I’m lesbian because I’m married to a women; we’re both bisexual.”

It’s awkward because no one else is talking about their sexual orientation. No one else has to be so blunt about explaining something that is 99% irrelevant to how to focus a stage light. Sure, people might mention the gender of their partner as we work, or talk about an event they’ve been to that will signal that sort of information, but they don’t have to come right out and say it.

Trust me, after being out for 25 years, I have a whole bag of tricks that let me get out of making those awkward pronouncements while still getting information out that I’m bi. However, I know that every time I walk in public holding my wife’s hand the vast majority of people who see us assume we are lesbians.

Bi erasure is not just about making sure the right words are used or people don’t get “gay-washed.” It’s also about how individuals are or aren’t willing to retrain the way they think about what they are seeing. What do you see?



Privilege: Derailers and Revelations

Let’s have a little chat. Just you and me; don’t worry about those other readers over there. We’re going to talk about privilege. Perhaps I suggested you read this from a FB chat we’ve had, or in a conversation. There are a lot of misconceptions about privilege that I’m getting tired of typing and saying again and again, so here is my collected wisdom to date.

Privilege is Not About Guilt
So many people with privilege react first with “I’m sorry I’m ___________ (fill in privilege here).” Stop apologizing for being the thing that gives you privilege. It derails the conversation. The whole point of privilege is you don’t get to choose to have it and you can’t get rid of it. I was born to two white parents of European descent. I’m white. I didn’t choose it and that’s not going to change. What matters is what I do with my white privilege. Privilege is not about you feeling guilty.

Privilege is Not About People Being Assholes
The second most common reaction to a conversation about privilege is some variation of “If people would just stop being assholes everything would be fine.” Privilege is not about you being an asshole or not. Of course the world would be better if people weren’t assholes. But that, again, derails the conversation. Well meaning people, people who think they are being helpful, can lead with privilege and stick their foot in it. People who should know better even say the wrong thing from time to time. So forget about assigning all privilege problems to people being assholes because that doesn’t actually address the problem. Assholes with privilege suck, non-assholes who act out of privilege still have work to do.

Privilege Cannot Be Negated by Being Responsible For Your Own Actions
I have had the pleasure of discussing privilege with a few staunch libertarians. They typically lead with “Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Why can’t we all just take responsibility for ourselves?” We are all responsible for our own actions. However, we also benefit from the actions of those who came before us or those who share our privilege now. My white privilege means when I walk into a convenience store the clerk doesn’t watch me everywhere I go in the store. My white privilege means that every time I see a cop car drive by I don’t have to worry if they are going to pull me over or not. And even if they did pull me over, I’d have a reasonable expectation of being treated with respect. I get that privilege not because of something I personally have or have not done but because our country was established by white people, is educated from a white point of view and is run in the interests white people. That history predates me and there is nothing I can do or not do that will change that. Operating from the belief that everything you have or don’t have is because of things you have personally done is a naive and overly simplistic way of viewing the world. While personal responsibility certainly makes the world a better place, it does not negate the effect of privilege.

“Check Your Privilege” Statements Can Be Abused but…
…if you are the only one who reacted badly to the statement, you probably need to examine what just happened. It can really rock you back on your heels when you’re in “helping” mode and someone tells you to check your privilege, or some derivative of that. I know, you though you were helping for goodness sake. You were sure that was good advice! Courtesy of my friend Patrick, here is what probably just happened:

Person with Privilege (PWP) “If you would just do this thing I’m suggesting the problem would be solved.”
Non-Privileged Person (NPP) “I understand what you are saying, but that doesn’t apply here because privilege.”
PWP “But my suggestion is good, you must not be listening to me.”
NPP “I heard you and I said, that solution doesn’t apply here.”
PWP “But listen to me!”
NPP “Check your privilege!”If you’re lucky, that last one wasn’t at the top of their lungs because, trust me, this isn’t the first time someone has done that to them, nor will it be the last. If you’re really lucky someone might use more words to explain to you what just happened. Just remember, it isn’t anyone’s responsibility to educate you, you can go ask Google if you’re really confused.

But I Grew Up Poor/Uneducated/Surrounded by POC etc!
There are many types of privilege. As we change spaces, we change our privilege relative to the people around us. For example: I am white, female and bisexual. I have white privilege anywhere in the US. Even if I am in a minority neighborhood, the institutional structures of our society are tilted in my favor (police, government, etc). As a woman, I have cisgender privilege, but am subject to male privilege. As a bisexual, I’m pretty much the bottom of the sexual orientation privilege ladder. Privilege is relative to who you are interacting with and the setting. I find switching spaces is sometimes challenging. It is a form of code switching to make sure that when I move into a space where I have more privilege that I switch to using it to empower others, not defending myself.

Now that we’ve talked about the most common derailers of privilege conversations, let me share one of my revelation moments about privilege. The most startling one I had was after a few conversations about privilege with the same person. This person really had a hard time fitting his white male privilege into his world view. All of a sudden he said “So, when do I get to just talk and not worry about how it might affect someone?” I was shocked. I wanted to ask when anyone ever got to do that. I know I’m on the extreme end of the scale when it comes to monitoring the emotional tone of a conversation, but talking without thinking about how my words might affect the other person is a really unusual for me. I may not change what I’m going to say just because there might be a negative outcome, but I think about it. WTF I know he isn’t a total asshole….oh wait, we already addressed that, right?

Then I ran across some blogs by POC talking about always watching their language around white people to make sure what they are saying is not misunderstood. Sure enough, I’ve been on the receiving end of that situation. I wondered what it was like to just talk and not consider the possible impact of your words; to be able to assume that what you say and how you say it should be understood on your terms because…privilege.

I never did answer his question. The conversation derailed shortly thereafter due to comments made by other people. But I felt like the guy had made a break through. For him, the thing he needs to start with is thinking about how his words might affect someone else. For me, the first thing I started monitoring was stepping back and letting other people speak. Where are you going to start?