(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.
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.
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.
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.
Last night I wrote and posted this for Bisexual Organizing Project. http://www.bisexualorganizingproject.org/home/the-task-force-apologiessort-of
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 Advocate.com 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.
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