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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Allies & Community: Am I In or Out?

In a recent conversation about whether bisexuals considered supportive lesbians and gays to be “allies” there was a lot of talking past each other. It became clear to me that some of what that conversation was tripping on was this: the understanding of who is part of the community and who isn’t, as well as who has power and who doesn’t, changes when we are talking about what happens within the L, G & B community vs what happens in the wider world.

In the wider world, LGBT are all mushed together as “different” so when I speak up about a homophobic comment I am defending my own community. However, in LGBT spaces there are structural power differences between the letters so the monosexuals (L & G) who support B, are allies.

 If there wasn’t discrimination against bi’s in the gay and lesbian communities, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion because bi’s wouldn’t need allies just to function in our “own” LGBT community.

 Bisexuals have been moving along two community tracks for as long as I am aware of: being a part of the larger LGBT community and creating our own community. I used to think these were in opposition to each other, but a little historical education and perspective made me realize that this dual track has always been true of the gay and lesbian communities as well. To speak of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities is perhaps more accurate then to speak of us as a single community except for one thing: organizing to effect social and legal changes means we need to view ourselves as part of as large a community as possible in order to draw on as many resources as we can.

Umbrella organizations that truly represent the needs of, and acknowledge all parts of, our entire community are stronger and more able to effect change then if we each try to do it alone. B & T have historically been left in out in the cold of the larger LGBT organizations and today there is a lot of distrust by the bisexual and transgender communities toward these institutions. There are people doing very important work providing education and repairing relationships at the organizational level. Others of us focus on strengthening our own communities so we can provide the support we need within our community as well as come to the table with more strength when it is time to work together as a united LGBT community. These are both important things that need to happen and we are lucky we have people who are interested in both types of activism.

We waste a lot of time and energy convincing gay and lesbian institutions and leadership that we should be included in their work. Not as “allies” but in a way that our needs and concerns are taken into consideration when objectives and agendas are decided. We are a part of what is happening. Not including everyone voice can also lead to skewed agendas where the community becomes perceived as a single issue community (marriage equality, anyone?) when in fact our communities have many needs that should be being discussed and addressed.

It is important when thinking about allies within and outside of the LGBT movement to remember that we LGBTs have conversations with each other that are so far down in the weeds as to be a foreign language to the larger population. One of my friends calls it “inside baseball.” I might consider an individual lesbian to be a bisexual ally because of the support and understanding that person gives within LGBT spaces, but I would never agree that bisexuals are allies to L&G because we are part of the same larger movement that seeks social justice for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Plus I don’t want to give anyone more excuses to leave us out! The bisexual community is not an ally in the LGBT movement, we are part of it.

As a bit of a post script, and to address something that is sure to occur to some of you: Yes, as a cisgendered person, I can be ally to the trans community, even though I maintain that we are all part of the aforementioned LGBT movement working for social justice regardless of sexual orientation of gender identity. This is because cis and trans describe different things. In considering myself a part of the LGBT movement I see that homosexual and bisexual both describe something different then heterosexual. I am not a part of the trans community, I am a part of the non-heterosexual community. I can be ally to the trans community but I’m a part of (not ally to) the non-heterosexual community. See how that works?

And if that has led to the question: why is trans a part of the LGBT community if their axis is trans-cis not hetero-bi-homo then you have headed off into another topic that many people have written about so well. Just trust me, they are, as are asexual people and everyone else that doesn’t fit into the heteronormative (binary) narrative that surrounds us. And I’ll keep watching their backs however I can, hoping they have mine in return.

New Beginnings

I’ve blogged before that here in the north land I do not think of January as a time of new beginnings. However, Sunday was a pretty big beginning. I’ve been an active member of Bisexual Organizing Project (BOP) for a while now and Sunday I was elected to a two-year term as chair of the board of directors.

This is a pretty big deal. Sometimes I loose sight of how much because I’ve been hanging around, watching the sausage being made and loosing sight of the bigger picture. Nothing like an annual meeting presentation to put it in perspective.

The 2013 BOP board (including me) wrote a new Strategic Plan for 2014 – 2019 that will take us to the next level of being a resource for the bisexual community. Our revised vision statement is:

Build, serve and advocate for an empowered bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and unlabeled (bi*) community to promote social justice.

I have on good authority that we already have the largest budget of any 501(c)(3) in the country that is devoted primarily to serving the bisexual community.  We host the largest and longest running conference by, for and about bisexuals and our allies in the United States: the BECAUSE conference. Although our primary program focus is serving the Upper Midwest, BECAUSE and our work with other organizations gives us a national impact. We host a bi-annual, international conference for individuals researching bisexuality called BiReCon USA. Plus all the events we exhibit at, recurring social events we host and educational resources we provide. So BOP is kind of a big deal.

But here’s the secret. I love the idea of being chair because I want to empower our board and our committees to go out and make a difference. BOP has great programs, plans for more great programs and so many ways to connect bisexual folks with their community. We have lots of opportunities to get involved and I’m excited to connect people with what excites them. Leading, organizing, volunteering or attending, all of these things are important ways to be a part of our community. Community doesn’t just happen, it happens when people show up.

Last week I took part in a conversation on Fliponymous’ blog that started out about labels and ended with a discussion of community. You’ll find it in the comments of his most recent blog post. Sometimes it felt like Fliponymous and I were just not connecting with Saul. In the end I think we all saw where the breakdown of communication was. Saul has found his personal support among friends and family and that was enough for him. Fliponymous and I are working on the next layer out: community. Friends and family are really important and their support is invaluable. But when you want to change the world around you, you need to work with your community. That’s where BOP comes in: building community, educating allies and potential allies; researching bisexuals and our community so we can educate even more; being present and visible to combat bi-phobia and bi-erasure; being seen so that people struggling with their sexual identities can see that there are other people out there who feel the same way they do. Plus, BOP’s social events are great ways to expand your circle of supportive friends by providing a way to meet people who “get it” about being bi.

So come on down. Check out our Facebook page and get information about our recurring events. Wander over to meetup.com to see our member-driven events. Our website is under renovation right now due to some technical issues, but bookmark it, we’ll be back to our normal helpful, resource self soon.

Of course, I’ll be blogging about the journey I just started with my fellow board members. I’m still grinning like a fool when I think about what’s coming next.

Getting Too Comfortable

Yesterday I had my nose rubbed in one of my greatest challenges as an activist: getting too comfortable. And it happened twice!

The first was when I read the NY Times article about bisexuals that is going around. At first I felt like it was pretty good. They got some of it right and even quoted someone recognized by our community as a leader. Then I read my friend Fliponymous’ blog. I agree with every word he said. He’s totally right. I was focused on what the article did right and how much better it was then what we normally see. I was not seeing how it compared to what it should have been. I had gotten too comfortable again.

I am hopelessly optimistic. It shows up in how I have lived with depression for 30 years, how I manage money and my primary interests as an activist. It is everywhere in my life and no where more likely to trip me up then in holding people accountable to a higher standard. I look at what they did right and I’m proud of them. That is not enough. So I thank people like Flipanymous for pushing me out of my comfort zone.

The second was a little more complicated. Last night my therapist and I reviewed recent events. He talked about how far I’d come on creating boundaries and taking control of situations that used to upset me. Then he said, “And now you are taking on something that is so much harder, I just want to acknowledge how much harder this is.”

My first thought was it wasn’t harder. It didn’t feel harder, it didn’t upset me as much and I didn’t worry about it as much as I had those other things that I was doing so well. We wrapped up and I kept turning it over in my head. He’s usually right about these things, so why didn’t it feel harder?

I was definitely not comfortable when I realized it wasn’t feeling hard or scary or challenging because when things get really hard, I stop paying any attention to how I’m feeling. I focus on logic, other people’s needs or other ways to discuss things that don’t give any weight to my feelings about the situation. I don’t use my feelings as a reason something should change. It’s a habit I thought I had pretty much gotten rid of, or at least gotten better at noticing! And yet, there it was, sitting right in the middle of a big nasty problem, muddying the waters and reducing my chances of a successful resolution.

As I get older more of my energy is directed toward life stuff: raising children, maintaining a house, being a good wife and a good employee. In all those things, being comfortable can be good when it means things are going smoothly. However, when I put on my activist hat, I find myself needing to spend time with people whose passion can challenge my ideas and whose methods I may find uncomfortable. I need to stay in an uncomfortable space so I question my worldview and I strive to understand other people’s worldviews, where my privileges are challenged and I learn how to be a better ally and activist. That is how I know I am still working to improve the world around me…and myself.