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.

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 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.

Emotional Cotton Candy or Why I Get Con-Drop

Last night I came down hard from the BECAUSE conference in Minneapolis, MN. BECAUSE is the regional/national conference for bisexuals and their allies. BECAUSE stands for Bisexual Empowerment Conference: A Uniting Supportive Experience. This year it was immediately preceded by the first ever US academic conference on bisexuality: BiReConUSA. It was an amazing weekend filled with incredible people presenting and talking about all different facets of bisexual community, organizing, activism and other topics of interest to attendees like self care for activists, academic research results and recruiting and motivating allies.

I did three workshops on Saturday because I love presenting. I met some great new friends, reconnected with people I haven’t seen recently and had the part of my brain that works on community organizing issues stimulated. OK, maybe over stimulated. By 4PM on Sunday I was feeling a little overwhelmed with everything I’d take in. I was also short on sleep and emotional from seeing the world premier of QUEER by Gadfly Theatre.

My wife Tanya and I went home and chilled out with dinner and a couple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, our current NetFlix obsession. I hoped the break would help clear my mind and leave me feeling more balanced. Unfortunately, all it did was clear my mind enough to realize that I was really emotionally fragile and still overwhelmed.

This morning I’m still integrating my experiences and I’ll write more about what’s coming out of that soon. But today I want to talk about con-drop, the feeling of depression that many of us who enjoy attending conferences/conventions get when we return to the real world. Most people ascribe the feeling to the difference between the focused enjoyment of a con and the mundane complexity of our day-to-day lives. That certainly plays a part for me, but that’s not the whole explanation.

I identified part of what gives me con-drop a few years ago, but last night while I was trying to explain it to Tanya, I saw a new metaphor: emotional cotton candy. Don’t get me wrong, I love cotton candy. It is one of my favorite carnival treats. But a bag has almost no food value and it leaves my blood sugar out of balance. While I have a great time eating lots of the yummy fluff, I find myself needing food with more substance right afterwards.

This conference gave me lots to think about, a lot of new ideas for presentations and some important strategies for working with my community. I also saw a lot of needs and no easy solutions. I thought a lot about ways that bisexuals are hurt, disenfranchised and made invisible. That put a pretty heavy burden on the “I want to take care of everyone” part of my personality. It also brought to the surface my own frustrations and anger which I usually don’t engage with.

The cotton candy part is this: meeting new people, having passionate discussions and intense learning experiences is exciting. However, after a weekend of that, I end up with low emotional blood sugar that follows the intense emotional high because at a convention I lack the ability to process emotionally difficult material. To process emotionally icky stuff I need to engage with the people who support me in a way that acknowledges all my parts, strong and weak, and who will hold me accountable when I gloss over the hard, emotional things I need to work out. I haven’t cultivated many of those people in my life.

People find me very open because I share my own personal experiences easily. What they miss is that I don’t share things that are still emotionally messy or painful. What I’m sharing is already processed. If I do share something that is still emotionally messy I do so from an intellectual distance so I can focus on the problem solving, not the emotional processing. This leaves me short on the kind of support I offer others. I totally own this problem, it’s not because something is lacking in the people around me. I’m failing to do my emotional processing in the moment and so it builds up. This conference was more intense then most and left me feeling worse then most.

I have to work hard to be vulnerable or ask for emotional support. I’m really good at being “just fine.” So, it was relatively recently that I recognized the root of con-drop for me was more then just the “return to reality” problem that many people experience. I end the conference having had intense emotional experiences, many of them positive. However, I also end the conference feeling disconnected from the people I’ve gone through the experiences with. We all go home and the cotton candy fluff that raised us to such emotional highs has melted away and left me needing something more substantial to finish processing the experience.

After a long talk last night with Tanya, some quality sleep and a return to my regular routine I’m feeling better. I’m also working on a better system for me to deal with the emotional impact of some of the presentations, and especially the play, that I saw. My heart still aches with all the hurts that were shared. I have discovered that I am more personally affected by the sadness and anger then I have ever allowed before. As someone who excels at being “just fine” I think this is healthy for me. It just isn’t easy.

Coming Out Bi

In the Spring of 1990, I was a freshman in college. I had friends of all orientations but I had never questioned my own hetrosexuality. Late in Spring semester, I was asked to moderate a discussion on sex and sexuality sponsored by the campus LGBT organization. I agreed and it went well. We all enjoyed having a space to discuss our thoughts and feelings on sex and sexuality. For many of us, these were changing a lot in our first years away from home. We decided to start a weekly discussion group and it ended up attracting a wide variety of people, including non-students. Our discussions explored personal as well as social and political topics. We learned from our older members, shared new experiences we were having and we all became close. However, I still never questioned my own hetrosexuality.The next fall, a couple of months into my Sophomore year, I was having a very difficult time with a number of issues. One was I realized that although I could talk comfortably about sex and sexuality in general, I had a very unhealthy relationship with my own sexuality. I was thinking a lot about my past relationships and trying to figure out where I’d internalized a whole lot of negative ideas about sex. Among other things, I realized I’d never enjoyed sex the way I thought I should. In a leap of logic that still amazes me, I decided I was a lesbian but had been socialized to think I was straight.

I was a biology student and I did have evidence to support my hypothesis. As a kid I’d been fascinated by back issues of Playboy I had found stashed in the restroom at my mom’s office. I thought about my cousin introducing me to the idea of guy watching when I was a junior in high school. She had been amazed I’d never really looked at guys before. I felt I was a very suggestible person who was too rooted in what was expected of me, including the influential science fiction by Robert A. Heinlein I’d devoured as a teenager. I had enjoyed kissing a girl over the summer. Obviously, I had learned to feel and act straight because that was what was expected of me. I must really be a lesbian!

Being a lesbian lasted two weeks. It ended when I realized I was attracted to the guy who sat next to me in French class. I felt silly about my over reaction to figuring out I was attracted to women. I had friends who were bisexual, I knew I didn’t have to pick between being attracted to boys or girls. I’d just spent the last 6 months having weekly discussions about sex and sexuality that included plenty of information on all different orientations! Luckily, I hadn’t come out to very many people in those two weeks so I didn’t have to correct too many misunderstandings.

I did burn one bridge during that time. A past boyfriend who I hadn’t spoken to in months had the misfortune to call me during those two weeks. I told him I was a lesbian. He had been the first guy I ever had sex with and he took my revelation very personally. We didn’t talk again for many years.

That little detour does give me a good story to tell when talking with people about bi-phobia. “I come out as lesbian for two weeks, but I got over that,” never fails to get a laugh. How often have we been told our bisexuality is a phase or something we have to “get over?” The irony is delicious.

I had some panicky moments as I got used to the idea of dating women. Late one night one of my closest friends, and the first person I ever came out to, had to reassure me that even if I ended up finding a woman to spend the rest of my life with, I could still have kids, a dog and the house with a white picket fence that I wanted. It was a new idea for me but he was right. Twenty years later the fence is brown but my house has dogs, kids and a wife.

Even back then, people claimed bisexuality was just a fashionable thing for young women at co-ed liberal arts colleges. We would get over it. I was left speechless one day when an otherwise liberal-minded friend confided in me that he wasn’t worried about his girlfriend’s attraction to other women. He said as soon as she graduated, she’d stick to guys.

However, I knew I really was attracted to women, not just responding to my environment. Although my powers of deduction had proven faulty, I had a reason for believing this. I had realized I had a huge crush on one of my best friends from high school. I had had it for a long time and just never realized it for what it was. She was at a different college but we’d stayed in touch after high school, so I called her. I told her I had had a realization about myself that was really important and that had to do with her, too. I didn’t think she’d take it badly, but you never know with these things. I’d heard plenty of bad coming out stories from friends. I confessed my crush and my newly discovered bisexuality with butterflies in my stomach.

She replied, “I know, I’ve had a crush on you for years. I’ve just been waiting for you to realize how you felt.” Damn her, she’d beaten me to it! So we giggled and talked and agreed if we were ever living in the same city and unattached that we would try dating.

That Spring we both attended a conference and had a chance to tell our story while sitting together in a room full of other LGBT college students. What an empowering experience! Everyone clapped and the session leader asked if we had had a chance to try dating yet. At that point I was sure we would. I had transferred to the university in our hometown and I knew she was coming home for the summer. We were both single, what could possibly not work?

As it turned out, we never did get a chance to date. Her very strict Catholic parents found out how we felt about each other by reading a letter she had left in her desk. They threatened to kick her out of the house, not support her education and never let her see her sisters if she ever talked to me again. She managed one quick phone call to tell me why she couldn’t talk to me again and we had one awkward day when friends conspired to have us both join a road trip to an amusement park a couple of hours away.

That day my heart broke for both of us. Until then I’d thought we might have a chance when she went back to college, but she’d changed. I hated seeing how fear had crushed her spirit. That day at the amusement park she told me she was seeing someone. The night her parents told her never to talk to me again, she went and cried on a friend’s shoulder. This was a  friend she’d previously sworn she had no interest in being romantically involved with. One thing led to another, as these things do. I felt like she’d taken refuge with him rather than chosen him because she loved him. I later heard they married.

I lost track of her soon after that road trip. She went back to college and her parents moved out of town. Even after she was back at school I guess she wouldn’t risk contacting me. Every once in awhile I Google her maiden name to see if anything comes up. I have never known her married name. My hope is that somewhere out there she’s made a good life for herself and fulfilled the potential of the wonderful girl who realized how she felt about me and was smart enough to wait patiently while I caught up.

Count Me In: Be Inclusive

I have a presentation I have done multiple times in the past few years called Crossing Boundaries: a Moderated Discussion. Among the things we talk about are different ways we can speak up against prejudice and discrimination. There are lots of possibilities and the discussion often gives people new tools for their advocacy toolbox.We have options when we confront people about their jokes, their language and their attitudes. We chose when, where and how we want to confront them. We choose if we are trying to change their minds, be a voice for someone without a voice or are being present as a dissenting view. There are as many reasons speak up as there are ways to speak up.This week I had an opportunity to speak up and I was surprised how much it upset me. I’ve been out as a bisexual woman for 20 years. I’ve confronted people about their language on homophobia, biphobia, body image and more. However, the idea of confronting a well known author about his choice of language on his own Facebook page was daunting.

He is an intelligent man who writes well researched, thoughtful posts and professional articles. While you might not recognize his name, you’d certainly know the work he’s done in television. He demands factual, respectful conversation. He describes himself as a grumpy curmudgeon who takes no shit.

So, it was with some trepidation I decided I had to make a comment about a post he made. His original post read, “Shameless plug for an insightful read on gay issues. I’m jealous of Wayne Self’s skill at deconstructing an issue.” A link was provided:

I tripped on the word gay when I first read it. He could have meant the site was focused on issues specifically affecting gay men or he could be using gay as an inclusive term for all non-hetrosexuals. I don’t consider gay to be inclusive, but I have seen it used that way before and it bothers me.

I was first introduced to the idea of gay as an inclusive term when I transferred to the University of Iowa in the Spring of 1991 and I went looking for the University’s LGBTQ group. At the time it was called, “The Gay People’s Union.” I was assured it was an inclusive group and encouraged to attend, which I did. While I wasn’t excluded, it wasn’t the community I was looking for and later events demonstrated part of that was the name.

There had been attempts to change the name in the past. Even just adding lesbian had been resisted. The older members insisted that “gay” was inclusive and were confused about why their group was overwhelmingly comprised of gay men. At this time, bisexuals routinely had to fight for acknowledgement that we existed as a part of the community, much less that we should be included in the names of the organizations we were a part of. The transgendered community was just starting to gain visibility and was mentioned even less often than bisexuals.

Standing up for inclusive language is something I am passionate about. People need to feel included in the wider communities they belong to. I think gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people have many things in common we can work on together. However, when someone uses the term “gay marriage” or talks about “gay and lesbian issues” I don’t assume I’m being discussed. I am not gay or lesbian. Labels matter. When we don’t see ourselves represented we do not feel we are part of the group.

After thinking about his post a little, I clicked through the link. I found a site full of wonderful writing about many aspects of the greater LGBTQ community. The header says: “[owl-dol-a-truhs] n: A journal of analysis and inspiration for LGBTQ people and their friends.”

Seeing that the site doesn’t use the term “gay” but chooses instead the the more inclusive acronym “LGBTQ” made me feel even more strongly I should bring the issue up. I dreaded a confrontation in this arena but I posted:

“I don’t suppose you’d edit that comment to match their own self descriptor at the top of the page: “LGBTQ” rather than “gay?” It would mean a lot to those of us who don’t use gay as an all inclusive label.”

Then I waited, fearing what scathing response I might have to endure. Finally, his posted:

“No, I’m not going to edit the comment. Two reasons: First, there’s no way to edit it. Second, I remember when the term “gay” included everybody and it still means that to me. I don’t mind all those other letters — it’s a good reminder that the gay community is large and diverse. But on another level, it’s separatist — “we’re not gay, we’re blah blah blah.” Bullshit. To our enemies, we’re all queers. I recognize and cherish our diversity, but I’m not going to be slavish to political correctness because there are more important things to focus on. Wayne’s columns, for instance.”

Damn! I hadn’t realized you couldn’t edit posts like you can edit comments. I hated the fact that I could be called on that because it distracted from the real issue. However, the rest of his response was worse than being caught out on a technical detail.

Politically correct? That came out of left field for me. I haven’t thought about political correctness in years!  His explanation of inclusivity didn’t surprise me, but then he dismissed the entire topic as unimportant compared to sharing another writer’s work. I was not happy.

It took awhile for me to formulate a response. As I said, I do respect this writer, even though we may disagree on something that’s important to me. I also appreciated his detailed response to my request, even if I didn’t like the answer.

I didn’t think I would change his mind but I couldn’t let his comment be the last word on the topic. It was important to me that both positions were stated in the same comments section. Hundreds of people follow his posts and while I’m sure far fewer drill down into the comments, I’m also positive that anything on his page is well read. After many false starts I posted:

Camille Holthaus Yes, Wayne’s columns are great. I read them. I was not asking you to be politically correct as I am of the group being discussed. I am asking for inclusive language, not imposing some external sense of right and wrong. You clearly use the term with the understanding that people you include in it may not feel included by it. To our enemies we may indeed all appear to be queers, but gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are all treated differently by the mainstream. We share a lot of challenges, but the differences matter, too.

I haven’t received a response and I don’t expect one. Whether it’s because I was respectful in my disagreement or because the issue has passed beyond his notice I’ll never know. I was hoping there would be more conversation with other readers but there hasn’t been.

Inclusivity is a complex, emotional topic because we are talking about identity. People have strong feelings about what terms should be used, where and how. People of the same community often disagree on what is appropriate language. If that isn’t enough complexity, the goal of having inclusive language is a constantly moving target as usage and advocacy advance.

I have never felt included in the term “gay” although I understand some lesbians are comfortable being called gay. I’ve been a part of very nuanced conversations with people who are attracted to more than one gender and feel excluded by the term bisexual. I understand why some people eschew labels altogether. I think labels are useful tools when we consider them the beginning of a conversation, not the end. I’ll keep fighting for inclusive language rather than assume that past usage is still appropriate.