By Amanda Morgan
The Bi Writers Association, with support from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York City, organized “Putting the “B” in LGBT,” a national summit whose aim was to “give people the tools to understand and include the bi community more fully,” said bi activist Sheela Lambert, who was also the driving force and primary organizer behind the summit. I was lucky to attend this free conference on May 30th, 2009. Here are some of my thoughts and reactions.
The most common excuse I hear from lesbian and gay folks, activists and non, for the lack of bisexual inclusion is that we are included. Huh? This is typically followed by an explanation that bisexual people are only made targets for acts of violence and discrimination when we are in same-sex relationships. And if we’re single or in different sex relationships well, we can just take our heterosexual privilege and shove it. Because we stop being bi if we’re monogamously partnered, right? And we’re all so gender-conforming that the only thing that makes us vulnerable is our relationship choices, right? Right.
This ignores the glaringly obvious fact that we remain bisexuals no matter what our relationships look like. Our visibility might change. But who we are does not. And being in the closet hurts. No matter what privilege or lack thereof might come along with it. This also ignores the fact that one’s perceived gender or sexual orientation (see also: gender nonconformity) often makes them a target, and this includes bisexuals of all relationship statuses. Bisexuals, like everyone else, are represented across the gender spectrum. Most profoundly, however, this viewpoint illustrates a complete lack of interest in any critical self-examination on the part of the lesbian and gay community when it comes to bi inclusion. While community members may be quick to point out victimization or its absence in mainstream culture, lesbian and gay organizations/media/folks/etc. are experts at avoiding the subject when it comes to their own possible perpetration of biphobia and bi erasure.
The participants of the Bi Summit were having none of that. “Putting the ‘B’ in the LGBT” called the rest of the queer umbrella to task. Exactly what are the effects, personally and politically, when we leave bisexual people by the wayside? I promise you, it’s more than hurt feelings.
Not to knock hurt feelings. When Peter Ruggiero of the Bi Writers Association spoke of contemplating suicide as a result of being inundated with messages that bi men did not exist, I remembered why I became a bi activist in the first place. Our very lives are at stake here. I was hospitalized for depression as a teenager. While a variety of factors contributed to this, it certainly didn’t help that I had a therapist who was telling me I was straight. And where did I find her? The Pink Pages, a New England Resource Directory of LGBT friendly professionals.
Recent research suggests our experiences are not unique. As bisexual columnist Mike Szymanski reported: “Some stats show that bisexual youth particularly have more attempts at suicide and feel more alienated than even their gay and lesbian counterparts who have a growing social and support network around them. A suicide prevention study in Australia found that bi women and bi men were the highest percentages of suicide attempts (35 and 29 percents). Bi youth between 14 and 21, in a University of Minnesota study, were more likely to be suicidal than any other group.”
This comes as no surprise. We as bisexuals know the high cost of invisibility. But what about our LGBT organizations? Isn’t combating invisibility supposed to be one of their main tropes? Keynote speaker Robyn Ochs addressed the ways in which the mainstream LGBT movement has let us down and contributed to our invisibility instead of helping to alleviate it.
She noted the first problem—people only “see” bisexuals when we are simultaneously partnered with members of both sexes, which is not the reality lived by most of our community. As a marriage equality activist who is married to a woman, Ochs knows firsthand the ways in which media outlets and others have tried to make her bisexuality invisible. She situated part of the blame with the messaging of LGBT organizations and their own biphobia. There were collective nods, laughs and sighs all around as Ochs conveyed the frustration many of us feel with current messaging standards such as “gay marriage”
“We oversimplify our messaging so people will ‘get it’ but then people don’t ‘get it’ because we’ve given them an over-simplistic message…[T]he ick factor with regard to bisexuality is both about a resistance to sex and a resistance to complexity.”
Author and activist Ron Suresha also spoke critically of the movement.
“We have a lack of representation on a national level. They [national LGBT organizations] don’t have anyone addressing bisexual issues full time. I think that’s a problem.”
Educator and activist Renata Moreira is feeling the effects of this. Moreira has been unable to secure a visa for the woman she loves. Now, the request for her partner’s visa has put her own citizenship in jeopardy. Moreira, who has a green card and is in the process of applying for her citizenship, was previously married to a man.
“Now they are now reevaluating my paperwork because they think my previous marriage might be fake.”
This suspicion has caused much stress and pain for Moreira, as well as her ex-husband and family, with whom she is still close, as they are all being subjected to an investigation of the validity of Moreira’s previous marriage. An added insult to an already devastating and unfair situation.
Moreira’s story illustrates the results of bisexual visibility on a national level. As LGBT organizations continue to do more work around the effects of current immigration law and same-sex couples, this is something we cannot allow them to forget.
Much of the discussion around messaging addressed the ways in which LGBT organizations and the media have failed bisexuals in the course of the fight for marriage equality. Washington Blade’s news editor, Joshua Lynsen, who is also bisexual, told of how the Blade was failing in its coverage of bi people before he got there. Lynsen and Sheela Lambert went over the Bi Writers Association Media Guide to Bisexuality and Reporting on LGBT Issues, which was chock full of suggestions it would behoove not only the media to apply, but whoever has been writing all those “gay marriage” press release as well. *ahem*. He then invited any bi people willing to be interviewed or with story tips to contact Lynsen at: email@example.com. So if you’ve got something to say, let Joshua know who you are so we can continue to make our voices heard.
Wrapping up the summit was a roundtable discussion that featured LGBT activists, media professionals and politicians as well as bi community activists, that asked ‘How can we do a better job?’. GLAAD’s Director of National News, Cindi Creager addressed the issue of how LGBT organizations could work to keep their messaging consistent with a bi inclusive perspective. It was a rousing discussion with many diverse perspectives and as Ann Northrop, co-host of Gay USA, noted, as someone with 39 years of experience in journalism, “People do not like complexity. The human race runs screaming from the room not to deal with this.”
Northrop’s suggestions for how to move forward? “I want to encourage you to encourage the conversation. Talk more. Think more. Have conversations with everybody.”Northrop had the last word at the summit, but it’s my hope that this is just the beginning of a long, complex inclusive conversation.
Amanda Morgan lives in New York City.
Note: a poccast of Robyn’s keynote is available at www.robynochs.com/resources/BiMediaSummit.html