By Amber Loomis
Better Together was a multi-day LGBTQIA+ conference that was held in Melbourne, Australia in January 2020. It focused on facilitating conversations about LGBTQIA+ rights and building meaningful connections in order to cultivate positive change. This year, the conference was held on the lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. This land was never ceded.
The piece below shares some of my experiences and learnings in the lead up to and during the conference.
January 8, 2020
As I prepare to board my flight, I feel a mix of excitement and nerves. Excitement because I am en route to a jam-packed three days of LGBTQIA+ organizing, idea sharing, and networking. Nerves because I have anxiety and almost always feel on edge about something.
I take a deep breath, settle into my seat and notice a message from one of my parents. Earlier that morning I told them I was on my way to an LGBTQIA+ conference.
We are so proud of what you’re doing.
I blink back tears. At that point, I remind myself it’s probably going to be an emotional few days.
January 9, 2020
I wake up thinking about my late grandfather and how today would have been his 91st birthday. I’m not sure how he would have reacted to me coming out or the advocacy work I do, but I hope he would have been supportive. As I drink my coffee, I try to move these thoughts out of my head and center myself for the upcoming day.
I’m going to the transgender, gender-diverse, and non-binary caucus, scheduled one day prior to the conference’s opening plenary. These caucus sessions are crucial components of the conference program. They are designed to bring sections of the LGBTQIA+ community together to discuss the issues that matter to us and explore solutions to some of the challenges that we are facing.
I’m non-binary and have only recently stepped into trans/nonbinary/gender-diverse specific spaces. I often feel as though I’m not “trans enough” or that I am, somehow, a fraud. Spaces driven by members of our community can remind me that I belong. I hope that’s how I’ll feel today.
I join the discussion group focused on family and relationships. Although I’ve now had conversations about being bi+ with my immediate family, we haven’t really broached the subject of gender so I’m not sure how I’ll feel during this.
It’s actually a comment about building community spaces that makes me nod so vigorously I feel like a bobblehead on a car dashboard. Someone brings up how difficult it can be for community leaders to access support. We spend so much of our energy creating spaces for other people to connect and be themselves. We don’t always get to utilize those spaces in the same way other people do. Sometimes it reminds me of the differences between hosting a party and attending a party.
The discussion makes me think about how grateful I am for the Sydney Bi+ Network co-organizers and other community leaders I’ve connected with around the country and the world. I think about all the incredible people I’ve met and how finding a community has changed my life.
January 10, 2020
Friday morning is full-on. Despite arriving early, the check-in line is already pouring outside the venue, down the sidewalk.
I smile. I see familiar faces: people I met at last year’s conference, people whose work I follow online but have never met in person, and a few people I recognize because they always seem to pop up as a suggested friend on Facebook.
The start of the conference features personal stories, highlighting the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and needs of our rainbow community. Someone mentions panphobia in bi spaces. I know exactly what they are talking about and I can think of examples I’ve experienced, especially online. Esther Montgomery, a Mardudhunera woman from Western Australia, discusses racism and makes it clear that it is essential for First Nations communities to have a seat at the table and to be part of decision-making processes. She talks about how we cannot be silent about our truth.
I leave the plenary feeling a mix of emotions. Fired up because I know there’s so much work to do. Appreciative because I understand the value of having spaces where people can be their authentic selves. Hopeful because I want us to use the time over the next few days to have significant conversations with one another.
I also attend a session about being the hinge in a polyamorous relationship, the disability plenary, and Robyn Ochs’ “Beyond Binaries” workshop. There’s so much to unpack that I look forward to debriefing with friends. And dinner.
January 11, 2020
On Saturday morning, I feel incredibly tired. My body hurts. I have a chronic illness and the long days, meaningful as they are, take a toll on me.
We start the day with an 8 A.M. presentation and panel discussion focused on the Sydney Bi+ Network’s community building efforts. We had a couple of last-minute changes to our panelist lineup, and I have to give the biggest shout out to Rawa, the ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) World Bisexual Representative who opens the session in his indigenous language and facilitates the panel for us on such short notice.
Our presentation is about community building, the approaches we’ve taken, and lessons learned since starting our Network in September 2018. We acknowledge the bi+ activists who came before us and the importance of support from our colleagues and friends in other states. We discuss why having a community matters, particularly in relation to our mental health and wellbeing. Staunch bi+ leader Elly joins us as a panelist to share some of her experiences related to bi+ community, traveling around the world and connecting with bi+ groups.
I quickly scuttle off after our presentation for the bi+ plenary session. I do my best to stay in the moment, but my mind is still swirling with ideas and notes about the previous presentation.
Robyn Ochs starts the plenary by talking about bi+ stereotypes and how we can overcome them. We move into the panel portion and discuss some of our challenges, wins, and areas that need more attention. We also talk about the need to have difficult conversations with each other and the importance of taking time to celebrate who we are.
As the afternoon nears, I’m feeling beyond ready for the bi+ caucus. When I think about bi+ spaces, the first thing that comes to mind is the energy in the room. This caucus was no different. For some people, it was the first time they had ever been in a bi+ specific space. I remember how that feels. It’s like finally being able to exhale after holding your breath for a long, long time. It’s a sense of absolute relief that you don’t have to explain yourself time and time again. It’s reassurance that you aren’t alone.
Throughout the caucus, we explore an array of topics such as coming out, relationships, labels, mental health, culture, and visibility and erasure. We also talk about solutions and so we spend the last breakout session discussing how we can overcome challenges through individual, community, political, and cultural actions.
At the end of the session, people share that they feel connected, inspired, and seen.
January 12, 2020
I’m on my way back home and have a lot on my mind.
There’s no doubt we have an incredible amount of work to do. We have to maintain the connections we make and keep our conversations going. We need to continue to challenge the systems and structures that reinforce all forms of oppression.
To do this, we need to listen, reflect, and learn. We have to center the experiences and expertise of those who are often excluded. We need people from all corners of the world with all skill sets.
I feel a sense of urgency and panic, so I take a deep breath. I remind myself that there’s an incredible community of people out there willing to put in the work, and although the work can feel overwhelming, we aren’t in it alone.
Amber is a trans, nonbinary, bi+ activist, educator, and researcher. They organize with the Sydney Bi+ Network, work in interpersonal violence prevention/response, and have a gorgeous rescue dog named Jessie.
Featured Image: Bi and Pan activists protesting outside the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC with a Creating Change group in 2018. Photo by Ellyn Ruthstrom