Saturday, 9 April 2016

Bi, Poly: Overlapping challenges?

I did some public speaking recently, at a Man Met Uni polyamory conference: here's what I said...

Hello. My name is Jen Yockney, I’m not an academic, I’m here because of my work with the bisexual project BiPhoria. My pronouns are she/her or ze/hir – I’m easy either way, and beware there’s going to be a lot of bad bisexual punning like that to come.

BiPhoria is 21 and a half years old – the oldest extant bisexual community project in the UK – the previous group to hold that title closed down when it was 21 so this might be a crunch year. I’m also involved with Bi Community News magazine and have organised a number of events like today’s but about bisexuality, called BiFests, and longer things lasting a few days to a week called BiCon.

And I want to start with BiCon because one of the things we do there is an annual survey of who attends, which about a third of attendees return. In 2004 the survey found 40% of attendees described their relationships as poly; in 2014, 42% - and that’s current status, so there are likely more people who might be poly minded but single at the time or what have you.

So you might get the impression that bisexuals are all poly.

And in the other direction that the bis you notice are in multiple relationships, or open to them.

I don’t think that equivalence is quite the case, but I think there are some overlaps between the challenges of bi and poly invisibility and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

Bisexual invisibility – the way that we are trained to assume people to be gay or straight – is a handy phrase growing in currency. It’s something all of us do – even after 20 odd years of bi activism and volunteering I do. You see two people holding hands in front of you in the street, you make a best guess as to their gender, and a bit of your brain puts them in a box as gay or straight accordingly.  No ill intent, just how we're programmed, most of us.  Two boxes.

Let’s think about that invisibility's effects. In 2012 the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency published research including looking at how many people felt they could be out at work. For gay men and lesbians 50% now say this is the case. I grew up back when you could be summarily dismissed from work because your employer didn’t like gays or didn’t like bisexuals, so this is a brilliant figure and sign of change. Except once you think that if 50% feel they can be out, another 50% don’t feel they can. For bi women in the work place that sinks to 27% feeling they can be out, and for bi men, 14%. Seven out of eight men in my community can’t be honest about who they are at work for fear of social and career repercussions. Ten years after the law supposedly prevented discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation at work, that’s a frightening figure.

And not just at work. Last year’s “Beyond Babies” research from LGBT Foundation noted that 4% of straight women experience mental health issues; 12% of lesbians, yet 21% of bi women. When I was growing up we talked about bisexuality as being kind of “gay lite”, that you experienced half the problems and discrimination, when you were queerbashed you were only beaten up down the left hand side of your body. Turns out, it’s not like that at all.

And the root of these problems is bisexual invisibility. If we aren’t telling one other, we don’t spot each other. Because we only see the tip of the iceberg of who is bi, and of who is poly, we don’t have secret signals like haircuts or dress codes. We have to speak to be seen and then fight being policed down in our identity.

We’re told as bisexuals we are sexually greedy. Which is bad, apparently. Perhaps there’s only so much sex to go around, and we are hogging it. Whenever this one starts people seem to go for the same line too – “Woody Allen says”, they declare as if it were new, “that being bisexual doubles your chance of a date on a Friday night”. I have a few problems with that. The first is the maths doesn’t work. For a date on Friday night as well as you being attracted to them, they have to be attracted to you. We don’t – and I am outraged at this – we don't get twice as many Friday nights as non bi people. And there have been times in my life where the chance of a date on a Friday night was zero, and double that is – well, I can tell you’re ahead of me on that bit of maths.

We’re told we are sexually voracious; a couple of years back there was scientific research, and it must have been true because I read it in the Daily Mail, showing the reason women are bisexual is they just have far too much sex hormone sloshing around in them and it makes them prepared to have sex with absolutely anything. Um. No.

We are – and unusually in modern use this is a bad thing – indiscriminate. At my old job, as the token bisexual I would be called on to adjudicate in discussions of how attractive members of pop bands were. The people who fancied men would agree this one was the cutest, those who fancied women would agree this one was the hottest, but I would be called on as the bisexual to rule which was the hottest of all. Because of course I have no personal biases, tastes or preference.

And we are suffering from two mental problems – indecision or confusion, and the delusion that you really can be bisexual at all

And these remind me a lot of what they tell me about being poly. I hope I’ve layered them on with a thick enough trowel for it to be clear already. Greedy. Sexually voracious. At some point this whole delusional state of many attractions, many loves, is going to resolve itself down to a decision and understanding of the real truth, which gender we actually fancied all along, which one we were really in love with.

How do we develop ways to challenge these and the issues of invisibility?

First language. Poly seems to do quite well on this – useful words like metamour or compersion. A positive, even if not universal, language. Bisexuals are doing much worse: we don’t have a good word without the “sexual” in it akin to gay or lesbian, and Yougov’s recent research showed that while anything up to 43% of the population are attracted to more than one gender, only two percent would own the B word as a label.

Then there’s symbols. We used, going back to BiCon which I spoke about earlier, it’s been going for some 30 years and for a long time there was a new logo, new symbol, new slogan every year. Even if you saw someone who was at a BiCon five years earlier in their BiCon teeshirt you might not recognise its symbol. Then in 1998 Michael Page helped us hugely by inventing a flag. I know flags have, let us call it a mixed record when it comes to colonialism, but thanks to the bi flag there is now on ebay a wide range of pink, purple and blue - bisexual flag coloured - tat that you can buy to subtly communicate that you’re bisexual to others in the know.

And third, connecting regardless through the web and finding one another that way. The web is wonderful but there are problems with self-policing ourselves on facebook and whether your profile can identify your sexuality and partners without causing issues for them: information spreading easily can be good and bad.

So in conclusion, bisexual and polyamory: we are not the same set of people as the visible section of the bi community might make you think, but I think we do have a significant set of shared challenges and stereotypes and a common need to challenge our invisibility in everyday life.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

To queer or not to queer?

News blog the Huffington Post has rebranded its "Gay Voices" sections as "Queer" rather than gay.

Just in the time I've been around the LGBT+ scene, Queer has an interesting history.

A lot of people - mostly older than me - hate it. Understandably so, it was one of the sticks people were hit with time and time again. All LGBT words have that for some people and some contexts; just look at the gap between being bisexual and owning the label, or the use of gay as a playground slur, perhaps best challenged in a deconstructy way by the "homophobia is gay" campaign.

About the time I first came out, queer was being touted in some quarters as the "avoid saying LGBT cos it's got no vowels" word.

Then it became a corporate branding word for a trendy pink pound end of the scene. Queer as a synonym for under 25, white, cis, able-bodied, homosexual and at the gym every morning to keep yourself a buffly honed gay thing.

Later it popped up again as seeing your sexuality and gender as part of another narrowly conforming monoculture, this time tied together with other attitudes like v*ganism and anticapitalism.  Again, and for all its rhetoric, it was a "you're young or you're invisible" scene.

And now somewhat back to where we started. Or rather, where I came in.

Queer is, in the round, more inclusive than Gay. So this is a good step forward.

The qualm I have about queer replacing the "alphabet soup" is one I set out here a few years ago: by combining all the labels into one generic term we lose some of the strength of voice for the different strands that are submerged. If an LGBT group is kind of spelling LGBT as GGGG or LGGG, does changing to queer make the multitudinous identities of today feel more included, or mean the hierarchy of inclusion and action is harder to challenge?

Monday, 15 February 2016

Gay Times catching up

Good to see that monthly inky mag Gay Times has a trans person on the cover for the first time.  The lesbian and gay press has been dawdling on such representation for far too long.

Certain other queer mags got there years and years ago, I am obliged to say, but every little helps!

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Lord Roper and the Hippos

This week I was in That London to attend (Lord) John Roper's funeral.

For one reason and another I never got to meet him (though I was a handy route for someone we both knew to come out to him - through the phrase "I'm dating Jen Yockney, Chair of DELGA*") but he had a splendid and vibrant political activist's life spanning five decades. Failing health meant taking his leave of the Lords last summer, and he died ten days or so ago.

At the service (Lord) Dick Newby spoke about John's vital work in the 70s during the EEC membership referendum, as organiser of the Labour rebels, making sure there were just enough Labour votes in each division that the UK would go on to join the EU despite the strength of the Tory rebels on the other side.  He would be one of the key players in the SDP and then a Lib Dem peer after the merger.  Thus two of the 'gang of four' were in attendance at the funeral, along with a plethora of Liberals from the red benches.

Others will write in more detail and far more eloquently than I could about his life and his passing. But they might not mention this: at his funeral, each guest was invited to take away one of the hippos from his huge collection of hippo toys.  Here are just a few:

Mine is a pair of hippo bookends.

I found my copy of the memorial service book from dear Becky Taylor the other day, which brought forth a tear or two, but this is a splendid alternative way of having something by which to remember someone.

* - as it was, kind of, still called at the time

Friday, 29 January 2016


Well there's a turnup for the books. We've had a string of bi nominees for the Homo Hero awards - myself, Natalya, Marcus, BCN magazine - but invariably walked away empty handed. This year they rebranded them to be bi & trans inclusive there were a plethora of trans winners including me.

This time I was up for the Volunteer category.  In fairness it may be my strong suit: an honest biography says I've been doing LGBT volunteering every month, usually every week, for the past twentysome years of my life.  Sometimes big-ticket stuff: running a BiCon, inventing the Bisexuality Report.  Often individual level change, being the first person someone can talk to about being bi, pressing an LGBT group about their failure to mention biphobia and the like.

The LGBT Foundation say the awards were decided by some 11,000 plus votes, which with three nominees in each category would suggest I picked up something like 4,000 votes to beat the other two (4,000+3,500+3,500 = 11,000).  That's more votes than the average Lib Dem candidate at the last General Election!

I'd written off any chances of winning to the point that I regarded it as a night out drinking with (oh dear) no worries about whether I would look presentable to collect a trophy.  As the host read out the winner in my category, I mouthed the name of the person I reckoned was going to walk this category.  My somewhat tipsy brain then did a couple of beats of "hang on, that one reading the name out got it wrong" followed by "wait, that's my name".  Those sat round my table were then treated to a gracious yelp of "Oh (rudeword), it's me!"

So a big thank you to an awful lot of people I've never met who seem to have voted for me. You all totally threw me there!

(It's not my first shiny trophy. In 2005 I took the Home Office "Volunteer of the Year" award for contribution to the bisexual community while in 2002 there was a Cake Award from BiCon for, er, well I presume for keeping BiPhoria afloat while most bi groups were imploding, and my BCNning, BiCon running, inventing BabyBiCon and the like.)

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Gender outrage

The Brighton Argus (and as a result the Metro and I think we can assume the Daily Mail) is up in arms at the news that some survey or other has been given to schoolkids in Brighton which asks about things like their gender. The Argus can't remember the difference between gender and sexuality and ties itseful up in knots while the Metro squeals:

For gender there are 24 options listed. Well, 23 and prefer not to say. OK, 22, plus prefer not to say and a write-in Other box. So either 22 or 23 or an infinite number, so let's put 24 in the headline because it's definitely not the right answer.

"Oh waily waily, the sky is going to fall in" cry the Chicken Lickens of the 1970s who are somehow still grinding articles out for newspapers.

How on Earth will a child - a mere child, with no more knowledge about their sense of gender than actually being that person day in, day out, and spending their whole life being the person who actually inhabits their own damn gender - how will a child be able to tick the right box? When wilfully and conscientiously backward journalists, with no way of finding things out because their feeble minds live in the world of DI Gene Hunt not the world of I'll Just Google It, are not quite sure what demi-girl might mean.

What's that? "It's quite work-out-able and basic a word that if you're not sure what it means you could just say it out loud, think about the two elements, and it's bleedin' obvious?" Not in 1973 it isn't. And that's where we all are, right?  Especially kids born this century.

So yes. 24 options. Basically: good, almost all the pupils will simply tick "female" or "male" and this is not difficult, scary or challenging. For a few they will be able to tick others and by gods what a good thing for them it is to have their existence acknowledged rather than being told they are bad and wrong once again. The lazy hack journalists who have sniped at this need tossing back into the decade where they belong, and leaving there.

If you are, say, happily female, you don't need to know what all the other options might mean when you can just say: that box there, that's me, tick. There are a fistful of names I have trouble pronouncing, yet when it comes to identifying my own name on an attendance list, them appearing on the list too wouldn't stop me finding my name and going "ah yes, that's me".

But to be honest, on seeing the headline what I first think is: 24 options? I do hope they're coded with one letter each from the alphabet, excluding F and M.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Privilege: less Street Fighter, more D&D

The 'privilege' model of understanding the different life experiences that people tend to have according to where in the world or the UK they live, their gender identity, sexual orientation, skin colour and the like has been bouncing about for quite some time. It has some merit.
One of the problems it runs into is the argument that "but not all [grouping] feel the benefit of this leg-up!"

A neat way of exploring that is the notion of it being like playing a game and having different difficulty settings - you can still win, but it's like fighting harder opponents. You need more skill, luck or judgement, if you don't get straight-white-cis-man* as your difficulty setting at the start of the game.

I like that 'game setting' analogy, though I find it works better I you think of it less as a "easy moderate or hard" option at the start of a videogame, more like a boardgame where you roll dice and some players get an extra die or two. So you could still roll all ones and someone else gets fewer dice but is good at rolling sixes.

Now I just have to work out whether coming out of the closet as e.g. bisexual gets you an extra die for not playing with one hand tied behind your metaphorical back, or loses you one for gaining the encounters with prejudice you were previously avoiding.

Possibly it gets you a die with different numbers on it - say a four sided die with sides marked 0,0,4,8 instead of 1,2,3,4. The only bit of the theory I'm certain of it gets you one that's purple instead of grey.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Stonewall 100 and Bisexuals At Work

Today Stonewall presents its annual list of the UK's top employers for LGBT staff.

The "Workplace Equality Index" is one of the organisations key programmes these days, after 25 years of campaigning for, and sometimes against, legal changes to establish either lesbian and gay or LGBT equality.

Bisexual exclusion in LGB or LGBT spaces is nothing new, though there is an encouraging trend to address it in workplace staff networks. At BiPhoria, the UK's longest-running bisexual organisation, we've been working with employers and voluntary organisations on bisexual inclusion since the late 1990s, when the more switched-on groups started to address this.

Research over the past decade on workplace experience for bi people tells us two key things. First, that simply having an LGBT network in place made a big difference to how comfortable gay and lesbian people were about being out at work; but no difference to bisexual staff. Second, that while around 50% of gay staff feel they can safely be out at work, bi women are half as likely to feel they can be out at work as are lesbians or gay men - and bi men only half as likely again. When seven out of eight bisexual men feel they need to mask their sexual orientation to get by at work, we've still got a lot to do.

To me, that reflects the wider 'gay scene' where in the 80s and 90s there was widespread prejudice towards and exclusion of bi people. Back then Unison's lesbian & gay network expelled bi members, the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard would not let bi volunteers work on its phonelines, and bars on Manchester's Canal Street had "no bisexuals" door policies.

There has been a tendency when moving from "LG" to "LGB" or "LGBT" organising to welcome the "gay side" of bisexual people - which of course we don't have, any more than an English person is just a Welsh side and a Scottish side put together. We're entirely bisexual.

But if your LGBT group is having a women's night out and your lesbian colleagues can bring their girlfriends, do you feel you can bring your husband, or do you feel a bit less welcome?

If your posters and policies in the workplace talk about homophobia and transphobia, are you challenging biphobia - including biphobia from gay and lesbian staff?

What can employee networks do?

- Understand that you don't start with a clean slate: for example Unison's LGBT group spent several years getting from the initial change from LG to LGBT to having a thriving bi network, because they had to undo the effects of past bi exclusion.
- Collaborate with local bi organisations around the country like BiPhoria. There's a list of them on the Bi Community News website.
- Put Bi Visibility Day (September 23rd) squarely on your activity plan for the year alongside events like Trans Day Of Remembrance.
- Be conscious about language; it's easy to slip from "LGBT" into "gay", yet it sends a message about which parts of the LGBT communities are welcome and the centre of your attention.
- Assume some of your staff are bisexual. Including some of the people who you've read as being gay or straight.
- Outreach work such as advertising in bi press like Bi Community News, sponsoring or otherwise supporting events like BiCon and BiReCon.