One of the main ways we’ve created room for bi identities for the last thirtysome years in the UK is local bi groups; starting in September 1981 (I think?) with the London Bi Group holding its regular meetings in a gay bar, there is an unbroken thread of such things going on around Britain, whether in the corner of a pub, a function room at a bar, a meeting room at a community centre, or a café. LBG closed down a long time ago and so the longest-running group now is BiPhoria in Manchester, which I’ve been a part of since 1994. As it’s in its twentieth year its very existence is by now one of the ripostes to bi being “just a phase”.
It’s something we have in common with lesbian and gay communities, but it also reflects our lower level of organisation, reach and support. We can do that first helping hand out of the gay / straight closet, but there aren’t the football teams or open-all-week bars that the gay community has. A shame as I think the Kinsey Rangers is a crackingly cheesy name for a bisexual football team (and in the absence of a real one, I’d still love to have a fictional cartoon strip about it each issue in BCN if anyone’s up for doing that).
Looking back at listings of bi meets from the 80s and 90s and comparing them with today one of the interesting trends is the falling away of gendered bi groups. I think it’s good that it has happened, but if it’s more than sheer chance, I’m interested as to the pressures that led to that. I get the impression that in the USA for example things have remained a lot more gender divided, but that may just be the bits of US bi culture that I happen to notice. My best guesses are that there are at least three factors at play. One being some persistent trans and genderqueer volunteers who came along, stuck around helping make things happen, and so forced some cis bi activists to think about things sooner. Two is that where groups are a little borderline in their existence, a mixed gender space potentially pulls in more than twice as many people, albeit then swapping one set of issues as to how the space is run for another sometimes. And three the way it can tie in with a sense of bi mission. Picturing the Manchester bi scene in 1993 there was a bi men’s group, a bi women’s group, and at some point the penny has to have dropped for the people organising each: we’re running social spaces for people where the common factor is that gender isn’t a boundary condition for them the way it is for other people, and we’re running them in carefully gendered spaces – are we missing a point perhaps?
Certainly in gender my experience of bi groups and spaces contrasts hugely with LG / LGB spaces. Not all bi people, groups and spaces are or have always been trans-sorted and accepting of gender diversity, but more of them are and they seem to have got there quicker than the gay scene. It seems to have been a conversation that went on in the UK bi community in the early 1990s, whereas in lesbian and gay communities and spaces it took another ten or fifteen years – at times painful to watch from the higher moral ground of spaces that had ‘got it’ a short while before.
There’s gender difference beyond trans too, as the male/female balance of bi spaces I’ve encountered has been so much better than that of LG/LGB spaces. There is some research suggesting there are more gay men than lesbians and more bi women than bi men. I don’t think the research is perfect and such questions are so loaded by the wider culture that it perhaps tells us things about what words people think they can own for themselves as much as it tells us a truth about human sexuality diversity. But that might explain why spaces that are lesbian and gay and notionally bi have a male skew that bi spaces don’t so often have.
There are those who see no need for bi groups any more: even ten years ago I found myself in conversations about how there was ‘no point’ in things like BiPhoria meeting any more as ‘it’s all fine now, people don’t have any problems’.
I’m not persuaded of that, and not just because of the statistics on bisexual people’s life experiences nor the steady stream of new people through the door of my local bi group every month.
That’s not to say that nothing has changed though. Where once people came to a group like BiPhoria knowing little more than the words from a poster in a bookshop or a photocopied leaflet they picked up on an outreach stall, work like the Getting Bi In A Gay / Straight World booklet and video means a lot of new members arrive now knowing a lot more, perhaps needing a slightly different kind of a space than we had in the 1990s. That’s good, the world has changed in so many ways and the recipe for a good bi group will change with it.
BiPhoria might still be happening from sheer force of habit, but out there in the rest of the country the desire for bi space and bi meetups has its ebb and flow but is still strong. Last year new groups launched in Edinburgh and London, the latter one focused on bisexuals over 50. And this winter I know of two more about to spring into life in Nottingham and Southampton. Though the latter two are run by people I know, neither will be quite the same shape as BiPhoria. And good luck to ’em: while there are a few ways of running a bi group that I think are wrong, there are surely a lot of ways of doing it right. The more of us who are trying the better our chances of hitting on some really good formulae.