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.