Saturday 27 February 2010

History Month, part two

As one of the LGBT History Month events, today there was a brief chance to explore some of the LGBT archives at Manchester's Central Library. It was great to see a hugely improved turnout - last time I went along to the equivalent event there were about ten or twelve people present, but this time it was nearer to thirty and you had to do a lot more swapping places with people and waiting your turn to get a look at any particular resource that interested you.

Things I'd not browsed before included:

It's Queer Up North - a document about a dozen pages long that seemed to be the original mission statement for this arts project, circa 1993. Almost entirely 'lesbian and gay' in its language, with just a nod to the concept of a wider sense of queer implying that this is about trans. Gotta love activist plan documents complete with the pencil annotations.

A dissertation by some student from a few years ago, looking at the evolution of the gay village. Throughout it talks about the queer communities, people, etc, and in talking about Manchester's queer population since the 1980s it engages with the ideas of lesbian and gay non-scene spaces... but only those.

And a large-format version the fabulous 90s Manchester city council equal opps policy - the one that was the starting point of the conversation between Bisexual Action and Manchester City Council that led to the declaration by the latter that bis are just a type of a gay.

The notable missing element for me, of course, is a complete lack of any trace of the bisexual community. We've got what is now the longest running bi group in the UK, have been host city to two huge sprawling BiCons, and of course Bi Community News had a "printed in Manchester" line on the credits for over a decade. At one point there were at least four parallel bi projects running in the city with different sets of people behind each.

But it seems the archives say nothing.

Doing something to change that level of invisibility will take time and cash. There are resources out there - or here in my personal collection - documenting at least the period since 1994. BiPhoria flyers, newsletters, BCNs, BiCon advertising, and more. I don't have multiple spares to be able to donate them to places like Manchester Central Library, and I'm not donating my personal copies any time soon.

But with the devotion of some time and cash duplicates could be created, and maybe next year or the year after, one of the displays at LGBT HM might document the love/hate relationship between Manchester's council and gay scene, and the bisexual population. Wouldn't that be good to see?

(Part one has yet to be written - as this week mostly I'm in bed with lurgy!)

Wednesday 24 February 2010

History Month, part one

It is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender History Month and as ever I think there's not enough going on that is bi or bi-inclusive. If I've got my numbers right, LGBT HM started in 2005 so this is the sixth one - and in that time there have been just three bi-focused events nationwide. One in Manchester, one in London, and this year, one in Rotherham.

Rotherham, Yorkshire. So first up, top marks to the organisers, who put on a series of events to mark history month and consciously included bisexuality - besting all the other 'queerer' cities. Including the cities with serious and sustained bi presences like Birmingham, Brighton and Edinburgh.

It seems there are three approaches to running an event for LGBT History Month.

* Focus on history
* Focus on current and recent stuff
* Do something entirely tangential

In the first category, the Manchester bi event for LGBT HM looked at 3,000 years of bi history; in the third category, there have been lesbian and gay line dancing sessions hosted at the Town Hall - a great mixer but not that strong on the history I suspect.

Rotherham's event fell into category two, being essentially a blend of "what is bisexuality" and "bisexual identity and community in Britain today".

The first part was much as what I'd do myself - an overview of Kinsey and Klein. It seemed to be they were there to give academic grounding, where I'd use them to simply effect a common language for discussion: for instance it then makes it easier to talk about how I'm a right-up-in-the-high-numbers Kinsey bi, but a bit more wibbly wobbly toward the middle on a Klein index.

Then we came onto bi identity - marginalised and in need of forms of discourse and visibility outside of polyamoury. And the idea of a complete lack of a community: there is a thing called BiCon but there is nothing else out there, and while there are some internet bi spaces, the internet doesn't count.

Which I'd disagree with: there's a smattering of stuff out there and to take BiPhoria as an example, it's had let's say 4 new people encounter it directly each month for 12 meets a year over 15 or more years. Thats 15 x 12 x 4 = 720 people directly affected. Add in partners, family, a friend or three each, and a couple of people who later came out to that person and got a stronger sense of bi-ness. Stir in a host of people who never come to a group like that but who will in conversation tell you that it's important to "know that it is there" in case they ever need it. And the people in other projects and organisations who have been made more aware of bisexuality through encountering magazine articles, outreach speakers or what have you.

And I'd differ on the question of the internet too. The net has surely given many people who were isolated a sense of being less alone, even of virtual community. Someone will be along soon to point out that Second Life has a huge weekly bi meet.

Others may say that the thousands BiPhoria have impacted are a drop in the ocean. But those are arguments in interpretation of data. Which you can do, if you agree there is data there to interpret.

As billed, last night's talk was an academic talking about bisexuality - so it seems reasonable to expect a modicum of academic rigour. But that wasn't on display: now, I may be overly influenced by having just read Bad Science, but I tend to think that the right academic approach is to assemble whatever facts you can and seek to derive a hypothesis, or to start with a hypothesis and see how well the facts concur or undermine it.

There was no academic rigour here, and scant evidence of having done even the most basic research. 

Instead, this was cherry-picking. The 'only' thing even pretending to be a bi space is BiCon - forget the smattering of other dates in the bi calendar. The local groups don't exist and so can have had no impact. And you can assess the whole of what BiCon is by picking a couple of carefully selected workshop titles out of the programme. It's all about polyamoury and BDSM and nothing to do with being a Real Bisexual. Which is strange because I've been to BiCon more than once as a vanilla, monogamous person, chosen other strands in the programme, and got a very rewarding weekend of chatter, dancing, and activist networking out of it. With half-a-dozen things going on at any one time, BiCon is what you choose to take out of it: you have to make a conscious choice to experience it as being about kink and poly.

And that thing that so often grates with activists when we rub up against academics: analysis without action.

Now, I'm open to a sane critique of the UK bi movement. I've done a few in my time and done follow-on work to try to change some of the things I have perceived as needing improvement. There are many things that it might do that it doesn't and things that it is only just doing that it should have done years ago. Equally there are things where it pioneered long ago and the gay / lesbian communities, with their hugely greater resources, are only just starting to catch up. Bi projects in the UK reach far fewer people than I'd like to see be the case and only too often 'lgbt' work fails to fill the gaps.

But that kind of critique has to be grounded in first knowing what there is out there, where it has come from and what it's about, and needs to entwine that knowledge into the analysis. Otherwise, you're misleading your audience, and not doing your homework.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Oh, Paul

Coming back again to the annual "Stonewall 100" employers index, I see the official line from Manchester City Council is the quote:
Manchester City Council's lead Councillor on gay men's issues, Councillor Paul Fairweather, said: "I am delighted that our hard work has been praised again this year, and we are consistently recognised as one of the best employers of gay, lesbian and transgender employees."
This is the same chappie who last summer stated at a conference where we were both speakers that in the past the city council had only engaged with the lesbian and gay communities but that it had to recognise that our politics had moved on and they needed to work actively with the trans and bi communities too. Is he back to the old bi-erasure tricks or being frank about the council's relative track records on the four strands of LGBT?