Friday 3 January 2014

The joy of bi groups

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 cafĂ©.  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.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Our LGBT History and the People's History Museum

There are a lot of things I meant to blog about in 2013 but the raw doing things that need doing of tackling the most pressing problem got in the way. In the winter months I hope to write up a few of these, having made a start this week with the review of the year and writeup of the Charles Dickens talk at LGF. Today I'm going to look back to August 2013 and the Manchester People's History Museum LGBT Exhibition for Manchester Pride 2013.  This one will be decorated with photos as I was being a bit snap-happy with my camera at the time.

In March 2013, when planning the People's History Museum's summer events programme, it seems the suggestion came forward to run an LGBT history tour, to coincide with Manchester Pride at the August bank holiday weekend. The people's history of Manchester, after all, includes a whole series of stories of our place as a key city in the country's LGBT history.

But as a social history it is fleeting and ephemeral, with some of the tales of bars and battles captured by the rainbow plaques on our city streets and many more missing, let alone how they piece into the jigsaw of the battle for liberation and equality on a wider level. If you didn't live through it all back then, then in a 2013 where one of the six parliamentary divisions on same-sex marriage didn't even go to a vote because well it's obviously going to pass why bother, it's hard to imagine how things were for queers of all stripes twenty or forty years ago. It's something that didn't hit home to me until I had the good fortune to meet and spend time with Bernard Greaves, a magnificent gay (and later LGBT) rights activist who has been fighting the proverbial good fight longer than I've been alive.

As Catherine O'Donnell, one of the exhibition organisers, blogged at the time: "(As a straight woman) I knew that there had been a struggle, however I didn’t realise the lengths that campaigners had gone through to gain rights for something as simple and natural as kissing in public, let alone the repeal of Section 28 and equal marriage."
Most of the 'popup' LGBT history exhibition

Catherine got the plans for an exhibition included in one of LGF's regular circulars and that's where I picked up on it, as it landed the day after I'd had a conversation about archives and the many bi banners BiPhoria has made over the years.  Regular readers will know that I work a mixed week, and Wednesday is normally my day of beavering away at various bi volunteering projects at BCN Towers. By sheer chance the two LGBT history workshop afternoon PHM had planned were on Wednesdays, so I could take part without having to take leave from my paid working week.  If People's History Museum had picked Fridays for this project it would probably have passed me by.

When you only have two afternoons to bring a group of a dozen or so people together, get them to go through museum archives and their own materials from home, understand broadly how to select, label and present the most important things and turn it into a ready to roll exhibition that's a tough call.  While perhaps half of the volunteers contributing history and time to assembling the exhibition already knew one another from a group at LGF that the People's History Museum had done a targeted outreach evening with, the rest of us didn't know one another and there is quite a bit of needing to find a comfort level around strangers and learning to share stories and space. It worked well, though I was always worried I was hogging the floor with stories from twenty years of bi, trans and LGBT activism - or geekily correcting historical references. No, he was bisexual... of course at the time both of them were in the closet... the word dates back to the late 1800s... that's the wrong pronoun... I'll shush now.

Those exchanges of stories highlighted some of the limitations of the rapid recruit - prepare - present cycle. We had, from what I could tell, a skew toward cis lesbians and gay men among the volunteers. That's not to bemoan any of them being there, just that as so often, ideally there would have been more and different voices.  Thanks to my background and extensive if ill-filed bi archives I can hold up the B end well, but I think there was only me and one ally speaking up on trans issues and representation. There was at least some B and T in there though, which was one of the things that made me glad I'd taken part.  Especially seeing this little "bisexual corner" with two of my final three nominated items for the display, one of which reflecting the internal struggles within the LGBT umbrella:
"Dear Stonewall, you say you're LGB but you keep letting bisexuals down..."

It all came together and while it felt a little bit compact-and-bijou compared to a full museum exhibition areas, it was a grand feeling once the frenzy of Pride weekend was over to come in to the museum in September and see it in its polished final form. I got all self-referential and took photos of the projection wall where my own photos were among the rotating display running (many thanks to the kindly front desk people who noticed what I was up to and dimmed the main lights so I could get better snaps!). 
That's a photo of a projection of a photo I took of one of my teeshirts.
This blogpost may eat itself :)
I do hope PHM will run similar exhibits again, Pride week is an obvious date to hang things off, but so are LGBT History Month, IDAHOBBIT or Bi Visibility Day. Having started with a broad LGBT exhibition I naturally gravitate to thoughts of whether in years to come they could focus on areas within LGBT, such as the bi, or trans, or BME LGBT tales of the city.

Much kudos and congratulation to Harriet Richardson and Catherine O'Donnell from the museum's Play Your Part project, who steered the whole thing through to completion. It was great to see the finished exhibit there at the front of the museum to welcome all visitors, to be a part of make it happen. Further it filled me with thoughts of how to go about exhibiting bisexual community history in particular; but that's a story for another blogpost!

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Charles Dickens and the "queer acceptability curve"

December saw the final talk in a series Manchester's local LGBT community centre LGF have organised looking at LGBT history. This fifth talk was presented by academics Dr Holly Furneaux and Dr Kim Edwards Keates, exploring the works of Charles Dickens and queer representation in them and in associated fan fiction from the era in which he was writing to the present day.  For tl;dr readers, it was most excellent and stimulating even for those of us with next to no handle on Dickens' work.

And excellent it was. Where Paul Fairweather's talk earlier in the series rewrote identities and erased both bisexuality and large sections of queer history to fit a narrow predetermined narrative, this talk was expansive and exploratory.  It left the layqueer with an appetite to read some of the subject matter, albeit if possible with some kind of Study Guide To Sly Queer Allusion In The Victorian Era at your side.

Now like any sensible person the only bit of Dickens I really have a handle on is his excellent The Muppets Christmas Carol, which he had to rewrite extensively when his publisher pointed out that the Muppets had not been invented yet and it could all lead to a complex time-travel intellectual property trial.  A Christmas Carol is at the level of cultural icon in the UK and USA and perhaps some other places, such that even if you have never read it nor watched a film adaptation you've probably absorbed enough about it to have a fair idea of the characters and plot.

Dickens wrote lots of other things too though, some of it to the point and some excessively florid, verbose loquacious and wordy in the manner of a person who is being paid by the word (which as a writer for literary magazines, he often was). Like a modern TV writer he'd've been writing some excellent episodes and some that were filler to move the plot along as little as possible when a story worth five episodes was supposed to fill eight episodes.

The two main foci of the talks were A Christmas Carol (as it was the middle of December) and his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The latter seems to have had a high profile in fanfic writing and reading circles even immediately after its publication, which was warming to hear about as someone who encountered a small amount of that sort of thing before the internet exploded it into a wider consciousness. The joy of the unfinished text for letting readers fill in the 'what happened next...'

Something touched on that had passed me by was a recent American 'gay retelling' of Christmas Carol, the film Scrooge & Marley, which rearranges some of the genders in the tale to make for a gay and lesbian variation on the story, including altering a closing line from that Bob Cratchitt is thereafter treated by Scrooge such that it is like having "three fathers" rather than "a second father".

Exploring queer readings and subtexts involved a lot of talk of homosexuality and gender transgression (though I don't think the latter phrase was ever used but this was extensively about that rather than sex and relationships) without giving specific voice to the situational and transitional bisexuality involved or suggested.  I quite understand not wanting to apply modern senses and experiences of sexuality to different historical social situations, but I did think more could be made of using the B and T words to reflect and clarify what we were talking about.

An interesting aspect was that where his work included more obviously gender transgressive characters - a woman who didn't 'keep to her place' or a man who failed to be appropriately 'manly', it was apparently often followed by a more normative story without such bold characters.

It struck me - and I threw in one of those questions from the floor that is really an observation rather than a question - that this tied in with a "Queer Acceptability Curve" of how far from accepted (cishetero) gender normative behaviour a writer then or filmmaker today can go and still have enough of a broad market appeal.
Dickens could allude for the informed reader to things that might suggest a character had an interest in sex with other men or with other women, but could only push so far and then roll it back a little for the next story to make sure he wasn't getting a dangerous reputation, like a Hollywood actor who feels the need to alternate 'credible' films with ones that prove their box office acceptability.

From the description of Scrooge & Marley, which I freely admit I've not seen so am going on the outline given, that too only pushes things so far within a queer acceptability space. Same-sex monogamous couples replace mixed-sex couples, there is a simple rather than gendercomplex trans character: nothing too challenging and all keeping within the binaries that keep same-sex desire unthreatening and similar to the notional normatives of married cishetero life.

It's grand that the curve has moved as far as it has compared to Dickens' day. It still has some way to go.