Wednesday 28 September 2016

Bolton Pride: a few words

With a slight air of "oh lumme, I thought I had another five minutes before I was speaking", this is what I said at the closing event of Bolton's second LGBT Pride, on the steps of Bolton Town Hall. 

I figured that on a cold windy evening they wanted something short and sweet, so I reflected on how different from many other Prides the weekend had been.  B throughout, T throughout, and with more of a mix of ages and skin hues than just about any other Pride I've been to.

"Hello and thank you for inviting me along.

"This weekend has been Bolton Pride but it opened with Bi Visibility Day on Friday. The eighteenth year we have celebrated that date.

"Bi Visibility Day started as a celebration of bisexual space. In the years it has grown hugely and was marked in about twenty countries with getting on for a hundred events this year.

"But it started because too many of us had found that we were pushed out, excluded, from LGBT space. We were only welcome if somehow we only brought a part of who we were.

"But here, at Bolton Pride, and in the run up to Pride here what I have seen in Bolton's LGBT+ group and the organising team, is the opposite of that story. 

"So I want to say thank you: thank you to the team who put this weekend together and to all the people who have come along to the event, for giving us a postive inclusive pride that welcomed and reached out to us regardless, that was open to all of us and lived all of its LGBT letters and more."

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Mancester Vountary Service talks to me...

Also around Bi Visibility Day (there was rather a lot this year) the local Centre for Voluntary Services were doing a feature called Spirit Story, about Manchester's volunteering spirit. Bi stuff is quite strong on the volunteering spirit, on account of almost all of the time there's been no darn money in it, as distinct from L&G stuff in the city.

So cue one short interview-driven piece about what I, BiPhoria and assorted related folk were doing last Thursday: Bi Visibility Eve...

Saturday 24 September 2016

Interview for the LGBT Foundation

The LGBT Foundation have been sharing some bi stories, and one of them was mine; this what what it said...

When did you first realise you might be bisexual?
My sister came to visit and left a copy of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit on our kitchen table. I was 15; within a week it was read and something I'd known since I was about 12 started to develop a word to go with the feeling.

How did you come out?  What were people's reactions?
I came out to the whole of my sixth form shortly after - it was a new school and had the "I can't lose any friends" aspect, though I look back at it now and it feels like a lot more of a risky idea.  From there there's been the whole gamut from "me too" to a couple of old friends who didn't want to know me any more.  That made me achingly sad at the time but is their loss, in the end.

What's the best thing about being bisexual?
I tend to think it's that whoever you fall for is never a surprise - as compared to say someone who has always thought of themselves as a lesbian and then falls for a man.  Actually it can still be quite a surprise, just in other ways.

Have you experienced biphobia?  Were you able to do anything about it?
Many times. Sometimes, being trans, it gets hard to spot which bit of prejudice is which. But for example a while ago I said something about being bi at an LGBT meeting and the person next to me said; "if you say you're bisexual to me that means you're not happy in your current relationship". Well, I've been saying it since I was sixteen and that's included, ahem, a fair few relationships over the years. If I've managed to be unhappy in all of them I must be a lousy picker! The situation there though just felt a bit too unsafe, so I found a way to extract myself from the conversation and be elsewhere.

Why do you think Bi Visibility Day is important?

For a long time now I've been saying: the principal challenge for bisexuals is invisibility and all that flows from it, and the solution is visibility and all that comes with it.  I've been involved in marking Bi Visibility Day every year since that first time back in 1999, both raising the bi profile and celebrating the mutual support we get from bi community spaces.  As visibility has risen some of the challenges - that our needs were assumed to be whatever gay and lesbian needs were only lesser, for example - have started to be acknowledged more widely.
We've still got a long way to go, mind.

Do you have any bisexual role-models?

Not really. I have a few queer heroes, people like Bernard Greaves who has been consistently championing LGBT rights since before I was born, but I'm more motivated by my antiheroes, the biphobic and transphobic people whose actions made me get off the sofa and get stuck in!

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of coming out as bi?

First, and this is the same for coming out as trans or gay as well, work out a safe plan. If coming out going badly may for instanct mean you lose your home, you need to have a plan for what to do, where to go.
Take it at a speed that works for you: you may have had a really important realisation about yourself, but if today isn't the right day for it you can still come out tomorrow.
Second, and especially for bi people because we tend to be a bit "invisible", find other bi people for peer support.  It's good to have other people to reassure you you're "bi enough" or to share some of the more peculiar responses you get with and let off steam.  BiPhoria's a good place to start.
And last, be ready for surprises.  Because, again, we can be a bit invisible, some of the people you tell will reply "me too".  Which can be wonderful, even if you do think "damn, if you'd told me sooner I wouldn't have been so worried about telling you myself!"

Friday 23 September 2016

Mental health and bisexuality

It was a pleasure to be interviewed by Chicago Now about bisexuality and mental health issues as well as the wider Bi Visibility Day vibe this week. 

They asked some good questions about bisexual life, and I hope I gave some good answers!

Pop over here to find the piece.

Bi Visibility Day: Why We Can't Be Your Role Models

Role models. They're on my mind for one reason or another right now.  

For a long time I've been talking about biphobia.  Back in the mid 1990s, as I have surely written here before, someone asked me to define biphobia for them.  They wanted a snappy soundbite: treating bisexuals as lesser or something like that.

Instead I talked about four flavours of biphobia.

There's institutional biphobia. The way organisations work can marginalise bi people. You have an LGBT group, and it holds gendered meetings... the bi attendee wonders whether they can bring their other-gendered partner along to a social. When they let off steam about their relationship it gets less sympathy than if only they were dating someone of the same sex. Slowly they are squeezed out and leave. This can be more calculated too: the LGBT organisation that will give you support about relationship problems, provided you're in a same-sex relationship.  The big sign on the wall promising to challenge homophobia, that assumes biphobia to just be the lite version, a subset of the big bad.

Next there's internalised biphobia. This one's a big challenge for our communities and organising. Yougov reckoned last year that 23% of people were... well, somewhere between straight and gay. Just 2% owned the label "bisexual". So ten times as many people who could call themselves bi didn't, as did.  Whether an internal narrative of I'm not bi enough or I don't want to be one of 'those bisexuals', people shy away from the word that perhaps best describes their atttractions.

Then, that biphobia which is analagous to heterophobia; we get this chiefly in the gay community. "Just here as a tourist", they'll say.  Or warn you off dating bis as "they'll always leave you for a member of the opposite sex". This isn't the main thrust of this thought piece so I shall move on...

There's that which is analagous to homophobia. For women, that the sex they have with other women is less 'real' than sex with men.  For men, that having slept with another man makes you dirty, undesireable. There is probably still a bit of taint from the fear of bi men that was raised during the 1980s there.

The last two though have a curious overlap, in the way that homophobia-like and heterophobia-like patterns operate too often in our relationships.

I used to hear it from the couple next door. They've moved now, and most of the time their relationship seemed calm and happy, but when things kicked off... well, usually you can't make out the details through a thick pile of bricks, but every so often "At least I know which -----ing gender I'm attracted to" yelled from one of them to the other gave a remarkably good clue as to what they had been arguing about this time.

It's a common thread of bi experience too; running bi outreach stalls at events there's always someone who comes over looking interested and friendly but is then pulled away by a partner; sometimes with a breezy "he used to be bisexual before he met me".

On its own this is a problem, but in the workplace it has an added dimension.  Suppose your employee, Sam, has been dating a woman for months and breaks up with her, and after a few weeks is now dating a man. Work colleagues give Sam a ribbing about switching teams, being confused, greedy or what have you. It goes on a bit too long for "good-natured banter" and Sam complains.

"Aha!" the LGBT Staff Network eager-beaver in HR thinks. "A bisexual for us to recruit! We need bi role models!"

But the staffer you offer support to may not be able to be your out bisexual, even though they are on the recieving end of biphobia and even though they brought it to HR to deal with: quite possibly Sam's new partner knows nothing about their previous dalliances with women.  Or indeed, whenever that part of Sam's life gets mentioned, the crockery starts flying.

People who always date people of the same sexual orientation as themselves are rarely made to feel bad about their sexual orientation by their partner.  For bis, most of our "dating pool" are not bi: most of the people who might fancy us identify as straight or lesbian/gay. The closet door may be being pushed shut by the person who is most important to us in our lives. And some of us have at the back of our mind that even if that is not the case now, it might have been different in the past, and might be different in the future.

Which means that, when you seek out bi role models, it's that bit harder for us to stand up than for our lesbian and gay counterparts.


This is the second blog post around a "we can't..." theme. Don't get me wrong. We can. It is a slightly provocative title about why bi people are under-represented.

Bi Visibility Day: We Can't Be Your Trustees... Yet

Last month at a Superbia event for Manchester Pride there was a question from the floor to a panel I was on.  We were pressed for time toward the end of the event so I didn't get a chance to speak, but the questioner asked, and I paraphrase: I'm the trustee of an LGBT charity, when we put out calls for volunteers to take on this or that role what we get coming forward is a bunch of white, cis, gay, men. Why?

Well, it is an interesting question. Why don't all those people from other backgrounds come forward? Why - to pick the topical strand for today - aren't the bisexuals (and so on) stepping up?  Or the unspoken side question: why do the people who do step up not mention their bisexuality?

This is one of the big challenges for bisexual organising, too.  We know, and Bi Visibility Day events and materials work hard to remind us, how things are different for bis.  Not in the "double your chances of a date on a Friday night" kind of a way.  If only.  No, in the way that our mental health statistics are worse than those of gay and straight people.  Our experience of being victims of domestic violence and other abuse are worse too.  Economically, we earn less than gay, straight and lesbian people.  We might be in the closet at work with all the negative consequences that has; but we might be in the closet at home too.

Now these are terrible facts and figures: issues where a lot of work is needed to change the way our world works.  But I know what you are thinking - the vacancy on your board of trustees isn't going to wait for that to happen.

But those facts should be telling you things about the pool of people of whom most of your bisexual volunteers, bisexual organisers, bisexual group steering committees, are made up.

Those statistics aren't just there to frighten us. They ARE us.

So when you ask: can we have a bisexual person with free time, great qualifications and experience in these demanding roles from which they will have skills that our charity's board needs, and why aren't they coming forward?

Those people you would be looking to are the people who didn't get those promotions because of how biphobia limits their career.  That lower income means they're worried whether they can afford to come to all your meetings and fundraising shin-digs.

Those people you would be looking to are the people who don't get to be out and proud because it upsets their non-bi partner if they "keep going on" about being bisexual.

Those people you would be looking to are the people who don't "look the part" perhaps because the intersectional identities they have mean they don't have the right professional look-and-feel that you warm to, or whose bisexuality you are oblivious to because they tick some other box. 
Those people you would be looking to are the people who have those mental health challenges you have read the statistics about and who aren't sure your organisation would be tolerant when their health meant they needed to take some time out. Who use up their mental and social energy holding down that job and don't have the extra to spare that you need, because they are weaving their way through a gay-straight world.

This is not meant to be a counsel of despair, though it does read that way.  And I know some will be saying: there are plenty of burned-out or fighting-health-issues gay and straight people.  Yes there are, far too many.  But like for like, more of the bis are dealing with those problems.

We can change this.

Well, you and your organisation can change this.

I'd love to see more mentoring and support rolled out for bi people.  Don't ask for a new treasurer or chief exec; invite the groups who never get represented on your boards to shadow and be mentored by the person already doing it.  They may wind up volunteering for some other organisation instead: so be it.

We can't do it on our own. But we would benefit from it, and so would you.  Let's have a programme across business and the heavyweight end of the voluntary sector to give the bis who should be on your boards the skills and authority they need to take their seat at the table.  Who's up for it?

Friday 2 September 2016

Missing the Target

I was a only a smidge surprised when Manchester's Pride march was disrupted by protestors last weekend. In days of yore such things were right-wing monoculturalists who hate queers and don't like a large visible representation of the LGBT (or, back then, gay) community being allowed on the streets.

This time it was another bunch of right-wing monoculturalists, though with very much the same disdain for anyone who lives differently from themselves.

So the parade was blocked with what was on the surface a protest about treatment of transgender people in prisons, which is a good and worthy thing to complain about because there are many stages in the law and order side of life where trans experience is particularly harsh when compared to that of cis people.

Underneath though were two undercurrents. The first the "no prisons" message (a lovely hippy idea if you think that humans are somehow different from all other life forms on the planet, and dire if you think about behaviour in the real world) which reflects a huge degree of privilege on the part of those campaigning for it. To think: if we have no prisons, I'll be safe, life will be better, you have to have a strong degree of personal safety and security in many ways. The second, the general anti-Pride campaign that pops up under a fresh guise with the same faces regularly in its hatred of a queer event daring to raise money hand-over-fist for LGBT and HIV causes in the city and the region. There's a lot wrong with Manchester Pride, don't get me wrong, and if you do want to do something about that the solution is to either get stuck in and fix it or to build a better party.

But if for the time being we pretend that the demo really was about trans prisoners and how they are treated, this was a protest that missed its real target by a mile. What got disrupted was not something like GALIPS but the Greater Manchester Police. Attacking GMP coppers-on-the-beat for the work of the Prison Service is like blaming the guy who picks litter up at your local train station for the latest inflation-busting rise in fares.

Even within GMP though, if you're outraged by transphobia or LGBTphobia in policing, the people who choose to give up their Saturday to come along to a Pride march, get rained on and calloused on a long slow parade, are not the queerphobes in the service. They're the LGBT members and the most supportive of the cishetero allies. The cis, straight, partners of LGBT people. The people who see shared struggles and want to help others facing challenges. The people on the inside of the tent pissing in, who are most likely and most able to effect change within the force.

Whether you are angry at LGBTphobia from within the police or from your local Co-Op, sticking it to the people from those organisations who turn up at Pride just reduces the chance of change. It misses the target by a mile, and slows rather than accelerates change.

But I suppose, if you want to avoid change because you'd rather have a 'front' organisation and campaign to recruit people with, that is exactly the tactic you'd pick.