40 Years On From Ithaca

BCN 112 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 112, April 2012

In July 2011 I was at a Prism meeting: an umbrella LGBT organisers’ meeting for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.

The Gartree Prison diversity coordinator and community engagement person was there. She explained that Gartree is a men’s prison focused on those serving life sentences. They were putting on a sexuality diversity event and were looking for speakers. I asked on the uk-bi-activism email list if anyone wanted to add some bisexuality awareness to the event.

Kaye McLelland volunteered and I hear found it an amazing experience. The organisers found the day a big success and a foundation for further work within the prison. They were enthusiastic about Kaye’s contribution and I felt happy that I made a couple of connections, even if I did none of the actual work.

Prison work reminded me of Donny the Punk. I’d first heard of him when Mykel Board of “InternationalDIYpunkfanzine” Maximum Rock and Roll wrote his obituary*. *He sounded like an amazing guy living a rough life, leading an uncompromising individual punk lifestyle and being loud and louder again about prison rape.

Reading more about Donny on-line I found he was behind the first example of bisexual community organising: The Ithaca Statement which came out of the Quaker Friends General Conference in Ithaca New York in June 1972. Reports were published in US gay magazine The Advocate and the Friends Journal.

I was intrigued:We’ve just celebrated the UK bi community’s 30th year; The Ithaca Statement will soon have its 40th Anniversary.

I emailed the people behind the conference and they pointed me to the Swarthmore Friends Historical Library, Philadelphia where archivist Patricia C. O’Donnell found documents on the conference and statement and sent me free scans. Yay for archivists and librarians who enjoy putting things away in such a way that they can be found!

To read The Advocate I accessed the Hall-Carpenter Archives at London School of Economics, which I had learned all about from archivist Sue Donnelly at Lisa Colledge’s BiCon workshop on recording bi history. I really enjoyed visiting the archives. I felt connected to a family history of lives and loves. The librarians were helpful and it was good to be in the company of other LGBT friendly folks while I did research entirely due to interest.

My understanding was enhanced by the conference reports and the context they appeared in. Some of the language, presumably hip at the time, now seems dated; Gay and lesbian organising was quite advanced; There was a lot of debate on upcoming US; Letters covered multiple ongoing debates: some familiar and some no longer extant. I wonder what became of the writers?

Next I headed to the Library of the Religious Society of Friends to read the full issues of the Quaker Journal to add context to the article on the ’72 conference. I found ongoing discussions of love and sexuality and what makes a good marriage. In the shadow of the Vietnam War, conscientious objection was a major theme.

I was one year old in 1972 and while reading helped me get a flavour of the era I’d like to talk more with people out as bisexual then. Several of my close people either belong to the Society of Friends, go to their meetings or have shared space with people who grew up in Quaker tradition and this knowledge also informed my reading.

Robert A. Martin Jr. wrote up the Ithaca conference in both publications I read. He was later known as Donny (the Punk). Of the several Quaker conventions, this was known as the most liberal and it followed a Committee of Concern formed six months earlier on the question of homosexuality. The committee met during the June 24th — July 1st convention and invited others to join them. Donny’s report in the Advocate continues:

“…what may be the first organized effort by bisexuals to organize themselves in American history was taking place”

“…several bisexuals decided that bisexuality was not getting adequate treatment from that group and that the Committee of Concern was neither addressing itself to bisexuality nor was it out of the closet enough to deal with the 1428 Friends at the convention. These bisexuals, headed by this writer, a former homophile movement activist who has just been discharged from the Navy, announced a meeting of an impromptu discussion group on bisexuality in the convention’s daily bulletin.

Much to their surprise, some 130 Friends showed up for the meeting and were divided into four discussion groups. These met for two days and then reconvened as one group to adopt a statement.”

“…As most bisexuals are discriminated against on the basis of their homosexual tendencies or acts, the queries in the area of discrimination apply to exclusive homosexuals as well. The bisexual Friends felt that discussion of bisexual life-styles and community identity, which they felt was neglected by the Gay Liberation Movement, should be first discussed among themselves, and therefore these concerns were not included in the group’s statement.”

The Ithaca statement has a preamble and puts forward four questions:

 Feeling that the concerns raised should be further explored by our Monthly and Yearly Meetings, this group agreed to present these queries to Friends everywhere:

Are Friends open to examining in our Meetings facets of sexuality, including bisexuality, with openness and loving understanding?

Are Friends aware that Friends are suffering in our Meetings because they are not exclusively heterosexual?  That Friends have felt oppressed and excluded, often without conscious intent; have felt inhibited from speaking Truth as they experience it?  That Quaker instituions ahve threatened their employees with los of jobs should their orientation become known?

Are Friends, with their long tradition of concern for social justice, aware of the massive and inescapable bigorty in this area directed and perpetuated by virtually all United States institutions, to wit: all branches of government; churches; schools; employers;; landlords; medicar, bar and other professional associations; insurance companies; news media; and countless others?

Are Friends aware of their own tendency to falsely assume that any interest in the same sex necessarily indicates an exclusively homosexual orientation; and to further falsely assume that interest in the opposite sex necesarily indicated an exclusively heterosexual orientation?

40 years on: what has changed?

Legal discrimination has lessened in many countries though not all and we still don’t have full equality in British law 54 years after the Wolfenden report.

The questions on false assumptions, on unconscious exclusion and openness to examining sexuality including bisexuality remain entirely relevant.

So now what? I’ll disseminate the information I’ve found. I’m also writing something for Quaker weekly The Friend.

Do we have a 40th celebration? Do we use the anniversary as a hook for special issues of popular bi leaflets and publications? Do we commission something new to look at where we have been, are now and where we want to be?

What’s the plan between now and when we ask the same questions 50 years on from Ithaca?

Grant Denkinson