Manchester’s 18

Jen Yockney reflects on being part of her local bi group since 1994.

BiPhoria emerged, like so many bi groups, from Manchester bis meeting up at BiCon and getting talking, and deciding they wanted a bi group back home.  There were already bi groups in the city – one for men, one for women.  However it seems the penny dropped that meeting in separate groups when the uniting factor was that you were people for whom gender was less of an issue was a little peculiar.  At the very least there was room to get together as well.

The model used took organising ahead of each group meeting: every month’s meeting had a defined topic with workshops planned out for months ahead. That seems to have been the case with most other bi groups at the time.

The group started out meeting at Manchester’s Lesbian & Gay Centre on Sidney Street. It was a good central location close to bus and train routes, and familiar to people attending the men’s or women’s bi groups.

The first few years were quite energetic, as seems to often be the case where a new bi group forms in an area with pent-up demand.  The monthly calendar had clubbing nights, cinema trips, a bi hill-walking group and more.  Among the spin-off projects was one to lobby the city council, whose equality policies and monitoring firmly declared everyone to be either gay or straight, and to challenge the “no bisexuals” door policies of several gay venues in the city in the 90s.

But after a time early impetus dies out, people find their lives are taking them elsewhere and in the odd case the realisation that you don’t get paid for running this puts people off too.  Planning meetings saw a diminishing pool of people willing to run the group. This was a crunch point – I wound up running the group and if I’d stepped away too there would have been no volunteer base left.

Groups have momentum and this downward arc continued; for about six months we had typically 3 people a month to meetings, where the group would consist of me, someone who had last been to the group a year or two earlier asking “where is everyone?” and a new member who would never come back on the grounds that it clearly wasn’t the place to meet bi folk after all.  It is hard work summoning up the energy to go back again each month at times like that.  But the steady grind of small publicity work (flyers and posters) and luck of the draw meant eventually breaking out of the cycle – you get a month where four ‘occasional’ members and two or three new people means the mood in the room changes and things start to grow back up from there.

This slow build included bidding for the 2000 BiCon to come to the city.  For years BiCon had moved around the country from year to year without ever landing in Manchester. This turned into a bit of a joke – with Queer As Folk all over the TV, that Manchester was too busy partying the night away to host a BiCon.  The team were mostly not part of the group though: hosting BiCon 1998 had torn apart the Cambridge group, and Manchester wasn’t strong enough to face that kind of stress.

While all eyes were on BiCon there were changes afoot: the city’s Lesbian & Gay Switchboard and gay men’s sexual health project HGM were merging, and once again the dilapidated Sidney Street building was under threat of closure.  Most groups meeting at Sidney Street merged into this new Lesbian & Gay Foundation, but BiPhoria stayed at arm’s length, meeting in the new LGF building but remaining independent.

This meant finding funding: previously group costs were met by a quick whip-round at each meeting and room hire was free.  Now room hire cost £30 a time so some of the energy that would have gone into group work had to go into funding bids and accounting to these.  But that also meant a greater engagement with other LGBT groups in the city, and a slightly higher profile.

That profile and more members getting involved again with organising aspects of the group’s work meant the tide was now flowing with the group; we had day-long events to mark Bi Visibility Day in 2001 and 2002, were drawn into the city’s Local Strategic Partnership work and in 2003 published a research report on bi needs in the city based on funded qualitative interviews.  The shape of group meetings changed, with a three-stage evening that starts with half an hour new members’ induction, 90 minutes of discussion normally without a pre-assigned subject, and then adjourning to a nearby quiet pub for chatter over drinks.

Another BiCon in 2004 was our last big blow-out, since when there have been small to mid size events each year – a BiFest or something to mark LGBT History Month – and things have balanced out with structured group meetings and pub / cafe meets.  We’ve had a consistent profile elsewhere too at local LGBT conferences and at Prides in our wider catchment area (which goes right up to Carlisle!) – something that can only happen with enough volunteers making time in their lives to do that outreach and visibility.  In the end the local council even admitted bisexuals exist.

And here we are 18 years on, inheriting along the way the mantle of the oldest bi group in the country as other groups from the early 90s have folded.  Join us to celebrate our 18th birthday downstairs at Taurus, 1 Canal St on September 1st 2012, from 3pm.  Bring cake!