Building a new bi future?
Stonewall held a meeting in February that promised a new, bi-positive direction.
Two attendees share their thoughts…
Marcus: It’s LGBT History Month in February. That fact didn’t escape my notice as I waited for my train this morning to come into The London for a meeting today. Next year, we’ll be including today in the timeline of historic events.
Stonewall has had, historically, a bad rep in bisexual activist circles. We’ve seen it as unaccountable, contradictory, erasing and at times wilfully biphobic. All this from an organisation that some time around 2006 started calling itself “the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity” instead of “the lesbian and gay charity” without asking the established bisexual community to support this, provide focus. Did they need our permission? No – but many felt then that Stonewall was setting itself up to be the leading resource in an area they knew little about.
But with the departure of one chief exec and the appointment of another, we were told that a new wind was blowing through their corridors. One that would not just rearrange dust but create lasting change.
Today was Stonewall’s first meeting asking the bisexual communities of the UK what our priorities would be for Stonewall’s bi work. Ever.
One question I found myself asking was – did I even want Stonewall to try to be better at bi issues? Wouldn’t it be better if they stopped trying? But as I said at BiReCon in July last year (2014), we need to stop trying to do the heavy lifting.
Bisexual activists are few in numbers and comparatively impoverished of pockets. If we expect the big LGbT organisations to defer all work on bi issues to us then a lot of it will not possible to get done. Ships can be turned around, and if we get our boats out from under the prow we can avoid collision and instead act as pilots, lighting the way, giving maps. Basically your choice of nautical metaphor, I guess.
Stop doing the heavy lifting, I said. Let the big LGbT orgs do it, and we can provide the direction when it comes to bi issues.
Stonewall is a powerful force in UK politics. Their workplace equality projects have made a huge difference to the way companies think about equality and diversity. They feel, to bisexual activists, like they’ll be everyone’s go-to if they were doing bi properly, or better, or at all but visibly. Would a better-sorted-on-bi Stonewall leave room in the UK for the existing bisexual activists, and bi awareness training? Like, for example, myself.
The day got off to a positive start when we realised that we weren’t being handed over to consultants who would be getting our opinions and feeding them back to Stonewall on our behalf. Instead we were spending the day with the new Chief Exec herself, Ruth Hunt, and another director of the charity Caroline Ellis. That made me feel the odds improved sharply of what we said being not just heard but listened to.
Ruth opened with apologies, helping us to see the historic reasons for Stonewall’s previous difficulties with bisexuality as a topic and the varying quality of their engagement on the issues. It was noted and agreed that it’d have been easy to set aside an entire day to going over previous publications with an eye to spotting each and every omission, slip and error. And the most refreshing thing to hear was that although she accepted that, like so very many institutions, Stonewall could be described as in some ways institutionally biphobic, she felt there was no reluctance or cultural resistance (cont page 6)(Stonewall – cont from page 4)to changing this. To working on making themselves better at this.
And as the day went on, my high hopes remained aloft. No, Stonewall isn’t about to start offering training on bisexuality – they don’t do much training on sexuality. Yes, Stonewall is going to want to know where it can work with the bi community, where it can stride forward alone, and where it can (as Ruth herself put it) keeps its nose out.
We spent a long afternoon split into groups that came back with a whole range of areas where Stonewall can work alone, in partnership, or shouldn’t. We discussed asylum, housing, employment, health (including mental health), education, gender. We didn’t spend enough time on faith, or race, or parenting.
And when we came back, we all also had agreed. Stonewall would be a great organisation to fight biphobia and bisexual erasure within the LGbT community. But first they needed to fight it within themselves. You can’t talk the talk until you’ve first been and walked the walk, I guess.
What came next was something I wouldn’t have predicted when I read with familiar dread reports like “Serves You Right” with their erratic erasure/inclusion.
The CEO of Stonewall said yes, she agreed. They needed to be able to be an organisational role-model for others. They needed to get training from the bisexual community. We’d heard from bi Stonewall staff in the room how they wished they’d had bisexuality covered in their induction course back when they’d joined, so this was fantastic. Yes, they’d get bi community input in future in any bi related projects. Yes, they’d work on getting this stuff right themselves first. Become allies to the bisexual community, never try to lead on bisexual issues without an agreement to do so. Take positive steps to recruit bisexual role-models. Create in their structure places for bisexual input to be channelled. So we know who to ask, or if we need to complain to. And yes, they knew they need to have more meetings like this outside The London.
I will sleep shortly because it’s been very tiring to carry these hopes so high, hopes that I didn’t realise I could still have. But I do. We have promises. We have a timescale. We have the names of who to watch.
So yes – we shall see. Ruth Hunt has to go back to the office and push this forward. Turning the ship around will take time.
But I’m looking to the future in hope, not weary resignation. A historic day and I’m proud we were all (including Ruth and Caroline) there to be a part of it.
Jacq: I’ve been pissed off with Stonewall for decades. Bi erasure and biphobia hurts twice as much when it comes from a supposedly lesbian, gay and bisexual organisation. I felt like there was no accountability, that the B in LGB (T) was just a letter and not the reality of varied communities of bisexual people. I wasn’t expecting much of the Bi Consultation except a lot of denial and frustration. So I was glad when the day began with meeting other bi activists in a coffee shop in Pimlico, who were full of ideas.
The Etc venue had gender neutral toilets, a variety of food and drink for those who had allergies, and the staff were friendly.
Once inside, I took a discreet look around the packed boardroom: I counted over thirty people present, but only two other bisexuals of colour. I was disappointed that there weren’t more; that events like these either weren’t going after LGBT people of colour, or it was off-putting to black and minority ethnic people. Another issue that affects me personally, was that whenever anyone mentioned the word, “black,” everyone at my table would suddenly turn to me. That behaviour continued throughout the day until the afternoon when I asked them all to stop. I don’t represent all black and minority ethnic bisexuals. I just help run Bi’s of Colour, which was started due to racism present in bisexual spaces.
After the facilitator, Caroline set out some ground rules, Ruth Hunt gave an apology for how bisexuals were treated by Stonewall in the past. It didn’t feel like empty words, but that the charity wanted to move forward with positive intent. We were also told some of Stonewalls early history, which seemed to involve getting lots of gay, cis men to pay attention to lesbians who were being discriminated against. I started to feel irritated; this kind of behaviour was going on in the present day when it came to bisexuals. A quick look at Stonewalls LGBT history page sees a complete absence of bisexual recognition (Fritz Klein’s grid is mentioned, but not the fact that he was bi)
There was a brief flurry of questions and answers. I was impressed that Ruth Hunt was willing to field these professionally and with good nature. One question: Stonewall has been deliberately biphobic in the past, resulted in a statement that Stonewall was not institutionally biphobic. I began to feel uncomfortable once more; as one participant told me later, “Society is institutionally biphobic.” Part of this kind of behaviour is that it is very hard to see from the inside; bisexuals are probably the best people to gauge whether something is biphobic or not. This statement was clarified later, but I still felt on edge.
Ruth Hunt presented several points that Stonewall thought were priorities for bisexual people:
Health, Asylum and Immigration, Employment, Biphobia within the lesbian and gay community, and Bi Visibility. The attendees added the following: Homelessness and housing, Race, Faith, Ageing, Intersections, Parenting, Rural Bi’s. (these are incomplete lists)
We split into groups to discuss these points, and to generate ways that Stonewall could address them. For the first time in the day, I felt really good; that I was being listened to, and Stonewall was taking notice. The discussions continued after lunch, and then each group fed back to the room. It was great hearing so many ideas for moving forward that would be aimed at bisexuals. These discussion points resulted in a declaration that Stonewall may not be able to deliver everything we wanted, but our priorities would be taken seriously. Ruth gave us a list of proposals that would be taken forward from the day. Two of the proposals that really made me smile was that there would be a named person in Stonewall responsible for bi people, and there would be a campaign to fight biphobia from lesbian and gay communities
I came away from the event feeling emotionally wiped out. I may have behaved as if I didn’t really care about what happened, but the sense of hope I had as I left was a surprise for me; after being a part of the bisexual community, starving for attention, a feast was finally within my sights!