Big Bi Society

The Big Society.  2010’s Call-me-Dave answer to 1997’s Call-me-Tony grand plan, The Third Way, and in short a politician noticing that as well as commercial and state provision, there’s a whole other sector to the economy with its own values and motives.  Sometimes TBS is misleadingly conflated with the public spending cuts but don’t get them muddled, it is its own thing… albeit with a little confusion as to exactly what.

And from a BCN reader’s perspective, what does it mean for the LGBT communities and bis in particular?

Development Manager at LGF – one of the biggest LGB organisations in the UK – told me, “The Big Society agenda is made up of three aims: community empowerment, encouraging philanthropy and volunteering, and reform of the public sector. Neighbourhood groups, charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises will have more impact in their local areas, having the power to take over local services and receiving support to make positive changes to the lives of their community.”

A couple of months back I found myself at a voluntary sector briefing day about the Big Society agenda and what it would mean for our very varied groups.  The core model of Big Society thinking seems to be that voluntary sector organising should be more localised – people can feel a connection to the very local area where they live, at a “within a few hundred yards of my home” level, whereas a borough or county is more removed.  So by concentrating on voluntary groups and organising for a square mile of Britain at a time, more people will be engaged: meetings won’t be miles away, there will be more similarity between people’s lifestyles, incomes and so forth.

So far so plausible: I wouldn’t start from there but there are many ways to skin a cat and it does have some sense to it.  When you think of the tens of thousands of voluntary sector groups in the country, most are unfunded and very local – tied to a local park, the few streets of a residents association, a hospice or what have you.  As someone who spent the last few years rolling my eyes at the assumption that voluntary sector groups and projects will have someone available weekday daytimes because of course you must have staff, some more thinking at that more grassroots level is welcome.

But the square mile works very well for the friends of my local train station.  It doesn’t work so well for more fragmented and small communities: LGB and T really don’t fit well, and I suspect that disability issues for instance similarly would tend not have much in the way of geographic clustering.  Prioritising voluntary groups working in small local areas will change whose voices are heard and potentially change what issues gain attention as a result.

So will the change hit us as bis and as the organised bi spaces we have?  Not directly.  The bi groups around the UK tend to be small and unfunded or only very slightly funded – BiPhoria in Manchester will turn over about £3,500 this year and I think that puts it a mile ahead of any of the other groups (feel free to tell me I’m wrong!)  A group that meets in a pub and chats by email over a yahoogroup will still under the Big Society meet in a pub and chat over email on a yahoogroup.  BiCon will still be BiCon.

Darren Knight, again:  “The Big Society agenda places a large emphasis on neighbourhoods and geographic communities. This focus on localism is a potential concern for the LGB&T community, which is more often united by a shared experience of being a minority sexual orientation or gender identity, rather than being part of a city, town or village community. LGB&T groups may have to fight harder to make their voices heard.”

So the change to a different way of looking at the voluntary sector, especially in our difficult economic times, may indirectly affect us: as the spending cuts bite, a lower priority for LGBT matters may mean it’s your community centre that closes and means a local group don’t have a venue for an event, or have to find a new place to meet.

Darren: “Charities helping lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGB&T) people in the UK are struggling on the edge of viability following government spending cuts. The LGB&T voluntary sector is small, marginalised and very vulnerable to the proposed cuts to public spending according to the National LGB&T Partnership, a group of 12 charities from across England that support LGB&T communities.

“Looking at the four largest organisations which deliver services directly to LGB&T people in London, Manchester and Leeds, nearly 80% of funding is statutory. Often this funding is the most vulnerable and marginal when it comes to looking for things to cut.”

With the potential for those bigger LGBT projects to face significant cuts we probably need more of us as bi and LGBT people to step up to the challenges of engaging with how decisions are made about the support that is out there, and sharing news about how things like the new Equality Act affect us.

It’s really not very long since everything in the LGBT sector ran on the same shoestring as bi stuff does, so here’s hoping there are still plenty of people around who remember how we made everything work!

For more information on the Big Society and the changes that are happening that are affecting the LGBT communities locally, please check out www.lgf.org.uk/supporting-local-activity or you can telephone 0845 3 30 30 30 and speak to a member of the team at The Lesbian & Gay Foundation.