Ian’s History of BiCon
In Bugsy Malone, Tallulah sings “I don’t remember names, but I remember faces”. Actually I don’t remember many of those either, but here’s what I remember about BiCon over the years…
1984 (December) London – The Politics of Bisexuality conference.Held at the Factory Community Project, one task was to draw up a bisexual manifesto. Being us, they came up with two. These were later published in Bisexual Lives.
1985 (April) London – The Second Politics of Bisexuality conference.Booked into London’s new Lesbian and Gay Community Centre, the ‘lesbian sex wars’ of the time meant that bisexual groups were banned from the Centre. (Their mere presence would oppress lesbians, apparently.) Other groups banned included anything to do with BDSM. One 1990s book on the sex wars has a lot on that, but the bisexual ban goes virtually unmentioned.
As the booking was accepted “in error”, it was allowed to happen at the Centre and the ban was eventually overturned in June 1985. (To give an idea of what things were like, someone took along a picnic including some champagne to the meeting on the bans. When they opened the bottle, there were people who seriously thought they’d heard a gunshot. The Centre eventually closed in 1991, just before the London Bisexual Group were going to hold a party there, after the safe was robbed without any sign of force being used and the insurers declined to pay out.)
On the weekend itself, the proposed programme was thrown out at the start and a somewhat disorganised event followed. One positive result was the decision to do a book on people’s experiences of being bisexual. This led to Bisexual Lives, one of the first books on bisexuality and the first by and about the community, being published in 1988.
1985 (October) Edinburgh – Bisexuality and the Politics of SexThe first one outside London, hosted by by the UK’s second bisexual group, in Edinburgh.
1986 (July) London – The Fourth National Bisexual ConferenceMy first one, held at the small Mary Ward community centre near Russell Square. I arrived about half an hour early, and hid in the toilets for a bit before I went to look for anyone else. By the end of my first session, all nervousness had gone: ‘Co-operative games’ involved clutching a dressed transvestite as we tried as a group to cross the room without touching the floor. Other sessions I can still remember include ‘Romance’ (and being the only man out of about six attendees), and the men only session.
1987 Edinburgh – The Fifth National Bisexual Conference
This was immediately after the Great Storm of 1987, also known as the ‘there isn’t going to be a hurricane’ hurricane, which played havoc with many people from mid and southern England’s travel arrangements. After the event, the organisers produced a booklet on the event, which they sent to everyone who attended.
1988 London – The Sixth National Bisexual ConferenceThis one had several problems. The venue, the Quaker Meeting House in Hampstead, was too small for the number of people who turned up (154, around twice the size of any previous one) and would never be considered today because of access issues.
Then I picked ‘Co-operative games’ as my first session again. This was mostly spent playing what’s now known as ‘musical perversions’. (There is a chair for everyone except one, who says something true about themselves. Everyone else for whom that is also true has to get up and go to a different chair. Whoever is left without a chair now says something..) At one point, someone said ‘I’ve tried to commit suicide’ and about a third of the people stood up. The impact of that blew me away. With no counselling support systems in place, it cast a shadow over the whole event for me.
The other memorable session was on SM. The facilitator, the person I’d been clutching in 1986, was nowhere to be found, so it started without them. It was going well up to the point where they arrived about ten minutes later, hit the floor with their studded leather belt and announced they were in charge, before proceeding to talk about themselves for 15 minutes…
1989 Coventry – BICON
The previous one had been bad in several ways, but this was by far the worst for me, /because I missed it/. As I was living about ten miles away at the time, to only hear about it a week or so afterwards was especially annoying.
What happened was that the main community newsletter, the London Bisexual Group’s Bi-Monthly, did not publish its 21st (and last) issue in the many months between the announcement and it happening. The LBG also had a card index of everyone who had contacted the group, subscribed to Bi-Monthly, or attended one of the previous London BiCons, but wanted more money for sending out a mailshot than the organisers wanted to pay.
(One reason for the problem with Bi-Monthly was that as it increased in size and physical presentation, it lost larger amounts with every issue and the gaps between issues got larger and larger. In the end, it simply stopped publishing them. At least one copy of a 22nd issue was prepared sometime in 1990, but never sent out.)
For those who did hear about it in time, it was the first to be called BiCon (because the venue were familiar with SF ‘cons’), the first somewhere without a substantial local bi group and, because of this, the first residential one. It also featured a public sex room… But apparently all that happened was that people went, looked in, saw no-one else was there, then went away again.
1990 Edinburgh – 8th National Bisexual ConferenceBack to non-residential. Held in a school / community centre, this saw a (small) picket from protesters! It also featured several people, from the UK and the USA who had been to the BiPol conference – I think their first BiCon-alike event – in San Francisco, and the first keynote addresses, from Robyn Ochs and Lisa Power.
It was the first one to have a sign language interpreter, because some deaf people attended. At the end plenary, someone asked for a demonstration of the British Sign Language for oral sex which they had found amusing in one of the sessions. The very cute interpreter (rightly) declined but then signed what was going on…
I can’t remember much about the sessions, but there was a good trip to the swimming pool.
1991 London – 9th National Bisexual Conference
Lisa Power gave virtually the same (“you’re all wonderful”) keynote speech as last year, and Peter Tatchell talked lots about sexuality without using the b-word much. These were the last keynotes for ages…
Lots of better things came out of the event, from direct activism group BiONIC (Bisexuals Organising with Noise, Insurrection and Confrontation – one of the aims was to ‘end capitalism’), to the Bisexual Advisory Group to the government’s Health Education Authority.
One particularly hot session in more senses than one (lots of people in a small room) saw the first time what’s now known as ‘anonymous confessions’ (people write something down, put the paper in the middle of the room, the papers are mixed, and everyone picks one at random and reads it out) was played at BiCon.
With the end of Bi-Monthly, at least two new newsletters were around, but only one, the ultra-reliable monthly Bifrost, lasted.
Evening entertainment was going to a disco at a gay club in Islington. It was the first night DJing for someone who went on to be the main Saturday night DJ at Heaven, the gay club that hosted the first years of the LBG. At it, the founder of the LBG, David Burkle, was given life membership.
1992 Norwich – Bicon 10
Incredibly, the publishers of Bifrost not only found time to organise a BiCon, but also an excellent one. The second residential one, it also featured free crash space, with a room for men, a room for women and a mixed room, thanks to the organisers’ good relationship with the Student Union it was held at. Who was to be treated as a woman came up in a tearful closing session about trans issues.
One session featured some members of a bisexual commune in France talking about their set up – I wonder whatever happened? I also remember one on doing our own porn – this wasn’t the first time that it had been scheduled, and wouldn’t be the last, but if any was ever made as a result, I never saw it.
Ents were a mixture – some people loathed the left-wing comedian, while I was one of those who liked him. Having the DJ’s record deck on an ordinary table meant that every time anyone danced nearby, the record skipped. I don’t think there was any tactical ‘I don’t like this, I’m going to pogo near the DJ’ dancing going on.
A recent The News of the World series on the ‘Bi Sex Boom’ featured a bi conference for young people. (According to one attendee, it under-reported the amount of ‘bed-hopping’ going on there.) Perhaps as a result, someone from The Guardian attended, and article on BiCon included Dave Berry’s comment that the adjective for bisexuals was ‘nice’. Someone brought ‘Nice’ badges to next year’s event.
1993 Nottingham – Bicon 11
Again residential, with the option of crash space in a church hall some distance away, this was supported by a substantial grant from the Health Education Authority. Some of the money went on commissioning a play, Leaking from Every Orifice, from bisexual performer Claire Dowie on her experience of having a child.
Indeed, a ‘bi baby boom’ among attendees meant there were probably more small children at this one than any other. It’s somewhat scary to realise that they’re all somewhere between coming up to their 18th birthday or finishing university now…
Some of the rest of the money went to people who were invited to facilitate sessions on safer sex issues. Had the organisers been more open about this, it would have been highly controversial.
Low points included the heating failing in several of the accommodation blocks, leading to a small refund for those affected, plus the outside DJ who brought along a very ‘specialist’ collection of discs and wouldn’t or couldn’t play requests.
Following the arguments at the end of 1992, the trans policy was definitively and calmly sorted: people would be accepted as whatever gender they present as, something that has been followed ever since.
The session programme was very ‘wide’ with lots of choice in each slot. The LBG had hired a minibus to take members to BiCon, and on the return journey, five of us realised that although we’d all gone to something in every slot, none of us had gone to any of the same sessions as each other.
1994 Edinburgh – Bicon 12
The last non-residential BiCon, this was held at the city’s Methodist Hall, which meant nothing was scheduled there on Sunday.
I facilitated my first session at BiCon, picking the topic of virginities in part because it was my first. Attendance for that may have been boosted by a session from someone at one of the city’s sexual health clinics on STIs, featuring some slides that made virginity seem a very good idea. I can still remember the one of a woman with genital warts…
The ents included a céilidh at the city’s council chambers, where Kate Fearnley, one of the founders of the Edinburgh Bisexual Group, its bisexual phoneline and organiser of several BiCons, was given a certificate proclaiming her to be a ‘Real Bisexual’. She was also declared to be St Kate by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the city’s Lesbian and Gay Centre, which she’d helped create, was renamed the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Centre.
1995 Birmingham – Bicon 13
Two people from London’s “Lesbian and Gay Pride” – one a former editor of Bi-Monthly – attended and left in no doubt about the community’s desire for the name to become more inclusive. The closing plenary also got a bit nasty following the venue complaining about marks on walls and fire engines being called out, and asking for a large fine to be paid. They were told to get lost and backed down.
Following the decision of Bifrost to cease publishing, after a remarkably reliable run, a session decided to set up a new bi community news publication. Hmm, what to call it? That was left to a vote, which picked the obvious name. Even if issues are less frequent than they once were, it is now one of the oldest LGBT publications still publishing, an achievement to be proud of particularly given the minimal advertising revenue.
Another memory is running to get the included breakfast before that closed.
1996 Kingston, London – Bicon 14
At one session, someone brought along some zines for SF con organisers, which included the idea of having a charter to set out what sort of event it would be. I showed this to some other people and promptly forgot about the idea. Another enterprising person had registered the bi.org domain, and invited people to use it for their group or event or email address.
Highlights included an art exhibition and auction (I still have ‘the marvellous mechanical muff organ’ amongst several other pieces!)
Lowlights included having the Decision Making Plenary at the end and the behaviour of the venue. New staff declared after the event that the quote had been exclusive, not inclusive, of ‘Value Added Tax’ and thus it was owed more money than the organisers had. In the end, they were offered all the money in the event’s bank account, which they accepted.
1997 Woolwich, London – Bicon 15
By the end of 1996’s, no-one had offered to run 1997’s, so this was organised at short notice by people who’d never done it before. Unsurprisingly, they did make some mistakes, including having a site where the session rooms were split across two buildings over five minutes walk apart and scheduling an official BDSM play party as part of the ents.
Following the near loss in 1996, a session was held on the idea, which had been talked about for some years, of forming a company to protect the community’s money. It was thought to be a very good idea.
In order to reduce the chances of making a loss this time, the organisers were extremely pessimistic about the numbers of attendees they budgeted for. Even after refunding some money to people on the lowest band of the scale, this meant they made a significant profit: the original source of the surplus which has passed from year to year ever since.
Highlights included a performance from bisexual musician and, according to the tabloids, “Britain’s Number One Gay”, Tom Robinson.
1998 Cambridge – Bicon 98 (16th)
This got off to a bad start when the organisers initially abandoned the sliding scale, where cost of attending depends on declared income. The by now wider adoption of email meant that the fuss quickly resulted in them deciding that the sliding scale should stay.
This, and some of the problems with 1997’s, helped ensure that when a set of ‘BiCon Guidelines’ – including having the sliding scale – was brought along by someone, they were accepted unanimously.
Other highlights included the availability of rooms with more than one bed.
1999 Edinburgh – Bicon 1999 (17th)
Possibly the one organised by the fewest people, Alison Rowan did most of it single-handedly. Incredible.
There was a delightful contrast between naming the session rooms after the Teletubbies and the name of the punk samba band which was part of the ents, Bloco Vomit. I can also remember there being at least three sessions on masturbation, and having to miss them all for one reason or another. Apparently, people who did make it heard about me anyway!
One nightmare for the organiser was catering, with the coffee proving a particular problem in relation to how much the venue wanted to charge. Not surprisingly, it was the last time I remember any catering being provided.
2000 Manchester – BiCon 2000 (18th)
With Rotterdam deciding that it was not ready to host the planned International BiCon (they held the excellent first European BiCon in 2001), like this year’s, this was also an international one, the sixth, it’s first time in the UK since the second in 1992.
The keynotes made a return, with some lovely bisexual-identified people from outside the UK giving speeches, and none from within it. I suppose that’s an improvement over the previous otherwise excellent IBC in Boston USA having three keynote speakers, one each from the East coast, Midwest and West coast of the USA.
I got to play music at the disco, and was rewarded by someone’s page submitted for the ‘BiCon Zine’ featuring me being stabbed for playing Abba. (Actually, it was Erasure covering them.)
2001 Coventry – Bicon 2001 (19th)
Finding the venue was tricky for many people who hadn’t lived in or near Coventry. Perhaps because the accommodation, ten minutes walk away, was in a area used by street sex workers, a nearby bar refused to serve some attendees on the grounds that they were prostitutes.
Thanks to a mix of the venue messing the organisers around at a late stage and an unprecedented decision to spend around a thousand pounds on enabling one person to attend the event from Australia, this lost around three thousand pounds.
The main disco (on a ‘masked ball’ theme) was interrupted by a set by performance poet Attilla the Stockbroker. I liked him, but not everyone did.
Despite all that, I had a good time, partly because of how relaxed the organisers were.
2002 Leicester – Bicon 2002 (20th)
‘The One With the Muffins’. Another one organised at short notice, it tried to be as low cost as possible. The attempt to save money plus avoid any argument between two of the team about music policy lead to the invention of the DIY Disco, where many attendees brought along 20 minute CDs and everyone voted on which would be played.
Other innovations included a large supply of free muffins and flapjacks (cheaper than paying the venue for a breakfast that half of the attendees would not be up in time to eat!) and the Cake Awards, given to people whose work in and for the community deserves recognition. Eight were given out.
An attempt to get the Decision Making Plenary to approve the formation of a company to protect BiCon’s assets failed, even though a session of past and present organisers recommended it (and it turned out that there had been even more ‘near misses’ of losing large sums than had I thought over the years!)
2003 Docklands, London – Bicon 2003 (21st)
‘The one with the odd shaped rooms’. The same campus as this year’s, but in different rooms. That year’s accommodation blocks were circular, so the rooms had at least one curved wall, plus an interesting wedge shape. The beds could be a bit memorable too, in a shelf in the wall in some rooms – sit up and you could hit your head.
The person in charge of organising the reception desk realised they were perhaps worrying too much when they considered a section in the manual about what to do in the event of a crash at London City Airport, the other side of a former dock next to the venue.
Highlights included a ball one evening, with a vision beyond anything attempted at a BiCon before, featuring a wandering magician (I could spot his card tricks, but he got me every time with the mental ones), a harpist, and a (free) roulette table amongst other attractions. The signage for the venue was also excellent and necessary, given the spread out nature of the rooms.
Holding the Decision Making Plenary at the end was, again, shown to be a mistake.
2004 Manchester – BiCon 2004 (22nd)
More being messed around by the venue, when they decided that the main hall had been repolished too recently to allow us to use it. Several other session rooms and the location of the ents were changed too, and the resulting mess affected the quality of the result.
Highlights included a quiz, with the tie-break question being how many sexual partners the person setting the quiz had had.
2005 Worcester – BiCon 2005 (23rd)
I attempted to do too much by myself in terms of the ents. One night (the ‘Time Travellers Ball’) worked, another did not. Sorry.
The venue was shared with a barbershop singing convention and a group of American Football players training.
2006 Glasgow – BiCon 2006 (24th)
The first one in Scotland for a while, it was amazing to know that none of the organisers had done one before. It tried having scheduling early evening sessions for the first time and proved to doubters like me that they could work.
Highlights included a ‘live-action’ game of Space Invaders, where some attendees impersonated the aliens, complete with arm movements, while been shot at with air-powered ‘stomp rockets’.
Four more Cake Awards were presented.
2007 Glamorgan – BiCon 25
Otherwise known as ‘The One With The Hill’, thanks to its accommodation being up a steep hill from the sessions and entertainments. The venue, more used to business conferences, also featured the most lavishly equipped session room ever, a delightful ‘executive boardroom’.
Two more Cake Awards were presented, and I got a ‘Master Baker’ award.
2008 Leicester – BiCon 2008 (26th)
Otherwise known as ‘The One With The Lions’, thanks to another large scale ball, the Circus of the Bizarre, which featured a paddling pool filled with 301 stuffed toy lions for people to relax in.
Innovations included BiReCon, a one day event at the start of BiCon as a mix of academic and outreach activism, ‘family day’, a day which included at least one child-friendly thing in every slot plus games outside, and giving everyone who helped a silver star sticker to show how dependent the event is on attendees – somewhere between a third and a half got one.
The idea of setting up a company to protect the community’s money was finally approved, over a decade after it was first seriously proposed. It will actually happen real soon now.
2009 Worcester – BiCon 2009 (27th)
My problems with the venue remain (it’s not easy for many people to get to easily and the Student Union bar is not an ideal place for the evening ents) but it hosts excellent BiCons.
This time, we had the venue without the barbershop singers or the American Football players…
So, what have been the big changes over the years?
The politics have changed. At the start, just having a BiCon was a serious political statement, and the name and contents reflected that. It is less so now and there is no longer such a sense of wanting to change the outside world.
Although some sessions occur year after year, other aspects of the programme have changed. One regular used to be about stopping having penetrative sex, for example, now we have offers of practical demonstrations of fisting.
Ents have become a much more important part of the event. What was then a trip to someone else’s disco or a room above a pub, can now be a reason to attend in itself. The shift to residential conferences maintains the BiCon ‘space’ throughout the weekend, rather than having everyone disappear off home or to crash space, but does make finding venues harder, plus accommodation issues take significant organising ‘spoons’. In its early days of BiCon, Bi-Monthly talked about having one every six months, now organisers are grateful to often have two years to put one on.
BiCon is still organised by volunteers – per the guidelines! – but many aspects are now done in a very professional manner, including state of the art consideration for access and counselling support available 24 hours a day. No longer can people imagine it is thrown together in a few days. This both highlights the slip-ups that every year makes somewhere and leads to a raised sense of expectation and entitlement among some attendees that is both flattering and extremely frustrating for organisers.
Many of the people have changed, but much of the spirit lives on from year to year. Newcomers either absorb and take on the attitude of relaxed respect for each other and become ‘one of us’, or disappear quickly. I wish we could know why people stop coming though. Going to BiCon changed my life for the better: it is a highlight of every year, and I know I am not the only one for whom it has that effect.