How Bisexuals Used To Live

This originally appeared in BCN issue 60.

A series reflecting on the ups and downs of the bi movement in the UK. This month, Jo Eadie looks back to the Norwich BiCon in 1992.

One of my friends tells me that she has an abiding memory of me ordering endless portions of beans on toast for my daughter at the canteen at the Norwich bi conference. Perhaps this is what made me make such strident efforts to have a wider range of vegan options at the 1993 conference – including sending vegan cookbooks to the canteen staff. But what I remember about the canteen is the buzz of conversations – I was there with a large contingent from the rather successful Nottingham Bi Group, which we had set up earlier in the year and which was going from strength to strength.

Of course, what you have to remember is that 1992 was a great year to be bisexual. There had been a series of events around the country called ‘Politically Bi’ in which bisexual politics was being hammered into shape (one of which was infiltrated by a News of the World reporter who had his own distinctive take on the event). The previous year had seen the world’s first International Bisexual Conference in Amsterdam – so we felt truly global – and 1992 would see the follow up taking place in London, so it felt as if the UK was well sited on the international bisexual map. (How that conference lived up to those hopes is a tale for another day!). And Bifrost, the national bi newsletter, had been running monthly for just over a year (some sort of a record in bisexual publishing circles).

Bifrost’s clout was such that Norwich was attended by a formidable contingent from the world of lesbian and gay activists eager to seek the advice of the bi community. Bifrost’s editor had phoned up several lesbian and gay phonelines to ask what she should do as a supposedly newly out bisexual, and was given advice such as ‘join the local lesbian group but don’t tell them about your boyfriend’. And the results of this survey had been run as a story in Bifrost prompting Lisa Power and Linda Semple from the London Switchboard to come down to the conference to find out how to do their job properly. Which, make no mistake, we told them.

So it was with all that euphoria pushing us along that we made it down to Norwich, for a seriously packed weekend at the Tenth National Bisexual Conference (that much-contested word ‘Bicon’ had yet to make its first appearance). The University of East Anglia is surreal place – all concrete towers and walkways, feeling like something out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with its resolutely 60s look. And it somehow always felt odd to see that always vibrant breed, the bisexual conference attenders, walking around those drab pebble-dash walls.

Alongside the usual delirious mixed bag of massage workshops, SM for beginners, and pagan rituals (pagans were big in the bisexual community back in the twentieth century), what I remember most was the welcome seriousness of the conference’s gender politics. In the sexually charged atmosphere of a bi conference, men often think they have a license to try it on, and an impressive public role-play set out the limits of what constitutes an innocuous chat-up line, and what will get you thrown out of the conference.

My own contribution was to co-facilitate a workshop on ‘Are Men Oppressed?’, with my friend Simon and I putting quite forcefully the case that they weren’t. At any rate, Simon put the case forcefully: I looked forlornly at a series of incomprehensible keywords written on the back of an envelope. Keywords, I had been told, were guaranteed to spark your memory so that you could deliver eloquent and interesting statements purely by glancing at them. My keywords sparked absolutely nothing. So when we came to the final ‘what have we learnt today’ round, I told everyone that I had learnt I could not speak from keywords written on the back of an envelope(and as if to prove the point, I still write out every lecture that I give in enormous detail).

More successful were two substantial parallel workshops, one for men and one for women, that fed into a mixed plenary which sought to thrash out issues of how to unlearn oppressive behaviours – rather than, as all too often happens, everyone hoping that bisexuality somehow guarantees justice and niceness in and of itself. It’s a commitment to tackling issues of gender inequality and oppression which I think subsequent conferences have yet to match. As so often in the past, issues of gender inequality were focused through questions of the use of women-only spaces by trans women and although resistance to transgender integration remains at bi conferences, in my head this was the last conference
where there was serious resistance to fully integrated spaces.This was also just about the last conference to have a crash space in which conference attenders bedded down for free in their sleeping bags at night. Subsequent stringent policing by fire and safety officers ensured that this never happened again at other venues.

But my abiding memory is that we cornered the market in finding a bisexual stand-up comedian, Bob Boyton, who managed to split the conference in two (with some inevitable fence-sitters). He was too vituperative for many, but my favourite line went something like: what’s the good in David Bowie being bisexual – with teeth like that you wouldn’t want to risk a blow-job from him anyway . The faint-hearted may have felt that the follow up about kicking them all off his face went too far.

To cap it all, The Guardian ran a full-page feature on the conference, presenting it as vibrant, exciting, supportive, and challenging – where the attenders clearly genuinely cared about each other, as well as being at odds on a number of key issues. And it must have been high from that vibrancy that I stood up as a representative of the Nottingham Bi Group when we offered to run the conference for 1993.