Robyn Ochs is an activist and a speaker, and has won numerous awards for her activism. She is the editor of the 42-country anthology “Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World” and “The Bi Women newsletter.” She also works on the board of directors for Massachusetts’ equality organization, “MassEquality.” She used to teach a course at Johnson State College about sexuality and politics. She spoke at the college on Sept.15.
What do you believe is the biggest civil rights issue today for the LGBT community?
I don’t believe there is one single civil rights issue that’s more important than all the others. I believe that the LGBT movement is comprised of many different issues, all of which are important. Transgender equality, marriage equality, homeless LGBT youth, job discrimination, everything is important. I believe that it’s all important, all the time.
How do you think the United States compares to other countries in regards to LGBT rights?
In the United States, we tend to think we’re number one, always at the front of the path, but we’re not. We’re neither in the front nor the back, but rather someplace in the middle. We’re much better than some countries and not nearly as good as some others in terms of LGBT equality. Canada would be a good example of a country that has gone way beyond us.
When did you realize that you were bisexual, and what was it like growing up bisexual if you realized it at a young age?
I realized I was bisexual my very first month of college when I fell head over heels “in crush” with another woman. I struggled with my feelings and pretty quickly concluded that I must be bisexual. What was much harder was figuring out how to tell anyone else. I had a lot of fear about how other people might respond, and as a result I kept silent for almost five years. Looking backward, once I figured out I was bisexual, I saw all kinds of clues that should have been obvious, but weren’t. I had crushes on other girls when I was younger, but I didn’t understand that they were crushes until later. Looking back and comparing that with my other crushes I’d been having at the time on guys, it was at least the same thing, but I didn’t understand that a girl could have a crush on a girl. So I’ve been having crushes on girls since I was eight years old, but I realized it when I was eighteen.
What compelled you to begin working as an activist? Was it what you experienced, or what you saw others experiencing?
I was moved by both. Some of my activism is personal self-defense, responding to and countering some of the rather strange things I hear about people who share my identity. It’s about defending myself, but I also am doing this work now more to defend other people. It’s my hope that no one should have to feel as uncomfortable and unsupported as I did.
What was the most meaningful compliment you’ve ever received?
I guess the most meaningful compliment is when someone comes up to me or writes to me and says that my words helped them to feel comfortable with themselves, helped them to accept themselves, helped them to come to terms with themselves, helped them understand that they are absolutely okay. Those moments when I realize my work has made a difference to a real person’s life. Its amazing. I know I make a difference in some people’s lives, but it’s wonderful when people take the time to share their story and tell me what their process was and what in particular resonated for them. It’s very moving and very powerful and it makes me feel really good. It makes me feel like I’m not just spitting into the wind.
I was recently reading about the Kinsey sexuality scale, and how people often feel the need to strictly identify themselves as one sexuality or the other. What are your thoughts on that?
We live within a culture that has a tendency to take very complicated things and try to force them into simple binary boxes. When we do that, we lose the perspective and we lose the opportunity to see how complicated and beautiful people really are. All the research on sexuality shows that sexuality is complex and it falls on a continuum, and gender identity is equally complex and also falls on its own continuum. I celebrate the entire rainbow. I celebrate all the different points on the continuum, including the edges, but the edges are not all there is. Every single part of the rainbow is beautiful.
Bisexuals are sometimes viewed negatively in the LGBT community. What are your thoughts on that?
That comes back to the way that we tend to put things into binaries. Around sexual orientation, we sometimes set up “team gay” and “team straight,” and the reality is, it’s not that simple. Some people want it to be that simple. Some people want to be able to sort other people, and when they can’t do that, it can make them uncomfortable. What I would like to see our movement be about is to create a world where it’s safe to be yourself, no matter what that looks like, no matter how that manifests, and not just making it safe to create a world to be lesbian or gay. I would like to see a broad commitment to social justice for everyone. I would also like to see us make connections between the different social justice movements. I see LGBT rights and anti-racist work and economic justice work and women’s rights, etc., as all interconnected. So for me, it’s not just about to work to protect the rights of women, it’s to work to protect the rights of everyone. It’s not just the rights of LGBT people, it’s the rights of everybody. And the more we can make the connections, the more change we’ll be able to bring about.
What is your biggest disappointment in the LGBT rights movement?
I’m most disappointed when I see apathy. My belief is that if everybody did at least a little bit, we’d make a whole lot of progress more quickly. I certainly don’t expect everyone to commit their entire lives to doing social justice work full-time, but if everybody would do just a little bit, I think we could speed up the progress and get to a better place more quickly. Another disappointment is when I see fighting within communities, when I see hostility towards transgendered people within the LGBT movement, when I see hostility towards bisexuals, when I see misogyny within the LGBT movement from some of the men I come in contact with, when I see racism. I have high standards, I want us to be our best selves, and I want us to deeply respect one another and be generous toward one another.
Which living person do you admire most, and why?
There’s a very long list of people I admire, and everyone on that list is someone who has made a lifetime commitment to making the world a better place. Some of the people I admire are not famous, or are not super-famous. They’re people who are out there every day trying to make the world a better place. People like Mandy Carter, who is an African-American lesbian in North Carolina who has been an activist for over 40 years. She’s a co-founder of an organization called “Southerners Underground,” and they do all kinds of intersectional social justice and activism, and I love what they’re doing. Kate Bornstein, a trans woman who is a performance artist. Again, she’s been doing it for decades. So I guess for me, it’s the people who are in it for the long haul. Those are my heroes and “sheroes,” people who are really committed and who have figured out a way to change the world and also to make a good life for themselves, who have figured out a way to live life fully and richly and also with a commitment to others.
Could you finish this sentence in regards to gender and identity? “In a perfect world….”
In a perfect world, we would not make assumptions about other people, we would ask them how they identify and we would respect whatever they tell us.