From the Journal of Bisexuality, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001, pp. 5-26.
Loving both women and men can be a difficult path. The established signposts you encounter along the way—lesbian, gay, straight—never quite show you where you need to go. A popular bisexual button reads: Two paths diverged in a yellow wood, and I took both. Bisexual folks can spend a long time in the woods figuring out which trail allows them to “take both.”
Robyn Ochs has helped to blaze that trail as she has moved through and delighted in her own journey as a bisexual woman. She is most noted for editing the Bisexual Resource Guide,1 an indispensable “road guide” for bisexuals as they follow the path of their sexuality. In addition, this activist, educator and wordsmith has posted quite a few useful signs along the way while creating shelter, community and camaraderie for fellow travelers. She helped to found the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network and the East Coast Bisexual Network, has authored numerous essays and articles, and has taught courses on bisexuality at MIT and Tufts University. She has also acted as a spokesperson for the bi movement in publications such as Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice, Elle and Playgirl, and on television shows such as Donohue and Maury Povich. In addition, Ochs co-hosted PRIDETIME a weekly cable television show for the lesbian, gay and bisexual community in Boston.
Ochs was raised with a strong tradition of activism in her family. “We grew up going to protest marches and listening to folk and protest music,” Ochs says. “In my generation there are four children. Two of us are activists: my cousin Meegan works as a major events fund-raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. And I’m counting myself as the other one.” Ochs recalls a childhood spent leafleting at subway stations for the McGovern and McCarthy campaigns, and stuffing envelopes for various causes. Her uncle was Phil Ochs, the renowned folk singer and writer of some of the best known protest songs: “Draft Dodger Rag,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore, “Cops of the World,” “There But for Fortune,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” to name but a few. But to know how Robyn came into her career as an activist, let her tell you about her mother. “My mother was, and still is, quite an amazing activist. Her focus is mainly these days on community politics. She has been quite active in Habitat for Humanity, and she hosts a folk music and women’s music radio show out of Schenectady, New York.”
Ochs’ mother, Sonia (Sonny), was born into a Jewish family in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her father, Jacob (Jack) was a first-generation American who moved to Edinburgh to attend medical school in the 1930s. There he met Gertrude, the daughter of immigrants from Lithuania who had moved to Edinburgh to escape the pogroms, and they married. After he finished medical school and she gave birth to Sonny, the new family moved to the United States, where they subsequently had two sons, Phil and Michael. Ochs’ maternal grandmother “waged a losing battle to turn her daughter into a proper young lady.” This included sending Sonny off to finishing school in Switzerland, an experience she hated. “My mother responded by running off at age 17 and marrying a man whom my grandmother found most unsuitable—a poor young man from rural North Carolina who was then in the U.S. Air Force. According to my birth father, my grandmother offered him $10,000 to make himself scarce, which he refused.”
By the time Sonny was 21, she had left Robyn’s birth father, gotten a divorce, and moved back with her parents, eventually settling with her grandmother in Far Rockaway, New York, where she had spent most of her childhood. According to Robyn, “She then got pregnant and married the former boy next door, and I found myself with a new father and brother.” Another brother was born three years later. By the time Robyn was eleven her mother divorced a second time and was raising her three children as a single mother.
“My mother was a nonconformist.” Robyn says. “I remember going to encounter groups at Phoenix House, a drug rehab center at which my mother volunteered. My mother acted as a sort of den mother/magnet for lots of the area hippies and radicals, and we often had stray people living in our basement. Our house was messy and chaotic. I guess overall I would describe my upbringing as benign neglect, and as my grandmother’s worst nightmare.”
Ochs comes from a family of strong-minded women and feminists. Her aunt Harriet, Ochs’ second father’s sister, was a long-time civil rights activist who received one of the first masters degrees in Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “She was part of the Freedom Summer, and was arrested more than once for civil disobedience. My grandparents on this side were part of the New York City left of the 1930s, though I learned about their activism only fairly recently. I suspect that their long silence was a result of residual terror from the McCarthy witch hunts.”
Growing up bisexual in a radical left activist family didn’t prevent Robyn from facing some difficulties as she came out to them. “After years of conflict when I was a teenager, my mother and I have built a good relationship as adults. When I first came out to my mother it was hard for her, though she’s always tried her best to be supportive. Like many mothers, she knew before I told her. Her expressed concern, when I did come out to her, was that my life would be difficult and people would treat me badly. Over the years, she’s become a staunch ally, and she has many gay, lesbian and bisexual friends. I can honestly say that she is very proud of me and of my activism and likes me just as I am. I believe that she values my relationship with my partner as much as she values my brothers’ relationships with their wives.”
From the age of two until she went away to college, Ochs lived in Far Rockaway, New York, on a peninsula on the southern edge of New York City. “Far Rockaway was a strange mix of city and suburb—city schools, housing projects, some rather tall apartment buildings and lots of single family houses, and a beautiful six mile boardwalk along the ocean.”
The diversity of her community gave young Ochs a unique outlook on the world. “In my first weeks of college, in Westchester County, just north of NYC, my roommate commented that white Protestants are a majority in the United States. I absolutely did not believe her, and was unshaken in this belief until she produced statistics from an encyclopedia. You see, where I grew up, there were secular Jews, Hasidic Jews, Conservative and Reform Jews, Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, some Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and Baptists, who were all Black. I honestly can say that I didn’t know anyone from my town who was a white Protestant! If they were living there, they were outside of my range of vision. The other kind of diversity I was fortunate to grow up around was political diversity. So New York is a place I am grateful to be from, and to be shaped by, and it is also a place I am grateful not to be living now.”
This diversity made Ochs aware of economic injustice, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism from a very early age. “One of my best friends as a pre-schooler was a little African American girl named Karen. She lived in the projects and I remember being shocked that she had to share her bedroom with three other sisters, and that she didn’t have a lot of the things I took for granted. I also remember being aware that almost everybody who lived in the projects had brown skin, while everyone who lived on my end of the street had pale skin.”
Ochs’ mother made certain that her children were also aware of sexism. “On a small cork board next to the telephone in the house in which I grew up was a cartoon showing a little boy and a little girl each looking into their diapers with the caption ‘Oh, so that explains the difference in our salaries!’”
She also remembers learning about anti-Semitism from a very young age. “I have a particularly strong memory from when I was about five years old. I went into The Sugar Bowl, the corner candy store, and noticed that all of the elderly people working behind the counter had numbers tattooed on their arms. I said something about it to my father, who explained that the tattoos were from concentration camps. This was very upsetting to me at the time, and of course it still is. In second grade my best friend at the time was assaulted by a Catholic girl in our school for being Jewish. I stepped in the middle and remember being hit by both of them. It’s the only time I was ever in a fight. A few years later I was on the subway with the same friend and she was harassed by some teenaged boys who were calling her a damned Jew. I didn’t get targeted because they assumed, incorrectly, that I was not Jewish because I had blonde hair, blue eyes and a ski-slope nose, but the incident was deeply upsetting to me.”
Discovering and connecting the oppressions of homophobia and biphobia happened farther down the road for Ochs. She has shared her own sexual odyssey with others through her talks and writings. As a child growing up in Far Rockaway in a heterosexual family, Ochs says she had no idea that she could be anything other than heterosexual. “Sometime around 1970 my mother joined a consciousness raising group where one of her best friends came out to her as a lesbian, though she didn’t share that information with me at the time.” Ochs was in her twenties when she began looking back at same-sex crushes in her childhood and teens and equating their importance with her crushes on boys.
“It wasn’t until I was in college that I had an attraction to a woman and identified it as such. I realized that I had my first same sex crush at age eight, on a girl named Mitzi at summer camp. Then another at age 10, one minor one at age 12, and another at 16. But at the time I just thought these girls were perfect, and I wanted them to be my best friends. Looking back, I realize that what I felt toward them was just as much a crush as the feelings I had for boys and was different from the feelings I had toward some of my other girl friends.”
Ochs has written that
My experience with being in relationships with women has been in a way like a trip abroad. I learned that many of the things I had accepted as natural truths were socially constructed, and the first time I returned to a heterosexual relationship things felt different. I hadn’t yet learned how to construct a relationship on my own terms, but I was aware that things were not quite right. As time passed, my self-awareness and self-confidence increased. I gathered more experience in lesbian relationships and began to apply my knowledge to subsequent heterosexual relationships.2
And as Ochs began navigating through bisexuality, there was no Bisexual Resource Guide, no Bisexual Resource Centers, support or discussion groups. “Relationships have been hard for me—I didn’t have a lot of good role models growing up and so I had a hard time learning what a healthy relationship might look like and how to ask for what I wanted in a healthy way. I am proud to say that I’ve learned a lot and am now in a healthy and good relationship with a woman, Peg Preble.”
Ochs’ journey as a bisexual activist evolved along with her sense of herself as a bisexual woman. “It’s not possible to be in a good relationship until you have made friends with yourself. One of my standards of measurement all along was that I wouldn’t have remained involved with a man who wouldn’t march in Pride with me, nor with a woman who was afraid to march with the bi’s for fear someone might—gasp!—think she was one herself. It can be hard to be in a relationship with an activist, as one’s partner becomes a ‘poster partner.’ If I’m out and public and talk about my life, the other person gets thrust into the spotlight. People are very curious about my personal life and ask a lot of questions. Luckily, I have a partner who is a very public person in her own right and who is totally out and comfortable in the world, so in some contexts I’m known as ‘Peg’s partner,’ in others she’s mine. Peg is one of those ‘always knew she was one’ lesbians, and she is certainly as supportive as anyone could possibly be. She doesn’t seem to be the least bit threatened by my bisexual identity.”
“Five or six years ago when I was in my early 30s,” Ochs recalls, “a national magazine called me ‘the grandmother of the bisexual movement.’”3 This is surely a testament to the newness of the bisexual movement, as well as the magnitude of Ochs’ work. Ochs career as a bi activist began in September of 1982. Two weeks after moving to Boston, while taking a break from painting a new apartment, she saw a notice in Equal Times, then a local women’s newspaper, announcing that bisexuality was to be the topic of that week’s Wednesday evening “Women’s Rap” at the Women’s Center in Cambridge. “I scrubbed the paint off my body, changed into clean clothes, and rushed to the Women’s Center. I shall never forget the experience of sitting in the Center’s living room with 20 or so other women who identified as bisexual, and one lesbian named Madge. I honestly don’t remember much of what was said, but I remember sitting there grinning the entire time. There were 20 bisexual women in the world. I was not the only one. What a powerful feeling—I thought I had died and gone to heaven! As a result of that meeting, a group of eight women began meeting monthly. We called ourselves the BiVocals.”
The bi movement developed quickly around her. Nine months after that first meeting, after the BiVocals had sent emissaries to subsequent women’s raps on bisexuality and helped found two additional support groups, they held a meeting and party attended by 30 women at which they decided to officially form the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network. In September 1983 they had a public meeting in that same room in the Women’s Center, expecting that more or less 30 women would attend. To their great astonishment, about 80 women showed up. “There were too many of us to squeeze into the room, and I have a strong memory of women everywhere—on the back of the couches, on the seats of the couches, on the arms of the couches, on the floor in front of the couches, in the doorway, in the hallway, and even outside the building participating through the
open windows.” At that meeting Ochs was recruited to facilitate a small group discussion, and this was her first experience as a facilitator. “One of my strongest memories is when I asked the 10 or so women in my small group whether they had known anyone else who identified as bisexual prior to adopting that identity for themselves. I was one of only two who answered in the affirmative. Then I asked ‘How many of you really thought you were crazy?’ Almost every hand went up. Anyway, that was another one of those evenings where I felt that rush of being one of many.”
In 1983 members of the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network went to the first conference on bisexuality, held at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work. In 1984 they hosted the second East Coast Conference on Bisexuality in Cambridge. “I stumbled through my first keynote address, and I’m happy to say I’m a much better and more confident speaker now than I was then. I was so terrified I thought I was going to faint.” Over the next three years the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network helped activists in Portland, Maine and in New York City to organize conferences, as well as hosting a second conference on bisexuality in Boston. In 1985 they renamed themselves the East Coast Bisexual Network, which has since become the Bisexual Resource Center. In the late 1980s, they rented office space, and applied for and received nonprofit status. The Bisexual Resource Center has come serve two purposes: as a home for all of the various Boston area bi organizations—of which there are several—and as an international clearinghouse, archives and resource center. To this day they have no paid staff and all work is done by volunteers, most of whom are based in Boston.
The Bisexual Resource Center also puts out the Bisexual Resource Guide. The Guide includes a wide variety of signposts for the bisexual journey—cartoons, quotes, photographs and movie guides, in addition to lists of organizations, books and articles. Ochs hopes that the Guide is interesting on a number of levels. “Many people are not looking for groups, but rather for information and affirmation. I’d like in the future to add even more text, more quotes, more cartoons, more photos.” This reflects the diversity of sources where Ochs has found strength and identity. Having grown up in a family that created and celebrated music, it is not surprising that songs and their singers have provided strength and validation for Ochs in addition to books.
“In the early 1980s I was introduced by friends to the music of women such as Holly Near, Alix Dobkin, Betsy Rose & Cathy Winter, Meg Christian and Casselberry & Dupree who were singing about women loving women. Listening to this music gave me such a rush, such a feeling of the possibilities of loving women, and the possibility of taking pride in loving them.” This was a message Ochs very desperately needed to hear. “In terms of books, I was most affected by novels such as Rubyfruit Jungle, and Women on the Edge of Time. There really wasn’t that much in the bookstores when I was going through my coming out process, and the few nonfiction books on gay liberation didn’t speak directly to my experience at the time, as I still hadn’t acquired a sense of belonging anywhere. I was unaware at the time that there were any books on bisexuality. I wish I had known about Fritz Klein’s book The Bisexual Option4 and Janet Bode’s View from Another Closet.5”
The Guide has changed a lot from its first edition to the present third edition. The first Guide, then named the International Directory of Bisexual Groups was four sheets of paper, printed back to back, stapled and folded, listing 40 bi groups. The current issue is a 300 page book listing 2,100 groups and including an extensive bibliography of fiction, fantasy and science fiction, biography, and non-fiction, a film guide, information on safer sex, and information on starting bisexual support groups. Ochs and her staff have also included photos from bi events, humorous and helpful quotes, and several cartoons.
The Guide is put together by a staff of volunteers from around the world. There are editors from India to France to Argentina. Most, but not all, of the editors are on e-mail. They are sent a printout for each group in their region that was listed in the previous edition of the Guide and are asked to verify and update this information, and to search out new groups to list. This information is sent back to Boston where local volunteers enter the data into a database. There are also volunteers who provide technical support and others who take charge of distribution, order fulfillment, volunteer coordination, editor coordination, graphic design, advertising, and organizing mailings. For the year 2000 edition Ochs had an official assistant editor, Linda Dyndiuk. As the Guide becomes larger and more complex, even more coordinators are needed. Over 150 people worked on the year 2000 edition, and Ochs hopes that there will be even more working on the next edition, expected out in 2002. “On some level,” Ochs says, “the Guide project itself helps to build a sense of international bi community.” According to Ochs, the Guide serves as a concrete resource for many individuals and organizations, as well as a historical record. “It’s fascinating to read through the listings of groups—there are so many kinds of organizations. It’s interesting to see which parts of the U.S. and the world have organized groups. I’m hoping in the next edition to include more descriptive texts as well—to get selected regional editors to provide not only a list of organizations in their area, but a qualitative description of what is and what isn’t there, and why.”
Ochs admits that updating the hard copy editions of the Guide, which chronicle the ever-changing bi movement, sometimes makes her feel “like a hamster on a wheel.” Ochs stresses the importance of having the Guide in book form because many people still don’t have access to the Internet.
Ochs has also raised awareness of bisexuality by teaching some of the first-ever courses on bisexuality and giving presentations around the country (see the sidebar article for a list of her presentation topics.) One of her presentations is titled, “What are Bisexual Studies, Anyway.” According to Ochs, Bisexual Studies focus on bisexually-identified people, looking at the subject of bisexuality through many different lenses, including anthropology, sociology, research, representations in the media, feminism, politics and history. “Bisexual Studies are not simply the study of bisexuality. I try to give students a deeper understanding of the social constructions of sexuality, of identity, oppression, and group dynamics, and so on.”
Ochs’ first course on bisexuality came out of the first U.S. conference on bisexuality in 1990. “A woman named Susan Carlton stood up during one of the plenary sessions and announced that she would be teaching the first university course on bisexuality at—where else?—U.C. Berkeley. I was impressed.” A few months later Ochs received a telephone call from Rebecca Kaplan, an MIT undergraduate who had also been at the conference. Kaplan asked Ochs if she was interested in teaching a course on bisexuality at her school. She had lobbied and gotten clearance for a course, provided that she was able to locate a suitable teacher. “My first reaction was an inability to imagine how I could possibly be qualified to teach such a course. Then I became intrigued.” A few sleepless nights later Ochs turned in her curriculum vitae and the required proposal. The course was accepted, 19 undergraduates enrolled, and the second course on bisexuality in the U.S. came to be.
The next year Ochs heard about Tufts University’s Experimental College. She applied to teach in that program, and has been teaching there since 1992. In 1997 she added a second course called “Family’ Values: The Emergence of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Cultures in the United States and Canada.” Ochs has time to teach only one course a year, so she rotates the two courses. “It’s been good to have a wider range as it keeps me from getting bored, and also allows me to work with some students for two semesters instead of only one. Teaching is something I love. It is quite a privilege to get to work with a group of students for an entire semester. I love doing workshops too—I do quite a lot of speaking engagements around the U.S. and beyond—but teaching an entire course is to running a workshop as a serious relationship is to a one-night stand!”
In addition to the enormous amount of volunteer work Ochs does as a bi activist, editor and teacher, she does have a day job as Department Administrator in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ochs has discovered, as many activists do, that paid work and activism don’t always mesh very well. “My work as a university administrator is an enormous obstacle to my activism. It is very difficult to come home after a long and always hectic day in the office and write an essay, prepare a class, work on the Bisexual Resource Guide, read a book or give a coherent interview. When I get home I often find myself too tired to be creative. I do enjoy my work but I sometimes imagine how productive I could be if I weren’t in a university office five days a week setting the stage for other people’s creativity. I often wish I could afford to work no more than three or four days each week.” Ochs would love to see “some well off people with great politics” taking it upon themselves to finance a few bi activists, with the equivalent of an endowed university chair. “Imagine how much more productive the bi movement could be if it had a dozen or so full-time paid activists. As it stands right now, we are a movement that does not have one full-time paid staff member. I could easily list at least 25 bi activists whom I wish were doing bi activism full-time!”
Ochs feels fortunate to have a work situation where she is able to take days off for conferences and speaking engagements. This support has ranged from begrudging accommodation to enthusiastic support. But this uses up precious vacation days. “It is a particular challenge for me that high season for speaking—March and April—coincides with my busiest months at work. It’s a challenge for me to figure out just how much time I can be out of the office and not provoke a crisis—symbolic or logistical—at work. I also work in the type of job where my work does not get done by anyone else in my absence—rather it piles up and I often have to put in evening or weekend hours to catch up.”
There has been an activist component to her day job as well, however indirect. “The fact that I’m an out, visible bi activist working as an administrator at Harvard University is important. I’ve been on a number of GLBT committees, and it’s important for students to see out GLBT people on campus—I know I have made a difference to a number of students over the years. I’ve also probably helped some heterosexual people unlearn their prejudices and homophobia, simply by being out in my workplace. But I do feel that I could be doing a whole lot more if I didn’t spend most of my productive hours and energy in a day job.”
Does Ochs have advice for other budding activists trying to combine paid work with their activism? “There are a number of choices to be made. An ideal situation is to be paid directly for your activism—to work for example for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders—but for those who choose unrelated work, it’s important to have a job that can be contained, that does not regularly demand more than 40 hours a week of your time. It’s also important to have a job in which you are comfortable being out. You have to be very organized about your ‘free’ time and avoid activities that are addictive, time-eating monsters, such as television or computer games. And finally, it’s very important to remember to take care of your own needs, and to make time for yourself. I think of my activism as a lifelong commitment, and I will only avoid burning out if I am good to myself along the way. Emma Goldman said ‘If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ Don’t defer all of your own needs. Do other things as well. I play volleyball, do partner dancing, and read trashy novels. The ‘revolution’ is a work in constant progress and will never be over. Make time for yourself now!”
Ochs’ day job at Harvard and her speaking engagements at campuses around the country have given her first-hand experience with the evolution of the bi movement in the U.S. “Things have changed dramatically, and for the better. When I was in college, in the second half of the 1970s, there were gay and lesbian groups—not gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered groups—on many college campuses, but I think that relatively few people had the courage to attend a group meeting, or to cross the threshold of a group’s office. I remember in 1978 or so walking past my campus’ brand new gay and lesbian organization’s office, lacking the courage to enter the room. What has changed the most since the 1970s is that almost all young people in the United States have at least some information about homosexuality, which they get from the talk shows, from Ellen and from Will and Grace, from PBS specials, and from popular culture. A lucky few get positive information in school or have out role models in their daily lives. Young people today are coming out earlier and in greater numbers. Another important change I’ve seen on most but not all campuses I’ve visited is that most campus groups tend to be more inclusive of internal difference than they used to be. There’s a generalized understanding that it is right and just to be inclusive. Of course I’ve also heard from some bi students that it’s pretty easy to identify as bi as long as you aren’t actually acting on it—as long as you don’t have an other-sex partner, sort of a ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ kind of dynamic. Conditions on campuses vary dramatically. There are still colleges in which it is unsafe to come out at all, and in most colleges and universities there are many students who choose to remain closeted, and homophobic incidents on campuses are not uncommon. I have been told that in many of the colleges I’ve spoken, mine was the first specifically bisexual program they’ve ever sponsored. It’s getting easier, but for many people it is still not easy. It also makes me sad to think that had I spoken at my own college campus in 1976, I would have been one of those students who lacked the courage to attend a presentation on bisexuality. It makes me sad to think that there are a lot of people out there who not comfortable with their own sexualities and are suffering as I was then.”
While the media do present views of alternative sexualities, these views are often sensationalized and distorted, and educating people about bisexuality is still very challenging, according to Ochs. “It’s difficult to ‘show’ bisexuality. Bisexuality is generally rendered invisible by our culture’s binary assumptions. Two women together? Lesbians. Two men? Gay. A man and a woman? Straight. One person alone? Straight, or perhaps in certain contexts gay or lesbian. People do not see bisexuals as bisexuals.” Ochs points out that for bisexuality to become visible to the outsider, there must be some sort of triangulation or conflict—perhaps someone has more than one lover and lovers of more than one sex, a woman leaves her husband for a woman, or a married man who contracts HIV is discovered to have been having sex with other men. “As a result of this invisibility,” Ochs says, “Bisexuality becomes synonymous with conflict, with fractured relationships, with instability and disruption.” This is typical of the way in which talk shows have chosen to represent bisexuals.
“Over the years I have been in conversation with a number of different talk shows, trying to convince them to allow—in addition to the requisite non-monogamous threesome—or sometimes foursome—bisexual people who are monogamous and/or celibate. As we know, bisexuality can be this too, and I want to see the full spectrum of our realities represented. I’ve had some limited success over the years, and I’ve also had a lot of frustrations. I’ve been on a number of talk shows as ‘the expert,’ but before that time, when I was being considered for the role of Ms. Generic Bisexual, I was turned down more often than not, as my lifestyle wasn’t considered ‘bisexual enough’ as I have the unfortunate habit of monogamy, and couldn’t produce, on camera, a boyfriend on one arm and a girlfriend on the other.” Ochs recommends the book Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity6 by Joshua Gamson, an exploration of how alternate sexualities are portrayed on the modern talk show. Ochs has appeared on many talk shows for this subject and views such appearances as a form of damage control. “The show is going to happen regardless, so I try to get as many articulate, proud bisexual guests on camera as possible, and when I do go on myself, I try to present myself as a clear, ethical, thoughtful and likeable person, because at least as important as the message is whether the audience can relate to you and likes you on a visceral level.” Ochs recalls an audience member who came up to her after a panel discussion, shook her hand and said “You know, you really are a nice person, even though you are a homosexual.” She says, “It took a great deal of self-restraint to refrain from responding ‘And you are a nice person too, even though you are a homophobe.’ I instead smiled and thanked her for her compliment.”
Ochs has many suggestions for bisexuals who wish to increase their visibility in the media. “We need to proactively engage with the media. BiNet USA has put out an excellent media package.7 It’s important to take initiative with media contacts. Send information. Develop relationships with reporters in the gay and straight press. Send out lots of press releases. Offer to write articles and cover events for the more accessible magazines and newspapers. Write lots of letters to editors. These things are hugely important and can result in getting information out to many more people than we currently reach. One of my greatest frustrations is that I do not have the time to attend to this to my satisfaction.”
Ochs has a bachelor’s degree in language and culture from the State University of New York, College at Purchase. She has spoken very eloquently about words as tools and symbols, signifying real things, but not being “the real thing” as people are. She stresses the importance of language, labels and symbolism for all identity groups, including bisexuals.
Unfortunately I did not learn this lesson in school!” she says. “This is something I figured out in the hardest way possible: through my own mistakes. When I was in college I was rather simplistic in my thinking. I didn’t much question our system of hierarchical dualism—good/bad, right/wrong, or even straight/gay. This partly explains why my own coming out was so tortuous. Having bought into dichotomous thinking, I was unable to figure out where to place myself. I knew that I was attracted to men as well as women, and I also knew that I was violating the understood rules, whose validity I did not question. The fact that I didn’t fit into the either/or model, in conjunction with the fact that I had rather low self-esteem at the time, left me without a vocabulary to describe myself, and so I remained silent.”
Ochs says that these dichotomies have often served to separate identity groups such as lesbians and bisexual women, gay men and bisexual men, and feminists and the GLBT community. “Until only a few years ago, I believed in the existence of clearly defined identity groups. Rather than seeing identity labels as social constructs which can have various meanings for people, I saw them as fixed categories—I knew that people could move from one category to another, but not that the categories themselves can and do change, and can and do simultaneously have multiple and sometimes conflicting meanings.”
One catalyst for Ochs’ change in perspective was a lesbian friend’s repeated and passionate insistence that there is something fundamentally different in the experiences of identifying as lesbian and identifying as bisexual. “I spent a lot of time trying to understand her assertion, and her need to insist on this qualitative categorical difference. My thinking was clarified and reinforced when I read Paula Rust’s brilliant 1995 book Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics,8 in which Rust maintains that the controversy about bisexual inclusion in ‘the lesbian community’ is really a debate about unresolved disagreements about the definition of lesbianism because the identities ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ share overlapping and contested space.”
As Ochs has come to understand the social construction of GLBT and other societal labels, she has worked to make others aware of the variability and mutability of identity movements. “I began to listen to people differently, and to feel less need to look for personal safety in categories of sameness. And I’m fascinated by the notion of carrying around both notions simultaneously—living in the contradiction between what we must remember and what we have a need to feel. We must understand that identity categories are not real, fixed and unchanging things, and yet we get a tremendous amount of strength from a sense of community based on shared—and to a degree mythological—identity.”
In her talks, Ochs has emphasized the need for “making space for everybody at the table” as GLBT groups work for human rights. While people may not understand others with different cultural, economic, sexual and gender backgrounds, it is still possible to connect and cooperate with one another when they have a common passion. She cautions against the notion that in order to gain civil rights people must be willing to toss out those in their community who are less “presentable.” In her talks around the country she stresses
We are valuable. Every one of us, and every one of us is fully deserving of our civil rights. To get our ‘place at the table’ we must not sacrifice our drag queens, our stone butches, our dykes on bikes, our non-monogamous, our youth, our elders, our leatherfolk, our lipstick lesbians, our sissy boys, our bisexuals, our less educated, our transgendered sisters and brothers, or anyone else. Rather we need to build ourselves a bigger table, with room around it for all of us. We are integral parts of the fabric of our community, and we must not allow ourselves to be divided. The notion that there is only so much liberation to go around, and that more liberation for one group of people will somehow leave less space for the rest of us is, to borrow from Audre Lorde, a ‘master’s tool.’9 There is plenty of liberation for all of us.”10
Coalition building can be very challenging, but Ochs is a firm believer that people should accord others the same respect they demand for themselves.
Although this is not always easy to do, and it is often not my first reaction. Good examples of this in my own personal life are having respect for and building alliances with transgender folks, with people in the leather community, with politically conservative GLBT people, with people who choose to get legally married in a society in which not everyone may do so, and with the poly community, and closeted people, and non-activists, and lesbians who sleep with men but emphatically insist that they are not bisexual—the list goes on and on and includes a lot of people! It took me a long time to learn to listen and to learn to respect other people’s different experiences and choices. But there are people whose intelligence, integrity and thoughtfulness I deeply respect in all of the above-mentioned categories, and I have come to the point where I realize that we don’t all have to be the same. What we must do is respect each other’s intelligence and right to choose different options, and we must create spaces where we can listen to each other’s stories, learn from one another, and find places of commonality.11
Ochs has advice for people as they work to connect and cooperate with others when their differences seem very profound. “I sometimes have to make a very conscious effort to really listen to other people, and to de-center myself—to remember that I am not the center of everyone’s universe, only my own. It’s not easy, and I am not always successful. And it is not my responsibility to like everyone, just to avoid being a narrow-minded ass.”
Bisexuals continue encounter prejudice from gays and straights as they attempt to build coalition with other groups. Ochs has spoken eloquently on these problems in essays for books such as Beth Firestein’s anthology Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority.12 “Biphobia manifests in many ways. I’ve been sexualized by heterosexuals who thought that my assertion of my bisexual identity gave them license to come on to me. I’ve been told that bisexuality didn’t exist. I’ve had people make any number of mis-assumptions about my personal life. I’ve been in a job where I was certain that I would lose my job if I were to come out, as my boss at the time was already in a state of great discomfort having learned of an unmarried heterosexual couple living together ‘in sin.’ Gay men and lesbians have treated me as an interloper, an unwelcome outsider. In relationships I’ve had to deal with women partners’ fear that I would leave them for a man. I’ve listened to insulting comments about bisexuals. I’ve been accused of being less committed than lesbians to ending homophobia. I’ve had people draw all sorts of incorrect conclusions about me based upon my bisexual identity.”
But Ochs emphasizes that “The most important thing is to remember that while there are a lot of biphobic people out there, there are also a lot of people with open minds and hearts who will be good allies if I only allow them in. We need to create an environment where we have safety to ask questions, to express our fears and our hopes. I have learned to be a lot less defensive, to ask for what I need from my allies, and to invite them to tell me what they need in return. I think that alliance building happens most effectively on a one-to-one basis.” She has authored an essay in the Bisexual Politics13 anthology in which she addresses these issues. “I am a very secular kind of gal,” Ochs says, “but there is one biblical quote which I try to live by: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others with the respect that you demand for yourself.”
1 The Bisexual Resource Guide 2000, ed. Robyn Ochs (Boston: Bisexual Resource Center, 1999).
2 Robyn Ochs, “Bisexuality, Feminism, Men and Me,” Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Reba Weise (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992), p. 131.
3 “My Family Values: Tips from 17 Years as a Bisexual Activist,” Keynote address at BECAUSE Conference, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 24, 1999.
4 Fritz Klein, The Bisexual Option (Haworth Gay and Lesbian Studies) (City: Press, XXXX).
5 Janet Bode, View from Another Closet : Exploring Bisexuality in Women (City: Press, XXXX).
6 Joshua Gamson, Freaks Talk Back : Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
7 For information on BiNet’s media information package, call them at (202) 986-7186; write to them at 4201 Wilson Blvd., #110-311, Arlington, VA 22203; or visit their web site: http://www.binetusa.org.
8 Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics : Sex, Loyalty, and Revolution (The Cutting Edge : Lesbian Life and Literature Series), ed. Paula C. Rust, (New York: New York University Press, 1995).
9 “The master’s house cannot be dismantled with the master’s tools.”—Audre Lord.
10 Ibid., BECAUSE Conference.
11 Ibid., BECAUSE Conference.
12 “Biphobia: It Goes More Than Two Ways,” Bisexuality : The Identity and Politics of an Invisible Minority, ed. Beth A. Firestein (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996).
13 Robyn Ochs, “Bisexual Etiquette: Helpful Hints for Bisexuals Working with Lesbians and Gay Men,” Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, and Visions (Haworth Gay and Lesbian Studies), eds. Naomi Tucker , Liz A. Highleyman, Rebecca Kaplan (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1995), p. 237.