This essay was published in “Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, & Visions.” Tucker, Naomi. Highleyman, Liz. Kaplan, Rebecca. (eds.), Haworth Press, 1995, pp. 237-240.
BisexuaL Etiquette: Helpful Hints for Bisexuals Working with Lesbians and Gay Men
I have recently celebrated my twelfth anniversary as a bisexual activist. Much of my activism has taken place in the context of the Boston area lesbigay [author’s note: today I would say lgbt] community. In most of the lesbian and gay groups I have been involved with, I have been one of two or three out bisexuals. During my decade of activism I have learned a great deal, both from my own mistakes, and from other people’s. I have said and done things which I have instantly and thoroughly regretted, and experienced moments of proud accomplishment. At times I have felt like a supplicant, a second class citizen, a token, a nuisance; at other times an equal, a leader, a decorated veteran, a sister.
What follows are a few suggestions I would like to pass along to other bisexual people who are involved in lgbt communities.
1. Respect other people’s identities. Don’t say that “everyone’s really bisexual.” Don’t say that bisexual people are somehow more evolved. Think of how frustrated you feel when you hear someone tell you that there is no such thing as a bisexual, or that bisexuals are really lesbians or gay men in transition, or that we are really heterosexual tourists out for sexual adventure at the expense of lesbians and gay men.
2. Don’t raise your own self-image at the expense of other people. Examples of bad ideas taken from real life: a t-shirt that says “Monosexuals bore me;” a button that says “Gay is good but bi is best.” Please.
3. Avoid the trap of weighing and measuring oppression. Avoid thinking of oppression and liberation as a zero sum game. There is, unfortunately, plenty of oppression to go around. Fortunately, there is also enough liberation to go around. Don’t say that bisexuals are more oppressed than lesbians or gay men. We are ALL oppressed. Each of us experiences oppression differently. A married bisexual experiences homophobia differently from a bisexual in a same-gender [author’s note: today I would say same-sex] relationship. Out people experience oppression differently than closeted people. Some people are members of more than one oppressed group, and as such have their own unique experience of oppression. And bisexual men have an experience that is different from bisexual women. It is OKAY to have a different experience of oppression. Oppression, no matter how it manifests, still hurts, and we have a common interest in working together to end it.
4. Respect separate space. There is a time when coalition building is in order, and a time when we need to get together in our own identity groups to do our own empowerment work. All members of oppressed groups have the right to take space when they feel it necessary, and we need to respect that.
The difficulty, of course, lies in determining when separate space is appropriate and when it is not. My personal belief is that any event in which lesbians and gay men get together is already by definition a coalition event. And I believe that I, as a woman-centered bisexual feminist, have a lot more in common with most lesbians than do many gay men. However, when an event is explicitly a gay male or lesbian only event, we need to respect other people’s space. (I want to make a distinction here between a lesbian event-an event that is by lesbians, or primarily for lesbians-and a lesbian-only event. I am speaking of the latter.) This is a bit more complicated than it may seem, but I have developed a personal guide for my own use, and I’ll give a couple of examples of its application.
In Boston, there was a group called Dyke Dialogue, organized by Val Seabrook, a (wonderful) African American lesbian. A few lesbians who regularly attended the group complained that the group should be open to lesbians only. In this instance, to determine whether my presence would be appropriate, I asked Val, the group’s founder and organizer. She told me that the group was for all women, and that bisexual and transgender women were welcome. In this situation, I believe it was totally appropriate for bisexual women to participate. Any lesbians unhappy with the group’s composition were free to remove themselves and start their own, exclusive group.
My second example concerns a bisexually-identified woman active in her local lesbigay community who was looking for support as a queer parent. The only group listed in her local newspaper was a lesbian mothers’ group. She called the contact person for the group and asked whether bisexual women were welcome, and was told that they were not. Disappointed, but respecting the organizers’ wishes, she resolved to try to start a second group for lesbian and bisexual moms.
In short, communicate. This indicates to others that you are respectful of their existing concerns and space, and that you want to join, not invade. Additionally, you may in the process acquire some allies. But one thing is certain: lesbians and gay men need to feel that there are places and times when their space will remain inviolate. There do need to be limits to inclusion, and inclusionary politics and separate space can exist simultaneously.
5. Be a good citizen. Don’t insist on being included in a given group unless you are willing to put your energy into that group. While bisexual women and men have been active in the lesbian and gay community from the start, remember that few of us have been publicly identifiable as bisexual. Most of us have simply done the work, attended the events, and not corrected people’s misassumptions about how we identify. I can think of dozens of rallies and pride marches I have attended, along with other bisexual activists, only to read in the gay or straight press that “hundreds of gay men and lesbians rallied to. . . .” This invisibility has allowed many lesbians and gay men to assume that there have been few, if any, bisexual people in the movement. (Sounds a lot like the perceptions of heterosexuals about glbt people, doesn’t it?) Therefore, when we join a group as out bisexuals and begin asking for explicit recognition as bisexuals, many people have the impression that bisexuals have suddenly appeared out of nowhere and are trying to muscle and whine our way into their movement, riding on the coattails of their hard-fought battles. Remember this when you enter a new group. Be a good citizen. If you want to be recognized as part of the community, don’t just show up and tell them what to do. Join the group. Show your commitment as an out bisexual. Then express your concerns.
6. Choose your battles. This has been a hard one for me personally. Is it always important to have every sentence end with “and bisexual”? Is it important to point out this omission every time? Sometimes it may be more constructive, and less physically exhausting, to just be your wonderful, out bisexual self.
7. Listen. Rather than always being on the defensive, I have been trying hard to listen to the fears, concerns and perspectives of my lesbian and gay male friends. I’ve been surprised at how much I learn when I stop defending myself long enough to listen well.
8. Remember. Underneath it all, we all want the same things. We want respect. We want understanding. We want to be listened to, and to be acknowledged. We want to feel safe. Accord others the same respect which you are demanding for yourself.