Identity: Bisexual or Ally?

{Two brief notes on language: 1) I use the term “queer” (and occasionally “teh queer”) as a general umbrella term for the LGBT population. I understand that for some people, particularly people older than I am, the word “queer” has a negative connotation. I subscribe to the “reclaim the word” school, as well as recognizing that it is the accepted academic term for research into LGBT issues. If the word queer offends you as a member of the LGBT community, I apologize and ask that you share with me a non-euphemistic, easily parsed, and equally inclusive term. 2) For those who might need a little 101, Ally means someone who supports a community they are explicitly not a member of, so while I am a member of the bisexual community and the LGBT community as a whole, I label as a Trans* Ally because I use my cisgender privilege to support my transgender friends.}

Two incidents got me thinking about this question. One was on The Advocate website (which has a lot of problems, about which I’ll talk more another time – the level of hostility against bisexuals is astounding there, approaching the level of hostility that the entire queer community faces in straight society) where after an article about Lady Gaga, commenters started praising her as “a great Ally.”

Ally? Last time I checked, she was an out and proud bisexual, a member of the community fighting for equality and respect for the entire community… lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender. In the course of this conversation where she was labeled an Ally by people who thought they were doing a good thing, thought they were praising her by denying her identity as a queer person.

In the course of the conversation that ensued, it became clear that the reason she was being described as an Ally was because the people doing the relabeling did not believe in the existence of bisexuals. They see bisexuality as either a lie, or a transitional identity on the path to gay (or “Bi now, Gay later”). This is erasure on a huge scale, and it’s coming from within the monosexual gay community. I mean, bisexuals don’t erase themselves, right? Right?

Wrong.

Last year, I attended a great rally, one that sprang up in protest of a homophobic preacher who had been invited to my campus by the College Republicans. How odious was this speaker? The student organization was stripped of its accreditation by the state GOP for having him in to speak – this guy was repulsive even to the people who are as of this date pushing an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as “solely between one man and one woman”.

At this rally, a lot of people spoke up. I was one of them. I said that I’d spent 25 years in the closet and I’d be damned if I’d let this guy shove me back into one.

I then watched, incredulously, as several people did just that to themselves. They would step to the middle of the circle and say, “I’m bisexual, I’m an Ally.” They stood up in front of people in the LGBT community, and people in the Ally community (straight people, in other words), and said, essentially, “I’m not really queer!”

This is problematic at best. I have a friend who is bi – and for the first few years, she was invisible to me as a community member, because I (and lots of other people) thought she was an Ally. She has since come out more clearly as bi. What I saw people doing at the rally was the opposite – voluntarily and deliberately removing themselves from the queer community (even if they might not have understood that that was what they were doing – just as the people who praised Gaga as an Ally may not have understood that they were shoving her back into the closet. Maybe some of them did…).

We need Allies. We love Allies. This is not in question. The bisexual community, historically, has been Allies to the Trans* community, in spite of some of the rhetoric that’s been thrown around by some. What we cannot do is allow others to remove us from the overall queer community, or do it to ourselves out of internalized biphobia.

One of the criticisms leveled against the bi community by a commenter on The Advocate, in response to a recent post about Bi Pride Day, was that we disrespect/are disengaged with the struggle for Gay and Lesbian rights. (There were other issues, including the inevitable “Bisexuality isn’t an orientation, it’s just Gay men increasing their chances of hooking up in the bar by appearing more masculine by pretending to like women.” *sigh* I’ll take those issues on another day, too.)

The thing is, I find it hard if not impossible to identify an issue of Gay and/or Lesbian rights that doesn’t also include the rights of Bisexual and Transgender people. Are there issues in the BT community that don’t directly affect the GL? Maybe, although I think biphobia and transphobia hurt GL people too – one of the arguments against marriage equality has been “if you let men marry men and women marry women then you’ll have bisexuals wanting to marry in groups.” (Yup, another myth. They’re all so intertwined that it’s hard to write about them one at a time, no matter how hard I try.) So biphobia has been used as a defense of homophobia.

As far as being disengaged? Is fighting for the rights of everyone under the LGBT umbrella somehow not being engaged with specific gay male or lesbian issues? Is the work of people like Brenda Howard (the Mother of Pride) and Steven Donaldson (first person to publicly and successfully fight the armed forces over being discharged for “homosexuality”) and Robyn Ochs (one of the first people to get married to a same-gender partner in Massachusetts) not of benefit to the entire LGBT community, just because they’re bi? (And their bisexuality is frequently erased by misidentifying them as gay, which is then used as ammunition from biophobes who then claim that bisexuals are “bench-sitters” who are not fighting for the entire community.)

There is a Gay community that since Stonewall has become more and more visible, in no small part because of the efforts of bi and trans* individuals. There is a Lesbian community that has made such great strides that it makes good historical and political sense to put the L first in LGBT. There is a bi community and a trans* community that continues to struggle for recognition, visibility, and respect – and there are plenty of GL people who don’t give the T any respect at all, standing around at queer events talking about people being “not real boys” or “she from the waist up, he from the waist down” as if your genitals are the only suitable determinant for your gender. These communities, the B and the T, have plenty of activists whose work makes the world a better place for all queer people in spite of considerable resistance from the monosexual and cisgender world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about where Allies belong in the queer movement. It is my belief that they should be present and be welcome, but that there should be some spaces that are reserved for teh queer. One of our campus organizations does a very good job of that – they are a QPOC organization, and their meetings are generally closed, restricted to QPOC, except for some special and specific “Allies Welcome” meetings. Allies, by definition, have access to privilege and resources that are denied to the queer community, and I think it’s wonderful that they are willing to use those resources on our behalf. But let’s not muddy the waters by declaring Allies as queer, or declaring a group of queer people as Allies.

There’s a coming out process with Allies just as there is one for the rest of us, and I respect that. But it is not the same. When you come out as an Ally, you don’t have organizations like the Straight Spouses Network telling you that you’ve traumatized your wife and destroyed your family – and telling you that if you have any same gender attractions, you are therefore exclusively gay (One Drop Rule, anyone?), that you are not only not interested in her but that you were never interested, that you were lying all along. You don’t have people denying your very identity in the coming out process, people telling you “Oh, no you don’t support teh queer, you’re just confused.” You are declaring that you have an attitude, a good attitude, a positive attitude, a worthy attitude but you are not declaring that you are inherently different. You are declaring a belief, and an identity based on a belief, and making a statement that you are straight and you support the rights of LGBT people. This is great! (An aside: I greatly prefer the construction “I’m straight and I support…” rather than “I’m straight but I support…”. The use of “but” indicates that it is somehow unnatural for you to be a supporter, that you are bucking the tide, while “and” normalizes supporting. It’s a very small thing, but language is powerful, and subtle changes can make big differences.)

The question of the proper role of Allies is a tricky one. We cannot, as a minority, make progress without allies, without a coalition of straight people who are willing to help us fight, whether it’s on the intimate personal level of being a friend or the public efforts of people like our local activist Justin Michael, who works tirelessly (and loudly, and successfully) to get things done. On the other hand, the driver’s seat of the queer movement should be occupied primarily by LGBT people, and by representatives of these broad umbrella categories. It bothers me when at a rally for queer rights, 4 of the first 5 speakers are straight and of the queer speakers who come in later in the program, only a couple mention bisexual and trans*gender people at all, while the rest simply use “gay and lesbian” as the label for everyone Under The Rainbow. It annoys me to see that the organizers of a Pride festival have built a place where white upper middle class gay males can be comfortable at the expense of queer people of color, bisexuals, trans* folk, and anyone else who doesn’t fit their particular model of What Gay Is. It profoundly disturbs me when people in the LGBT community feel it’s appropriate to minimize, erase, and attack the B and the T – making it effectively, to them, a GL community with a token bone of putative inclusivity thrown to the rest of us in the form of an initialism that provides political cover but does not extend to community and resources.

I’ve started using a phrase in conversations (both online and in meatspace). “We’re here too, we’re queer too, we have been here all along.”

There are some very serious questions about whether queer people should focus on our differences from the mainstream community, or whether we should focus on assimilation – should we be showing the world that we’re the same as everyone else, or should we celebrate our role in the culture as a vibrant and distinct Other that can be accepted and cherished without losing our identity. There is something to be said for both (and bisexual activist and speaker Natalie Clark does it very well). But even if you advocate the sameness angle, there is a huge and important difference between fitting in as equals and being erased. Stonewall and the Christopher Street Liberation Day march (that became the modern Pride movement) was a shot across the bows of mainstream society, a notice given that we as queer people were not to be ignored, not to be shoved into the closet for the comfort of those who would rather we be institutionalized, “fixed”, or simply not seen as well as not heard. There is a parallel dynamic going on in the LBGT community, where bisexuals are being submerged, erased, told to “pick a side” (or, even more offensively, “come see me when you grow up and come all the way out”).

The best Allies to the LGBT community are those that recognize everyone Under The Rainbow, who educate themselves on every letter, and who are willing to understand that while their experience may parallel that of members of the community, it is not the same, just as white gay cismales should keep in mind that the issues that face people of color and trans*folk and bisexuals are different and equally valid. I don’t believe in playing in the Oppression Olympics – we’re all on the outside of the comfortable, straight, white, middle-class world, and some are pushed down harder and farther than others. We all also have some privilege (raise your hand if you fit into any one or more of these categories – white, cisgendered, male, middle class, physically abled – there are more, these are just the ones that I had to put my paw in the air for) and the challenge is to use that privilege to lift everyone up.

I’ve heard plenty of tales of putative Allies who are biphobic. I am fortunate that I’m surrounded by Allies who have done the positive things that I mentioned in the first sentence of the preceding paragraph. Unfortunately, I don’t have to travel very far to find people who think they are helping but are not – both straight Allies and people who identify as Gay and Lesbian. In a world where we can find support with the click of a mouse, we can also find deep wells of intolerance and hostility, some of which masquerades as support and thus creates more problems than they solve. There are many LGBT Resource Centers in colleges around the country that promote biphobic myths – mine is not one of them, by the way, thanks in large parts to the efforts of our former director.

If you are an Ally, and you are still reading, thank you! I offer these challenges to you:

If you are a member of a GSA, check and make sure that bisexual and trans*gendered individuals are being served by your organization. Changing the name from “Gay/Straight Alliance” to something more inclusive is a good place to start, but it doesn’t stop there – you don’t get to change the name and then continue to pressure bi kids to “finish coming out as gay” or call them “half gay”, or to refer to trans*gendered people by the wrong pronouns or dismiss them as “not real boys/girls”.

Check your mission statement. See to it that if it talks about fighting homophobia, that you add bi- and transphobia to the list – and let that inclusive statement guide you.

Check the composition of your board – while it’s not always possible due to budget or space limitations to include a representative of every group every time, does your organization have a history of including people of color, bisexuals, and trans*gendered individuals as leaders? If not, maybe you should find an enduring way (hint: organizations have amendable constitutions) to see to it that inclusivity happens – and not on a token basis.

Are you fighting for Marriage Equality? Make sure you call it that and not “Gay Marriage”. Language is how we interface with our culture, and it has power. Use that power to empower.

I’d like to close with a little personal story about privilege and obliviousness. When I re-entered school in my early 40s, I thought I did not need to take diversity classes. “I’ve been living in the closet for decades, I know all about what it’s like to face discrimination.” I believed that saying things like “I don’t see the color of the person I’m talking to, there’s only one race, the Human Race” was a positive statement rather than a way to invalidate the experiences of others. I was, in short, totally unaware of my own privilege and therefore incapable of using it in ways that make the world a better place for everyone. That first class opened my eyes to the ways I was oppressing others – watching the film “The Color of Fear” I had an epiphany that I was exactly like the privileged, oblivious, well-meaning but offensively racist David. I’m still working on it, and probably will be for the rest of my life. My wife has a phrase she uses frequently – “I’m just trying to be a better person; my name is Earl.” I’m trying to be a better person, and one way to do this is to try to open doors that I didn’t even realize were closed – or thought I was powerless to open.

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband and father, non-traditional Graduate student, member BiNet USA Board of Directors. When I grow up I want to be an Existential/Feminist Psychotherapist, a community college instructor, and expand my work for bisexual visibility and equality for everyone in the QUILTBAG. This is my personal blog and the views here do not represent the official position of BiNet USA.
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5 Responses to Identity: Bisexual or Ally?

  1. Ellie says:

    What if you are bi and in the closet about it….does it make you a jerk to not come out about it publicly? I’m female and have been in a happy heterosexual relationship for the past ten years. My guy knows I am bisexual and so do my closest friends. I’ve been active in school organizations promoting marriage equality and lbgt rights and am vocally supportive of trans individuals. I am, however, uncomfortable being labeled an “ally” because I am actually bi…but- I don’t feel the need to endure bs from all sides about the “it’s just a phase” perception of bisexuality which is intensified bc I am in a heterosexual relationship. Where do I stand? Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

    • fliponymous says:

      Ellie, I understand the whole “caught in the middle” issue. I don’t think it makes you a jerk to be in the closet, it makes you someone for whom the balance of needs has not tipped to the point where being out is the better alternative.

      The thing that I really objected to was people who were out, stated they were bi, but then recloseted as Allies.

      I hope that your circumstances will make it possible for you to come out safely. I didn’t come out publicly until I was over 40, so I really understand where you are coming from. In fact, my closeting was such that I did not get involved, didn’t even claim to be an Ally because it might have blown my cover.

      Being in a strong mixed-orientation relationship (which I encourage you to think of it as, rather than a “heterosexual” relationship, because that would require the presence of two heterosexuals) may be one of those things that gives you that place to stand. I would be glad to hear more about your journey and offer any support I can along the way.

  2. Ellie says:

    Thanks for the response. I love how you see things. Thinking of it as a mixed-orientation relationship makes me feel much more comfortable with myself actually. It is more honest. It’s so funny how much difference a label can make when you have words to reflect who you are more accurately. I applaud Facebook’s recent move to include many more gender options. Thanks for opening my eyes to yet another aspect of this web we are all a part of. You have great insight. Keep writing. I’ll be reading.

  3. Ellie says:

    Oh and I just bought the book on Amazon. Keep the keep.

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