Take Your Protein Pills…
My dear friend Judy, who has known me for years and years and who has been incredibly influential in my life and is one helluva poet, asked a great question on my last article. I gave her a sort of flip, quick answer, knowing that this was a subject that would need some serious exploration. First, the question:
“Flip, a bystander-type question that may or may not have validity. Since the gay community is so intent on oppressing, on driving you and the trans people out, or at least shaping you to fit their mold, why do you keep pounding on their doors? Surely there is room out there for a separate Bi/Trans group? You don’t need the support (and obviously aren’t being given much) from the Gay community, and you could band together as a separate group, unharassed, supporting each other instead of dealing with phobics within the very group that should be accepting you…”
This dovetails pretty neatly with some discussions I’ve been having in the closed spaces where I do a lot of discussion of bisexual and activist issues. So I am going to start there, because one of the things that I have done with Judy in the past is participate in and deeply discuss closed spaces online (generally in the context of virtual community management but sometimes deeply personal, see my old blog for a dozen articles about virtual community I wrote a decade ago), and because there is a relationship between thoughts about closed and open spaces and the kind of separatism that Judy’s asking about.
…And Put Your Helmet On
The very first thing is that there are three very different types of closed spaces. The first, and most problematic, are the Exclusionary spaces. The best and most current example of this is Michfest. If you are not familiar with it, this is a big annual music festival with a long history that is only open to “womyn-born womyn”. It’s sort of a physical representation of the kind of Lesbian Separatism that was popular in some 2d Wave Feminist circles, and continues to be a shibboleth to the community referred to as “radfem” or, as I have heard a few refer to them, “radscum”.
As a male-identified person, it’s not up to me to tell women how to do feminism. As a human being and a feminist, I do feel it’s within my warrant to poke at social justice issues, however. As a person who is equipped with (and has a fondness for) penis, I am beneath the notice of the radfems. After all, I am the Oppressor, blithely supporting The Patriarchy by virtue of my Male Privilege and my keeping a poor female soul in the shackles of marriage. So my puny ignorance, in their eyes, means that I am literally not worth wasting hate mail on. (That may change at some point.)
But Michfest is wrong, and mainstream lesbian icons like the Indigo Girls are coming to realize this. It is too big to be strictly a private gathering, and the harassment and expulsion of people they determine to be “not female enough” is hurtful. They are using a very strict model of biological essentialism to exclude people from a large and high-profile social activity. They are pretty much acting like the Women’s Auxiliary of the Westboro Baptist Church.
They despise transwomen for having been born with a penis, transmen for wanting to have a penis, straight women for wanting to interact with a penis, gay men for both having and wanting to interact with a penis, and as far as bisexuals go, well, you’ve probably figured out that if we have any authentic existence at all, we’re almost beneath contempt (except when they give speeches or write articles or create biphobic Tumblrs to slop some hate our way.) Most of the feminists I know, regardless of their gender identification, tend to react to them somewhere on a spectrum between embarrassment and exasperation. (There may be a little confirmation bias here as I am unlikely to be found keeping company with people who despise me.)
So this is an example of an Exclusionary Closed Space. It doesn’t really help anyone.
And Here Am I Floating In My Tin Can
Another closed space is one where people seclude themselves for simple privacy, for breathing room, to keep out the trolls. There are a lot of online venues like this. Some of them have more private spaces inside them to allow people safety. This was the origin of Michfest – a place where women could just be themselves without having to worry about having to react to or deal with men. I’m OK with this. In fact, as a male-identified person, I feel that if I were to try to go to Michfest and was turned away at the doors I would not feel ill-treated in any way. The problem, of course, is when these spaces go to the dark side.
The Papers Want To Know Whose Shirts You Wear
The third type of closed space is one where work gets done, and where people who do their work in public can let their hair down. This is typical of the closed spaces that I participate in, and the kind of closed spaces that I have encountered at conferences.
Let me tell you a story. (I’m assuming that if you’ve come this far you won’t mind a few extra paragraphs, right? They aren’t padding, I’m not getting paid by the word here.) A couple years ago, I was involved in planning and running a conference for the LGBT and Ally community – the 2011 Minnesota OUT Campus Conference. In retrospect it was a useful experience for me, even though at the time it was hellish. I won’t go too deep into the behind-the-scenes details other than to say next time you are at a conference, any conference, no matter what happens there, make a point of going up to the planners and showing some appreciation. Until you do it yourself, it’s impossible to understand the level of work and frustration and heart that goes into these things behind the scenes.
So at this conference, we had some Identity Caucuses, places where people identifying as Gay, Lesbian, Bi, and Trans* could meet and talk about their experiences. There was quite a bit of debate about whether to have these be open or closed. In the end, concerns about intersectionality trumped concerns of privacy.
In retrospect, that may have been a mistake.
I went to the Bi Caucus. (As an organizer, other than the keynote speeches and one after-session party, this was the only activity that I was able to attend – I was too busy making sure that the workshops happened when and where they were supposed to happen and that volunteers were available and utilized to go to anything else.) The good part was that I got to meet the amazing and inspirational Natalie Clark. But the bad part was that we got to do much less than we wanted to at the caucus, because we had to spend too much of the time attempting to gently correct the ignorance and misapprehensions of the non-bisexual participant (and when you only have an hour, two minutes is too much time to spend on that kind of thing). There was a little good conversation to be had, but it was constrained because we were constantly made aware that there was someone here who didn’t even have the basic 101 understanding of our issues that we walked into the room with – not only bi issues, but queer issues overall.
It was clear to me when I left the room that the other participants were also leaving unsatisfied, wanting more, more that we were not able to get to because we had to spend our energy on the basics, and on defending ourselves. It was a subtle defense, there was no hostility in the room, but I saw (and undoubtedly perpetrated) eye-rolls at having the focus of the space be directed not at the people it was there for, but at someone who thought they were there for us but in actuality was there for what we could do for them.
That’s why some closed spaces are necessary. There need to be spaces set aside for Queer People of Color, for Bisexuals, for Trans*folk, for Gay men, and for Lesbians inside Queer spaces. And as much as I love our Allies, there need to be some areas within this overarching QueerSpace that are reserved for us and us alone. Not because they are bad people, and not because they are not authentically engaged and important.
But because sometimes we need to be able to let our hair down.
If someone wants to say something about heteronormative dominant culture, and uses the not-particularly-accurate shorthand “straight people”, they need to be able to say it without fear of repercussion or fear that they will be offending someone who is not the target of their rant.
A big part of the Queer experience is having to censor ourselves. In the case of being in the closet, it’s a constant need to censor not only every damned thing that comes out of your mouth, but extends to dress, to gestures, to looks. The slightest thing can give you away and by giving you away, compromise your safety.
I would go so far as to say that if there is one experience that is universal to all Queer people, it is the experience of the closet. We all have different approaches to our sexuality, we all have different intersectional issues, but we all know that even if we have been so lucky as to have never hidden ourselves form the world, there is always the possibility of a situation where we will have to deny our Queerness or risk real physical harm. Always. There are safe places, but the world as a whole is not safe.
Speaking of intersectionality, what I’m trying to illustrate shows up very clearly in another community that has a lot of intersections with Queer community. I’m talking about Recovery. Specifically, I’m going to use the example of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’d like to thank my partner for being willing to help me understand some of the mechanics of AA, which she was able to do without compromising anyone’s confidentiality – no specific details that can’t be found outside of the literature were discussed.
AA has two kinds of meetings. Open meetings, that anyone can go to, and closed meetings that are only open to people who identify as having problems with substance abuse. You may be deeply mired in your particular addiction, but as long as you are trying to get that First Step, you are welcome there. There are also meeting with closed demographics, for example, there’s a meeting nearby that is for women only. (To the credit of AA, if my friend Alice, who was named William when she was born and is still working on getting her legal identification changed were to come to the women’s meeting she would, unlike Michfest, be admitted without qualm.)
Now, I have been to a couple of open AA meetings to support people I love. These were open meetings.
If, at the door, I had been told that I could not enter because it was a closed meeting? I would not have felt excluded, because there is a difference between an exclusionary space and a private space.
It’s Time To Leave The Capsule If You Dare
So now, I feel like I’ve provided sufficient background to answer Judy’s question. Why don’t we call for separation, for our own separate movement entirely? What do we need anyone’s recognition for, anyway?
For a few reasons.
1)Access to resources is important, and too often bisexual people and organizations are getting left out entirely. And without our participation, other people in the Queer community end up saying startlingly ignorant things that hurt us, and would hurt us even if we were considered a completely separate population.
2)We aren’t a separate population, because as I pointed out in my previous article, the Dominant Culture that is the real source of the problem doesn’t separate us. Someone who discriminates or worse against someone who is not straight doesn’t really care about fine divisions of Identity Politics. They just want, for whatever reason, to hurt someone.
3)We make up as much as half of the LGB population. Why allow the entire Queer population to be divided and conquered? And this is one of the important questions I ask people in the LG population when I catch them saying ignorant and hurtful things about bisexuals — why are you collaborating in Dominant Culture’s strategy to keep you down?
4)It’s not the majority of the LG population who are actively trying to hurt, discredit, and erase us. It’s a relative few who are active, and a whole bunch who are simply ignorant. And that’s not a slur, I am not attempting to insult people. It’s a statement about an easily correctible condition.
The cure for ignorance is education. For types like me, education takes the form of talking and writing in relatively cool and academic tones, over and over and over in huge blocks of text. Others are doing much angrier and confrontational work with videos and images along with their stacked paragraphs. And there are yet others for whom it’s passing along pages of links and tirelessly publicizing the things the first two types generate, and mentoring activists of both stripes.
Tying back to the comparison with communities of Recovery – the presence of closed spaces in AA does not make those closed spaces not part of AA. It would be laughable to claim they aren’t, just as it would be laughable to say that closed NA meetings, for example, are not part of Recovery at all. And although there are other groups and organizations, some of which follow the AA model to one degree or another, some of which don’t, all of them are rightfully considered part of Recovery, people dealing with problems of Chemical Dependence or Substance Abuse.
The LGBT community needs to be the same. All of us Under The Rainbow have certain issues in common, regardless of what letter forms the best loose and general umbrella term.
The problem, in QueerSpace, is that bisexuals are being denied access to community. Repudiating our siblings, crafting a B-only movement that excluded G and L, would do nothing to increase access to that community and would weaken the larger community just as much as it would weaken the community-within-the-community. It would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build and nurture bi-only and bi-focused spaces.
We are not asking that specific Gay and Lesbian spaces that are closed for good reason be open. We’re asking that the public square be left open and that the Queer people who say horrible things about bisexuals – the same kinds of horrible things that are being said about them by people like everyone who freaked out about marriage equality passing in Minnesota – look at themselves and quit shooting themselves in the foot while firing at us.
The problem in the world at large is that all of us LGBT people are being denied basic human needs. The way to make that happen is to work together, not apart – but a lot of bisexuals are getting pretty disheartened by being told we have no home. And some of us are getting angry enough to talk about separatism, but in the long run, it is a battle I don’t want us to fight lest we find ourselves in the position of General Pyrrhus, winning a victory that ultimately destroys us.