"Fitting and misfitting in the bi community"

Please note: This is the story of the original version of this workshop, from 2002 when it was first invented. However, if you're running it now, you probably want the version from 2005 - much improved!

This was a workshop at BiCon 2002, invented and led by me (Jennifer).

The programme blurb for the workshop was as follows:

Ever been dissatisfied with the words "bi" and "bisexual" because they don't quite fit for you? Or ever looked around BiCon and felt unfashionable or not quite at home? Ever felt like you're "not a proper bisexual", or "not bi enough"? Ever questioned where you fit in the community (including for instance as the non-bi partner of a bi person, or as someone wondering whether they might be bi)? Or, on the other hand, ever thought how much you like it here - even if you're not bi?
These and other interesting questions will be explored in this workshop, which is open to all. Bring a pen if you've got one. Doors will be closed after a few minutes' intro.

Contents of this page

This article

Part of the reason I'm writing this article is that the workshop did fulfil my idea of what it was supposed to cause, and there was a suggestion that it should be done again at future BiCons. Well, knowing me, I'll be into something else by then. So I thought I'd write it up now, and then if someone else wants to run it another time (or invent their own variation on it), they'll know why certain things were in it and what I was thinking.

Also, I think some of the content that emerged from the workshop was useful information for bi-activists to have. So I wanted to put the results on the web. But I realised that they would make more sense in context. So this is the context.

Summary of the plan for the workshop

We had to stop here, because the time was up. It was an OK place to stop, but if we'd had more time, there'd have been a bit more:

The story of what actually happened

About 30 or 40 people came to the workshop. I wasn't surprised, because I'd had a sneaking suspicion that it might be a popular subject. So all my exercises were designed to work with that size of group. It did mean we had to shuffle the chairs quite a lot, though, and some people volunteered to sit on the floor.

We shared out paper, labels and pens as people came in, so as to save time later.


I started by giving a quick overview (see my article on workshops in general).

I also added three extra ground rules, as follows:

  1. Be sensitive - this is the kind of stuff people can feel wobbly about sometimes, and the more space we can provide for people to be honest, the more valuable the workshop can be for everyone.

  2. When we're in the small groups, don't interrupt or ask questions when it's someone's turn to talk, let them follow their own train of thought.

  3. Don't try to fix where people are at.
    "We live in a "fix-it" society, where people think the way to help is to make us feel feelings other than the ones we are actually experiencing." - Ann Kaiser Stearns
    The ground rule here is listen and let people think for themselves. E.g. if someone says "I feel like I don't fit in" you don't say to them "Oh I think you do fit in" - you listen and you let them explore what that's all about.
At this point we closed the doors. Well, actually, we didn't close the actual door, because it was quite warm in the room already. We just put up a notice saying "workshop closed". I don't think anyone did turn up later than that, though I suppose I might not have noticed.

First go-round

Then we started by going once all round the circle so everyone said something.

The question was: say one or two identities that you have, that you'd like to "out yourself as" in this group.

I gave some examples:
- could be based on a role, e.g. a work role or a family role, like bus driver, or parent of teenagers, or daughter.
- could be based on history, e.g. ex-bus driver, ex-lesbian.
- could be based on political or religious beliefs.
- could be based on sexuality or gender (including bi if you identify as bi).
- or anything you like based on your sense of yourself or your circumstances.

"Also, notice how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with outing yourself "as that" in this group. Are you thinking to yourself "Oh don't say that one, say a different one"? What are the identities that are easy to claim here?"

Someone asked if we were going to follow on from this exercise by "doing something with" those identities, saying "I've been caught out like that in workshops before!". I knew what they meant!

I explained: Not really. The only follow-on effect is that the next thing you're gonna do is to get into your small groups. And you're welcome to invite anyone you think looks interesting to be in a group with you. So if you out yourself as something, it might lead to someone thinking "ooh, I wanna talk to that person". But other than that we're not going to do anything specific with the information.

We got round the circle pretty quickly. Some people said "oh I can't think now", and just gave relatively obvious ones, like "bisexual". Others came out with more multifaceted identities (stuff like "spiritual feminist ex-Lesbian", although that wasn't really one of them, I made that up just now).

Starter questions

Then everyone got into groups of three, plus two "left-over" groups of two. I remember overhearing a group getting together of three ex-Lesbians - they had indeed identified each other from the previous exercise. I suspect that some other groups were formed by recognition of common ground, but I don't know for sure.

The first question I read out for discussion was:
"How well do the words bi or bisexual fit you, and why or why not? (If you like you can do it "on a scale of one to ten".) Or, how strongly do you identify as bi, and why or why not? Or, even if you don't identify as bi at all, how do you think of your place in the bi community, or in relation to the bi community?"

Everyone had one minute each, and then another one minute each. I was calling out the times.

Then we did the same again for the next question:
"On a scale of one to ten, how at home do you feel at BiCon so far, and why or why not?"

Someone asked for clarification: did this mean "how at home do you feel right now this minute"? I said that "so far" could include any point up till now, and maybe their at-home-ness would have gone up and down over BiCon, and they could talk about that too.

"Everyone seems..."

While people were talking, I wrote up two "fill in the blanks" pages.

At BiCon, everyone seems _____________,
but I _____________
but I'm ____________
In the bi community, everyone seems _____________,
but I _____________
but I'm ____________

I specifically said that the "seems" doesn't have to be something that on reflection is strictly true, just an impression you have, or an impression that you remember having.

If people wanted to create variations around those themes, they could do that too.

After people had written their versions down on paper, we put them up on the walls. Originally I'd just been going to say that everyone could wander past and read them, but people started calling "Read them out!" and I did.

This turned out to be one of the highlights of the workshop, provoking a lot of laughter. I'm sure some of it was "laughter of recognition" and fellow-feeling, although there were a few moments of wit as well. A lot of different people had said things like "At BiCon, everyone seems to know everyone else, but I don't", or "At BiCon, everyone seems confident, but I'm not". You might think that hearing those themes over and over again would be depressing, but somehow the context made it mostly funny - especially as the longer it went on, the more obvious it became that those impressions were an illusion.

The writings from this exercise can be seen here.

Subgroups and communities within the community

The next exercise was straightforward, and was included partly just to lead into the following one. The idea was simply to list subgroups or subcommunities within the bi community. One person asked whether it meant groups that officially existed (such as SM Bisexuals, or local bi groups), but I said no - it meant more like people with an identity or role or situation in common.

Each group did their own list, and then read them out (skipping any already said).

Some of the results of this exercise can be seen here.

"Coming out as..."

Then, in the small groups again, people had 2 x 1 minute each on the following question:
"Aside from bi (if you identify as bi), what are your other identities or circumstances, and how do you feel about that identity or circumstance when you're in the bi community?"

I alluded back to the first go-round, where we'd begun to think about that.

People started to write down these identities on the sticky labels we'd shared out earlier. Meanwhile, I was putting up a long strip of wallpaper on one of the walls.

I explained that the idea was to stick the sticky labels along this piece of wallpaper, spread from one end to the other according to how easy it was to come out "as that" within the bi community.

A discussion ensued about the wording on the ends of the wallpaper strip. My original wording had been "Seems fashionable in the bi community and easy to come out as", versus "Seems unfashionable in the bi community and uncomfortable or scary to come out as". But when I said this, some people objected that "easy to come out as" and "fashionable" were two different things. I could see what they meant.

Then I suggested that it could be just "easy to come out as". But then someone explained that for one of their identities (a nationality), it was very easy to come out (because their accent made it obvious), but that didn't mean it was easy to discuss what it meant to them. Another good point!

So the eventual wording we aligned on was:

(in general)
(in general)

People were still writing down labels for this when someone asked me what time we were finishing. I suddenly realised that I'd got the timing wrong and we were due to finish in a couple of minutes. So I made an announcement about that, and apologised, and said that if people wanted to stay for a couple of extra minutes they could stick their stickers onto the strip. And most people did that, I think.

The results of this exercise can be seen here.

[I'd like to put in that it is atypical of my workshops to run over time! It wasn't actually that I miscalculated the times, it was that when I drew up the provisional workshop schedule, I didn't yet know the timeslot I was designing for, and then during the intervening month or so before BiCon, I forgot that they still needed readjusting. Even then, I'd probably have caught the mistake beforehand if I'd had a bit less going on at BiCon. But it all worked OK anyway.]

... And back to the rest of the conference

Later on, I put up the results of the "Coming out as..." and "Everyone seems..." exercises in the entrance hall of the venue, where they attracted quite a bit of interest from other BiCon participants. I had previously warned the participants that this was the plan, and invited people to take down their "Everyone seems" pages if they didn't want them to leave the room. (I don't think anyone did, though.)

Extra bits we might have done in the workshop if there'd been time

One other series of questions I'd have liked to include is as follows:

- When you see or talk to a group of people, what's the difference for you between a clique and not-a-clique? What is it that would make you think "they're in a clique and I'm not in it"? Is it simply that people seem to know each other and you don't know them? Is it that they dress alike? Would one of them have to be rude to you or seem to ignore you? What kinds of pictures or conversations or interactions do you associate with the word "clique"? (1 minute each)

- If someone was looking at you, could they think you were in a clique? When might they think that and when would they not? (1 minute each)

- If someone was in one of your communities, or shared an identity with you, would you recognise each other? How? Can you tell by looking? (1 minute each)

Part of the idea behind this series of questions would be to help people notice that even if they don't immediately see their kindred spirits, it generally doesn't mean that they aren't there.

That would have taken about another ten minutes, including time for reading out the questions.

Then any spare time could have been taken up with (in small groups)
- Take (a minute/two minutes) each to share anything you want to share about any of this.

Then, back in the main circle, we could have rounded off with
- One thing you'll carry on thinking about after you leave here. (see my article on workshops in general.)

Conclusions to ponder

I hope that people will do their own musing on the raw material that emerged from these questions, and continue the theme of uncovering what goes unsaid. But I think it's also possible to draw some tentative conclusions at this point.

From the results of this workshop, and from other similar conversations, it seems to me that the main recurring "initial impressions" at BiCon are

  1. "Everyone knows everyone else"
  2. "Everyone's more confident than I am"
  3. "Everyone's on the pull / more sexually active than I am".
No surprise there, I think.

One person (who I think hadn't been in the workshop) later commented to me, on looking at the results, "We had no idea that the "goth" thing was such an issue". But despite the number of mentions it got, I'm not convinced that's a major one - I think maybe it's more that the goth contingent is exceedingly visible and therefore immediately comes to mind when people are doing this kind of exercise :-) It became almost a running joke during the workshop.

There is a linked area, though, which I think deserves attention - the difference between, as someone else put it, "the beautiful people" who like to dress up and be looked at, and the people who don't want to do that, or don't feel capable of it. (Note the reference in the "subcommunities" exercise to "Wallflowers".) This ties in with the suggestion that there should be much more different stuff in the evenings at BiCon, including games and maybe even some entertaining/low-key workshops. Someone was talking at some point - half serious, half joking - about forming a group for "ordinary buttoned-down bisexuals".

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who was in the workshop who might like to report on what they discussed in their small group. I might do another page with that stuff.

See below for a link to further discussions on the web.

Inspirations and background

There were several inspirations behind this workshop.

Pre-BiCon conversations

One was a sequence of three particular conversations I'd had with people in the couple of months before BiCon 2002. Each of the three people had been to one and only one BiCon before (not all the same year), and each of them was talking to me about their reservations or concerns about this BiCon, based on their experiences last time.

In each case the person's primary concern was about finding compatible, friendly people to hang out with - even though none of the three was generally socially inept. There were also some recurring themes about being unfashionable, or not having the right clothes.

A theme I found particularly striking was as follows:
Person X says "I want to meet people like me". And I'm thinking: well I know that other X-ish people exist in the bi community.
And yet person X has not so far managed to link up with the other Xers and "find their people".
How come they're invisible? What does it take for one Xer to spot another?

Hanna's workshop on biphobia

A different inspiration, from further back, was Hanna's workshop at BiCon 2000 on biphobia. That workshop had started off being primarily about biphobia from outside the community, but spontaneously developed into a fascinating conversation about "bi-on-bi prejudice".

For instance, people shared about feeling conspicuous or "square" coming out as monogamous, because polyamory is talked about a lot and seems to be so fashionable. We also talked about people feeling they have to have certain types (or amounts) of sex to prove something. It brought up this whole very interesting area of what pressures people might be feeling about "how to be a proper bisexual".

A previous failed attempt

After Hanna's workshop, I'd made an attempt to begin a discussion on soc.bi about what's fashionable in the bi community, and stereotypes of "how to be a proper bisexual". But that had failed miserably.

A few people did answer, and their answers were fascinating to me. But some of those answers were then criticised as though prescriptive rather than descriptive. (If someone said "I notice that I catch myself thinking such-and-such is the 'right way to be bi'", another might respond "But you shouldn't think that". Well, duh.) This created an environment where you had to be feeling pretty bold to confess to un-PC thoughts.

One person picked an argument with me on the basis that I actually thought there was some universal "how to be a proper bisexual", thus completely misrepresenting what I'd said. Throughout subsequent explanations ze seemed determined to misunderstand me (although I was never certain whether ze really did misunderstand me or was simply enjoying winding me up). As so often on usenet, this subsequent thread took attention away from the original questions.

I found this frustrating and couldn't be bothered arguing. I concluded that it was a mistake to try there. It just seemed like usenet is too much of a free-for-all.

An ambition to acknowledge what's unsaid

So I had been thinking ever since the soc.bi mistake that perhaps a better place to pursue this interesting theme would be a BiCon workshop. I thought it might be especially useful for people at their first or second BiCon. But it would also be useful and indeed possibly rather fascinating for the rest of us.

(I specifically asked for the first Saturday morning slot so as to include as many newbies as possible, as near as possible to the beginning of their BiCon - recognising that some people don't arrive till Friday night. I also got up at Saturday morning's plenary and made a point of saying that new people would be welcome at this workshop and well catered for.)

It seems/seemed to me that part of the dynamic of the fitting-and-misfitting theme is it doesn't get talked about enough. So, for instance, newcomers to the community may think that we "veterans" are all sorted, whereas in fact I suspect that most of us have some interesting unexplored corners of bi-identity questions, or some other identities that we're not very out about within the bi community.

So my aim became this: I wanted to create an environment where it was obviously normal to feel somewhat of a misfit, in at least some ways. Then we could talk about the experience of misfitting, and we might find out something interesting.

Further discussions

There's a discussion about the workshop, this account of it, and related subjects, here on LiveJournal. (You don't need a LiveJournal account to post a comment there.) Alternatively, you can email me.