BiCon, revisited

12 November 2020 by Jennifer

Change, systems, racism, ethics, and other personal/political musings. Plus news of a BiCon anti-racism review.

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About 12 years ago, I mostly disengaged with BiCon (annual residential UK bi gathering). I’ve dipped in as a day visitor a few times since then, when it came to Nottingham or Leicester – but not stayed onsite, and not been on an organising team again.

In 2008, I wrote several blog posts which were a sort of “unsolicited exit interview of myself”, to make available some of what I’d learnt and thought about while involved.

And in 2009, a related follow-up:

After that, I put my energy in other directions: Notts Pride, other events in Nottingham, helping Hannah to start Bitopia, bit of practical support for QTIPoC Notts, occasional BiFest participation, a cartoon in Purple Prose, a zine & some other writing, and a lot of not-particularly-bi things.

At the time, it had been a painful transition. Up till my disillusion, I’d loved contributing at BiCon, and felt at home. But I didn’t regret changing track.

There it still was

Over time, though, I realised it didn’t quite work to entirely let go of BiCon. There it still was, looming over the UK bi community landscape. I hadn’t walked away from bi stuff overall, so I still kept encountering its existence.

Every now and again, there’d be an initiative (like the bi activists’ anti-racism training in 2011) which I wanted to support. Every now and again, I’d hear worrying reports from people of colour.

Sometimes I’d have the feeling that perhaps it was doing some things better: for example, usually these days there’s a crèche, which for a while around 2000 there usually wasn’t.

Overall, it didn’t seem to have changed much: still mostly middle-class white people, still burning out organisers and not nurturing enough new ones, still not great at taking on board criticism. And alongside that, some people still really liking it, and loving the feeling of being in majority-bi space.

(I’m not saying BiCon is more racist than mainstream culture in general, by the way. But mainstream culture is racist! It’s no good being like “well, we’re no worse”.)

The sense that it hadn’t changed felt like both a validation of having stopped investing time in it, and a continuing source of low-level dissatisfaction.

Ethically, I found I had a doubt about having left it to continue the way it was.

It wasn’t that I thought me sticking around would’ve actually caused any significant change at that point. (BiCon’s resistance to, or ambivalence about, change is a big part of why I got disillusioned.) It was both better for me personally, and probably a better use of my energy, to be doing other stuff.

But what were my responsibilities? What about the people of colour still turning up to participate? When someone would point out the thing of white people being able to step away from racism and forget about it for a while, sometimes I’d start thinking about BiCon.

Mixed feelings.

This year

This year was a bit different.

Because of covid, BiCon 2020 took place online, so it was less of an effort than usual to take part, and I did join in to several sessions. And – I think partly because of the recent Black Lives Matter protests – there was a noticeable increment of progress on the anti-racism front.

As part of paying people of colour for helping the community get better, there were anti-racism training sessions at BiCon, run by Titi and Navan from the Anti-Racist Educator collective. And the training sessions have continued since. Last I heard, about 90 people had taken part in one so far. (I went to one of the ones over BiCon weekend.)

Going along with that, there were conversations about the possibility of a new rule. If implemented, it would say that in future, people would generally have to have taken part in the anti-racism training online before they book.

(Apparently, day trippers would be excepted from the suggested rule. I don’t see why there couldn’t be at least a short briefing when they arrive, like the safety briefing before you get let into a trampoline park. On the other hand, day trippers have typically been a small percentage of participants, so the weekend people make more of a difference.)

The trainings would only be one small step. But hearing of the idea of that, and the willingness to change which it implies, a hope sparked for me that some fresh thinking was coming in.

BiCon 2020 publishing the post “BiCon is Racist – And It’s About Time We Stop Making Excuses” also seemed to me like a good sign – though less important than the fact that the training sessions were actually happening.

Learning, and structures to hold the learning

Also, I really liked some of what Kate was saying about multi-year teams:

The structure of bicon teams is in and of itself enabling racist mistakes by having yearly teams, (who are often new to organising Bicons or new to the roles), take sole responsibility and ‘carry the can’ for everything. At the end of the year they are usually burnt out and run away, often without doing the accounts or a handover to the next year or similar things.

… people staying around for longer periods of time and tasks broken up smaller and more visibly to encourage people to participate for longer periods of time.

A conduct team set up who span lots of different years and whom the organisers yearly teams are also accountable to

I think it’s true that organiser burn-out and team-to-team discontinuity leads to lost knowledge. And I think that is an obstacle to getting better at anti-racism.

Although I don’t necessarily agree on all the details, I found it heartening and intriguing to see someone else talking about team structure and the transmission of knowledge. It was another element which pinged my sense of “oooh, something that could maybe actually make a difference”.

It’s not that I’m optimistic

I still don’t have faith that BiCon will fundamentally change. I’ve thought a lot about the factors and feedback loops which cause its institutional inertia. (I might write about that another day.)

But it felt like time to put my shoulder to the wheel again and see if I could give things a push. It could at least be a bit better than it is.

And that’s how come I’m currently working on the…

BiCon anti-racism review

BiCon 2019 had voted to review progress on anti-racism after a year. BiCon 2020’s decision-making plenary touched on that subject, and decided it needed more attention. The idea was raised of having a review meeting specifically to focus on that.

When the question came up of who might run that event, it seemed like the kind of task which could be up my street: talk to people, listen to people, think about what’s the point of meeting at all (which couldn’t be accomplished just as well by a web page), figure out the shape of how to put it together.

After quite a lot of back and forth with BiCon Continuity about what exactly we were doing, we’re now in the gathering-input stage of the review. That will last till this Saturday, 14 November, and the meeting is set for Sunday 22 November where we’ll report back on what we heard.

It’s not the kind of review where we have to have lots of people’s views for it to make sense. We already know a lot of things which need to happen, and we can already reflect on the extent to which they’ve progressed during the year. If people don’t have anything to add to the existing list, or don’t trust BiCon to do anything useful with the results, that to me is legit. But I felt there had to be an invitation for input.

I’d said I thought we ought to pay a person of colour to be the listener for people of colour, and we have Titilayo Farukuoye from the Anti-Racist Educator collective in that role, available to chat with people. (I must say it’s a pleasure to work with Titi.)

It hadn’t initially occurred to me that we ought also to offer to pay PoC who contribute, as a recognition of the time & energy they put in. But that omission has since been pointed out (thanks to Shiri), and although it’s been a rather late addition with details yet to be worked out, the principle has been established.

Anyone who’s been to BiCon, if you’d like to tell us your thoughts, all the details are on the review’s main web page. You wouldn’t necessarily have to talk directly to any of us – you can use an anonymous web form if you like.

Me and BiCon, in future

The kind of work rhythm I tend to like is “immerse and do loads, then forget all about it for a while”. When I volunteer, I don’t like having responsibility for little bits all spread out, because they might need doing when I was in the middle of something else!

(With my own stuff, it’s partly but not entirely the same. I don’t mind having to go to the postbox because somebody ordered a zine or some badges at a random time :-) But overall I do like the rhythm of getting immersed in something for a while, then leaving it for a while, and so on.)

So aside from the kind of work it is, the review task suited me too because it’s a well-defined chunk, meaning I could step back again after it’s done.

That too brings up an ethical question: If I put my energy into the review, what ethical responsibility do I have for carrying forward the longer-term effort?

If, as I hope, our little project is doing better on anti-racism than the BiCon average, then that makes BiCon “look better”, in a way – which could be misleading. I feel acutely aware of my responsibility not to raise expectations beyond what the present-day BiCon can realistically fulfil (with or without me).

But I don’t feel it’s correct to address that risk by promising to stay involved with BiCon long-term, when there are other things that (a) also need doing, (b) might make more difference, (c) would be closer to my overall political direction. In any case, it needs to change on a whole-system level, where the presence or absence of one particular person wouldn’t be a big factor.

So from my point of view, even if I do put energy into something else related in future, it feels important that there’s an end date to this particular project.

I think it’s currently fairly unlikely I’ll want to be on a BiCon team again, or have ongoing responsibilities in that structure. I might do some more one-offs which seem likely to give a boost to things going in (what I think is) the right direction.

It’s a bit like… it’s quite common for grant-making organisations to say they won’t fund running expenses, only one-offs, such as a limited-term project or a new building. That’s kind of how I feel, only with energy not money. I’m not going to throw myself into bridging BiCon’s ongoing shortfall of sustainable people-energy – but I might consider other one-offs with the potential to make the whole thing run better, and conserve the future energy and happiness of people who do stay involved.