Bi erasure and the many names of May 17

17 May 2016 by Jennifer

On a piece of paper, the acronyms "IDAHo? IDAHoT? IDAHoBiT?". They're all in grey, except that the "Bi" part of "IDAHoBiT" is bright purple. To the side, handwriting adds "May 17".

Debates over the IDAHo((Bi)T) acronym overlap with bi erasure. Actions beyond the name can reveal which is which.

It’s an anniversary today.

On May 17, 1990, the World Health Organization declassified same-sex attraction as a mental disorder, stating that “homosexuality is not a disease, a disturbance or a perversion.”

Around 2004 or 2005, some people developed the idea of marking and remembering the anniversary date, 17 May, under the name “International Day Against Homophobia” – IDAHo.

Evolution, expansion, recognition

Over subsequent years, people pointed out missing elements in that name and acronym.

Officially now, the acronym is IDAHOT, while the name is “International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia”, with a subtitle of “A Worldwide [or Global] Celebration of Sexual and Gender Identities”.

The official site explains:

In 2009, Transphobia was added explicitly in the title of the name, in the recognition of the very different issues at stake between sexual orientation and gender expression. “IDAHOT” became another popular acronym used alongside the initial one.

Since 2015, biphobia is added to the title, to acknowledge the specific issues faced by bisexual people.

At the level of our Committee, we have kept the acronym ‘IDAHOT’, which we’ve been consolidating for years. We acknowledge this is an imperfect solution, but a necessity for communications consistency. We totally support other organisations who adapt the name of the day to their contexts and their priorities. In the UK for examples, the Day is increasingly known as IDAHOBiT, in Latin America Lesbophobia is almost systematically included and placed first, etc.

To ensure even more inclusion and reflect the diversity of sexual and gender minorities, we have created at global level the baseline “A global celebration of sexual and gender diversities”. This is probably the only “solution” to the issue of inclusion and reflection of other diversities, such as Queer, Asexual, Pansexual and regional identities such as Hijras, Weres, Two-Spirit, etc.

The Day is not one central trademarked brand and everyone is free to communicate as they wish. This creates inconsistency but this is the cost to bear for large ownership.

I’ve seen three versions of the acronym at different times: IDAHo, IDAHoT, and – as the official site also acknowledges – IDAHoBiT.

A story from last year

In Nottingham, where I live, 2015 was the first time – as far as I know – that there’d been an event to mark the day. My write-up of that gathering is here.

Since I’m talking about the name now, I’ll tell you another story from last year…

Rewind back to about March 2015. An initial announcement went round, using the name “IDAHO Day”.

Soon after that, Hannah, then-organiser of local bi group BiTopia, went to a meeting to help to plan the gathering. Hannah explained that calling the day IDAHoBiT was another option, and that bi people were likely to perceive that name as recognising and including us.

From then on, most or all of the info about the Nottingham 2015 event did use “IDAHoBiT” as its name. It seemed like a successful accomplishment of communication.

Later on, though, I heard in a roundabout way that some people in the area had objected to that version of the name. Apparently, it was perceived as making the event vulnerable to piss-takes about hobbits.

(When I did the earlier write-up, I hadn’t yet heard this part of the story.)

What I heard after the day – and don’t have any reason to disbelieve – was that some people had declined to get involved with the event, purely because of the name.

I didn’t get the impression it was a personal objection, exactly. I think it was more like: them believing they wouldn’t be able to elicit respect for the idea of the day, within their professional or social networks, if it were described under that potentially-comical name.

The official site, too, has a footnote on down sides of the “hobbit” sound-alikey connotations:

*Consultations on the name with activists in 120 countries have concluded that the reference to hobbits might be clever for some parts of the world, but were seen elsewhere as an imposition of Western values. In many places where people are facing daily life threats, this proposal was considered highly inappropriate.

At one point, I was invited to express an opinion on all this, and I did some thinking about it. I doubt I’m the only person dealing with similar dynamics, so I thought it might be useful to share where I got to.

Ambiguity

Here we have a name dilemma. And some people think that removing the “Bi” part is an OK solution to it.

I don’t think that’s pure chance. Oh no indeed.

It lines up with a long and wrong tradition of “But bi people only experience prejudice when they’re expressing their Gay Side!”

It lines up with bi erasure.

But, unlike some situations where that’s true, I feel there’s some ambiguity in this particular case. That is: in my own personal opinion, IDAHoBiT genuinely is a clunky name as well. Would anyone choose that name if they were starting from scratch? I doubt it.

The original smooth, clever neatness of “Idaho” now has inelegant lumps of history embedded in it: a history familiar to many of us, of struggles to be seen and valued.

Reservations

The fact is, I’m not that fond of any of those possible acronyms: not IDAHo, not IDAHoT, not IDAHoBiT.

  • Most fundamentally, I’ve got reservations about something-phobia words which aren’t about the mental-health kind of phobias. They draw some of their power by linking injustice with illness, and that carries both political leverage and drawbacks. (Here’s a discussion of some of the tensions around that. Here’s another.)

  • The “hobbit” sound-alikey-ness: not a fan of that either. I find it middling unsatisfactory, something I “put up with” for the sake of undoing bi erasure. I understand people being iffy about it.

  • And then there’s the original thing of contriving an acronym which sounds like an American state… to name an international day. Can’t say that ever really appealed to me.

    The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia is not one centralised campaign; rather it is a moment that everyone can take advantage of to take action.

I wonder, does the acronym need to be central? Does it even need to be used? It’s not as if “IDAHOT” or any of its variations is a famous self-explanatory thing whose absence would confuse… at least, not for most people in the UK, who haven’t yet even heard of the day.

Remember, the official site tells us

everyone is free to communicate as they wish.

As a work-around for all of the acronyms being unsatisfactory, I’m fine with calling the day May 17 “for short” (e.g. when referring to it in an organising context, where the people involved in the conversation know already what it is).

On publicity materials, too, it can make sense to have May 17 in big letters, if an event falls on the actual day, along with something to explain what it’s about.

The full name, albeit drawing on the -phobia metaphor, doesn’t erase bi people, and the celebration subtitle is intended to include as many of the community as possible.

Bi erasure / bi inclusion

So…

If you’re one of the people who feel you can’t promote the day as IDAHoBiT because of the “hobbit” factor… well, OK. That’s one element. I’m not saying my personal view excuses you from listening to other people who care more about using that acronym, but it’s not a high priority for me.

But what I do want is that in every other way, you demonstrate that your naming choice isn’t about bi erasure.

I’m saying it’s on you to remove any ambiguity about that.

I mean like:

  • If you’re running an event, have “bi” or “bisexual” up front in all the publicity.

  • For a May 17 thing in particular: Consider managing without an acronym, rather than using one which erases us. Or at least, play down the acronym, and centre phrases and explanations which include us.

  • Say “bi” or “bisexual” as often as you say “lesbian” or “gay” – except in contexts where you consciously mean the difference. That is, except when:

    • you’re specifically talking about lesbians and excluding bi women,

    • or you’re specifically talking about gay men and excluding bi men,

    • and you have a reason for that exclusion, not only habit or prejudice.

  • Say explicitly that bi people are welcome and that anti-bi sniping won’t be acceptable.

  • If you’re using those “something-phobia” words at all, then say “biphobia” as often as you say “homophobia” – except in contexts where only homophobia is relevant, and biphobia for some reason is not. Don’t try to use the excuse that anti-bi prejudice is a subset of anti-gay prejudice; that’s simply not true.

  • This is harder: Think through what stereotypes are embedded in your thinking and your materials. For example, don’t talk as though every queer person is currently with a same-sex partner. (Come to that, don’t talk as though every queer person is with a partner at all, or ever has been.)

    If you’re not bi yourself, it’s fairly unlikely you’ll be able to catch all the implications without help. That’s the nature of long-existing prejudice which has come to seem natural. But you can practise on the more obvious ones.

  • Make the effort to connect with your local bi group, or wherever local bi people can be found if there isn’t a bi group as such. (And if you don’t know any bi people round your way, it’s not going to be because there aren’t any… so consider what that says about the environment you’re creating for people to come out into.)

  • If you’re booking speakers or performers, have as many bi people as from any other sexual-orientation group – and not all of them white bi people either.

  • Learn how bi erasure functions. Get a sense of the damage it does. Allow that deeper understanding to guide your future choices.

  • Brief other collaborators, speakers, performers etc, to ensure they’re aware of these same factors.

Actions beyond the name

Actions like those, beyond the name, show whether the territory is primarily “bi erasure with a plausible-sounding excuse”… or whether it really is just about a clunky name.

The bi people in your world will notice the difference.