Some thoughts, as a kind of open letter to UK “lesbian, gay and bisexual charity” Stonewall, related to an event this week and their work after that.
I’m not going, but I’ve been thinking about it on & off ever since it was announced.
Firstly, yay :-) I was heartened to hear the initial reports of how the trans* consultation day went last summer, and I’m glad there’s going to be a bi one. Thank you for setting it up.
The default shape of our world erases bi people. Privilege always brings with it a degree of obliviousness; in the case of bisexuality in the UK, this obliviousness is shaped by “the epistemic contract of bisexual erasure” (to use Kenji Yoshino’s words). So when Stonewall repeatedly erases and neglects bi people, it’s part of that wider pattern: by default, that’s what happens. Reversing cultural-default erasure takes attention and active steps. Even many of us ourselves have had to work to unerase ourselves within our own thinking.
This has implications for your ability to foresee the effects on us of your words and strategies.
One of the main things I’ve learnt about activism over the years is that the more varied the people you have the opportunity to “run things by”, the better the things tend to turn out. The first ten people you show something to might miss an implication which the eleventh picks up.
This is true in general, so it’s gonna be even more true under conditions of widespread erasure. You need people who have actively worked on undoing that erasure, who can perceive what you don’t yet perceive.
If your plan is “spend a day asking us what we want you to do, and then go away without us and try to do it”… well, let’s just say, I hope that isn’t your plan :-)
My key question is: what structures are you setting up for incorporating bi people’s insights and knowledge and experience, day to day, from the ground up?
Not “what are the key issues for bi people in the UK in 2015?” That’s important, but for me today it doesn’t come first.
Not “what has Stonewall done wrong in the past on bi stuff?” Yes, how you take responsibility for the past is the foundation for people’s trust in you in the present. I’m trusting in your willingness to do that (based in part on what happened at the trans* meeting), and it’s not where my focus mostly is.
Not even especially “what are our insights, this particular day, this particular group of people and the ones who wrote in?”. I mean yes hurrah, there are insightful experienced activist people planning to turn up on the day, and no doubt they will tell you many valuable useful things all day… and, of all the things that could be talked about, my attention is primarily on what you’re setting up after that.
I want to know how we, and our thoughts and experiences and input, are going to be woven into your structures tomorrow, next week, next year, going on.
How are you ensuring that disabled bi people, Black bi people, bi people of colour, young bi people, older bi people, working class bi people, trans bi people, bi people with mental health issues, bi people living with HIV & AIDS, are represented on Stonewall staff or among people paid to do project work for you? And likewise for monogamous, polyamorous and celibate bi people, fat bi people, religious and not, women, men and non-binary people, with English as a foreign language, bi parents, carers, drug users, bi people who have experienced abuse, who are or have been homeless, who are or have been “in care”, who sell or have sold sex, who don’t have internet access…
… and so on for yet more demographics, especially those associated with cultural marginalisation… bearing in mind research which already exists, indicating that in several other statistically disadvantaged groups which have already been studied, bi people are over-represented.
I don’t just want the appointment of one white, abled, middle-class bi person, with “bi rep” responsibilities, and then the organisation being like “look! sorted!”
When you design a media campaign, how will you be inviting input from dozens or hundreds of bi people before it goes live, so that we can tell you where you’ve got it wrong? (because you will inevitably get it wrong sometimes, and the question is whether we get to tell you that before or after it’s gone out.)
When you initiate a research project, how will bi researchers be involved in the design? How will the community have input on which questions are important to pursue first? How will you include people from all the demographics relevant to the research question, including the marginalised ones? How will the data gathering and reporting ensure that bi people’s experiences are meaningfully distinguished from other groups? What methods do you use, or will you develop, to account for the lack of one-to-one matching between lesbian/gay/bi/queer as identities and lesbian/gay/bi as practical descriptors of people’s sexual & social behaviour? What protocols, other than data protection constraints, will you use to determine which of the resulting raw data is made available for further analysis, either open source or to specific researchers from our community?
When you write a press release or a web site article or some other document, how is it checked for bi erasure / bi stereotyping? (and, for that matter, for other embedded/implicit prejudices… e.g. is there a review system already for catching racist implications, which could inspire a similar system for catching bi-related mistakes?)
Where else does it need to be built in at a procedural level that you consciously stop and consider the implications for bi people, with a willingness to take a few steps back, even re-structure if necessary?
How can we interface and collaborate to ensure that as you pay more attention to supporting bi people, you strengthen and/or complement the bi networks we already built, rather than supplanting them or getting at cross purposes?
Thinking again, from a different angle, of the intersections of bisexuality and different marginalised groups: What links do you have with organisations like Kids Company, X:talk or the Safra Project? How easy is it for your staff to be guided by their expertise, and for them to criticise your work where it intersects? What links do you have with groups led by disabled people, migrants, Deaf people, drug users, abuse survivors, people with mental health issues, for example?
In a sense, what I’m asking here is about a kind of meta-aim: for each practical aim that’s identified and declared, what are the structures which will support it being put into practice, consistently for real, for everyone?
In moving on to constructive practical suggestions, I’m taking a risk: the risk of this article being read as though my questions were only the lead-in to these particular answers. Like “those were the questions and now here are the answers to them”. No. My questions are bigger than these answers. These are just a few possible areas which I think would repay the attention invested in them.
With that caveat in mind, here are some possible directions:
Nurture opportunities to be in solidarity with other marginalised groups and learn their needs and priorities, so that bi people within those groups aren’t undermined at the intersections.
In particular: Ensure that the Bis of Colour group always has a hotline to the heart of your thinking. Go as far out of your way as you need to, to nurture that channel. Consider paying for their time to review your plans and give advice, if they’re up for that and as long as it doesn’t take away from their first priorities.
I wonder about setting up a fast-feedback-loop “previews” network, to make it as easy and quick as possible for a wide variety of people to give feedback on plans and documents at early stages, and at least before they “go live”. This might imply less of a “surprise, here it is, big launch, boom!” at the start of a Stonewall campaign, but the payback in getting it right would be worth it. And not all changes even cost any money, apart from the time to go back and improve.1
Online, it could look like: have a blog for showing work in progress, and an email list to flag up new posts to the blog. If you have the capacity to moderate comments to maintain a reasonable level of emotional safety for contributors, then allow comments. If not, then don’t; discussions can still evolve in other people’s spaces.
Either way, accept feedback by email, and allocate time to read comments made elsewhere on the net about your work.
Thank people for all contributions, whether suggesting a solution or flagging up a problem. Consider how else to support, include, encourage and compensate the most marginalised people, who often have the least time and energy to spare for reading and commenting.
Develop the email list for “heads-up, new thing in progress” announcements, to include bloggers and networkers from as many marginalised groups as possible, so that the opportunity to feed back spreads far and wide.
Allow the feedback to change what you do.
Would this work, do you think? If not, in what respects not, do you think, or what obstacles would you foresee? To what extent do you do something similar already?
That suggestion is partly an interim measure, to bridge the gap until you have more bi expertise in-house, and mitigate the intense frustration for us of seeing stuff emerge when it’s too late to fix what to us are obvious bloopers.
On the other hand, I don’t think there’ll ever be a point where it isn’t valuable to invite feedback from a wide selection of people, wider than you could probably ever maintain in-house. And the net is especially good for enabling the contributions of people low on spoons. So I’m currently liking the potential of this idea even after the core organisation is doing better on bi stuff.
Like I said, I wouldn’t want these to be considered “The Answers” to the questions above, even if it turned out that you like them and act on them. Some questions are more valuable as still-open questions than any one answer to them can be.
I look forward to hearing what comes out of the meeting. Personally I’m up for putting in some time if you wanted to talk about structural stuff like I’m talking about above, e.g. how to design and implement an early-feedback network if you did want to, how best to work around current limitations of capacity, etc.
Wishing luck to all at the meeting and all involved with Stonewall going forward.
1. Changes that don’t cost money: For example, I was a big fan of the “Different Families, Same Love” theme, and I thought most of the artistic realisation was beautifully done, with an almost-satisfactory-to-me creative variety of cartoon families. But what instantly stood out to me was that (a) not one person in the cartoons was fat, (b) not one family had more than 2 adults. Even if the campaign designers were antsy about validating the existence of poly families (I hope not), it could at least have had one where a third adult was potentially readable as a live-in grandparent. These are exactly the kind of nuances which are easily missed in a small homogenous creating/reviewing group, and much more likely to surface when the net is cast wider.
Another time, there was a new poster with “bi” in the heading (hurrah!), but for no apparent reason, only “gay” in the text. I remember a conversation springing up quickly online among some of us, identifying the omission as a missed opportunity.