30 April 2008 by Jennifer
BiCon, the annual UK bisexuality conference/convention, theoretically welcomes parents and has child care facilities. But in recent years, very few children have gone, and then usually only as a last resort for the parent. I wanted to set out some thoughts on a possible direction for this area, and the context around it.
In some ways this is a “niche market post”, mainly for people who go or might go to BiCon. But I think it could be of interest also to people who are doing other kinds of activism.
I want to describe a BiCon which may never happen.
The BiCon I’m imagining would include children as participants. It would be a place that families come to partly for the fact that the children enjoy it. (Of course, some parents would still choose not to bring their children.)
It would include all-ages sessions like crafts, painting, storytelling, dance, drumming, singing and so on.
In every time slot for workshop sessions, at least one session of the batch would be a place where children were welcome and could participate as equals alongside the older people.
Either in the same room as the all-ages sessions, or nearby, there would be a full-time “arts & crafts corner” and a “playthings corner”, also open to all ages. These would include comfy chairs for adults to sit and chat while keeping an eye on the children in their charge.
There would be optional trips out, organised by parents, to playgrounds, swimming pools or other nearby cool stuff (by analogy with, for instance, BiCon 2000’s trip to Manchester Pride).
It wouldn’t be surprising if there were also a few sessions for adults on parenting themes – more so than currently.
(I’m not saying much in this post about under-age teens who might come to BiCon because they themselves are bi. That’s equally important, but it’s not my focus here.)
A crèche or at least a playworker would still be needed for at least a few children for at least a few sessions, because there would still be some single parents coming with small children, and this would be needed to give those parents access to any of the adult programme.
But given a BiCon of that nature, you could expect to see significantly more parents coming in total, many of whom would be happy to contribute to the all-ages strand. So there would be plenty of activities that didn’t cost money to schedule. Besides, we’ve already had drumming, belly dancing, singing, knitting and (more than once) a bouncy castle, at 99%-adult BiCons – the appeal of these isn’t limited to children or their parents.
If the crèche did have a separate space, I’d aim to have the all-ages strand scheduled mostly in whichever session room was nearest it, for convenience of moving around. Ideally, you’d have a session room big enough for dancing, near a crèche room with a wipable floor and a sink – but there are always compromises.
It would be good if this area were near toilets, and (for the benefit of child-free adults) ideally quite far from the bar and from any “quiet room”.
If the “arts corner” and “playthings corner” were in the same room as the all-ages sessions, they could still be used simultaneously with most of the sessions, since the kinds of all-age themes I’m imagining mostly wouldn’t require confidentiality or complete silence.
I wouldn’t envisage expanding BiCon’s “in loco parentis” role. That would still be limited to the provision of paid and qualified crèche workers, and a crèche space if needed.
What would expand would be the number of children taking part in non-crèche activities alongside one of their parents, or alongside family friends including an adult who takes temporary responsibility for them.
Parents would remain responsible at all times for knowing where their child was and with whom – a line of demarcation which isn’t unusual at mixed-age festival-type events. It would follow that BiCon would not be responsible for policing informal arrangements made by parents.
BiCon organisers would have a written policy addressing child safety, spelling out simple procedures for circumstances such as “Lost child”, “Child in distress or ill”, and “Parent incapacitated” – e.g. “If you find a lost child, ideally two people stay with them and one of you ring site security”. This would be made known to all BiCon-goers, e.g. as an adjunct to the Code of Conduct.
(This wouldn’t be a bad idea now, either – and there are situations with adults, e.g. in regard to illness, which could be briefly documented too.
The one-off work to develop procedures needn’t be hard, as there are plenty of other events – e.g. Prides or music festivals – where the same questions have already been answered. And it needn’t necessarily be taken on by someone from a current team, although obviously a team would need to approve the policy before using it.)
One of the practical/social issues for parents at BiCon is what happens in the evenings.
Obviously, if your prime reason for being at BiCon is for the evening partying, then you’d probably do your best to leave the children elsewhere anyway. Even if you could somehow share the babysitting in the evening, there’s the next morning to consider.
But for the people who don’t have any “leave the offspring at home” option – as well as the ones who actively prefer to do BiCon as a family – I still wouldn’t imagine a lonely night in with only a sleeping child for company. There are good reasons to put families near to each other in the accommodation anyway, and this is another: socialising in the evening with other parents (as well as with any other friends who came by). Food, wine, chocolate, ice cream and so on can of course be included in the plan for those who want them :-)
Even in my pre-parenting days, some of my best times at BiCon have been back at the flat, swopping stories about life.
My one caveat about this aspect is that to make it work, you really want the accommodation arranged as flats. You want somewhere the internal doors can be left open to listen for awakenings, while the flat’s front door is locked. If all the rooms open onto a main corridor, then it’s more difficult to organise. (Baby monitors, and go into another bedroom? Have your party in the corridor? Either way, not really the same thing.)
For children who don’t need an early bedtime, the all-ages room would still be open too, with crafts and an evening workshop session (e.g. perhaps drumming or dancing.)
BiCon itself in an earlier incarnation is one comparison. Liz W recently described it thus (quoted by permission):
I haven’t been to Bicon for many years, but when I did still go, it was very child-friendly. I thought that was one of its greatest strengths at the time. There was a fantastic sort of tribal atmosphere. The last one I attended  had kids from six months to about twelve. There was a professionally-run creche, without which I probably wouldn’t have gone.
We could also learn from the history of Queer Pagan Camp, which has a more recent tradition of children’s activities running alongside the adults’ ones. (Currently, they pay a playworker, and other camp-goers also contribute to the children’s activities.) It hasn’t always been easy to organise; but QPC has strong roots in a brand of traditional feminism where it would be unusual (and certainly criticised) to put on any event without some kind of childcare alongside.
We could borrow a model from the BETT show (an ICT/education event) and the Special Needs Fringe which runs alongside it: two parallel conferences with the possibility of switching between them. Some people come mainly for BETT and dip into the Fringe; for others, it’s the other way around.
Similarly, some parents might get most of their BiCon value from informal chats while their children are occupied or asleep, with only an occasional dip into the main timetable; some multi-parent families might take turns; and some people would remain more or less oblivious to the all-ages strand, not even dipping into it.
By way of parallels, I’m also thinking of the numerous music days/weekends/weeks which I went to as a child with my family. There was always some officially-organised music for the children to play. But the main attraction for me, and I think for most of us, was getting to hang out with my/our friends and peers, the other children from musical families.
With the abundance of other activities, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to ration crèche sessions somewhat, probably prioritising single parents. I think it’s likely that even without rationing, many parents would actively choose to spend at least one or two sessions per day in a joint activity with their child(ren), rather than wanting to use the crèche for every session.
So although there might be a greater number of different children using it in total, the crèche need not necessarily be more expensive than it ever has been.
Having said that, it’s still potentially true that hiring more playworkers would increase the flexibility.
The main additional expense I’d foresee would be if children’s accommodation were to be subsidised – either under a special “children” category, or from the Helping Hand fund.
Here is the main advantage which something like Queer Pagan Camp has over BiCon – tents!
If the ratio of adults to children made the accommodation costs unsustainable from the combined resources of BiCon and the parents, the main ways forward I’d suggest would be:
- Having BiCon in a venue which has family rooms, ideally priced by the room rather than by the number of people occupying it. (Anywhere which had double beds would be a great improvement for all the adults who came with partners, too.)
- Or, not so good, alternative off-site accommodation suitable for families – but organised/coordinated by BiCon, and hence becoming a kind of secondary social centre.
- Other kinds of flexibility in the usual kinds of accommodation – e.g. small children sharing parents’ rooms, siblings being allowed to share rooms with each other.
- Applying for grants. Time-consuming but potentially a good solution.
- Or, rather more of a compromise, but worth considering as a small-scale trial: Designating a specific day as “Children at BiCon day”, to encourage day trippers on that day, who would not stay over in the BiCon accommodation. (I gather that the BiCon 2008 team are considering something along these lines for this summer’s BiCon. If that goes ahead, it remains to be seen whether that would form a stepping stone towards the BiCon I’m imagining, or not.)
The front page of the upcoming BiCon’s web site would include a link called something like “Children at BiCon” or just “Children” or “Families”, leading to all the relevant information for that year.
In the run-up to BiCon, the site would show a running total of how many children had booked, and their ages. This would reassure later-booking families on the “children having someone to play with” front.
There would be an emailing list for people interested in this strand, so that parents who hadn’t decided yet could make a more informed judgement about whether to go and whether to bring children, based on what was planned and who else would be there.
A list like that would also provide a place for discussing and planning outings, activities and resources. For instance, someone might research the local swimming pools and post opening times and prices. People might coordinate the bringing of toys to share – “We’ll bring some Lego which we’re happy to leave out”, “We’re bringing three drums and some percussion instruments for the drumming session”… etc.
(This would mean that the “playthings area” could be a collaborative project, with someone from the BiCon team taking a role in coordinating it, but not solely responsible for setting it up.)
Because I’ve gone into some detail here, it might be beginning to sound as though this would require so many changes as to turn BiCon into a children’s holiday camp. Obviously I’m focusing in on the family stuff, because that’s what this article is about.
I find it hard to guess how much change would be imposed upon people who weren’t interested in the all-ages side, because of the “multi-conference model” aspect – the way that strands can run in parallel. If you’re going to adult sessions or no sessions, and your BiCon main event is the evening party, and you never venture into the area where the all-ages stuff is mostly scheduled… then you’re still going to be child-free much of the time. You might overlap in the public spaces, e.g. outdoors in fine weather, or in a café if the venue had one.
The people for whom it would make the biggest difference are the ones who otherwise would not have come at all.
I do think BiCon would get bigger – and i.m.o. that’s desirable in general, since it’s clearly serving only a small proportion of the people who would love it. I realise that that in itself would probably upset some people who don’t want it ever to change in any way.
I imagine BiCon team roles and responsibilities perhaps as follows:
- Strand co-ordinator for the all-ages sessions. A very important role, but needn’t necessarily be on the core team, I think.
- Booking the crèche or playworker(s).
- Liaison person from core team to parents, keeping in touch with parents, keeping track of the state of play, and keeping a global overview of what information was “out there” so far. E.g.
- making sure that the web site information is clear;
- making sure that the printed information is clear;
- hanging out on the parents’ emailing list;
- answering individual questions privately;
- helping and encouraging people to put in claims to the Helping Hand fund if they needed to.
The person doing this would need a good understanding of the principles of access.
- “Weather eye overview / watching brief” person, on core team as advisor. Overlaps with the liaison role, but the main focus in this case would be staying aware of what all the other BiCon team members were doing (e.g. site choice, areas/times licensed for alcohol, room allocations, ents) and flagging up to the team any implications for the family angle.
- Grant application person – not necessarily limited to this strand.
None of those roles would necessarily need to be done by a parent, and i.m.o. it would be problematic to require that, given the time and energy limitations characteristic of parenting. The “watching brief” one would be the one I’d most like to see done by a parent, though.
If I were running it, I would aim to have one person on each of these remits, with (as I’ve said) at least the “Weather eye” person and liaison person on the core team. That’s in line with my general view that activism roles should ideally be subdivided as far as makes logistical sense, so as to spread the work.
But people who prefer more condensed and harder-working teams could potentially
- combine all these responsibilities into one role, or
- put them all together except the session strand management, which would be subsumed into the main workshop coordinator’s role, or
- combine some of them in some other way.
Now, even if everyone agreed – which is very far from being the case – that a BiCon along those lines would be good, I wouldn’t expect to jump straight there from where we are now. It would take more building of the critical mass, because most people won’t want to be the “first few parents who take the risk of there not being many other children”. Right now, I don’t think most people would bring their children to BiCon if they could possibly avoid it, and my advice to other parents in the current circumstances would have to be “no guarantees – welcoming families to BiCon has been an afterthought in recent years, it may well not be very good”.
But in the medium term – say within 3 to 5 years – I think it could be done if people wanted it.
So, why am I doubting that this will happen?
Not because it couldn’t work.
- Because it would be counter-cultural in a way that BiCon is currently not.
- Because the people who stick around any organisation and become its organisers tend to be the ones who are well served by it as it is.
- Because single parents, and parents of young children, rarely have much time available to put into activism.
Because (i.m.o.) there is no consensus for BiCon currently being anything other than (a) a rare manifestation of bi-visibility, and (b) a great party and networking space for a privileged subset of people.
(Bi ReCon looks like pulling BiCon’s centre of gravity in a more explicitly political direction than has been seen in recent years. Yay, and I hope something of that nature continues.)
So why am I bothering to write about this imaginary BiCon at all, if I don’t think it will happen?
- Even if it doesn’t happen in its entirety, some of the components might be put in to BiCon, or might be adapted for a similar different event.
- I know there are a lot of people who have been to BiCon in the past, and don’t go currently, and currently have young children. There may be more enthusiasm for a family-friendly BiCon than is generally realised.
- Even if the result is just that some compelling arguments are brought forward for why BiCon ought not to change, I would like to see those arguments being made in public.
- Or, to come at it from another angle: Imagining and writing is part of my activism, and it seemed to me that a detailed and practical description of some possibilities might be a useful step in itself.
I want to say a bit more about the advantages of moving in this direction.
Children being welcome, and onsite childcare, are access issues for some parents: not all parents, but the ones who for whatever reason can’t currently leave their children elsewhere during their BiCon visit. (I suspect that the most common factor is lack of alternative carers; another possible one is a current breastfeeding relationship.)
In recent years, the main way of addressing this – if at all – has been to provide a crèche (albeit sometimes accompanied by agonising about the amount of money it costs for only a few children).
There are some improvements that could be made to that model without moving away from it (mainly around advance information). But in my experience, the main problem with it – however well done – is the lack of critical mass.
If only a few children are expected, then it takes very little variation for the crèche to suddenly become unfeasible, due to either (a) an arguably ridiculous expense for one child, or (b) the sheer lack of anyone to play with.
I think numbers and hence stability would naturally be increased just by the kinds of communication I’m recommending, because at least the later-come parents would be able to be sure “We shan’t be the only ones”. But it’s never going to be as resilient to random variation as is the model I’m describing.
It’s also never going to be as scalable.
The beauty of making BiCon actively child-friendly is that as you get more children, you also get more multi-parent families, some of whom will have spare capacity to contribute to the events. So it gets easier and easier to schedule the all-ages strand and to invent additional cool stuff such as outings.
On the other hand, if you present the children’s provision (overtly or by implication) as the last resort for people who can’t possibly send their children elsewhere, then the people who use it are going to include a much higher ratio of single parents, and a much lower ratio of “parents with their partners or friends, with a bit of spare capacity to run something”.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that only parents could run a singing workshop or a drumming workshop. But parents with children there would have a high stake in the success of the all-ages strand, and would be among the people most likely to want to go to things in it.
In other words: I have this suspicion that in every respect except finances, trying to keep children’s provision to the “minimum you can get away with” actually makes it harder to run successfully.
There’s one more area which I think needs some attention here.
It’s a subject in itself, so I was tempted to leave it for a follow-up post, and keep this one shorter. But then I thought it would be sort of murmuring and stirring along underneath everything I said anyway, the more so for not being mentioned yet, and better to get it on the table from the start. So here it is:
Some people are uneasy about the idea that BiCon, as a fairly sex-positive environment, could ever truly welcome children without some kind of awkwardness.
On one level, this is kind of silly, since it’s already been done – see quote above about BiCons past. That worked, so why wouldn’t it again?
But, having said that, it seems to be generally agreed that over the last 10 to 15 years, BiCon has got rather more party-oriented, and I think that makes a difference in this area.
In this context, my impression is there’s relatively little concern about “babes in arms”. The issue is primarily about mid-age children, say around 2 to 13. They have enough social awareness to wonder about the adults around them; but they aren’t old enough for general cultural agreement that it’s OK for them to know about sex. Teens of 14 to 17 also feature in people’s concerns.
(Again, I’m not primarily addressing here the question of teens who come to BiCon as bi people.)
So I’d like to get specific about a few angles on this.
One is to what degree it might cause adults to “cramp their style” if children are around.
My initial response to that would be that there is plenty of BiCon to go round: we can have times and places which are more child-friendly, and times and places which are more X-rated. I think it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of humankind to come up with sensible boundaries.
Age limits can obviously be applied to workshop sessions; here, for example, is what we said for 2005.
“Children welcome” will indicate sessions welcoming accompanied under-13s.
Teens aged 13-16 are welcome at sessions in general. Parents are responsible for knowing where their child is, and giving or
withholding their permission as they consider appropriate.
Sessions with other age limits, such as over-16s or over-18s, will be indicated in the programme and/or on the door of the session room.
Babes in arms are welcome at all sessions unless otherwise stated.
The idea was that session leaders would set the age limit for their own sessions, bearing in mind the subject matter and their own skills and intentions, perhaps sometimes after discussion with the BiCon workshops coordinator. I could imagine creating some documentation to guide people through the thinking process on that choice.
When the above quote was written, there was no recent history of teens at BiCon – it was more a case of “trying to be prepared”. So these limits might well change in the light of experience or further discussion. But the rationale of having the default as 13+ was that a thoughtful teenager would be able to contribute to – and benefit from – most discussions.
(For the non-BiCon-goer readers, I should point out that most BiCon workshop themes are non-sexually-explicit: many primarily social/political such as “How to run a bi group” or “Being an ally to bi people if you’re not bi”, and some not directly related to bisexuality at all, e.g. “British Sign Language for Beginners”.)
I think it’s also valid to say that for some workshop sessions (e.g. if the theme were abuse, or self-harm), then a workshop with young teenagers might have a somewhat different flavour from one for adults only, because of adults’ caution about what’s appropriate to say in front of young people. It’s not that teens couldn’t have a place in those discussions; but the session leader would have to decide which participants they were optimising for, and either choice would be valid. (Supposing you had sufficient numbers and sufficient space/time, you could logically even have two workshops on the same theme with different participant profiles, though I suspect in practice that wouldn’t happen often.)
However, in some cases, the workshop design is based around splitting into smaller groups anyway, in which case it would be easy enough to arrange for some adults to segregate themselves within the room if they preferred.
I imagine there would be an argument for an 18 limit for the evening partying – mainly for simplicity, although it might be slightly unfair on 16- and 17-year-olds. The bar will have its own legal limits anyway.
Meanwhile, the all-ages session room would remain a child-friendly space.
Bear in mind too that not all adults are equally comfortable in the presence of sexual behaviour or sexy costumes. (I don’t mean actual having sex, which is clearly covered by the Code of Conduct statement that “Consent includes any audience”.) What’s joyful self-expression for one subset of people may be disconcerting or alienating enough to another subset to put them off ever coming back.
(I’d actually say this issue deserves a post of its own, but it has to come up here too because it’s relevant.)
What I’m suggesting here is that the various spaces and times of BiCon are already “contested territory” when it comes to what’s appropriate dress and behaviour. I’m saying that even banning children entirely wouldn’t make that issue go away.
(And a lot of it is quite subtle stuff, which could well do with some more exploration, I think. For instance, I recall a discussion about when a primarily social – rather than sexual – expression of a dominant/submissive relationship would count as something that requires consent from the “audience”. Not a no-brainer by any means.)
So, yeah: boundaries, and the thoughtful creation of them, and a willingness to negotiate and renegotiate them. If there are answers to this kind of concern, that’s where I’d go looking for them.
Secondly, there’s the “What shall we tell the children?” aspect, which I think is a challenge more for individual parents than for BiCon as a whole. If a child can read, what if ze reads the programme and asks what something means? Or, what if ze wants to know “why that man is dressed as a lady”, or why those people are wearing those funny clothes?
Personally, I am not too fazed by this. I figure that children make different sense of things at different times, and I’m happy to give an explanation appropriate for the offspring’s level of understanding.
By that, I don’t necessarily mean “giving chapter and verse”. For a 3 year old, it might be enough to say “well, you see, she is a lady – ladies can look a lot of different ways”, or “those are their favourite clothes that they like to wear”. Meanwhile, a 12 year old might benefit from a conversation about difference and the pressure to be or appear “normal”. I.m.o. children are usually paying attention as much to whether you’re OK about something as to the explanation you give, anyway.
But basically, I figure that many of the phenomena at BiCon will be encountered by any child in some form at some point, and I’d just as soon I had the opportunity to give the offspring my explanation of it, before ze hears the tabloid version or a less well-informed explanation from other children.
However, I’m not suggesting that all parents will be in the same place with it as I am. I think this is one for each parent to make their own judgement call on. You know yourself and you know your child. If you don’t feel ready to have those kinds of conversations, or don’t think that BiCon is the right kind of catalyst for them, and/or you’d rather not be out to your child about your own bisexuality, or for whatever reason you “don’t want to go there” – then clearly those are good reasons not to bring children old enough to be curious about these things.
Thirdly, there’s the danger of being targeted by unprincipled journalists who are more interested in scandal than in facts. Child in same room as weirdos shocker! Child sees someone in peculiar costume shocker! Etc. I.e. all the usual fear-of-difference stuff, multiplied by “A Child Was Present”.
Yes, something like that could happen, if we were unlucky enough. But I’d rather not solve the problem by agreeing with those people about what “oughtn’t to be allowed!”. That feels a bit too close to buying into the erroneous and entirely unacceptable “queer = child-molester” equation.
So I can’t help thinking that if the tabloids did make a scandal out of BiCon, it would be a load of homophobic/biphobic rubbish. And although there are levels of “inviting trouble” which would be stupid, there’s also a limit to how much I think it’s wise to live my life based on the fear of that.
Those are the three main factors I’ve identified so far. But I think this is an under-acknowledged and under-discussed area, and I’m interested in more input. How do people feel about it? What have I missed? What else would people need before they felt OK about sharing some of the BiCon space with children?
There’s another way this could go. We could stop presenting BiCon as a place where parents-with-children are theoretically welcome, and designate it an adults-only event.
But wouldn’t that be excluding people?
Yes, of course it would. But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re not excluding many of those people already. Imagine a single parent with one lively and extrovert child around 8, and no other parents applying for crèche places. A crèche place for that one 8-year-old by themself is so last-resort as to be practically useless.
And if the message is “BiCon is not really for children, but we’ll tolerate them if we have to – but it’s expensive, and it’s therefore rather selfish to bring them if you could possibly have managed without that help”… well, some people with very thick skins might come anyway, but it’s hardly welcoming.
I think an adults-only BiCon, AND the recognition of its limits, AND a commitment to address those limits via complementary events from the same financial and activist pool, might arguably be preferable to the current unpredictable and unreliable situation.
It’s not the way I’d choose to go, mind you. BiCon is not just any old party and networking event; it’s currently the core event of the UK out-bi community.
For me, it’s always seemed like our children are part of the community – at least in a sense, and unless they choose for themselves to opt out of it. Growing up in a queer family is a certain kind of rich inheritance.
I don’t think you have to believe this to think that a family-friendly BiCon would be a good idea, though. Even if you think of children purely as greater or lesser obstacles to their parents’ participation, a family-friendly BiCon would clearly be far more accessible and welcoming to some adults than is the present model.
But I’m not saying “This is how it has to be”. That would be silly – BiCon isn’t mine or anyone’s to make that kind of pronouncement on their own.
I am saying this is one of the angles which will determine whether BiCon is something I personally want to put any more energy into in future.
The “self-interest” aspect of this is that I currently have a strong desire to spend my time in places where the offspring is welcome as a person, as well as a desire to share with em this community which is important to me. There will come a time when it would be practically feasible for me to leave em behind and go to BiCon by myself; but the BiCon I want to be at is one where (if ze so chooses) ze can hang out with me and with other children of bi parents. I’m far more privileged already than lots of the parents who would most benefit from BiCon, in that I already have a social life full of lovely bi/queer people :-) I’d miss BiCon as a place to invent cool stuff and meet new people, but there are other places to do those things.
The “activism” aspect of this is part of a wider and longer-brewing dissatisfaction with how BiCon and its surrounding community deals with difference and inclusiveness (a trail which I’ve been on for a while). I don’t think the parents/families/children angle is suddenly the most important part of that now I’m a parent; it just happens to be one on which I currently have some clear and specific ideas to write about. More on some of the rest in future posts, probably.
Anyway, I’m hoping for an interesting and useful discussion in comments here. Please, make your thoughts known, people :-)
That was a long article!
Here, have an index:
Children at BiCon (top of article)
The flavour of change
Reasons to write about it
Advantages over what we have now
But bisexuality has the word “sex” in it!
Cramping our style?
What shall we tell them?
BiCon for adults only
Children as part of the community
Where I’m at
Thanks to everyone who talked to me about this subject and/or encouraged me to write the article, especially the people who raised points I hadn’t thought of.