When the Bisexual Speaks…We Listen

By Ellyn Ruthstrom

Celebrate Bisexuality Day (affectionately nicknamed CBD) pops up every year on September 23rd. This year, as I prepared for CBD and Bisexual Awareness Week, I started looking back over my own journey with bisexual activism and how those who came before me helped pave the way for me and for so many others.

I didn’t have early same-sex attraction, so I didn’t come out as bi until the age of 30. I was getting out of a marriage to a man and that space allowed me to figure out what my sexuality was. A huge turning point for me was finding a copy of Bi Any Other Name, an anthology of bi writing that was edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka’ahumanu. Reading that book finally gave me a word, an identity, and a community of others who could understand my own experience with multiple attractions.

I started my coming out process after moving to Northampton, Massachusetts, sometimes known as “Lesbianville.” I fell in love with my first girlfriend and she moved with me to Columbus, Ohio so that I could get a master’s in Women’s Studies at The Ohio State University. I got connected to a bi student group on campus that brought one of the editors of By Any Other Name, Lani Ka’ahumanu, to Columbus to speak. I found some other bi folks and I marched in the Columbus Pride March with them.

My first national LGBTQ action was in 1993 when I drove from Ohio to march with approximately a million others through the streets of Washington, DC. The official name was the March for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation (remember that concept?), but I bought a t-shirt that also had “Transgender” in the title and I remember explaining what transgender meant to the students in my class when I returned to Columbus.

The highlight of that day in DC was listening to Lani Ka’ahumanu speak as an out bi leader from the stage. Though some people had already packed up and left, many of us bi people who had traveled in with the promise of being recognized in the title of the march waited until the bitter end to listen to our representative, the last official speaker of the day.

“Aloha, my name is Lani Ka’ahumanu, and it ain’t over til the bisexual speaks.”

Even writing this now I feel a surge of pride and poignancy, reliving how important hearing her voice ring out across the Mall that day was to me. Only moments before taking to the stage, Lani had been asked to cut her own speech from five minutes down to two. Organizers had added people all day long to the roster, pushing back the time Lani went on to well over an hour after she was scheduled. She came to represent us and she spoke her truth, without edits.

“I am a token, and a symbol. Today there is no difference. I am the token out bisexual asked to speak, and I am a symbol of how powerful the bisexual pride movement is and how far we have come.”

I encourage you to read the entire speech and remember this was 1993. All of the things that Lani spoke about in her few minutes at the podium still ring very true. One of the most important aspects of her speech is how she continually drew connections between the bi and trans communities. This is the truth of our movements, that our struggles have always been intertwined and even when transgender was not in the official march name, the only out bisexual speaker made sure that the trans community was recognized and included.

“Like multiculturalism, mixed heritage and bi-racial relationships, both the bisexual and transgender movements expose and politicize the middle ground. Each show there is no separation, that each and everyone of us is part of a fluid social, sexual and gender dynamic…Recognition of bisexual orientation and transgender issues presents a challenge to assumptions not previously explored within the politics of gay liberation.”

Our understanding of fluidity and the intersections of our identities was a part of the history of our community’s movement from the beginning. Don’t let people using outdated definitions of bisexuality tell you differently! Lani spoke of the revolutionary quality of making this fluidity a part of the greater movement, saying “Our visibility is a sign of revolt.” And she challenged the “gayristocracy” to acknowledge the intersections of the oppressions and fight them all together.

She asked thorny questions of the greater national movement:

“What is the difficulty in seeing how my struggle as a mixed-race bisexual woman of color is intimately related to the bigger struggle for lesbian and gay rights, the rights of people of color, and the rights of all women?”

“Who gains when we ostracize whole parts of our family? Who gains from exclusionary politics? Certainly not us…Being treated as if I am less oppressed than thou is not only insulting, it feeds right in to the hands of the right wing fundamentalists who see all of us as queer.”

And she broke the taboo of describing something that bi leaders still experience to this day, those who only come out as bi to other bi people, but choose to pass as gay or lesbian for the acceptance within the movement.

“I want to challenge those lesbian and gay leaders who have come out to me privately over the years as bisexual to take the next step, come out now. What is the sexual liberation movement about if not about the freedom to love whom we choose?”

To love whom we choose: still so simply stated. Yet still not equitably adhered to. “Love is love” has become the mantra for the marriage equality movement, but that is based in the government-sanctioned institution of marriage. A far cry from what Lani was referring to as “the sexual liberation movement.”

As we celebrate Bisexual Awareness Week around the globe, I thank Lani and all the other elders who came before us for lighting a path of strength with an inclusive vision for our movement. Lani’s words that day on the Mall helped center me in my identity and empowered me to return to campus and come out to my students. Her closing words that day resound ever deeply for our community.

“Remember we have every right to be in the world exactly as we are. Celebrate that simply and fiercely.”

Ellyn Ruthstrom is the Executive Director of SpeakOUT Boston, the nation’s oldest LGBTQIA speakers bureau that serves Greater Boston and New England. Ellyn was the president of the Bisexual Resource Center for ten years and co-organizer of the first White House Bisexual Roundtable on Bisexual Issues in 2013.


Objectified and Angry

By Gabrielle Blonder, BRC Board Member

About a year ago, I left a company I’d been with for a few years and have been doing a combination of temping and job searching since then. This is my first time job searching as an openly bisexual person, and since the Bisexual Resource Center is now such a large part of my life, my first time job searching with the word “bisexual” written on my resume. The biggest thing I’ve noticed since this change is how few potential employers have been willing to say the word “bisexual.” Either that part of my resume is emitted from questioning entirely, or I get awkward, vague questions about the work I’ve done with “the…center”.

A few months ago, on a Monday, I started a new temp job. I was genuinely excited about this assignment – the company seemed great, and everyone I met was super friendly. On Wednesday, I was asked to cover the front desk reception area while the main receptionist (we’ll call her Debbie) was on break. During that time, an interviewee showed up to meet with the head of HR. The reception computer is logged into a generic ‘operator’ account used by anyone currently at the desk (90% of the time it’s Debbie). When I opened up the internal chat client to let the HR director know about his visitor, the rest of the chat history showed up in the window as well, timestamped as the Friday before I started working there. For the sake of delicate readers, I won’t transpose the content of the conversation here. Suffice it to say, it was lewder than you can imagine. The HR director talked about how hot it would be if Debbie (the straight lady receptionist) hooked up with her “new friend,” who would be starting work on Monday. Debbie, being a straight woman and also being aware of appropriate office behavior, turned down his every idea and even reminded him at one point that “you know I can’t delete this, right?”.

That “new friend” being oh-so-casually objectified was me.

My bisexuality is reflected on my resume in the form of organizations I am, and have been, highly involved with. It is also reflected, like a cracked fun-house mirror, in the disgusting nature of these comments.

In one instant, I was made to feel ashamed of and gross about an integral part of my identity. The rainbow necklace I proudly wear now feels as though it’s burning a hole in my chest. I’m reminded that my experience with women is something dirty, an object of male lust even in the abstract. My crushes, my relationships, and my heartbreaks have all been reduced to one idea of a “hot” encounter.

This is why I do the work I do. Because for every woman who is struggling with their own desires and identity, there’s someone ready to fetishize bi girls. Because my sexual identity is immediately assumed to mean I’ll hook up with anyone willing (and sometimes, those unwilling).

It’s taken me years to even start to shake off the shell of insecurities and internal biphobia enough to begin to feel safe being myself. I debated for ages whether or not to put the (considerable) work I’ve done with the Bisexual Resource Center on my resume and Linkedin, knowing that this information would immediately out me to future employers. But I did it, and let me tell you, it felt freaking great. I felt invincible; staring down my interviewers, daring them to express discomfort. Encounters like this one make me want to crawl back into the closet and bar the doors.

But I won’t. I can’t. Heading back into the closet would be a betrayal of all the self-work I’ve done, and quite the waste of the anxiety/emotional turmoil I’ve gone through in my (many) coming-outs. Even if I wanted to, a quick Google of my name (or a quick scroll through my Facebook page, for that matter) pulls up multiple references to bi-related projects I’ve been involved in. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have this any other way.

If you have ever been in a situation like this, know in no uncertain terms that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. The more I came forward about my experiences, the more people responded with similar stories of their own. I was equal parts amazed and saddened by how much support and commiseration was waiting for me. If you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, talk to me. I will listen to you, empathize with you, and rage with you. And if you’re an ally, speaking up when you see things like this is probably the hardest thing to do. If you can’t (and trust me, I don’t judge whatever your emotional limits are), just be there for those who have been hurt. We need it, and it means more than you know.

Gabrielle is a member of the board of directors of the BRC, as well as the leader of the monthly young bliss group. She spends most of her time crafting, doing aerial silks, and writing cover letters.

A Pride Like No Other: Boston to Orlando Strong

By Kevin Hogan, BRC Board of Directors

Work crews are still sweeping up from this past weekend’s Boston Pride March. Yet this evening, the same City Hall Plaza where the march concluded will serve as the gathering spot for a vigil to honor the 50 lives lost at Pulse, an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub, in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Many will write that words fail them, and to tell the truth, the words chosen here are far from perfect. But after this horrible act of domestic terrorism, the commitment of the Bisexual Resource Center’s Board of Directors to advocate for and assist the bi+ community, as well as our greater rainbow community and allies, is only reaffirmed all the more.

The hashtag #BostonStrong may sound like a distant memory to many Americans. But those of us who live, work, and go about exercising our daily freedoms in the very city that suffered and survived the marathon bombings that inspired the Florida gunman—we know a thing or two about resiliency, and not letting hate win!

So to all our brothers and sisters in Orlando: know you do not stand alone. WE are #OrlandoStrong. And by displaying love, compassion, and kindness to all members of our greater rainbow community who need it, we will always diffuse fear and hatred and leave them like rusting relics on an old battlefield—while we march on with PRIDE!

For years an inspiring high school English instructor, Kevin Hogan’s life irrevocably changed after an international news story branded him “The Porn Star Teacher.” Since then, he has founded the Healing Stigma program, served on the Board of Directors of the Bisexual Resource Center, and twice visited the White House to meet with officials on matters of bisexual health, inclusivity, and awareness. An author, poet, radio show host, Huffington Post blogger, speaker, consultant, and LGBTQ advocate, his breakout poetry collection My Ríastrad was recently named a 2016 Lambda Literary Award Finalist.

Kevin is currently co-authoring the book Healing Stigma: A Survivor’s Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age with Dr. Galatzer-Levy.

It’s Not a Phase…or Can it Be?

In the BRC online store, we sell buttons and t-shirts that say, “It’s not a phase, it’s my life.” A lot of folks have expressed how comforting this phrase is, amid a world where bisexuality is still seen as an in-between identity, like an interstate rest stop between gay and straight. Too many of us hear that our attractions are “just a phase,” which implies that we’re not only lost on the binary highway of sexual attraction, we don’t even really know how to drive.

So what I’m about to say will probably be a shock to you, especially coming from one of the co-presidents of the Bisexual Resource Center: For some, like me, it could be a phase. And that’s okay.

Now I don’t mean that all those bi-phobics were right when they suggested that you weren’t the best expert on your own orientation. I’m not saying that the Bisexual Resource Center has changed its stance on bisexuality not being a phase. I’m definitely not saying we will stop selling those awesome buttons and t-shirts.

But I am saying that in my case, it’s not a simply matter of my bisexuality being my phase vs. being my life. For me, it’s both.

As members of a community of folks with fluid sexual orientations, whether we call ourselves bi, pan, queer, or don’t use a label at all, we really hate binaries: gender binaries, sexual orientation binaries, cake/pie binaries. We, out of everyone, know our world and dessert choices come in a gradient. We can love cake AND pie, or cake in a pie, or milkshakes, or something else. We don’t have to choose. That’s one of my favorite parts of being bisexual (with a varied dessert palate).

And as members of the world here in 2016, everything changes now, faster than it’s ever changed before. We (mostly) no longer have the luxury of staying at one job our whole adult lives, we rarely live in the same house (or town, or maybe country) all our lives, and there is a definite minority of those of us who keep the same partner(s) our whole adult lives. We shift hobbies, favorite restaurants, hairstyles. So why can’t we change how we personally identify?

I went through a lesbian phase when I was in fifth grade. That’s not to say I identified as a lesbian, but now looking back I wanted to. I wasn’t fantasizing about sex much in general yet, but boy, did I love my middle school gym teacher. Every morning I would wait out by the playground fence, doing flips on the metal bars, waiting for her green Ford Explorer to pull up. I would relish those two minutes I got to walk with her into the building. Gym days were my favorite days.

And the phase went beyond school. My favorite artists at the time were the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, and every time I saw a woman with masculine features or clothes, I would get a tingle in my chest. For those of you who have seen or heard Fun Home: The Musical, it was pretty much just what Alison describes in the song “Ring of Keys”: Do you feel my heart saying hi?…I know you.

But then I got to high school, and was very, obviously, totally straight. This “straight phase” lasted throughout college, then for years after college, when I married my college boyfriend. Even after I’d left that marriage realizing that monogamy wasn’t for me, I still dated only cis men. I didn’t realize I wanted it any other way.

And then in 2011 I came out to myself after a particularly hard crush on the ex-wife of a partner, and very soon came out to everyone else. I’m bi, I said. And no, it’s not just a phase.

But what would I have called myself before? Would I have said that I was bi as a middle-schooler? Or as a young adult? There are many parts of me, like my preference for non-monogamous relationships, that I can now see glimpses of in the past (I wrote a poem called “Polyandry” in college). But my bisexuality isn’t one of them. I never wanted to kiss my female friends in college, and when I did for laughs, I felt nothing. So does that mean, if bisexuality isn’t a phase, I’m not really bisexual?

Calling what others identify as a “phase” is a form of erasure and can be very emotionally harmful, for sure, but for me, it’s not about the difference between temporary and permanent. I think it’s about the difference between definable and undefinable, black and white. People who say “it’s just a phase” don’t want me to say, “Oh yeah, I know, don’t worry, I’ll be over it in a few years,”  they want me to be over it right now. They want me to fit the mold as soon as possible, so that I make sense again. What they mean by “it’s just a phase” is “I hope you will pick a side soon, because this middle-space is terrifying me.”

I don’t think we, as humans, can go through life without phasing into and out of different identities. I went through a Robin Williams phase, a Twister phase, and a phase in my mid-twenties where I wanted to move to Iowa and live on a farm. I had a lesbian phase. A straight phase. And now, a bisexual phase.

And yes, at some point I might decide I want to identify as something else. And that’s okay. Because I’m not “picking a side” just because someone tells me it’s time. I’m following my own attractions, my own identities, my own choices of how to label myself (or not).

The sooner we can all embrace our phases and the fluidity of our attractions over long periods of time, the more we can show naysayers that there are more than two destinations on the highway of sexual attraction, and we are free to move about them whenever – and however – we want. And that desire I have for acceptance and understanding…that is most certainly not a phase.

Kate Estrop is a co-president of the Bisexual Resource Center, artist, and cat mother.