Legally Bi: Becoming a BiLawrrior Part 2

6/29/2018

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As promised in my last Legally Bi column, this one is a continuation of my story of how I became a BiLawrrior – a bi rights activist lawyer. In the next two columns, I will share more of the political part of my personal story, explaining how both bi erasure and more positive experiences within the LGBT-rights movement became the final fuel to my fire that turned me into a BiLawrrior.

For years before going to college and coming out as bi, I had fantasized about becoming a lawyer to help right wrongs and fight for social justice. In law school, that fantasy became more of a fusion of the personal and political (although that symbiotic relationship between the personal and political already existed in my mind, since as a teenager I had been harmed first-hand by anti-abortion laws, which also fueled my desire to become a lawyer).

The personal and political became intimately intertwined when I was a law student and Romer v. Evans, the first Supreme Court decision affirming equal rights of gay people, was decided. In that case, the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s state constitutional amendment that prohibited lesbians, gays, and bis from obtaining legal protections against discrimination through any state laws or local ordinances. I was personally moved to see the Supreme Court in a strong 6-3 decision affirm the dignity, and equal protection and citizenship rights of gay people. I was additionally inspired, and intrigued by the decision because, at that point in time, Bowers v. Hardwick (upholding sodomy laws that target consensual same-sex intimate relations) was still good law and I was still a presumptive criminal for the same-sex relationship I was in.

The Romer decision sparked my desire to become an LGBT-rights advocate, whether on a volunteer or full-time basis.  And in my career, I have subsequently done both, volunteering for years with various LGBT rights causes and then, for the past two years, working as an out bi advocate as Law & Policy Senior Attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

So far, so good, right?

Except that, as of the writing of this column, I have just stepped down from my position at Lambda Legal, and from full-time paid LGBT-rights advocacy. But I’ll get to that in more in my next column.

And except that Romer v. Evans, despite being an incredibly powerful positive development for LGBT rights, was also a breathtakingly horrible decision in terms of bi visibility.  When I described it above as a “gay” rights decision, that wasn’t an accident. I did not intentionally omit bi people from that description; that Court itself did, following the lead of LGBT rights lawyers who in a moment of terrible erasure in their briefing described those affected by the amendment as limited to only gays and lesbians (despite the text of the amendment itself explicitly also referencing bi people).

The Supreme Court, in turn, followed the lawyers’ lead in erasing us from the Romer opinion, even though it had previously included bi people in discussions of LGBT rights. Bi-inclusivity in LGBT-rights Supreme Court opinions ended with Romer v. Evans, thanks to the LGBT-rights movement’s own lawyers setting the tone for the Supreme Court’s bi erasure in Romer and subsequent Supreme Court opinions. I describe in more depth the problem with how the LGBT movement itself set the tone for the Supreme Court’s bi erasure, and the harmful effects of bi erasure in LGBT-rights litigation, in my law review article, Bridging Bisexual Erasure in LGBT-Rights Discourse and Litigation.

But all in all, Romer was more inspirational and a positive development for LGBT rights than not.  In law school, I was told by one of the nation’s top LGBT rights litigators, after I mentioned Romer inspiring me to do LGBT rights for a living, that I was in good company.  I would have to wait my turn and pay my dues, I was told, because so many people want to be at the forefront of this historic civil rights chapter of change.

And so I did. I volunteered for many an LGBT rights groups over the decades, including serving on boards of directors, from local LGBT community centers to the foundation of the national LGBT bar association (then, not-so-inclusively-titled the “Lesbian and Gay Law Alliance,” and since, thankfully, renamed as the “LGBT Bar Association”). I served on AIDS tasks forces in rural communities, was on the steering committee of a large city’s HRC chapter, I was a volunteer cooperating attorney for Lambda Legal years before I joined their staff as a paid lawyer, and my legal scholarship during and before my constitutional law professor stint included highly-cited influential articles on LGBT rights and doctrine.

And at every stage of my work volunteering for LGBT rights, I encountered frustrating biphobia, bi exclusion, condescension, and/or erasure. Too often by the LGBT-rights movement itself.

In addition to bi people being left out of “gay” organizations’ titles, boards, and key staff; being omitted from “gay” rights briefs, and the court opinions that followed the lead of those briefs; and being erased from LGBT-rights discourse more generally; at times the biphobia went beyond unthinking erasure, feeling intentional and entirely demoralizing and dismissive.

But the pattern in my life has been that my response to being hurt and angered, whether by bi erasure or something else, is to sublimate the pain of the experience into creating a more positive reality.  So when, in Madison, Wisconsin, I was informed that I was not welcome in a butch-femme social group because of my bisexuality, I simply created a bi-inclusive “Women 4 Women” group through the local LGBT community center, a group welcome to all women who love women, regardless of their sexual orientation, political affiliation, or status as cis or transgender. Upon my creating Women 4 Women, I witnessed so much gratitude from so many women thankful to finally find a group that was welcoming and nonjudgmental of them, a safe space to love women without fitting a certain rigid mold of what a “real lesbian” should be.

Several years later, I was serving as the chair of political organizing for a steering committee of HRC in the midwest, and I faced the most shocking and blatant biphobia I had experienced in my professional life — from HRC steering committee members themselves.  At one point during a steering committee meeting, during a discussion about diversifying HRC beyond its middle-upper class white cis gay stereotype, I realized most in the room probably assumed from my activism and romantic relationships that I was lesbian, so I came out as bi.  In the context of building diversity, I offered to do outreach to other members of the bi community to get them more involved in HRC.  My statement was greeted with silence until days later, when I was volunteering at an AIDS support event, and a wife of one of the committee members came up to me and jeered at me, “hi BI GIRL. Can I sit next to you, BI GIRL??” in a sing-songy mocking tone, before laughingly (and somewhat drunkenly) staggering away.

I asked her wife, my colleague on the committee, why her wife would address me in such a way, and my colleague proceeded to inform me that she had told her wife about how I had “inappropriately” come out to the committee as bi.  “We’ve all gone through that phase, Nancy,” she chastised me, “and you clearly haven’t found the right woman, but in the meantime, it’s not appropriate for you to flaunt the whole bisexual thing.”  I was shocked into silence and cut the conversation short. Filling in other committee members about the disturbing biphobia I’d just encountered didn’t help. Instead, astounding insult was added to injury as other committee members agreed with the first one, that bisexuality is just a phase, and that it was inappropriate for me to come out as bi.

That time, defeated, my response was simply to resign from the HRC steering committee.
The next time I confronted disturbing bi erasure from within the LGBT rights movement itself, I’m happy to say, I had a more proactive, positive response, akin to my creation of the Women 4 Women group in Madison, Wisconsin.  This time, the pain of bi erasure fueled me in creating a national organization, the first such organization for bi lawyers, law students, law professors and our allies… called BiLaw.

The story of how BiLaw was created, and my subsequent experience as a full-time LGBT rights lawyer, are coming up in my next column, the final one in the “Becoming a BiLawrrior” series.  Stay tuned!

Nancy Marcus
Nancy Marcus is an out bi lawyer and LGBT rights activist. She is a co-founder of BiLaw, the national organization for bi lawyers, law professors, law students, and their allies, and is the author of "Bridging Bisexual Erasure in LGBT-Rights Discourse and Litigation," published by the University of Michigan Law School's Journal of Gender and Law.