The Long Fight for Bisexual Inclusion
When earlier this year, Huffington Post’s Gay Voices changed their name to Queer Voices, it was another victory in the long fought battle for bi inclusion, yet it re-awoke ongoing questions and concerns about name changes.
So many of the bisexual community’s hurdles predicate on the stumbling block of invisibility, and one of the main factors derailing visibility has been the decades-long use of “gay” to mean “LGBTQ+.” When bisexual people are lumped under “gay,” bi community cannot be found, bi resources, literature, role models, and data become needles buried in “gay” haystacks. Acknowledging our own truths, with little visibility to counteract messages that bisexuality is a fiction, can tend to be a long painful process. Getting to a place where we can publicly be out and proud and further contribute to visibility remains a far off dream to many.
Understanding that creating a more hospitable environment for bi people to come out into has to include public acknowledgment of bisexuality by the LGBTQ+ community, efforts toward this end go back four decades. The introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Bi Any Other Name, makes references to such activity in the 1970s, and in a 2009 GLADD interview, bisexual activist and founder of the Bi Writers Association, Sheela Lambert, recounts that in 1974 she got her college campus “gay” group to add “and bisexual” to their name.
Lambert went on to recount that in 1991, as an active member in the then Lesbian and Gay Center in New York, “I got tired of walking in the door under a sign that said lesbian and gay but not bisexual or transgender,” which resulted in a request for a more inclusive name. Tellingly, it took ten years before the renaming to The LGBT Community Center in 2001.
Gender rights advocate, Pauline Park, who worked with Lambert for the more inclusive name, points out that there is intrinsic value in such changes, “Adoption of bisexual- and transgender-inclusive nomenclature is an important statement of what our community institutions stand for as well as a signal to those groups — including bisexual and transgendered people — who have not always felt fully included in our community, that they are welcome, too.”
Lambert and Park were also instrumental in the soon to follow name changes for New York City LGBT Pride, (now commonly known as NYC Pride,) and New York LGBT Film Festival (which has morphed into the now mostly used NewFest.) Yet, the fact that NYC Pride did not have an openly bisexual marshal until 2015, brings up the question of what actual differences come with name changes — beyond bisexual people getting satisfaction at seeing the letter B, which we know was placed there for us, even if few others seem to.
As the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s Bisexual Invisibility Report, points out, “Often, the word ‘bisexual’ shows up in an organization’s name or mission statement, but the group doesn’t offer programming that addresses the specific needs of bisexuals.”
Sometimes though, as Lambert said about the New York LGBT Community Center name change, “It’s not just lip service; they really get it.” Evident of the intent to put their action where their name is, the LGBT Center, in 2009, together with the Bi Writers Association, held the National Summit on Putting the “B” in the LGBT (aka the Bi Summit).
In a 2010 Examiner article, Lambert, explained the reason for the conference:
“There seemed to be a vicious cycle. ‘Gay and Lesbian’ organizations would put out a press release about an LGBT rights issue that didn’t mention bisexual people… Then the press would pick up the press release and write an article based on it, using ‘gay’ and ‘gay and lesbian’ language… Then politicians would give a speech or post a policy position on their website about the same LGBT rights issue, using the same ‘gay and lesbian’ language.
This vicious cycle continues to create a wall of invisibility around bisexual people. As a result, neither the world at large nor our own LGBT community sees us as being part of it… We are constantly accused of being closet cases, but it’s the ‘gay and lesbian’ community that keeps putting us there, even when we are screaming, ‘we’re here, we’re queer, could somebody please mention us!’ ”
Further explaining the need for name changes, Robert A. Woodworth, of the LGBT Center, pointed out in his Welcome Address at the Summit, “Words used publicly — like ‘gay’ in the early 70s and ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’ today — have the power to spark awareness as they are absorbed into the culture.”
Woodworth cautioned though, “Like Stonewall, today’s event is not what makes a movement. What will matter is what happens over the years afterward…”
Taking a look at what has happened in the seven years since the Summit, we can start with the ironic fact that The Bi Summit was co-sponsored by The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, which did not change their name to the LGBTQ Task Force, until five years later. When the Task Force’s name change did come, The Washington Post’s article — headlined, “One of the nation’s oldest gay rights organizations is changing its name” — highlighted the fact that much of big media still doesn’t get it. The Post’s piece consistently erased bisexual people — for example, “[The Task Force] also has sought greater protections for gay, lesbian, transgender people in the workplace…” The word bisexual in fact, does not appear anywhere in the article.
So, even as the bisexual community has wanted to celebrate new inclusive names, we’ve been disappointed that often name changes are announced in these anticlimactic ways. The Task Force’s own statement didn’t include any declarations about wanting to be inclusive either, except in the most obscure manner, “…the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is changing its name and upping its game to tear down any remaining barriers to full freedom, justice, and equality for all LBGTQ people.”
When, in 2014, the announcement was made, that the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center had formally changed its name to the Los Angeles LGBT Center, it was buried inside an announcement about a massive fundraising campaign. The press release brushed over the name change, saying only that the new name and logo “symbolizes the diversity and uniqueness of the many people the organization serves.”
Sometimes a name change using LGBT has apparently not been about bisexual people at all. For example, when Manchester Lesbian and Gay Foundation became Manchester LGBT Foundation in 2015, the organization said it was, “…delighted to announce that The LGF is to expand its current practice of trans inclusivity to support more trans specific work in the future.” The announcement continued with much affirming and supportive remarks about the trans community, with no mention of bisexuality what-so-ever.
Likewise, in 2015, when the Washington DC police department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, announced that, “In an effort to be inclusive of all members of the LGBT community, the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit will change its name to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit,” a Huffington Post article about the change focused exclusively on increased awareness of trans issues, using the word bisexual only once when paraphrasing the above statement.
Meanwhile, some organizations have yet to even bother to take re-naming action. A resource pamphlet put out by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLESEN) for student Gay Straight Alliance programs expresses emphatic support for keeping “gay” in these student groups names — because “many students feel that masking their purpose behind a more neutral-sounding name would be giving into the very anti-LGBT prejudice they came together to address” — without ever acknowledging how using “gay” to represent all LGBTQ+ people is giving into trans and bisexual erasure.
In announcing Huffington Post’s Gay Voices inception, a couple of years after the Bi Summit, the Editorial Director, Noah Mitchelson, had similar sentiments about the word gay, “I also feel that there is still — even in 2011 — something inherently radical about saying the words ‘I’m gay’ out loud… With so many people still in the closet… I like seeing that defiant, unnerving little word blazing so happily on The Huffington Post.”
Again, there was a failure to consider how much bisexual and trans individuals long to see and speak the words that acknowledge our truths.
Mitchelson also said, “While it most often describes a ‘male homosexual,’ ‘gay’ has been and can be used by (and to refer to) those with other marginalized sexual identities.” Mitchelson apparently didn’t seem to comprehend that “gay” can also be used to further marginalize other sexual identities.
LGBT Voices, was dismissed, according to Mitchelson, because it’s, “a little clinical” and “not as instantly recognizable or evocative as Gay Voices.”
This year, when Michelson announced the change to Queer Voices, there was nothing said specifically about wanting to be inclusive of bisexual people, except obtusely, “‘Queer’ functions as an umbrella term that includes not only the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people of ‘LGBT,’ but also those whose identities fall in between, outside of or stretch beyond those categories…”
Clearly, the decision once again not to use some form of LGBT was at least in part due to being cognizant of not wanting to leave any group out, and this leads us to another roadblock in the effort for bisexual visibility. With other marginalized groups speaking up and demanding representation, the “alphabet soup” phenomena of LGBTQQIAAP raises its gangly head screaming with impracticality. There is plenty of reason to celebrate this year’s change at Huff Post, yet the fact remains that while names like Queer Voices don’t erase bisexual people, these kinds of names still do nothing for bi visibility.
For some, rejecting the use of LGBT has been the outcome of thoughtful deliberation. The Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus gives a detailed explanation on their website for the choice they made in 2013 when wanting to expand The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus to something more inclusive. They say they rejected a form of LGBT because they were, “…quite concerned about how to keep the name from becoming increasingly unwieldy with too many letters…”
It has also been argued though, that LGBT or LGBTQ+ should suffice as an umbrella term. For example, The Welcoming Project has a long section on its LGBTQ Community Page about various versions of the initials and states, “The Welcoming Project uses the LGBTQ acronym since it is easily recognized as representative of diversity. While we acknowledge that some groups are not represented in this acronym, we want to stress that The Welcoming Project is supportive of all persons.”
While we can sympathize with their conundrum, the bisexual community cannot help but consider how similar statements have been used to brush off our need for visibility — we certainly can relate to not wanting one’s sexual or gender identity to be assumed or subsumed by other labels. So how can we non-hypocritically suggest that LGBT or even LGBTQ+ should suffice?
Meanwhile, the use of other initialisms has been suggested; for example, GSM (Gender and Sexual Minorities), or GSD (Gender and Sexual Diversity). While these are handy and concise, we are left with the fact that despite LGBT being used for several decades, many straight people still don’t know what LGBT means. Starting over again with a new concept would likely require years of gaining ground just to get to the same recognition level as LGBT. Additionally, terms such as GSM still don’t add visibility to the word bisexual.
Another solution to the problem of implied exclusion is the tactic GLADD chose. In 2013 the non-profit announced it had, “formally dropped the words ‘Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’ from its name and will be known going forward as simply GLAAD.” The announcement came with “…a renewed commitment to incorporate bi and trans people…”
Sadly though — going back to the question of what real differences come with name changes — despite specifically saying they wanted to be bi inclusive, the announcement included bi erasure, “now our name reflects our work on transgender issues as well as our work with allies,” and news reports tended to focus solely on GLADD’s trans inclusion. And again, adjusting acronyms to no longer be exclusionary, still does nothing for bisexual visibility.
Is it possible that hoping for “bisexual,” or the stand-in “B” to be included in the names of organizations and events is no longer on the radar? Will we need to focus our efforts on demanding more bisexual content, and bisexual-inclusive content, to make up for what can’t be achieved in renaming? If so, how hopeful can we be for a successful outcome for that in the near future? The answer may reside in where the exclusionary names came from in the first place.
Let’s consider a statement Michelson included in his announcement about the change to Queer Voices, “… the end goal of the queer movement has never been about assimilation or becoming just like everyone else. We’re proud of our queerness — our glittering otherness — and we want to be treated with the same dignity and afforded the same rights and humanity as everyone else while our magnificent, extraordinary differences remain intact to be honored and celebrated.”
This is an attitude that the bisexual community can laud both with enthusiasm and
irony, because in fact the “glittering otherness,” of the bisexual community has not been “honored and celebrated” by the greater LGBT community, but instead swept under the rug, or as Bisexual Activist Robin Ochs put it during the Bi Summit, “We oversimplify our messaging so people will ‘get it’ but then they don’t ‘get it’ because we’ve given them an over-simplistic message…The ick factor with bisexuality is both about a resistance to sex and a resistance to complexity.”
This mindset about bisexuality can most clearly, and disturbingly, be seen in the recommendations of the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). Founded in 2006, MAP is an, “…independent think tank that provides rigorous research, insight and analysis that help speed equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.” While MAP’s intent is to help the entire LGBT population, some of the tactics they’ve come up with – which arguably have largely been responsible for gains in “LGBT” rights – have included intentional erasure of the word bisexual.
The introduction to the “Ally’s Guide to Terminology Talking About LGBT People & Equality” created by MAP in conjunction with GLADD states, “The words we use to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and issues can have a powerful impact on our conversations. The right words can help open people’s hearts and minds, while others can create distance or confusion. For example, the abbreviation “LGBT” is commonly used within the movement for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender equality, but it can be confusing and alienating to people who don’t understand what it means (for many media and mainstream audiences, the term gay and transgender is more accessible without being overwhelming).” The recommendation to use “gay and transgender” to refer to the entire community, is reiterated later in the document’s list of “Terms to Use.”
Another resource created by the two organizations, “Talking About: Overall Approaches for LGBT Equality” repeats these sentiments, and following its own advice uses, “gay and transgender” throughout the document, as well as expressly promoting the phrase “gay marriage” as preferable over “same-sex marriage.”
The accompanying “Art and Science of Framing an Issue” guide which, “includes principles and strategies for effectively framing issues in authentic ways that can resonate with people’s values,” uses the word “gay” seventeen times, and the words “bisexual” and “trans” zero times.
Considering this advice — which many seem to have followed — it was encouraging that Mitchelson also said, about changing to Queer Voices, “I think that a lot of groups who are marginalized or disenfranchised have their sights set on trying to bring about liberation for that particular group. It’s only been recently that people understand that most oppressions are all tied together. We’re not going to really get very far if we’re just trying to work in our own lane. We actually have to be working with each other because at the end of the day we’re all trying to get the same thing, I hope. And that is liberation for all marginalized people and for all people.”
Of course bisexual and trans people have understood this all along. The same sentiment was expressed much more emphatically and challengingly in this comment by trans activist Janet Mock, “If we are defining equality as something that is scarce and limited and is for a very select few in our community and some of us need to wait a little bit, that is not equality, that is upholding very systematic systems of oppression.”
When bisexual people ask to be included, we aren’t being nit-picky about names. Adding a “B” to your name is a nice gesture, but visibility and acceptance is the real issue. Achieving that goal will indeed require that the whole community work together. And that means reminding our gay and straight allies to include us explicitly in relevant discussions. So, next time, please, #SayBisexual.