Guest Blogger

How To Be an Ally To a Bisexual Person

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 10, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, The Movement
Tags: bisexual, bisexuality, bisexuals, Human Rights Campaign, LGBT community, straight allies

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Ellyn Ruthstrom is the President of the Bisexual Resource Center and the Calendar Editor of Bi Women Boston.

ellyn in color.jpgI was walking down the street in Jamaica Plain a few days ago when two people with clipboards approached me and asked, "Do you have time for gay rights?" I cheerfully replied that I always had time for gay rights and stopped to listen to their pitch. The young man took the lead and giggled a little, looking at the woman with him. He seemed new to the task. He began, "The Human Rights Campaign is a gay and lesbian organization..."

I stopped him there, "I thought it was a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender organization."

He was a little startled but tried to recover, "Oh, yes, it is but it's just so long to say..."

"That's too bad," I said, "because I'm bisexual and HRC's record on inclusiveness is really poor. Sorry, I can't support you today."

Sadly, there are still many national GLBT organizations that give short shrift to bisexual and trans visibility within their outreach and policy development. Bi activists constantly try to claim our space within the greater GLBT community, often feeling our work gets erased like a sand castle below the high water mark.

I've drawn up a few tips that can certainly be taken into account by organizations, but my main focus was on the individual level. Straight allies can benefit from these recommendations, but I know that a lot of them come from my experiences with gays and lesbians over the years.

Believe that I exist. Despite ongoing scientific research that seems so determined to disprove the existence of bisexuality plus the general lack of interest by the greater gay and lesbian community in acknowledging us, we really do exist.

When I tell you I'm bisexual, please don't try to talk me into redefining my identity into something more comfortable for you. Please don't tell me that if I haven't been sexual with more than one sex in the last three, five, or ten years that I am no longer bisexual.

Celebrate bisexual culture along with me. We have a vibrant and rich cultural history within the bi community. Not only do we have fabulous examples of cultural communities that accepted and practiced bisexual living/loving--Bloomsbury Group, Greenwich Village, Harlem Renaissance--but from Sappho to Walt Whitman to Virginia Woolf to James Baldwin to June Jordan, we have many daring voices that have expressed love beyond the monosexual confines.

Please don't try to convince me that people who lived bisexual lives in the past would have been gay if they had lived today. You don't know that, I don't know that, and your insistence that it is true says that you believe that people were bisexual only out of necessity, not by desire. I believe there have always been bisexual people just as you may believe there have always been gay and lesbian people.

Validate my frustration with the gay and lesbian community when they ignore or exclude bisexuals. Please don't try and defend an action such as a keynote speaker who is addressing a GLBT audience but consistently says "gay and lesbian" when referring to all of us. It bothers me, so even if you don't think it's that important yourself, please don't try and talk me out of my feelings.

Ask me, if appropriate, about my other-sex relationships and my same-sex relationships. Bisexuals live our lives in multiple ways. Some of us are monogamous and we would like to discuss that relationship openly with the people in our lives, no matter whom it is with. Some of us have more than one relationship going on and we'd like to be able to share that with others without feeling judgment.

If there is some sort of bisexual scandal in the news, don't use it as an opportunity to make derisive remarks about bisexuals generally. As we know, all communities have examples of "bad behavior," and painting everyone with the same brush doesn't create much understanding between us.

When I'm not around, or any other bisexual, speak up when bisexual people are being defamed or excluded. It's great when we can witness your support, but I'd love to know you are helping us even when we are not looking. You'll be the best ally possible!


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She hit the nail on the head with this one. I hate when people say "well, you've been with women for a few years now, don't you think you're a lesbian?"

No, I think I'm a bisexual. Please don't try and tell me what I think.

I provide primary content editing at an organization that represents Men who bond intimately with other men.
We generally believe that amBisexuality (being BI) is the social norm. Kinsey said about 70% and this stat has been proven with more research & lots of experience from our members.
Some day - society will wake up & realize that virtually "Everyone is Bi".
I'm a Kinsey-6.
However, my relationships have always been with "straight guys" who turned out were not quite 100 "straight".
For men grappling with M2M attraction issues - I invite you to check us out! There is a different way of seeing the world & you don't need to accept the "gay" label!

jimmyreed | April 8, 2010 2:21 AM

I can say with conviction, that bi means bi. Sexual encounters with both is a huge turn on

I am bi-sexual but usually just say "I'm gay" to avoid confrontation. How do you answer the accusation that we can choose and are validating the fundamental religious claim that homosexuality is a choice?

Allow me to offer a line stolen from a friend of mine:

The only choice i ever made was to be honest with myself and the people i care about.

Paige Listerud | March 11, 2009 1:49 AM

How about these answers:

"I don't recall choosing my sexuality. But whether people choose their sexuality or not, same-sex relationships are worth choosing."

"There are those who are only attracted to people of one gender. (Did you wake up one day and decide, "I think I'll be exclusively straight for the rest of my life"?) I don't happen to be one of them. My sexuality doesn't paint me into a corner nor does it hold a gun to my head and force me to have sex with all genders all of the time. Rather, it makes intimate relationships with people across the gender spectrum possible for me. I choose to have intimate relationships that are meaningful to me, regardless of gender, and I find this culture's discrimination against same-sex relationships to be arbitrary, cruel, unjust, and sick."

"Jesus never called anyone an abomination; more importantly, he never treated anyone like an abomination. I suspect that your religion is not Christianity, but patriarchal heterosexuality. That is the god you really worship."

I personally feel very uncomfortable adopting a defense of sexuality that does not honor my personal agency. Keep in mind that the straight guy who says, "I can tolerate those homosexuals because they can't help themselves," is still intrinsically homophobic--even if it is homophobia deferred.

here here! it's so nice to see someone saying this, and so eloquently.

Lindasusan | March 10, 2009 6:34 PM

According to several demographic studies, there are about twice as many self-identified bisexuals in the U.S. as gays or lesbians. (And that's not even counting people who are attracted to both same-sex and different-sex partners but don't identify as bi.) In other words, we bisexuals account for about half of the 8.8 million LGB* people in this country. Perhaps one day soon, all of our queer colleagues and organizations will acknowledge our existence.


* Gender identity is a separate variable, with far less data available.

Laura Hart | March 11, 2009 7:15 AM

Gender Identity may be a seperate variable but sexual orientation in Ts is exactly the same. No need to exclude.

Great Job clarifying Laura Hart. It is always refreshing when someone can gently clarify - it avoids causing a person with good intentions to become combative, and encourages them to make a mental note of and incorporate the correction.

But that's just the trouble, Charles -- I *can't* choose! ;)

Wow, two really great guest posts in one day.

Yes, yes, and yes about remaining an ally even when no bi people are around. That's what real integrity is about!

This post and Wyatt's today and others before are why TBP is an indispensible place to find out about and stir the bubbling pot of ideas that's making us all different people, better people.

That was just so bang on. There is so much invisibility and yet somehow people continually claim inclusivity within the movement. You are right that the first part to being an alley is to equally recognize all beings.

Thanks for this great column. I recognize all of it in the situation in the Netherlands here as well. We are also often "forgotten" in movements that say that they are LGBT... B's and T's also have to "fight" here for our place in the LGBT movements.
I placed a link to this article on our Dutch bi-mailinglist.
Gr.
Frank

Thank you.

This is definitely something we need to hear and speak more about.

Wonderful post. So clearly stated.

Excellent post! As a bisexual trans woman, I know I'm at the far end of the LGBTQwhatever list, but I definitely exist.

It's true. Whenever something says it's "gay" or "lesbian and gay," I have to wonder whether I'm included.

I've been guilty in the past of just naturally assuming it was GLB, not giving a thought to how just plain invisible Bisexual people are.

I would like to know what issues Bi people face that GL people don't. Can anyone help there? This article's an excellent start.

Uhm, just off the top of my head, they're charged as being traitors to both straights and gays and lesbians. There's the old "you just can't admit you're gay/lesbian"/"it's just a phase"/"you're experimenting" canard. And, finally, supposedly being untrustworthy or more likely to cheat.

(No, I'm not bi, so I'm sure I'm missing more issues.)

Nightsinge | March 11, 2009 3:26 AM

While I don't use the term "bisexual" as it enforces a gender binary (and I'm attracted to transsexuals, gender-neutral and intersex peoples) I certainly admire Ruthstrom's article. ;>

Zoe, I think this article speaks to the issue of marginalization. Not including the term bisexual, assuming that bisexuals "just haven't made up their minds yet," or disincluding bisexuals in anti-discrimination policies for a start.

But bisexuals face invisibility when folks assume that they are strictly of a gay or straight orientation based on who they are partnered with too. That's endemic.

Can we have a conversation now about how telling bisexuals they are "reinforcing the gender binary" doesn't fall into the category of being an ally?

CBrachyrhynchos | March 11, 2009 2:14 PM

Oh, I don't know about that. Bisexuals, omnisexuals, and pansexuals have been debating this all the way back to the 80s. I don't think it makes someone less of an ally to point out that there is a ton of problems associated with the term.

My personal approach tends to be to shy away from policing anyone else's self-identification. People come to their identities and find meaning in all sorts of different ways, through a variety of experiences and frameworks.

I understood NightSinge's comment to be in relation to hir identity, and not seemingly intended as an accusation, per se. Although, I do also see how it could come across that way.

There is definitely tension in the terminology debates (bisexual, omnisexual, pansexual, queer), and I'd venture that part of that comes from the reality that people become invested in language that helps lend meaning and shape to their lived experiences. There are going to be all sorts of people who have strong ties to one term or another, and I'd like to believe it's possible to engage in respectful dialogue about the varied social readings of any terminology without attacking one another.

I personally identify as queer, rather than bisexual, because it feels more affirming of my personal experiences, my partner's gender identity (gender queer), and the particularly politicized identity I try to embody - but that is, in no way, a rejection of bisexuality or a critique* of those who find the term and identity useful and meaningful. It's not mine, but neither is pansexual or omnisexual, for that matter. I think the identifying terms that feel most comfortable are also going to be mediated by our various social contexts, particularly in regard to age/generation, class, race, gender, and religion.

Furthermore, I face many of the same challenges and erasures that bisexual identified people face, so to simply put me (or others like me) in the category of 'ally' (and thus either 'good ally' or 'bad ally,' which I have a whole host of other issues with) because I don't claim the same identity feels counter productive.

When I try to tell stories about my life from 3 years ago, they often include my former partner. But how I identify him (partner, boyfriend, pronouns, etc) in either predominantly LG contexts or predominantly straight contexts runs the same risk of erasure and/or being-unwillingly-stuck-in-a-box-ness as it would if I identfied as bi instead of queer.

*Queer, for me, is fundamentally political and in-opposition to normativity, so in that sense, there's a whole lot of critique in it. But it's not an attack on any given person identifying in a way that feels authentic to them.

Personally I find the term bisexual awkward. I identify myself as bisexual when talking to others, but I don't feel that I have a 'bisexual identity', if that makes any sense. I think that labels are always going to be a problem, whomever we're attracted to, because people are simply far too complicated for one-term-fits-all.

I think the fight for bisexuals to be recognized is incredibly important, but I often feel like a bit of a fraud when I call myself bisexual, because it simply doesn't mesh with my worldview very well. I never felt right calling myself straight, and considering my crushes on guys, I can't really consider myself a lesbian. I've always just been me, and I've always just been attracted to people. Pansexual and omnisexual are more inclusive terms, but I still feel as though I'd be laying claim to an identity I don't feel and a community I'm not a part of.

I don't know if this is making any sense--but I feel as though grouping ourselves into these small communities of gays, lesbians, bi, trans, straight, allies, etc. is sort of self-defeating. My sexuality does not define me, nor does it define anyone I know. It's merely a part of me/us.

Peace,
Maggie

Thank you, Ellyn. I started off my activism "career" as part of BiNET AZ and BiNET USA, and even served as the Co-Chair of the Arizona chapter. I learned a lot from my bisexual brothers and sisters and I cannot thank them enough.

As time went on, I realized that I was only interested in women, so I now say that I'm "historically bisexual." I have recently realized that I am finding men interesting again, but only trans men.

One of the things that bothers me is the ex-gay movement, but not in the ways people may think. Straight bigots say that they can make gay people straight and the gay people who oppose them say you can't change people's orientation. Neither side will admit that maybe, just maybe, the people who seem to "change" are really bisexuals who had no idea about their bisexuality. These people are not really changing. They are bisexuals who use Jesus as an excuse to sleep with the opposite sex. I think that the gay activist who oppose this change are too narrow-minded to accept the concept of bisexuality in these cases.

Paige Listerud | March 11, 2009 2:36 PM

Might I add that it is not enough to simply point out that bisexuals are in the ex-gay movement.

Just because some people's sexuality is fluid and can change doesn't mean that other people have a right to make them change.

Under compulsory heterosexuality, physical, psychological, economic, and religious violence are used to terrorize all lgbt. Bisexuals are especially vulnerable to the accusation that if you can ever possibly be attracted to the opposite sex, then you have to be heterosexual or you deserve the oppression that you get for not conforming.

Be a bisexual ally by realizing that straight homophobes will use the concept of bisexuality against all queers to justify their violent homophobic practices, but at the same time, they don't give a rat's ass about the lives, health, rights and well-being of actual bisexuals.

Thanks for an excellent article Ellyn. One other thing that I would ask of our allies is to please not buy into the current vogue of saying that women's sexuality is more fluid then men's and that all men are really either straight or gay. We're not. I've identified as bi for over 35 years and I can't tell you the number of "gay" or "straight" men I've known during that time who have told me privately that they are actually bisexual, but are afraid to come out for fear of being ostracized, particularly by the gay community. The numbers of bisexual men and women are comparable, but social pressures are keeping more men from being open about it.

Everyday Transperson | March 11, 2009 3:37 PM

WONDERFUL article !! Thanks for touching on a subject that needs so much attention in the community right now and for telling it like it is.

I am so glad to have found this site. Thank you for such an incisive commentary on the state of "being bisexual" in this world. Will check back often.

I totally agree with you - I too believe that most people in the "ex-gay movement" are simply bisexual. Some of them may not know it, and some of them are obviously in it for the money and attention.

*applauds* Wonderful stuff, I'll be pointing friends at this for a while to come!

I don't support HRC either because of their record with transgender people. I'm a transgender person who refuses to hide her identity. Bisexuals shouldn't either. I applaud Ellyn's stand aginst HRC. I the future, I will support bisexual issues.

Diane Sicotte | July 5, 2009 10:30 PM

Thanks, Ellyn! I am currently teaching a sociology course on sexuality in which we are questioning heteronormativity and a lot of other assumptions. I feel it is vital that all the students gain some understanding of bisexuality (and that the bisexual students in my class feel comfortable and validated). I plan to give my students a copy of the Klein Grid to fill out and contemplate. Your blog will also be assigned reading!

A friend of mine from years back referred to himself as "fully sexual," or "omnisexual," refusing to even accept the term "bisexual." He said it had too much baggage of its own to be useful and that he didn't find it adequately descriptive.

My closest friend just came out to me about his bisexuality after three and a half to four years of letting me think he was 100% straight. I am straight myself, but I have always been a gay rights activist. Unfortunately, I have never believed that true bisexual people existed until now. I am corrected, of course, and I am doing loads of research on the subject.

I accepted my friend the moment he came out to me, and believed him right away instead of trying to tell him that, "Oh, no, you're just sexually confused," or, "You're just gay and afraid to admit it." I knew these were the wrong things to do. Unfortunately, my common sense stops there, and a problem arises.... He is uncomfortable with his sexuality, and has only come out to his parents (who were not accepting) and me. I want to help him accept himself, of course, because I think it is important that he doesn't feel like a monster because of who he is.

So, where's the problem, you ask? Well, I do not know how much to mention it. I am famous for looking on the optimistic side of things, and I have been known to joke about my own problems (or other problems) to cheer myself/others up in "dark times." I think, though, that my jokes - which are playful and friendly in nature - might hurt his feelings or make him feel worse about coming out to other people. So, my question is how do I act normally about it without bothering him into a deeper state of self-unacceptance?

I think, though, that my jokes - which are playful and friendly in nature - might hurt his feelings or make him feel worse about coming out to other people. So, my question is how do I act normally about it without bothering him into a deeper state of self-unacceptance?

As someone who is neither lesbian nor bisexual but has many friends who are, as well as friends who are gay and transgender, I think what is most frustrating for me is the difficulty I have in being an advocate in the staunchest sense of the word. Not because I don't believe everyone is entitled to live the life they are meant in their heart to live but because I don't see my friends as having a label. Would I speak up for them? Absolutely. Do I define them as their preference for a partner or a lifestyle? Absolutely not. I don't resist being a strong advocate and ally whenever it comes up, but it's hard sometimes to remember that even though I see my friends as the heart and soul and mind of someone I adore, not everyone else sees that. Sometimes I'm glad I can forget that because I would truly like the world to be full of people who don't see what labels we have accrued but what life we have lived, what growth we have made, what laughter we have shared and what love we have absorbed.

I know my friends don't see my color, language, age, size, or sexual preference when they see me because they see the person who comforted then when their relationship ended, celebrated their achievements, sang into the dark after a night out on the beach facing their fears, or who drove them to the doctors when they were sick and alone. So if you feel like sometimes people don't speak up for you...sometimes it is because we see you as more than that one part of who you are, not because we don't honor and accept and love the GLBT part of you...because we do. :)

Omg. Thank you so much for writing this.

Thanks for an excellent article Ellyn. One other thing that I would ask of our allies is to please not buy into the current vogue of saying that women's sexuality is more fluid then men's and that all men are really either straight or gaySohbet

Well Mehmet, they have finally recently found 'scientific' (ahum) 'proof' that bisexual men do exist. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/23/health/23bisexual.html