When Margaret Robinson, PhD, was working on her dissertation - which was on bisexual women and their choices between polyamory and monogamy - she found that the distinctions were more blurry than expected. "I had two groups with a great deal of overlap," she explains. "And the women in the overlap didn't see themselves as being monogamous or poly. Instead monogamy and polyamory were things they did, not who they were."
Now done with her doctoral research, Margaret is far from done with her career in research - or her lifelong commitment to bi activism. She is currently involved with the Bi Mental Health Project, and recently shared with me some information about it and about the future of the bi community.
Amy: What inspired the establishment of the Project?
Margaret: The Bi Mental Health Project was inspired by a pilot study done by Dr. Lori Ross's Re:searching for LGBT Health team at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. They interviewed 55 bisexuals in focus groups, and asked about their experience of mental health. They found that bisexual people reported experiencing biphobia, homophobia, heterosexism and monosexism. Bisexuals reported feeling marginalized in both straight and LGBTQ communities, so they didn't always have access to the kind of support that has been shown to help lower the effects of minority stress. Bisexual people also reported negative experiences with mental health service providers that made them hesitant to seek help. So based on that, we knew that bisexuals were under a lot of stress, and didn't have access to the kind of support or care they needed.
Amy: What's it all about?
Margaret: The goal is to examine issues related to mental health among bisexuals in Ontario. The first stage of the project is an online interview with 800 bisexuals from across the province. We'll be looking at issues that emerged in the pilot study and some suggested by our bisexual community advisory committee, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use, community support, volunteerism, suicidal thoughts, and experiences of exclusion and oppression. We'll be looking carefully to see if there's a relation between mental health and experiences of oppression or community support. We're also asking about people's experiences with mental health service providers, to see if the issues that arose in the focus groups emerge in the larger study as well.
Our project is very much a community-based study, and we're accountable to the bi community. The researchers are bi identified, the community advisory committee is made up of eleven bisexuals from across Ontario, and the focus emerges from the pilot study done with bisexuals in Ontario.
Amy: Where are you right now in the process?
Margaret: The study goes online this month. The first step is for the advisory committee and a few other people (called "seeders") to take the survey and then pass access codes on to three people they know (called "wave one,"), who take the survey and receive three codes to pass on to their friends ("wave two"), and so on. We continue through waves until we reach 800 bisexuals. By tracking the code numbers we can determine how to statistically weigh the data to compensate for our non-random sample. The hope is that we'll get statistically accurate data for bisexuals across the province. The second step will be to hold 40 in-person interviews to discuss issues around resilience (what makes some people able to stay healthy under high levels of stress), as well as help-seeking and self-care (what people do to manage their stress and keep themselves healthy). The third step will be analyzing the data.
Amy: When do we get to see the results?
Margaret: The project finishes in 2013, but we plan to have community forums to share the results before then.
Amy: What is your vision for the future of the bi community/ bi activism?
Margaret: I think this is a time of greater bisexual visibility than we've had before. I think that the bi community is home to a large number of brave and eloquent writers and activists who can make our voices heard in ways that weren't possible before. Bisexual activism is no longer apologetic and tentative, as it was when I was first coming out, back in 1990. I see greater networking, more solidarity, and a greater awareness that there's no one-right-way to be bisexual. There are so many more options for bisexuals now, that I think the pressure to conform is lessened. There's no longer only one place to get support as a bi person.
Amy: How can bi activists outside of Toronto/ Ontario/ Canada bring what you've done here to their communities? What are your tips?
Margaret: The key is to do work that emerges from the needs and interests of the community, and to keep the community involved throughout the project. The bi community tends to be pretty smart, so even if they aren't researchers themselves, they can easily grasp the project and offer ideas. So I'd suggest that people wanting to do research in other places draw on the knowledge base they have. You can't just show up as an outsider and start asking people personal questions. The community is pretty savvy when it comes to issues around knowledge ownership, exploitation, and consent.
It doesn't always take money, either. Our study is funded through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, but I didn't have any funding for my dissertation study. If the community supports the project, they'll help make it happen.