Editor's Note: As president of BiNet USA -- the national non-profit advocacy organization for bisexual people -- guest blogger Faith Cheltenham co-organized the 2013 Bisexual Community Issues Roundtable at the White House. As a web producer/social media strategist, Faith has been employed by brands such as Scholastic, Sony Pictures, Macmillan, and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. An LGBT activist for 15 years, Faith is also an accomplished writer, slam poet and stand-up comic. She lives in LA with her husband, step-daughter and son.
Reflections from the First Bi Community Leader to Meet With President Obama
Some days even I'm not quite sure how I do it: I'm a mom to one kid and one stepkid, wife to one geek, and president of BiNet USA, one of the oldest national bisexual non-profit organizations. I've been blessed to balance being a "stay-at-home mom" with being a full-time bisexual community organizer, activist, writer, and speaker. Some days I end up showing up to a conference with more fruit snacks than necessary, or I do calls with national magazines while my teething toddler naps. And some days I careen through the halls of the White House, passing security checks as fast as both my body and proper deference to Secret Service allow.
Last week, I was invited to stand with President Obama as he signed an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. On the dais next to the president, people are like palm trees bending toward the ocean -- everyone leans forward to better hear which way justice will bend today. As a person who's been fired from or quit multiple jobs because of biphobia and homophobia, it was an enormous privilege for me to stand by the president as he called on Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), because right now, according to the Movement Advancement Project, 52% of LGBT people live in states that don't prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
President Obama signs the executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Faith Cheltenham is second from right, next to black transgender icon Kylar Broadus. Photo credit: Chicago Tribune
There's never been an American president so intent on introducing diversity as a mandated companion to equality. It is not enough, and it is never enough, to be "single-issue" in our focus on ending the stigma of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual. At the same time that we must gnash our teeth against religious exemptions, we must not give up the fight for all people to be free, including those who come from backgrounds of faith like mine.
It would be ideal for the LGBTQIA movement to join with as many diverse backgrounds as possible, because I believe that all who are afflicted by stigma deserve to be set free.
This means LGBT organizations working to save lives need regular diversity training and internal infrastructures to maintain their cultural competency. It means more than just having two black people on staff, a token transgender person, or a token any person. I like to say a token isn't worth anything if you can't spend it. I use that quip as a joke, but often it's not.
I often find myself in the midst of being tokenized and utilized for a freedom that doesn't include me. As a black bisexual woman, I am routinely erased from narratives for a more convenient fiction: that the LGBT community is all gay, all white, all cisgender, and all rich. Instead of the rainbow being a prism that reflects us all, it has served as a laser that divides lesbian against gay, white LGBTs against LGBTs of color, trans* against bisexual*, bisexual against pansexual, and so on until no one is left free from feeling invalidated.
I once was fired for being black and queer because my supervisor was black and said, "That's OK for them, but it's not OK for us black folks, and I don't want 'that' around me." I also had a supervisor express profound disappointment that I was bisexual because the workplace needed someone "fierce" like a black lesbian. And let's not even talk about that disastrous office holiday party where my breast size was discussed and nearly betted upon. As I said last year to the Center for American Progress, "The prevailing logic has remained that if I am out as a bisexual woman, I must be asking for something: discrimination, harassment, or even sexual assault."
BiNet USA Bisexual Awareness Presentation
As a bisexual woman, I want "bisexual" to be synonymous with saving my life. Anytime a bisexual person self-identifies, we must also identify that person's bravery and resiliency for existing and continuing to exist in a deeply biphobic and openly disaffirming world. The first wave of the bisexual movement focused a great deal on confirming bisexuality as a valid identity, and the second wave called for bisexual inclusion and visibility.
I think we're in a third wave now: the one where you fall in love with us. We have our own smoking-hot archetypes, art, comics, films, books, and more culture than one can possibly dream of (including Angelina Jolie, Alan Cumming, Anna Paquin, and Amber Heard -- and those are just the bisexual celebrities whose first names start with "A"!) And all of us are equally resilient and equally brave.
Having frank conversations about acephobia, biphobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and classism are necessary in order to keep our entire community safe and whole, even if inclusive language is sometimes unfamiliar and suspiciously lacking in cynicism. Sexual and gender minority movements have never had a "more perfect union," but we can still build one on the backs of our collected strength.
Gold-star lesbians should be able to lean on bi women for support in our mutual fight against cancer because both our communities report higher risk factors for cancer than our heterosexual peers, although sometimes for different reasons. Gay men still need consistent validation that their experiences are being heard because they too have been assaulted, hated, and bullied (even when kissing gorgeously on TV). The other side of the rainbow is now in sight, so what will we make it look like?
I know what it looks like when a movement leaves someone behind. Today bisexual people report higher rates of health, safety, and social disparities than their gay, lesbian, and in some cases, transgender peers. We have lost so many, both young and old, to anti-bi jokes and other microaggressions that destroyed fragile selves already worn through from multiple sexual assaults, suicide attempts, and poor health. We lost too many to cancers that we had no idea we had higher risk factors for. At times, no one would even hear us claim our dead.
As Dan Savage recently suggested, bisexuals have every right to be a horde at the gates of "Gay Inc." demanding that the LGBT community end its own bisexual erasure, stigma, and discrimination. I would ask that Dan Savage also demand that every organization that says it works for the "B" in LGBT be trained in bisexual community issues and work alongside leaders and experts from our consensus-driven collaborative movement.
2013 Bi Community Issues Roundtable at the White House Attendees, BiNetUSA.org
We can't save lives alone, and I'm proud we have amazing gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, ace, intersex, and heterosexual allies who stand with us and against every stupid myth, stereotype, and slight against complex sexualities. Together we're fighting against a monosexist society that would call for bisexuals to "come out," and then close the gates to desperately-needed resources when they do. Bisexual resources and support opportunities still need to be created at nearly every major LGBT organization, and doing so will ensure bisexual people won't continue to face immediate sexual assault, stigma, and suicidality upon disclosing they are bisexual.
How I got up there onstage with President Obama last week is also the story of how I survived growing up black, broke, and bisexual. It's the tale of how I got up from thinking I was alone and never at home in the world, let alone at home with a word that described my own community. And it's another step in the nearly fifty years of modern bisexual history that belongs to us all.
When I stood by the president, I did not stand alone. My community stood with me.