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Bisexuals deserve more than #BiWeek
Caitlin Childs (CC-BY-SA)
With high rates of abuse, poverty, and suicide, bisexual people are still highly stigmatized.
What started as a community effort in 2014 to celebrate bisexuality went on to become an annual viral digital campaign with real-world impact — and I was lucky enough to co-found it. As #BiWeek (Bisexual+ Awareness Week) hits its milestone 5th run this week, the public’s understanding of the bisexual+ community seems light years ahead of where it was when the campaign began, but also nowhere near where it needs to be. While the bi+ community is in the midst of a “media moment,” we face a critical challenge: can we capitalize on this moment to keep building towards the acceptance, equality, and access we need to thrive, or have we peaked?
The whole LGBTQ community needs to be invested in bisexual+ people’s well-being because there will never be full LGBTQ equality if bisexuals+ aren’t intentionally included. According to “Understanding Issues Facing Bisexual Americans,” the bisexual+ community (bi, pansexual, and anyone else attracted to more than gender) comprises more than half of the LGBTQ community. Compared to our gay and straight peers, bi+ people face higher rates of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; poverty and homelessness; social rejection; anxiety, suicidality, and depression; health disparities; and more. We also receive significantly less funding than gay, lesbian, or even trans communities. In fact, the bi+ community receives virtually no funding at all. Simply put, the LGBTQ movement is leaving more than half of its community behind. If the winning hand is full equality, the movement is currently walking away with at least 52 percent of its proverbial chips on the table.
These hurdles are fueled by harmful misconceptions held by gay and straight people (and often internalized by bisexuals+), including that bi+ people lie about who they are and are inherently destructive, deceitful, and incapable of monogamy. Such stereotypes are often invoked in attempt to justify the abuse bi+ people endure. The dangerous and dehumanizing views about bisexual+ people are fueled by the media. Despite making up the majority of the queer community, only 28 percent of bi+ people report being out to their loved ones, compared to 77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians. Without real-life bisexual+ people in the driver seat, the cultural narrative about us has been heavily false. Since its inception, #BiWeek has worked to fill a vital, systemic gap that impacts bi+ people’s everyday lives: a platform to be seen and heard.
Like many vulnerable communities, bisexual+ people have long created our own forums to empower and safely connect with one another by telling our stories, ourselves. #BiWeek sought to both harness and celebrate this energy and agency. My fellow co-founders’ commitment to a celebratory week was rooted in the conviction that our community deserves love and recognition for all we’ve accomplished. Educating people on the community’s intersections, needs, and even basic definitions was a key priority to ensure the campaign had an impact that wasn’t insular, but everyone agreed it should be conducted through the lens of honoring bi+ people, whose identities and contributions are often erased from history, the media, and advocacy efforts.
When #BiWeek started, the media landscape for bi+ people wasn’t where it is now. According to GLAAD’s 2013-2014 Where We Are On TV report, bisexuals accounted for just 8% and 14% of regular and recurring LGBT characters on broadcast and cable, respectively. GLAAD most recently finds 28% of all LGBTQ characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms are bi+. While quantity still isn’t proportionate with reality, high-quality stand-out moments have generated buzz and, dare I say, hope. Bi+ artists like Sara Ramirez, Asia Kate Dillon, Stephanie Beatriz, Travon Free, Janelle Monae, and more are doubling as advocates, developing art that humanizes bisexuality+ to the general public.
In the summer of 2014, Faith Cheltenham, then the President of leading national bi+ advocacy organization BiNet USA, reached out to let me know a group of accomplished bi+ advocates with diverse expertise were interested in creating an extended social media campaign. She thought I’d be able to help bring awareness to the campaign because of my insights as an LGBTQ media advocate. As she said to me recently, reflecting on the campaign’s inception, “Bisexuals just do it better, including creating a week to save our own lives…May it only be the start.”
When I wasn’t in the office piecing #BiWeek together that summer, I was busy in Brooklyn, dating and falling in love with a woman for the first time, an impetus to finally come out once and for all to my friends, immediate family, and myself. I first knew I was attracted to more than one gender when I was in second grade, but I didn’t start to think of myself as bisexual until seventh grade, and then I spent the next decade trying every way possible to convince myself that wasn’t true. Building from scratch and spearheading the bisexual+ advocacy program for GLAAD, the leading LGBTQ media advocacy organization, was a forceful and much-needed push to come to terms with an identity I had been afraid and ashamed of for practically my entire life. It connected me with community leaders like Faith who seemed to know everything there was to know about bisexual+ people, history, data, advocacy, and community. Helping build #BiWeek introduced me to an even broader range of community leaders—academics, researchers, community organizers, writers, and more.
At 23, I felt like I’d been let into a high-level squad of change-makers and I wanted to contribute as best I could, though I wasn’t fully confident in what I brought to the table. I was relatively new to media advocacy and was cutting my teeth in real time. I’d led successful media campaigns before, but only in response to breaking news. This was a new opportunity to strategically build something new, exactly how we wanted it. Our team of #BiWeek organizers convened regularly to decide on a name for the campaign that we thought could possibly get traction on Twitter, a reasonable flight length for the campaign, daily themes to uplift the community’s intersections and oft-ignored issues, tactics for centering some of the most marginalized voices within the community, how to build informative materials and where on the internet to put them, and so on.
I don’t remember any of us setting quantifiable goals for the first #BiWeek, but I do remember sobbing in my apartment the day before the campaign launched, convinced that I didn’t know what I was doing and had somehow sabotaged the whole team effort. I also remember the excitement that unfolded throughout the following week as I realized I was wrong. So many people were visiting #BiWeek pages on GLAAD’s website that, at first, we thought our analytics tool was malfunctioning. Faith and I were on the phone when I discovered that one of the themes we’d created was trending on Twitter in a few cities. “Hey, Dr. H,” she called out to a fellow co-founder. “Alexandra says we’re trending!” I don’t think we ever would have guessed that, the following year, #BiWeek would trend nationwide, or that conversations about the bisexual+ community would trend each year during the campaign.
Throughout the years, #BiWeek has succeeded where many hashtags fail by transcending “slacktivism” and translating into concrete impact. Under the Obama administration, the White House hosted several first-of-their-kind bisexual+ community briefings where advocates from around the country gathered to tackle pertinent policy priorities, from education to immigration reform and beyond. Lectures, programming, and social events are held around the world that educate people on bi+ issues, foster community, and, importantly, create opportunities for bi+ advocates to get paid for their expertise–a rare occurrence. Print and digital resources are created and amplified, like how schools can support bi+ students, best practices for media professionals covering bisexuality+, and advice on coming out as bi+.
The digital impact is not to be discounted. In 2017, the conversations around bisexuality on social media nearly doubled during #BiWeek, with literally millions of people around the world getting to understand bisexual people in a new way. Notable celebrities, leading media outlets, organizations across cause spaces, companies, and schools have, in recent years, begun participating as the campaign’s visibility has expanded to reach gay and straight allies. For decades, our community has been silenced, erased, and siloed from the main stage and #BiWeek has actively chipped away at that by using social media as a digital organizing tool.
My role with #BiWeek taught me a lot about strategic digital communications. Yes, I learned about effective outreach, media plans, content optimization, and the like. Most importantly, though, I learned that centering otherwise marginalized voices is, in fact, a super effective growth strategy. The constant party lines are that the general public “isn’t ready for,” “can’t relate to,” or “feels isolated by” media that veers from the norm. #BiWeek helps prove this wrong. The demand for intersectional media built by and about underrepresented communities is big, but the supply is much smaller than it should be. For the supply to successfully meet this need, it best be made with integrity, because otherwise the bullshit will be swiftly sniffed out, called out, and weeded out. Thoughtfully creating a forum that resonates requires teamwork and delegation from an inclusive group of decision-makers and strategists. Diverse expertise makes for a richer campaign and can actually broaden the audience. A willingness to critically listen to feedback, reflect, and regroup builds momentum and sustainability. This might seem like the opposite of what many in established positions of power claim, but they’re either not fully invested in our collective liberation or they’re not paying close enough attention. Tell them about #BiWeek and see what they say.
“#BiWeek has led to additional research opportunities being created and funded for the bisexual community, including needed grants for research on bisexual people of color,” Lynnette McFadzen, President of BiNet USA, told me in an email. “Perhaps there really is a hope that change can truly and finally be invoked. Globally!”
#BiWeek has gotten people talking and doing. It produces and aggregates the resources I desperately searched for but couldn’t find as a kid. I’ve found community in helping build it and I’ve seen others find community by participating in it. The campaign stands on the shoulders of the giants who have thanklessly been organizing and advocating for bi+ people longer than you know. But it’s nowhere near enough. We need to keep #BiWeek going and growing, but we need to start leveraging it. We’ve got the floor and folks are listening, so we need to make some asks.
Include all of us. If the work doesn’t center bi+ people with intersecting vulnerable identities–the very folks who have led the LGBTQ movement throughout history–then the work isn’t being done well. Whether you’re a perfectionist or just a person with a conscience, falling short in that way should make you itch. Reproductive justice, racial justice, prison reform, gun safety, immigration, trans equality–these are all issues that impact the bi+ community and we all need to be tackling them in tandem. Include bi+ people in year-round programming, content, funding allocation, planning, events…whatever the thing is that you’re building, ask yourself how a variety of bi+ people with different backgrounds can play a role and how you can make them feel welcome to do so.
Study us and fund us. Research is important because it’s the crux of a stronger case for everything else: inclusive legislation, funding, census data, funding, media representation, funding, community resources…did I mention funding? Comparatively, there are only a handful of studies focused specifically on bi+ people’s lives and needs. Our experiences are not typically disaggregated from research on the overall LGBTQ community. When research identifies a need for the LGBTQ community, the resources designated to meet those needs go into the general LGBTQ pot, even though bi+ people are often excluded from safely accessing those goods. If bi+ people will ever have a fair shot at thriving, we need research that’s specifically about us and–this part is key–we need to get regular people to give a shit about the findings so they can join us in lobbying for everything else.
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#BiWeek has been a valuable tool for both familiarizing the general public with the issues bi+ people face as well as humanizing their impact. #BiWeek can also elevate this work even further by housing a strategic, widespread, mainstream media push around such research that unpacks complicated data, makes it accessible and engaging for a broad audience, and does so with real-life stories, faces, and names. The groundwork has been laid but now the framework has to be built, and my advice is to do it now before the window for a tipping point closes and this bi+ media moment just tips over.
Maybe I’m being an alarmist. I’ve had a long year: My relationship with the woman I was running around Brooklyn in love with went down in flames. I’m navigating a new phase of my career for the first time. As you’ve noticed, the political climate is wholly terrifying. I’m not interested in letting good things lose momentum right now. Our community can’t afford that. These personal transitions of mine have taught me how to both ask for help and accept when it’s offered. The same squad of change-makers I sheepishly teamed up with to build #BiWeek comprise a meaningful support system as I find new footing. I have no doubt we’re in good hands. I’m just asking you to keep your hands in the mix, too, and help us build.