White House Bisexuality Briefing

On 26th September 2016 I attended a historic bisexuality briefing at the White House. Bisexual community leaders had met with the White House on previous occasions, but never before had the meeting been live-streamed, recorded, and made public during and after the event. There were well over a hundred bisexual activists in attendance, and the two hour event mixed together talks and panels on vital topics as well as some powerful music, poetry and other creative input about bisexual experiences.

 

There’s also a great summary of the event in pictures and words here.

It was extremely valuable to me to have the opportunity to learn about how bisexual matters are being discussed and engaged with in the US. Speakers emphasised many of the same issues that affect bisexual people globally: invisibility, discrimination from both straight and gay communities, and high rates of mental health struggles due to biphobia. However, it was also striking how much careful attention was paid to intersectionality. That is the idea that sexuality intersects with many other aspects of experience and identity (race, gender, class, ethnicity, age, disability geographical location, etc.) to produce unique experiences of being bisexual in different groups and individuals. So we heard people speaking about bisexuality from diverse positions, and emphasising the importance of listening to diverse voices, and targeting support to the places where it is most needed.

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British Bisexuality: Purple Prose out now!

Last week saw the launch of a book project that I’m very excited to be part of: Purple Prose.

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This collection, edited by Kate Harrad, brings together experiences from a diverse spectrum of bisexual folk in Britain today. It works as a how-to guide to British bi communities and identities, as well as providing a fascinating insight into the wide range of experiences under the bisexual umbrella.

A particular strength of the book is its focus on intersectionality. Most writing on bisexuality, including The Bisexuality Report which I was part of, focus on bisexual people as a fairly unified group: how they are represented, the challenges they face, bi-specific discrimination, etc. The problem with this approach is that bisexual experiences – like all experiences – are very different depending on other intersecting aspects of identity and experience such as gender, class, race, disability, geographical location, generation. Also, as Shiri Eisner points out, there are vital links between bisexual activism and feminist, trans and queer activism, anti-racism, and other anti-oppression movements, which are vital to attend to because a single-issue kind of activism can’t get us very far.

For these reasons it’s great to see a book in which at least half of the chapters are devoted to specific intersections (e.g. ‘Bisexual and disabled’, ‘Bisexual Black and Minority Ethic People‘, ‘Bisexuals and Faith’).

Even within these chapters there is a clear sense of the range of experiences that exist amongst any specific group, such as older bisexual people or non-monogamous bis, for example. In the chapter that I co-edited with Fred Langdridge, ‘The Gender Agenda’, we decided to foreground the experiences of non-binary bisexual people, given that there are already books about bisexual women and bisexual men, but none on this topic. While we included the voices of bisexual people of many genders, we gave specific attention to those who are non-binary in terms of both their sexuality and their gender. Even within that group we discovered many differences in relation to how they related to the term ‘bisexual’, how they experienced their gender and sexuality, whether these things changed over time or not, and how they were navigated in their close relationships and communities.

We still have a long way to go on bisexuality in Britain given that the biggest group under the LGBT umbrella still has the highest rate of mental health problems, and gets the least attention in policy and practice, both outside and within the LGBT sector. Purple Prose is definitely a step in the right direction.

New Zine! Staying with feelings

A topic I’ve written about on here quite a lot is the idea of ‘staying with’ feelings. After the Pixar movie Inside Out I wrote all about how important it is to get in touch with all our emotions. I’ve also written about the value of noticing how we feel with kindness and curiosity, and about how to stay with other people’s feelings.

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In this new zine I discuss both why we get so shut off from our feelings in a wider culture which values some emotions far more highly than others, and how we can go about shifting our patterns of avoiding and fighting some feelings, and craving and grasping for others. It covers both therapeutic and spiritual practices for staying with our emotions.

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You can download or read the zine here.

 

Purpose and integrity

Existential psychotherapist and blogger Emma Wilkinson recently very kindly asked me to be part of her ‘people of integrity’ project. She’s interviewing people whose work she regards as having integrity and I was deeply flattered to be thought of that way!

I’ve included her first couple of questions – and my answers – below, and you can read the rest if you follow the ‘read more’ at the end to her blog. You might also be interested in the other interview she’s conducted so far with Prof. Emmy Van Deurzen, foremost existential psychotherapist in Europe.

Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)

I’m Meg-John Barker (MJ for short). I grew up in Bradford in the 1970s and 80s. I studied psychology at university, did a PhD in that area, and stumbled into working as a lecturer. But my passion for exploring and writing about people’s relationships with themselves and others didn’t really develop until I was around 30. It’s been a gradual process of allowing myself – more and more – to study what really fascinates me, drawing on the ideas and approaches that make most sense to me, and writing in the ways that I feel I’m best at and find most fulfilling.

In the last few years I’ve been writing more about more self-help style books – and other materials – for general audiences rather than for academics. I see myself going increasingly in that direction, weaving together my therapeutic work with my writing, and producing the kind of creative and critical self-help that I think would be useful for people. I’m particularly excited about projects involving comics and animations, for example, or mashing up self-help with other genres such as ghost stories, or memoir.

What do you see as your true purpose in life?

I see my purpose as being somebody who brings together and synthesises a lot of information and ideas about the topics that I’m passionate about, and then finds ways of putting that across which will be accessible and engaging for folks. It’s all about connection for me: connecting with the people who I learn from through reading, conversations with colleagues, and my therapy work; and connecting with the people I’m talking to through my writing, workshops, mentoring and counselling.

Another important element for me is that my work locates individual experiences in wider culture, and encourages people to engage critically with the messages around them, rather than getting caught in a spiral of blaming themselves – as individuals – for their struggles.

How did you discover this purpose? Read more…

 

That was 2015, what about 2016?

I’ve been a bit quiet lately because I’ve been recovering from surgery and then working on the first draft of a new book on The Psychology of Sex which will include lots of the topics that I’ve been blogging about here.

Next year is going to be hugely exciting because I’ll have four books coming out which take the work I started with Rewriting the Rules in exciting new directions.

  • In February The Secrets of Enduring Love comes out: the book I was working on earlier this year based on Jacqui Gabb‘s study of people in long term relationships. It weaves together the experiences of the people Jacqui and her team spoke to with various useful ideas and research about what makes relationships work.
  • In Autumn there’ll be two books from Icon. First the comic introduction to queer theory and activism which I’ve been working on with Julia Scheele, and then the sex advice book that I’ve been writing with Justin Hancock. These have been such exciting projects to be involved with – delving into the theory and history of sex and gender on the one hand, and then thinking deeply about how it applies to our everyday lives on the other.
  • Finally, towards the end of the year the Psychology of Sex book should come out as part of Routledge’s new Psychology of Everything series. Speaking of which I really should get on with writing that now…

In the meantime here’s the review of 2015 on this blog that wordpress produced for me.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 120,000 times in 2015. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 5 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

What have I been doing? All of the things

Many blog posts are brewing at the moment but none quite ready to bottle and serve. However I did spend this afternoon collating some of the things I’ve been working on recently into the resources space on my blog, so here’s some links to what’s going on at the moment by topic.

Bisexuality!

I spoke at the launch of the Purple Prose crowdfunder a few weeks back. This book is an awesome collection of British bisexual experiences, with excellent chapters on race, coming out, relationships, and many other topics. I co-curated the chapter on gender which includes a wonderfully diverse range of bi people’s voices. Please do considering supporting the project here.

Non-binary gender!

I was really privileged to be asked to join some other trans activists to go and talk to the Ministry of Justice about gender recognition policies recently. You can read CN Lester’s account of what happened here, and I’ve put up a page including the factsheet that we put together for the occasion: hopefully a really useful resource about non-binary experiences.

Non-monogamous relationships!

Recently I went to a great conference on non-monogamies and contemporary intimacies. It was wonderful to see what had changed a decade on from the first such conference back in 2005. You can see the keynote talk that I did there here, plus some other amazing talks on intersectionality, privilege and oppression, islamophobia, the refugee crisis and more.

Also I’m really proud of the guidelines for academic/activist spaces that I helped to develop for the conference, given how tricky past events have been when trying to be properly inclusive, so I’ve put up a page about them here.

Kink and consent!

I’ve been working with some colleagues to put together some guidelines for kink/BDSM party and event organisers and community members around consent. You can see what we came up with here.

LGBT+ mental health!

Last year I was part of a group writing good practice guidelines for health practitioners and services around LGBT+ people and mental health. These have recently been published, along with some guidelines for LGBT+ people seeking support – links here.

Also Pink Therapy’s Dominic Davies and I published a couple of articles aimed at improving therapist knowledge and skills around Gender and Sexual Diversity, included here. And we’re working with awesome people at Gendered Intelligence to bring young trans people together with clued up therapists. Please do consider supporting Dominic’s sponsored silence to raise money for GI here. One of the blogs I’m hoping to write is about gendered bullying and silence – in support of this campaign.

Books!

The book based on the Enduring Love project is with the publishers and due to be published in early February. My queer theory introduction is with the fabulous illustrator, Julia Scheele, being turned into comic form (do buy Julia’s collection of comics on identities in the meantime). And Justin Hancock and I are writing about sex together once a week for our sex advice book. Along with an edited collection on non-binary genders, both of these are due out in late 2016. Meanwhile check out Justin’s piece in the Guardian, and the amazing new sex and relationship eduction resources which he’s produced with Durex (which I had a small hand in).

New vids: Key ideas in therapy

The excellent folks at the Open University have just helped me and a couple of colleagues – Naomi Moller and Andreas Vossler – to put together these three animations of key ideas in therapy.

We all teach on the counselling course at the OU, and we wanted to capture some of the most important things about this topic for people who don’t know much about it. When we’re struggling many of us turn to a counsellor or psychotherapist, but often without knowing much about what they do, or why.

The research that has been done on counselling has found that the most important thing in determining how successful it is is the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t matter so much what approach the therapist takes, or what training they’ve had, but whether there’s a good rapport between them and the client. That’s why it’s always a good idea to shop around for a counsellor you feel you could develop a good relationship with.

Another thing that research has found is that clients who do well in therapy often pause and check in with themselves before telling the counsellor what’s going on for them. This is a kind of being present with their experience. Approaches such as mindfulness and focusing try to help us to cultivate the capacity to be more present to what is going on with us, and to stay with difficult feelings rather than running away from them, or acting out of them.

Finally, a lot of western psychotherapy has focused on individual people: working with clients one-to-one. One problem with this is that it can give us the impression that any difficulties or mental health issues that we have are completely internal: caused by problems within us that need to be fixed. Systemic therapists have pointed out that many of our struggles are much more about the dynamics between us in our relationships, families, and communities, and about the messages that we receive from wider culture.

I hope you enjoy the videos and find them a useful way in to understanding a bit more about counselling and psychotherapy.

Coming out day: Non-binary gender Q&A

Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.

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That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.

However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.

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Bi Visibility Day

September 23rd is bi visibility day: something I’ve written about here before. This year I thought I’d post a Q&A I did recently on the topic of bi visibility to say why I think it’s still so important. You can also read a lot more on this topic over on the BiUK website and in The Bisexuality Report.

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Why do you think that most research shows that bisexual people are struggling compared to lesbian, gay and straight people?

It seems highly likely that a major reason for this is bi invisibility. Bi people are marginalised in similar ways to lesbian and gay people, for their same-sex attraction, but they also experience something additional to this which is their invisibility – or erasure – in popular culture. Lesbian and gay people are rarely questioned as to whether they are really lesbian/gay. Also generally, once they have come out, people accept that their sexual identity is what they’ve said it is.

For bisexual people however, the experience of coming out is one of continued questioning, suspicion and even re-closeting (people assuming they must really be gay or straight). Bi people also experience double discrimination (from both straight and gay communities) which can lead to a sense of isolation or having no home or sense of belonging. Often bi people turn to LGBT communities when they have experienced biphobia and homophobia, only to find that they are rejected there too.

These things all tap into a couple of major elements of common mental health difficulties: self-criticism and alienation. Bi people are encouraged to doubt and criticise themselves, and they often feel very alone.

Of course the wider reasons for bi invisibility are the binary assumptions our culture has about sexuality and gender: that people are seen as gay or straight (and male or female).

What do you think the goals of bisexual activism and the bisexual movement should be?

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Why be normal? Podcast goes live

Earlier this year I spoke at a panel at the SICK! Festival about normal sex: why people want so much to be normal, and why the struggle to be normal often makes people suffer more, rather than less.

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I wrote an article for SICK! on this tpoic which you can read here (and which may soon be developed into a short book – you heard it here first!)

Also the festival have now published the podcast of our debate including some very interesting discussions about same-sex marriage and sexual ‘dysfunction’, amongst other topics.