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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Mad studies and queer studies

My friend Helen Spandler and I recently wrote a piece for the Mad Studies Network about what Mad Studies and Queer Studies are, and what they might learn from each other. If you’re interested in mental health and/or sexuality and gender you might find it interesting. If it feels a bit too academic, my comic book on Queer with artist Julia Scheele is coming out in September!

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Mad and Queer studies: interconnections and tensions

With the recent emergence of Mad Studies we thought it timely to explore some connections with Queer studies – another critical field of enquiry. We wanted to examine their similarities and differences; any points of tension; and what each could learn from the other.

Helen has been part of the recent emergence of Mad Studies in the UK and has a long standing interest in critical approaches to gender and sexuality. Meg-John has recently written a book about queer theory as part of the ‘introducing…’ series of Icon press comic books, and has a long standing interest in critical approaches to mental health. This piece arose out of discussions between ourselves on this subject.

Summary of key points

  • Mad and Queer Studies have lot of common ground – especially in terms of challenging existing binaries (for example, gay/straight and mad/sane); subverting negative connotations of Queer/Mad; and critiquing prevailing normativities (ways of being ‘normal’).
  • However, we have to be careful to think critically about new normativities which develop when we move away from old ones, and who is included and excluded in any movement.
  • Therefore, both projects could do more to question the ‘alternative’ norms and binaries they introduce which may have unhelpful effects.
  • In addition, madness poses new and significant challenges to Queer activism/studies.
  • As a result, Mad / Queer scholars and activists would benefit from greater dialogue with each other – and with other critical fields of inquiry (like critical disability studies).
  • Finally, we recommend foregrounding practices of consent and kindness as part of our political strategy to achieve our desire for more liberated social relationships and societies.

We start by briefly outlining a history of the two disciplines.

What is the history of Queer theory and Queer studies?

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New zine – queer relationships

I just spent the whole weekend and two excellent events on relationships: Queer polyday in Leicester, and the Polyamory, Consensual Non-Monogamy and Relationship Anarchy day in Manchester.

For my bits of the days I put together a zine bringing together some of my thoughts on relationships from the last decade or so, and asking what I hope are a useful set of questions about our relationships – whether or not we see ourselves, or our relationships, as queer.

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The zine takes as a starting point the word queer, and the different possible meanings of that term. Then it applies these different meanings to relationships to ask the question ‘what does a queer relationship look like?’ Particular it explores the cultural acceptability of different kinds of relationships, different relationship labels, the idea of relationships being on multiple dimensions, and what it’s like to shift from the question of what relationships we have, to how we do them.

You can download the zine here. It prints out best in booklet form, but fine to read it as a pdf on an e-reader or computer also.

Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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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).

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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DIVA magazine feature on Rewriting the Rules

There’s a feature by me in the August issue of DIVA magazine about rewriting the rules of relationships.

In this article I explore the particular issues for women in romantic relationships with other women. Are lesbian, bisexual and queer women free of some of the rules that there are for straight people? And are there additional rules for women in relationships with women which can put pressure on them?

Privilege & Oppression, Conflict & Compassion

This is an article written by Jamie Heckert and myself which original appeared over on The Sociological Imagination.

The political project of learning to recognise and name patterns of oppression has been, and continues to be, an important one. It has helped us to recognise that our own experiences of pain are not just personal; they are also political. And so we have become involved in social movements responding to these patterns and creating new ones. In this way, learning to name oppression can help to create a sense of connection among those who experience it.

At the same time, we notice that an idea (or ideology) of connection can substitute for the more complex experience of direct connection, of listening to another’s stories and of empathising with another’s pain. Political identity based on oppression can assume that experiences are identical: that all LGBT folk, all workers, all women, or all people of colour will have experienced the same oppression and should have the same politics. Of course, this all falls apart when we notice that everyone is characterised in different ways at different times in different contexts. No one is simply LGBT or a worker, or only a woman or a person of colour. Assumed, rather than directly experienced, connections rapidly fall apart when those who are assumed to be identical point out that they are not. Queer, working-class women and transfolk of colour experience all four of these patterns of oppression in particular ways (and, quite possibly others around ability, age, appearance, education and more). No politics of identity can incorporate so many differences.

Tensions around naming oppressions and recognising such complexities have formed the backdrop of a number of recent conflicts which we have been aware of due to living in the UK and being involved in LGBTQ politics. Some have played themselves out publicly, some more privately via emails and social networking sites. All of these cases have involved members of two marginalised groups, one attempting to name the oppression which the other is (unwittingly?) perpetuating due to their (perceived) privilege. Examples include complaints about trans-exclusion and cisgenderism in lesbian, gay and bisexual spaces (due to labeling of toilets, mono-gender workshops, etc.); criticisms of perceived biphobia in the work of lesbian and gay academics; pointing out the ignorance of structural power relations and imperialist narratives in the polyamory and kink scenes and associated literature; and many concerns about the perceived racism and/or ethnocentrism of gay and queer activists and journalists such as Peter Tatchell, Johann Hari and the organisers of ‘East End Pride’. On a personal level we have found ourselves saddened by the divisions and rifts often resulting from such conflicts. At the same time we recognise the echoes of earlier vital interventions, such as 1960s and 70s black and lesbian feminists pointing out the vastly different experiences within womanhood.

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The H-word: Happiness

On May 22nd the magazine DIVA and the mental health charity PACE are holding an evening event called The H-word. The H-word in question is happiness, and the plan is to have a discussion about happiness, health and well-being and about how people can support each other towards ‘happier, more meaningful lives’, with a particular focus on lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

The focus on these groups is appropriate because both women, and lesbian, bisexual and queer people, are particularly highly diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety (when compared with men, on the one hand, and heterosexual people on the other). They also self-report higher levels of distress and lower levels of happiness and well-being than other groups.

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