This week, the University of Illinois is having its first Bi Fest, hosted by Bi Pride and co-sponsored by various university organizations. A variety of workshops and panels is being offered throughout the week, and three of them will be led by author, teacher, and activist Robyn Ochs.
Robyn is a professional speaker and workshop leader, and the editor of the Bisexual Resource Guide and the Bi Women newsletter. Ochs is a co-editor of the anthology Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World. She is a tireless activist and a prolific writer. Yesterday, I sat down with Robyn and with Benjamin Schapp, an officer of UIUC’s Bi Pride group.
Smile Politely: For those who might not be familiar with you, have you always been a strong activist for bisexuals?
Robyn Ochs: I’ve been educating on bisexuality for about 25 years. I was raised in an activist family.
SP: Phil Ochs!
Ochs: He was my uncle, and my mom was a community activist. We were raised to believe that if something was wrong in the world, you should try to fix it. This is far from the only issue I care about, but it is one issue which was lacking leadership and a voice at the time I was coming into my own.
SP: And you co-founded the Bisexual Resource Center; how long has that been open?
Ochs: Since 1985. The University of Connecticut School of Social Work hosted the first-ever conference on bisexuality, and a group of us in Boston organized a second annual conference. We took the ball and started rolling it. We organized this conference that next year, and we kept it rolling from location to location each year. Many of the same people would come each year, but it would be hosted in Portland and New York City and Boston, etc. We needed a checking account to be able to pass the tens of dollars of proceeds — which became seed money for the next conference. We opened a checking account and we needed to put a name on it, so we called it the East Coast Bisexual Network, and that evolved into the Bisexual Resource Center. We now provide educational resources nationally and host several of Boston’s bi groups.
SP: And are you connected with BiNet, as well?
Ochs: I’m one of the founders of BiNet too. I wasn’t one of the founding leaders, but I’m one of the founding members.
SP: I’ve been bi since … puberty, and I only just discovered all of these organizations. I only just discovered them about three years ago, maybe. Until I began reading your articles, I didn’t even think about the fact that I don’t have bisexual friends. I have straight, gay, lesbian, and trans friends, but no bisexuals. So, for me this conference is very welcome.
Ochs: I hope you find some bi community here. Bisexuals are so misunderstood. Almost all of the work I do now is about bisexual visibility, about creating representations of bisexual people, through the Bi Women newsletter that I edit, through the Getting Bi anthology, which includes voices from 42 different countries around the world. I basically want to create stories about us. I think the best way to educate is through stories, so most of my projects now are all about providing a space to tell stories.
My hope with this program at UIUC is that there will be people there of many different sexual orientations, including people who have questions, who don’t quite ‘get it,’ who want to learn more. I want it to be a space where people can come without feeling that they have to be ‘on the team.’ I want straight people there; I want lesbians there; I want gay men there; I want trans people there. I want everyone to feel that this program is for them. The more diverse the audience, the richer the program.
SP: Tuesday you’ll be speaking, among other things, about the ‘challenges to understanding and representing this often overlooked segment of the GLBT community,’ meaning of course, bisexuality. Do you think that sometimes we’re our own worst enemy about this? So often, far too many of us identity ourselves by the relationship we happen to be in. If we’re with a man, we identify as straight; if we’re with someone of the same sex, we say that we’re gay or lesbian.
I’m married to a man, but I insist that people understand that I’m bi. I’m uncomfortable being mistaken for straight. But I know that this usually isn’t the case with most bisexual people.
Ochs: I don’t think that we’re our own worst enemy. There are cultural dynamics that help make us invisible — one being the assumption that we are what we’re doing at the present moment. Most people will identify another person by his or her relationship, and assume that your relationship equals your orientation.
SP: We have these moments over and over, where we’re correcting people and trying not to be aggressive about it.
Ochs: But that’s not our fault. I don’t want to take responsibility on this one. I think that most people make an assumption about our sexual orientation based upon our current relationship. That’s their assumption. And some people, in fact, define themselves by their current relationship, but I don’t.
SP: Women do that more than men, I think. ‘I’m a mother; I’m a wife.’ Men do it with their jobs more than women do. So maybe it’s not internalized biphobia, but rather a common thing to do.
Ochs: But I do think that when other people look at us, they make assumptions about our sexual orientation and they draw conclusions based upon the evidence before their eyes, which is almost entirely confined to the present. And so to them a woman with a woman = a lesbian couple = two lesbians. A women with a man = a straight couple = two straight people. And as a result of that, it’s almost impossible for bisexual people to be visible as bisexuals.
I’ll talk about this at my programs. But basically, the only times that bisexual people become visible to other people are when we do things that other people will read as bisexual: walk down the street with our arms around a woman and a man. Or shout our identity from the rooftops.
And so I think that the dynamic that people don’t see bisexuality unless it’s currently being enacted means that it’s really hard for people to understand that a person can be bisexual and not necessarily be acting on any or all of it at once. I’m bisexual everyday, regardless of whether or not I’m in a relationship.
SP: You’ll also be talking about biphobia. Can you talk about self-hate? Internalized biphobia? I’ve often called myself ‘The Cliché Bisexual,’ and I need to stop doing that, I think. I worry that I have to prove my cred, talk about my personal life. Which is stupid, I know. For a long time, I wished that I was either a lesbian or straight, instead of this in-between nonsense. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is fantastic, what I am.
Ochs: You must attend “Myths and Realities.” We live in a culture that tells us that the only people who are fully valuable and important and ‘doing it right’ are straight people. And if you’re gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer or transgender, etc. you’re given a very clear message that you’re not doing it right. And it’s very hard to have a sense of the rightness of yourself. It’s hard to hold on to that. And biphobia, in particular, is compounded by the fact that bisexuals are invisible to other people. And as a result of that invisibility, we don’t have a sense of how many people out there are bisexual. We don’t have a sense of who each other are. It makes it hard to find one another, and it’s very easy to feel that you’re a very tiny little group of people off in the middle of left field somewhere. It’s a hard identity for which to find support. Thankfully, there are groups of people who are organizing, such as the students at UIUC. The very existence of a group like Bi Pride can go a long way toward making it more comfortable for people to feel they’re not the only bisexual person in the world.
We discount public figures, but when a public figure comes out as bisexual, we imagine that they’re doing it for media attention, and we also imagine that when they’re in a permanent, long-term relationship, they cease to be bisexual, which is probably a false assumption.
SP: I think that some of the cynicism comes from seeing a lot of girls in college dating girls and then graduating and getting married and identifying as ‘straight’ for the rest of their lives.
Ochs: They may not be straight.
SP: But they say that they are.
Ochs: I guess my question would be, then, what does it mean to be straight. In “Beyond Binaries,” we do an anonymous research study of the people in the room, where everybody completes a one page questionnaire. They turn them in, I shuffle them, and then we pass them back out, so that everybody is holding someone else’s information. That person then represents the person whose sheet they’re holding, and we look at the data.
I use a basic Kinsey-like scale model, and I put it in front of the room. Two of the most interesting questions are the first and last questions in the study. The first question is ‘Where would you put yourself on the scale,’ with 0 being exclusive other-gender attraction and 6 being exclusive same-gender attraction.
The last question is ‘What word or words do you use to describe your sexual orientation and how do you identify?’ And what is really interesting about this is that on a 7-point scale, usually ‘straight’ covers the first three of the seven numbers on the scale. And ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ usually cover the last three numbers on the scale. And ‘bisexual’ usually covers the middle three or four.
What that means is that ‘straight’ is a very big word, so one can identify as straight, but not necessarily as exclusively ‘other sex attracted’ only. And there are many reasons for that. It’s an interesting question. Where on a continuum does ‘straight’ become bisexual? Where is the line? Where is it drawn? And different people will draw it in different places.
SP: What’s the saying? A girl can date another woman in college, but once she marries a man and has kids, if she says she’s straight, then she is. But a guy sucks one cock and he’s gay for life.
Ochs [sarcastically]: That’s because the only thing that really matters are guys’ cocks. [Laughter]. But seriously, others will read her as straight, and she might even use the word out of convenience, but that doesn’t mean she is zero on the scale.
I think that when you look at sexuality that way, as straight being a range and bi being this range and lesbian and gay being a range, then someone can identify as straight, but not identify as exclusively heterosexual. Somebody can identify as bi, but still identify as pretty darn straight. Imagine a rainbow where the colors blend into one another. It’s not like a flag where there’s this neat line of stitching, where you can separate one color from the next. I think identity is like that.
Also, some people — such as myself — really care about identity and want people to know who they are regardless of their relationship. Other people don’t really care that much.
SP: Like the younger generation.
Ochs: No, I think it’s more complicated than that. I think there are some people who are very identity-based whose identities matter. There are other people who think it’s a minor part of who they are. And that’s not just age-based. Up until very recently, identity was understood to be a rather fixed, firm, and rigid thing. People were expected to pick a box. There was this thing that was ‘gay,’ and it existed and could be regulated. If you identified as gay, then you were supposed to climb into that gay box and do everything gay and be part of gay culture and act gay and live in a proper and expected way.
SP: It’s a political thing.
Ochs: Yes, and you’d best not deviate. There was a very strong sense of that and that’s what I think has changed. When I came out as bisexual in 1976, there were rules about what it meant to be a lesbian. If you came out as lesbian, then you were supposed to don the outfit and adopt all the required behaviors, and if you didn’t do that, you would feel a lot of pressure. You would be told that you weren’t doing it right, and that’s what I think has changed.
There are still some people who care about identities deeply, and there are some who couldn’t care less about them, and everything in-between. But what has changed is the idea that these identities mean something clear, firm, and rigid. I think that ‘gay’ has become a very big word; ‘lesbian’ has become a very big word. There’s no longer one agreed upon idea of what a lesbian is supposed to do or how she’s supposed to act or how she’s supposed to look. And that’s what’s changed. Do you agree, Benjamin?
Benjamin Schaap: I never thought of an identity as meaning we must stay in a box. I’m 21. I never thought of identity as a box that you have to climb into. Things have changed.
Ochs: What if, in five years, you decide a different label would fit you better.
Schaap: It wouldn’t be a problem.
Ochs: That’s the change.
SP: You wouldn’t go through all the angst? What does this mean? Who am I? What am I doing? What does my past mean?
Ochs: And he wouldn’t be ostracized by his community. That’s what I see as the change. And also people are using many different words to describe that space. People are calling themselves pansexual or fluid or queer. The words are changing, and in a way, when you look historically, I think this long evolution is part of the developmental process of the community. If you look at other identity movements, many of them have followed a similar trajectory.
We didn’t begin as an identity-based, rigid community; it became one in the process of developing itself and establishing a place where one could be different. But it went to the extreme of sometimes privileging gay over straight, demanding conformity of its members, and of wanting to patrol its borders and keep ambiguous people away because we were seen as a threat. That’s changed. We’re changing, but I also want to say it’s not changing evenly. There are still some people who try to control the borders. There are still some individuals who tell you that you’re not doing it right. But I don’t think it’s as pervasive.
SP: And I don’t think it comes from a place of bigotry, but rather a painful past that they still remember.
Ochs: Instead of saying, ‘Older people are like this,’ I’d rather say, ‘Things were like this a few decades ago.’ Many people my age and older have changed with the times. There are still those who are resisting that, wishing for the ‘good ‘ole days,’ but I think that most of the lesbians I know and most of the gay men I know have evolved over time.
I have the privilege of getting to travel all over the country and meet people from youth to elders, and I do see changes.
SP: Going to pride parades and seeing the GSAs marching, and thinking ‘Never. Never when I was their age.’ I was in high school in the 80s, and that would have never happened in my school or in my city.
Ochs: And GSAs — even though I still think that their name reinforces the false binary, because there are identities missing from their name — do something wonderful. In some schools, GSAs have many straight students involved, and that is huge. The idea of that impermeable wall between ‘gayland’ and ‘straightland’ is breaking down. It’s softening. There are many straight-identified people who are proud and comfortable allying themselves with the LGBT movement. And that’s huge.
Benjamin, what was your experience in high school? Did you have a GSA in school?
Schaap: Yes there was one, but Uni was really progressive anyway.
Ochs: I love that straight people feel comfortable being advocates for equality.
SP: Heck yes, we need them; we won’t have equality without them. They outnumber us.
Ochs: There is no civil rights movement that has succeeded without allies. There are certain types of education that is best done by the people in the group that needs to change.
SP: Speaking of numbers, do you think that it’s a myth that there are far fewer bisexual men than bi women? Or is that actually true?
Ochs: I think that’s true. I do believe that on average, statistically speaking, men are more likely to experience their sexual orientations as fixed and as binary. On average, women are more likely to experience their sexual orientations as fluid and as non-binary. But by no means should anyone use this information to conclude that there is no such thing as a bisexual man. That is a mistake people often make. There are more people in this country who identify as Christian than Jewish, but you would never conclude from that that there is no such thing as Jewish people. Yet people make that false leap into something that is absolutely not true. I know a lot of bi men, including many who have identified that way for decades. It’s real. To try to erase bi men out of existence or to deny them their reality is … rude. It’s a ridiculous conclusion to draw.
Nobody should have to wave their arms and say, ‘Hello, I exist.’
Bi Fest is free and open to the public. Robyn Ochs will be speaking today and this evening. Please go here for more information.
Photos used by permission.