Stonewall’s Bi Consultation Day
It’s LGBT History Month in February. That fact didn’t escape my notice as I waited for my train this morning to come into The London for a meeting today. Next year, we’ll be including today in the timeline of historic events.
Stonewall has had, historically, a bad rep in bisexual activist circles. We’ve seen it as unaccountable, contradictory, erasing and at times wilfully biphobic. All this from an organisation that some time around 2006 started calling itself “the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity” instead of “the lesbian and gay charity” without asking the established bisexual community to support this, provide focus. Did they need our permission? No – but many felt then that Stonewall was setting itself up to be the leading resource in an area they knew little about.
But with the departure of one chief exec and the appointment of another, we were told that a new wind was blowing through their corridors. One that would not just rearrange dust but create lasting change.
Today was Stonewall’s first meeting asking the bisexual communities of the UK what our priorities would be for Stonewall’s bi work. Ever.
One question I found myself asking was – did I even want Stonewall to try to be better at bi issues? Wouldn’t it be better if they stopped trying? But as I said at BiReCon in July last year (2014), we need to stop trying to do the heavy lifting.
Bisexual activists are few in numbers and comparatively impoverished of pockets. If we expect the big LGbT organisations to defer all work on bi issues to us then a lot of it will not possible to get done. Ships can be turned around, and if we get our boats out from under the prow we can avoid collision and instead act as pilots, lighting the way, giving maps. Basically your choice of nautical metaphor, I guess.
Stop doing the heavy lifting, I said. Let the big LGbT orgs do it, and we can provide the direction when it comes to bi issues.
Stonewall is a powerful force in UK politics. Their workplace equality projects have made a huge difference to the way companies think about equality and diversity. They feel, to bisexual activists, like they’ll be everyone’s go-to if they were doing bi properly, or better, or at all but visibly. Would a better-sorted-on-bi Stonewall leave room in the UK for the existing bisexual activists, and bi awareness training? Like, for example, myself.
The day got off to a positive start when we realised that we weren’t being handed over to consultants who would be getting our opinions and feeding them back to Stonewall on our behalf. Instead we were spending the day with the new Chief Exec herself, Ruth Hunt, and another director of the charity Caroline Ellis. That made me feel the odds improved sharply of what we said being not just heard but listened to.
Ruth opened with apologies, helping us to see the historic reasons for Stonewall’s previous difficulties with bisexuality as a topic and the varying quality of their engagement on the issues. It was noted and agreed that it’d have been easy to set aside an entire day to going over previous publications with an eye to spotting each and every omission, slip and error. And the most refreshing thing to hear was that although she accepted that, like so very many institutions, Stonewall could be described as in some ways institutionally biphobic, she felt there was no reluctance or cultural resistance to changing this. To working on making themselves better at this.
And as the day went on, my high hopes remained aloft. No, Stonewall isn’t about to start offering training on bisexuality – they don’t do much training on sexuality. Yes, Stonewall is going to want to know where it can work with the bi community, where it can stride forward alone, and where it can (as Ruth herself put it) keeps its nose out.
We spent a long afternoon split into groups that came back with a whole range of areas where Stonewall can work alone, in partnership, or shouldn’t. We discussed asylum, housing, employment, health (including mental health), education, gender. We didn’t spend enough time on faith, or race, or parenting.
And when we came back, we all also had agreed. Stonewall would be a great organisation to fight biphobia and bisexual erasure within the LGbT community. But first they needed to fight it within themselves. You can’t talk the talk until you’ve first been and walked the walk, I guess.
What came next was something I wouldn’t have predicted when I read with familiar dread reports like “Serves You Right” with their erratic erasure/inclusion.
The CEO of Stonewall said yes, she agreed. They needed to be able to be an organisational role-model for others. They needed to get training from the bisexual community. We’d heard from bi Stonewall staff in the room how they wished they’d had bisexuality covered in their induction course back when they’d joined, so this was fantastic. Yes, they’d get bi community input in future in any bi related projects. Yes, they’d work on getting this stuff right themselves first. Become allies to the bisexual community, never try to lead on bisexual issues without an agreement to do so. Take positive steps to recruit bisexual role-models. Create in their structure places for bisexual input to be channelled. So we know who to ask, or if we need to complain to. And yes, they knew they need to have more meetings like this outside The London.
I will sleep shortly because it’s been very tiring to carry these hopes so high, hopes that I didn’t realise I could still have. But I do. We have promises. We have a timescale. We have the names of who to watch.
So yes – we shall see. Ruth Hunt has to go back to the office and push this forward. Turning the ship around will take time.
But I’m looking to the future in hope, not weary resignation. A historic day and I’m proud we were all (including Ruth and Caroline) there to be a part of it.