By Gwendolyn Fougy Henry
I created Bisexual Women of Color – BIWOC – on June 5, 2013. It came about after I had a hurtful experience within the queer/LGBTQ+ labeled community when I found myself discouraged from speaking about my cisgender heterosexual spouse. I had also noticed, on other occasions, an unspoken pressure to not use the word “bisexual” in a few queer spaces as it seemed to make others uncomfortable. As we know, bi women do indeed enter mixed-orientation relationships and finding spaces that respect those partnerships are rare. That said, biphobic rejecting experiences left me feeling even more emotionally isolated and I felt shoved back into a private closet. Now this wasn’t the first biphobic experience I’ve had in my life. I have experienced many queer spaces that were not bisexual/non-monosexual friendly; they were lesbian- and gay-centered spaces utilizing the word bisexual to seem inclusive. I can empathize with many bisexuals who comply when we are subtly and blatantly asked to speak of only our same-sex experiences when we are in queer spaces – cases in which doing the alternative would result in often receiving microaggressive blank stares and non-engaging silence, both of which are not supportive reactions and poor allyship.
On the same day – June 5, 2013 – and with the support of other bi [women of color], I created the BIWOC online support group. My goal with that was to create a safe space where I could freely express the diverse and complex realities of my own bisexual identity, address bisexual erasure, stereotypes and myths, biphobia, bisexual health issues, and develop a supportive online community for bi women of color in Boston and abroad. From there my vision for the project grew. BIWOC’s mission is to provide emotional support, resources, community, and a safe space to discuss intersectional issues that affect bi women of color. BIWOC has three goals: 1) To specifically address the intersectional needs and concerns of self-identified bi women of color in Boston and abroad, both online and in person; 2) To decrease social and emotional isolation; and 3) To increase bi visibility and bi pride.
The monthly BIWOC Coffee&Chat meetings provide bi women of color a space where we can talk about biphobia from both the straight and queer community, racism, colorism, gender identity, dating, monogamy, polyamory, visibility, coming out as bi, and any other topics of our day to day lives. When I first created BIWOC I started off by having Sunday gatherings at a juice bar in Somerville, Mass. About two participants over a five-month span attended these events — some months with several RSVPs but no-shows, and other months, one or two people came. Connecting with the Bisexual Resource Center, the oldest national bi organization in the U.S., and advertising our meetings on their meetup platform increased visibility as well as posting on our Facebook public page. I speak on visibility because part of our challenges is people knowing that BIWOC exists and secondly, once they know we exist, is supporting those same people to attend our events.
Did You Know: Self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States?
We had BIWOC and BIPOC Coffee&Chat monthly meetings in Boston in a cafe located on the same street as the BRC. Beginning in February, we will have only BIWOC Coffee&Chats in Cambridge at a cafe that is easily accessible by public transportation and closer to my home which helps me as the the facilitator. For the calendar year of 2014, BIWOC Coffee&Chats had on average of 1.08 (1.4 if you count only the months people showed up) participants and for the BIPOC Coffee&Chats, 1.33 participants (2.28 if you count only the months people showed up). Some months no one shows up, even though RSVPS were submitted, and other months we would get as high as four participants. To have a viable support group, one needs about four to six participants. The burning question for me and other bi activists is: Why the low attendance to the in-person meetings when we have about over 1,700 followers combined? From known research, my observation and personal experiences bi women of color and bi people of color have challenges showing up because of: internalized biphobia, fear that our straight or lesbian friends will know we are in a bi-centered space, racism, colorism, and not feeling “POC” enough to enter a space that is labeled people of color. Other reasons are transportation costs, babysitting, work or student duties, schedule conflicts and often times not making the event a priority by putting it on one’s calendar and committing to attending.
The reality is that our one-year anniversary party had only two BIWOC community members attending. The BIWOC Holiday Gathering that was scheduled in December had five people RSVP and yet no one showed up, cancelled nor later apologized. Although these community services are needed and applauded by bi WOC and the general bi community, the reality and challenges are that there is often low to no turnout. As a result, one of our services BIPOC was terminated in December 2014. This reality is very frustrating, disheartening, and discouraging for an organizer regardless of whether or not I/we understand the reasons for these no-shows. As of now, there are about 35 members in the BIWOC and 22 BIPOC online groups. The highest number we have reached is 65 for a BIWOC online group. The online group is designed to be a support group that offers emotional support, therefore every six months an admin reviews who has been active. Non-active members are removed and are able to re-join when ready to give and receive emotional support. I don’t think it’s fair or emotionally safe for members to share vulnerable parts of themselves with others and receive little to no feedback. This would support emotional voyeurism. Support groups centered around wellness and emotion specifically for bi women of color are rare and at times it’s challenging to maintain that mission. Many bi women of color are not accustomed to this type of space and are grappling with years of hurt, isolation, mistrust, and internalized biphobia to feel safe enough to share. Additionally, the culture of Facebook leans towards people posting on their personal walls, often the extra step to cross-post something in the group is lacking.
The online group started out being Boston-focused but now I would say that about 90 percent of the members in the online support group are in New York, the MidWest, South, or in the New England states. We also have members from Canada, Europe, and the Middle East; about 10 percent actually reside in Boston. I surmise that to be related to internalized biphobia and fear of others who live locally knowing they are bi. BIWOC members (including in-person and online followers) range from ages 15 to 60, some are partnered with other bisexuals, others are in mixed-orientation relationships with lesbians or straight men. Our genders are diverse as well – boi, masculine of center (MOC), femme, genderfluid, genderqueer, transwomen and cis women. We have visible and invisible illnesses. Many have children, some are students, and some are working professionals. All of us are out to ourselves and many are not out publicly. In the Facebook group the topics that mostly come up are similar to those that are discussed in at our in-person Coffee&Chats, in addition to fatigue over the bi vs. pan label war, not being able to come out to lesbian or straight friends out of possible rejection, estrangement and interpersonal issues with family members, dating difficulties, gender expression, transphobia, and self-care.
I would say our main challenges as a group are a) attendance – no and low shows at in-person events for the reasons stated above; b) volunteers – consistent reliable professional volunteers are rare since it’s unpaid work and also requires one to be publicly out on some level as bi*. Many are not out as bi* among their lesbian/queer friends; c) activism burnout – “we” is really “me”, which is the case for many bi/queer POC organizations. I do 95 percent of the work of content development for the social media posts, facilitation of online support groups, keeping records of bi WOC metrics, and outreach to other bi groups. I’ve been very lucky to have volunteers come throughout the year and help with group moderation and facilitation; d) biphobia and funding – BRC generously posts meetups for bi WOC and has paid for our business cards, however, I personally pay for my gas/transportation expenses to meetings, and overhead. Finally, I’d say e) emotional support – many POC do not know how to give adequate consistent emotional support. Many of us were never taught that interpersonal skill because when it came to setting life priorities, survival, food, housing and clothing came first. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Having a support group that is centered on emotional support can be challenging. Many of us often want to receive emotional support yet not give it, so the circle of give and take is not balanced. I’m in the process of developing a workshop and a guide addressing the issue of emotional support.
This past calendar year, BIWOC volunteers and members have participated in several community events such as volunteering at the BRC booth at the Boston Pride, joining in with the #WhatBiLooksLike Twitter Campaign, taking part in an #ELIXHERTalk on Challenging Biphobia in the Black LGBTQ Community and being featured in a photo on the cover of MAP’s Bi Report. I’ve had pieces published by various people including Bi Women’s Quarterly, The Advocate, and SpeakOUT which have mentioned our work. We happily provide interviews, participate in research studies, and communicate with local colleges and LGBT organisations.
In terms of future goals, I’d like to promote our work to various communities. For example, I’ll be giving a talk at the 2nd New England Queer People of Color Conference at Brown University in April. I also have plans to create a workshop on emotional support for bi/queer people of color. Of course, funding would be needed, so funding for BIWOC is part of the next steps.
Gwendolyn Fougy Henry, Ed.M., MSLIS is a writer, librarian, archivist, mental health advocate, and vegan personal chef. She is the founder of Bisexual Women of Color (BIWOC), an organization based in Boston, MA, that provides online and in-person support to bi women of color. More information about Gwendolyn and her writings can be found at: gwendolynwriter.tumblr.com and twitter.com/Gwendolyn1804.