"Why I set up Bi Women of Color"

BIWOC LOGO

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 utilising the word bisexual to seem inclusive. I can empathise with many bisexuals who comply when we are subtly and blatantly asked to speak of only our same-sex experiences when they are in queer spaces – cases in which doing the alternative would result in often receiving micro aggressive blank stares and non engaging silence, both of which are not supportive reactions and poor allyship.

On the same day – June 5th 2013 – and with the support of other bi woc, 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 3 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, MA, USA. About 2 participants over a 5 months span attended these events; some months with several rsvps but no shows, and other months 1 or 2 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.

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 on 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 4 participants. To have a viable support group, one needs about 4-6 participants. The burning question for me and other bi activist is why the low attendance to the in person meetings when we have about over 1700 followers combined? From known research, my observation and personal experiences bi women of colour and bi people of colour have challenges showing up because of: internalised 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 cost, babysitting, work or student duties, schedule conflicts and often times not making the event a priority by putting it in ones’ calendar and committing to attending.

Gwendolyn would you to come along and volunteer with her!

Gwendolyn would like you to come along and volunteer with her!

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 apologised. Although these community services are needed and applauded by bi woc and general bi community, the reality and challenges are that there is often low to no turn-out. As a result, one of our services BIPOC, was terminated in December 2014. This reality is very frustrating, disheartening, and discouraging for an organiser 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 its 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 internalised 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% 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% are 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 15-60, some are partnered with other bisexuals, other’s 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, 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 its 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% of the work of content development for the social media posts, facilitation of online support groups, keeping records of biwoc 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 biwoc 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, so 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 featuring 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! I’m glad I was able to share with Biscuit and the bi community at large about BIWOC. I know for sure, I’d like to see this project continue for years to come!

For more information about BIWOC, including details about volunteering with them, visit:
 http://biwoc.tumblr.com or email biwocinfo@gmail.com

 

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Gwendolyn Fougy Henry

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 online and in person support and discussion group based in Boston, MA, USA. Follow her at gwendolynwriter.tumblr.com/ and  twitter.com/Gwendolyn1804

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10 Responses to "Why I set up Bi Women of Color"

  • Thanks for all you do…

  • Thanks for sharing. That is a huge problem that people don’t show up to events. I wonder why that is. The lack of participation is sad and I struggle with that as well. And yes, the lack of emotional support is stifling and very shocking. I think when you are seen as a ‘leader’, people assume that you of all people wouldn’t need emotional support when you actually do. Would the workshop you are developing also be available via online for those of us living outside of Boston?

    Thanks for the work you do!

    Breeze

    • G. Henry says:

      Hi Breeze,

      Thank you for writing a comment and being a witness to my diverse experiences as a bi activist. To answer your questions:

      1. “I wonder why that is”: ” From known research, my observation and personal experiences bi women of colour and bi people of colour have challenges showing up because of: internalised 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 cost, babysitting, work or student duties, schedule conflicts and often times not making the event a priority by putting it in ones’ calendar and committing to attending.”

      2. “Would the workshop you are developing also be available via online for those of us living outside of Boston?”: Thus far the plan is to have a workshop in Boston. The guide for the workshop (may be) available online for a fee; interested facilitators can conduct the workshop in their city. If you have any further questions you are welcome to email biwocinfo@gmail.com.

  • Estraven says:

    As someone who has facilitated a bi support group for 7 or 8 years, I totally hear you. I am so grateful to my LGBT Center, The LOFT in White Plains, who have given the group a free space to meet and promoted it from the beginning. I also want to thank the New York City bi community who taught me how to promote the group online as well. However, even with all that, I get from 0 to 12 people attending, mostly around 3-4. What I have realized over time is that people attend for a while, and then disappear. I used to wonder if I had offended them, but over time I have run into them at the Pride March or something, and they have told me that the group was incredibly helpful to them as part of their coming out process. So there is a year or two cycle with any given member, but in that time the group was extremely important.

    So the numbers do not reflect how important the group is to people. For example, by now we are able to stop people BEFORE their spouses go to Straight Spouse Network, so their marriages are not destroyed by them, while in the beginning I just sat there helplessly while they cried over the MOM having already been destroyed because their spouse went to SSN.

    It is discouraging when no one shows up. But the work you are doing is incredibly important, and I honor you.

    • G. Henry says:

      Hi Estraven,

      Thank you for sharing the reality about your bi support group in New York and your experiences as a bi support group facilitator. Its so helpful to other organizers and community members to read about our experiences. Yes, the low number in person support group/event turn out reflects more of the community members needs, abilities to attend and help volunteer to make the programs viable. Thank you for being a witness to my feelings and I also appreciate your support.

  • Amber Hampton says:

    This article nails important key issues facing our community. It has opened my eyes further on how I should help more. Taking this leadership role is very isolating since you have been doing 95%. I get that because I experienced it. It’s hard in life with challenges in having access to everything we need to survive. It feels like poverty and oppression is dividing us. I will work harder Gwen. Thank you so much for writing this, I can imagine how painful and difficult it must be to confront these issues. But this gives us an opportunity to see what steps we can take to be a stronger community. I will sign up for anything to help. Leaders workload should be split up so we don’t lose this community. If we lose our community, that will be dangerous. Because further isolation will kill us. It continues to kill us because of isolation. I cannot stand for another LGBT PoC to lose their life. It’s really hard to ask for help because we are taught not to ask because it is a sign of “weakness”. So everyone please check for signs and reach out to our fellow bi/queers of color. We can do this together.

    • mm
      Charlotte Dingle says:

      I’m having the same problems with Biscuit! Running it all by myself and really would love a partner to do it with if anyone is up for it! Read Gwendolyn’s brilliant piece and it so resonated in terms of taking on a huge volunteering workload. I will do all I can to support her as an ally. Love, Lottie (Biscuit ed).

      • G. Henry says:

        Hi Charlotte,

        Oh my, that is a ton of work for 1 person! My empathy goes out to you and I do so hope you can get volunteers soon. Thank you for being an ally!

    • G. Henry says:

      Hello Amber,

      It is good to read your feedback. It is rather sad yet crucial to read that you and other’s in leadership roles have experienced isolation. I agree it is a silent killer in the LGBT POC community and like I wrote above this is one of the reasons why I created BIWOC. I wrote an article on activist and our experiences of isolation in October 2014 “Activism & Isolation: 
Finding Community & Comfort this Holiday Season” – http://elixher.com/activism-isolation-%E2%80%A8finding-community-comfort-this-holiday-season/.

      “We grieve that our supporters, fans and followers don’t ask us how we are doing. They don’t ask us what we need. Activists, advocates, leaders, role models are people too. Too many social justice leaders experience PTSD, depression, anxiety, and emotional isolation. When we see the stats for bisexual health, we need to realize that our activists are not exempt from that pain.”

      Thank you for showing interest in volunteering with BIWOC. You and others can find more information at this link: http://biwoc.tumblr.com/post/101763703452/volunteer-opportunity-through-biwoc

      In solidarity.

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