How does it get better? Empowering youth and our bisexual community

(Why criticize?)

About a week ago, director Kyle Schickner, in cooperation with the American Institute of Bisexuality (AIB) released a new video under Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. The video, I must admit, was deeply touching for me. As a bisexual person who feels the effects of biphobia, erasure and isolation every day, and as someone who spent many years of her life suffering from depression – this video struck a very deep chord in me. Undoubtedly, this video, and the activist work done by Schickner and by AIB is highly important, and I deeply appreciate it.

However, I would like to raise some doubts regarding the campaign, its viewpoints, and our response to it as a bisexual movement. Before I do, I need to say that I am making this criticism with the deepest respect and appreciation for the people involved as well as their work. However, I believe that in order to grow and develop as a movement, this kind of criticism is important and vital.

First things first: a note on racism

Jasbir Puar and many others have already mentioned: “It Gets Better” is a racist campaign. In the words of Diana Cage, Savage’s It Gets Better project “is beautiful and well-intended, and I’m thankful it exists. But seriously, we all know it gets better a lot sooner if you are white, cisgendered, and middle class.” To this, I would also add: it gets better sooner if you’re gay male, since as we all know, bisexuals and lesbians suffer additional barriers in society and are also excluded from the movement that so enjoys calling itself “LGBT” but is actually GGGG.

In terms of representation, Schickner was smart and well intended in using a black woman as one of the participants in the video. However, having a black woman echoing the words of privileged white gay males hardly subverts the implications of the message.

Youth as victims: what about empowerment?

The “It Gets Better” campaign (even to its very title) implicates that LGBT youth are passive victims. The videos in the campaign (including Schickner’s) also situate the viewer in this passive position. When watching it, it made me feel sad and weak – it also made me feel hope, it made me feel that there are other people to help me. But this is part of the problem. The videos of the “It Gets Better” campaign tell the youth that the adults (i.e. older people, with more social power) are out there to make things better for them – for how exactly does it “get better”? One is to assume that the grown ups are taking care of our needs for us. It leaves the youth powerless and feeds into the wide cultural denial of youth and young people’s agency and independence.

The bisexual movement or the GGGG movement?

In my years as a bisexual activist, I’ve often noticed a tendency within the American mainstream bisexual movement to run after the “LGBT” (i.e. the GGGG) movement screaming “Yeah, us too!”. Whether it’s the campaign for marriage equality, child surrogacy, adoption, the military, and many more, the bisexual community (or at least, the more mainstream parts of it) echoes the GGGG campaigner’s every call, as if these struggles were just as relevant to the bi community, and as if bisexual people had no conditions and struggles of our own to fight for. Not only does this locate the bisexual movement as a liberal, assimilationist one, but also performs bisexual erasure by ignoring the needs of our own community for the benefit of those of privileged groups who run the GGGG movement.

For example, it is statistically known that bisexual people are the sexual orientation group (of out gay males, lesbians, bisexuals and heterosexuals) most likely to suffer from poverty, depression and suicidality, low physical health, and a few more discouraging factors. Needless to say, these factors bar the way of many bisexual people from proper employment, housing, medical care, mental health care, etc. In addition, this viewpoints disregards the needs of other underprivileged groups of people (including bisexual people from these groups): people of color, women, transgenders and genderqueers, working class people, differently-abled people, and many more. Moreover, joining in assimilationist campaigns such as those mentioned above, positions the mainstream bisexual movement along with the very powers that oppress us: patriarchy, government, militarism, and many more. It seems, however, that the mainstream American bisexual movement is too often uninterested in addressing these issues or considering politics, intersecting factors and identities.

By the same token, Schickner and AIB’s bisexual “It Gets Better” video echoes Dan Savage’s campaign without addressing many of the issues mentioned above, thus minimizing the bisexual message to yet another incident of “Yeah, us too!”

Bisexual resistance, youth empowerment

What I’d like to tell our bisexual youth is that they are not the only ones – that biphobia is widespread and that it’s not them who are wrong, flawed, not good enough or any of these things that our biphobic culture convinces us we are. I want to tell them that many, many bisexuals feel the same: like we never fit in anywhere, that there’s something wrong with us, personally, that we’re not “queer enough” or that we have to “choose”. I want them to know that they are beautiful, that they are powerful and brave. It takes alot of courage to identify as bisexual, and by doing so, they are strong, and amazing. I want them to know that they don’t have to rely on grown ups to do anything for them: they can do anything themselves, be whatever they want, whenever they want. They can do so much and they are so much smarter than us grown ups. They know what to do, they know what they need, and they know it better than us. I want them to know that being a young bisexual in this world is no easy thing and that us, bisexual adults, are so fucking proud of them for having the courage to be who they are, whether they are out or whether in the closet. I want them to know that being in the closet is okay. It is not shameful and it does not make you less of a bisexual – it simply means that you’re defending yourself from danger. I want to say all of that from my vantage point as a bisexual genderqueer female person of color, and to tell them that even if they’re people of color, transgenders, genderqueers, females, working class or differently-abled people, and encounter more social barriers than others – that only makes them more beautiful, more powerful and more brave. I want to tell them that even if they’re transgender or genderqueer, they still have every right to identify as bisexual and that identifying as bi does not make you transphobic. And I want to tell them to rebel – against us grown ups, against this fucked up society we live in and against anything that stands in their way. Our youth is powerful. Our youth is beautiful, strong and brave, and they need to know that – with all our love.

Afterword

This article was written about a week ago. Today a new video has been released, much closer to what I had in mind, and OMG-it-even-includes-bisexuals-and-genderqueers! Jump the bandwagon, NOW!

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “How does it get better? Empowering youth and our bisexual community

  1. Thanks for responding to the IGB campaign wtih such a thorough critique — one that evokes a great deal of thought. The issue of the recent (and not so recent) LGBT suicides is something I have been writing on myself for the past couple of months…. so I appreciate reading this perspective.

    And, as a bisexual woman of colour with what I hope is great sensitivity for the ways trans people as well as bisexuals are treated in the LGBT and wider community, I certainly paused before lauding Dan Savage with praise because of his track record.

    And while I am intrigued that you highlight how the “campaign (even to its very title) implicates that LGBT youth are passive victims” — I must say I cannot join you in feeling comfortable calling the entire campaign a recist one, or in criticising the black (biracial?), bisexual actress Fay Wolf who starred in the video.

    You say, “Schickner [the video director] was smart and well intended in using a black woman as one of the participants in the video. However, having a black woman echoing the words of privileged white gay males hardly subverts the implications of the message.” Here you yourself remove agency from Ms Wolf by claiming that it was her white director who ‘had her say’ or echo certain words of privilege. Why do you assume that these were not Ms Wolf’s own genuine experiences?

    As a bi woman of colour I too could make a video with personal experiences claiming that it got better, seriously better, once I left my teen years and grew up. That is a valid experience for me (and it appears to have been so for Wolf). Just because your point is true, that white gay males do not have the same barriers that bisexuals, lesbians, transgendered, people of colour and many others have, does not mean that the IGB experiences of the participants are inauthentic, as your words suggest.

    While the campaign did not originate out of a full understanding of or sensitivity to the issues that LGBT people of colour share (and certainly Savage has a history of racial insensitivity and some hostility) that again does not translate, to my mind, to the entire campaign being racist. And most certainly not in the sense of racism as a ‘sense of superiority’ over other racial/ethnic groups or and attempt to assert privilege and superieority — speaking without full sensitivity to the issues of all of one’s listeners is one thing, but the suggestion of out and out hostility and ill intent is going way too far. That is a very callous way to view the heartfelt and deeply moving personal contributions people have made to this campaign.

    So, yes, I agree there are a plethora of IGB videos of people speaking from positions of relative privilege who have not experienced the barriers that other LGBTQ people must face and chasms that must be traversed by many…. but that ‘ignorance’ does not translate to me to making the entire campaign ‘racist’. And I find it unhelpful to beat so many well-intentioned people with that stick.

    • TSB,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      I find the point you make about Fay Wolf very interesting, and also valid. I should start by saying that it definitely was not her that I was criticizing – however you are correct in that I removed agency from her in my post. I didn’t consider that, thank you for calling it out.

      However, while writing the post, I did consider the nature of her appearence in the video (as well as the other actresses). I chose not to write about it for the benefit of brevity, but here are some thoughts to consider: the acting was not convincing. Neither Wolf, Reibel nor Howe seemed particularly convinced by the script. In particular, Wolf seemed resentful and cynical. Try following her facial expressions and tones throughout the video. She seems tense and unconvinced. Another point to consider (and which I chose not to write about) is that all the women in the video were sexualized (and especially Reibel, whose cleavage was in the center of the frame). If nothing else, this definitely contributes to the complex sex, sexuality and race relations in the video. I’m not trying to say anything in particular here, but I am saying that there are many complex things to consider here if we wish to analyse the video in depth.

      Now, here are two issues that I did not mean to raise:

      I was not referring to (anyone’s) personal life experiences and the authenticity thereof. I never speak about authenticity, since I think that authenticity is a myth which only exists within discourses (i.e. the way people use language to describe the world). In exchange for “authenticity” here, I would rather use “validity” – and here, too, I was not trying to detract from the validity of anyone’s personal experience. I think, however, that the important thing to note here is *how* we speak about things, rather than *what* things we say. On the surface, I can relate to the feeling of “it gets better” – my life indeed got better as I grew older. But then again, if I were to speak my story, I wouldn’t talk about this experience in quite the same way (that is, using the same words). My life didn’t just “get” better – especially in terms of my bisexuality – I actively worked in order to make things better for myself and others. The fact that my life got better was not a spontaneous occurence that happened “to” me, but rather the result of complex social and political changes, including my own bisexual activism And so, the same experience, described by different words can create two completely separate narratives: The former being “just sit tight and wait” (i.e. “hang in there”), and the latter being “get up and fight” (i.e. encouraging youth to action).

      The second thing I did not talk about was explicit racist hostility. I understand that in the USA it’s considered inappropriate to use explicit language (on any side of the race debate), and so I will clarify and say that I define racism as a systematic assumption that everyone is white. At large, in society, this presumption causes any and all social structures and institutions to cater exclusively to the needs of (certain groups of) privileged white people, excluding everyone else to the extent that the system doesn’t work for us. In the case of IGB, it seems painfully obvious to me that the videos present a narrative that simply doesn’t work for many (or most) people of color. This is what I mean by racism.

      Shiri

  2. Shiri: “I will clarify and say that I define racism as a systematic assumption that everyone is white.”

    Well, thanks for clearing that up. That definition is certainly one you would need to flag for your readers, though, as that is not the first definition readers would bring to your essay. It makes a huge difference in how the tone and content of your piece is read.

    As for the sexualisation in the video (Reibel’s cleavage, specifically) — well, damn, that’s one of the reasons I watched it 8 times! ;) … But seriously, I didn’t have a problem with them being sexy (I would not necessarily say ‘sexualised’ as that again seems to remove their own agency… i.e., I’m sure they would have dressed themselves; and there was nothing ‘graphic’ and objectifying to my mind about their presentation of self). Sexy is good — and I liked that they were all three different styles of sexy — and powerful, again imho. And I didn’t read that much into Wolf’s demeanour, but I will take your word for it and go back and have a good long look.

    Anyway, despite any disagreements on this and that, I am very glad you are writing this blog. Your voice and views are needed out there in the blogosphere.

  3. I generally do not address criticisms about my films and videos as I feel that every person is allowed his/her response and feelings about what they see. However, I did have a few reactions to Shiri’s blog about our “Rose By Any Other Name…” IGB video from a political stand point.

    The first point I will address only briefly because it was dealt with so wonderfully by TSB, and that is the point that the IGB campaign is racist. I assume it was the shortest part of Shiri’s blog because it the hardest to back up. Now please do not be confused, I have a series issue with the IGB campaign and I have addressed it on my “F’ Dan Savage” video:

    But to say that the campaign is racist really makes no sense. Yes, it gets much easier much quicker for white men, but it is called “It Gets Better” not “It Will Get As Good For You As It Will For White Men”. The reality is that for the most part, it WILL get better for kids of all races once they get a little older and some independence. It just will. Will it get perfect? Will it be a life without prejudice? Of course not. But for kids who feel alone, so alone and without hope that they are seriously considering killing themselves, well there is no measuring what these thousands of videos might do for someone.

    Shiri’s racist argument is really a red herring and a bit disappointing considering how well thought out the rest of her post was.

    I did not myself participate in the video that Shiri talks about because of my feelings about Dan Savage. However I wrote the piece for the cast because I felt that it’s important for the bisexual voice to be heard in the mostly G & L videos. And I fully stand by every word in the piece. Shiri’s assertion is that the campaign makes the viewer passive and without power. But thats the whole point isn’t it? Let’s put aside all the “pie in the sky” talk about how teens are strong and powerful and can do anything they want. That’s bullshit and we know it. Being a teen, whether gay or lesbian or bi or STRAIGHT is a very difficult time BECAUSE of the lack of power they have. They are in a state of limbo, too old to be a child yet not old enough to be an adult and have the freedoms adulthood comes with. They have no real power whatsoever as a teen, especially those in less populated areas. That is who the videos are for. The LBGT youth, and mine specifically or the B. To let them know that yes it sucks, and yes it feels like you are alone, but you have “me” That I was once in your shoes and it did get better. I received an email from a teen girl in Idaho who said that for the past month her whole life has consisted of enduring school during the day and coming home and watching IGB videos until she goes to sleep. These videos give kids a virtual community until they can find one of their own. And yes, there are kids out there who are strong and rebellious who I am inspired by, but they aren’t who the campaign is targeting.

    As for the stats that bisexual youth are more likely to suffer from poverty, depression and suicidality and low physical health have been thrown around for years. I would love to see some actual proof of that. I am not saying it’s not true, I am simply saying that no one has ever been able to show me any concrete data. I would suggest that even trying to prove we have it “toughest” of all the Queers is irrelevant. I don’t know if we feel more, the same or less. I could care less WHERE we fall in that, because all I know is we DO feel discrimination and THAT is unacceptable. But first lets save those kids who might not see adulthood before we start asking them to overthrow the Gay Male Power Structure within the Queer community.

    All that said, what finally inspired me to respond was Shiri’s attack on the actresses in the “It Get’s Better” video I did. In her first post she said, “I must admit, (it) was deeply touching for me…this video struck a very deep chord in me”. Then after being called out about her comments that I was “was smart and well intended in using a black woman as one of the participants in the video.” by TSB, Shiri responded with a new narrative. This time, that “the acting was not convincing. Neither Wolf, Reibel nor Howe seemed particularly convinced by the script” Especially calling out Fay Wolf, the non-white member of the cast as seeming “resentful and cynical…her facial expressions and tones throughout the video…seem tense and unconvinced.”

    First of all, do not put on Ms. Wolf thoughts and emotions that you THINK she should have. You do not know her and I assume have not spoken with her about her thoughts about the IGB. I have. Doing this video was very important to all three of the actress. They all have felt exactly what they talked about and wanted to make the video in order to help even just one person struggling with being bisexual. I resent you attacking the women who risk harming their career by being out and open with who they are in order to help others. I particularly resent it because it was only after you were called out that you chose to go from “deeply touching” to “resentful and unconvincing”. You changed the narrative the same way Fox News does. The facts don’t support your story? No problem change your story to fit your point.

    Her second point was criticize the sexualization of the three actresses. Not coming right out and saying anything concrete but making “observations” and possible conclusions that MIGHT be the case and then backing off in a mock innocent way as if to say, “I don’t know but maybe you can connect the dots”, which was VERY Glenn Beck-ian of her. The fact is the three actresses chose what they would wear. They were given the script a week in advance and told to come wearing “earth tones”. That was the only direction they were given by me. They look to me to be strong, confident, and yes sexy women. Attributes I only can prey my daughter has when she reached their age. What is disheartening is that Shiri chose to take away their strength and sexuality but assuming that it had something to do with anything more nefarious. The video has had about 1500 hits on Youtube with comments. I have seen it passed around on Facebook and I have received several emails about the video. Interestingly, Shiri was the only person to have an issue with the women being “sexualized”. The only one to even comment about it. In fact it also was not addressed in her initial post, only in her follow up. Not to channel Gleen Beck myself but that is kind of…interesting.

    I have been impressed with Shiri’s work and views and feel particularly let down by what I see as sloppy and disingenuous writing. I have no issue with you attacking my movies or my web series. I don’t even have an issue with her not liking the IGB video. I put myself out there and that is what comes with being as opinionated as myself. However I cannot abide someone being attacked solely to make themselves feel better about their own views.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s