Friday, July 04, 2008

Words Matter

“Words matter. Names matter.”

These sentences set the stage for a powerful and eloquent statement by Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart as she argued before the California Supreme Court for the right of all people to marry the person they choose.

I couldn’t agree more. Words shape our thoughts and give form to reality. They are the vehicles through which we engage in the profound and magical act of communication.

Words do matter. Which is why, as a bisexual woman, I find the current celebrations on behalf of “gay and lesbian couples” profoundly painful. Each time I hear that phrase, I feel physically stabbed.

My partner and I are both bi. As a same-sex couple, we’re subject to the same injustice and legal complexity and potential violence as any lesbian or gay couple. Our excitement in 2004 was just as palpable as we stood in line for our marriage license at San Francisco City Hall, and our relationship was just as diminished by the state’s subsequent annulments. We are just as threatened by Prop 8, the ballot measure this November that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

The language of California law had left us out of the right to marry until the victory on May 15th. But the language of LGBTQI organizations and the media has robbed us of this moment’s joy. I can’t get my heart to stop hurting.

What’s shocking is that this non-inclusive language isn’t entirely random. Because some focus group data found that “gay and lesbian” was more palatable to undecided moderates than “same-sex,” there has been a strategic decision by key lesbian and gay leaders to use it through November. The goal is to win the fight against the ballot measure and secure marriage equality once and for all in California.

We could argue about whether the ends justify the means. We could argue about why the language is being used so broadly rather than just with the straight voters we’re trying to persuade. What’s not open for discussion is why no bisexual leaders were in on the conversation. No one asked us whether we were willing to make this sacrifice. We didn’t even get the courtesy of an acknowledgment that this strategy would take a toll on us. No one prepared us to have our hearts broken over and over for months.

Words matter. Not just some of them, and not just some of the time. Just as marriage is not the same as domestic partnership, bringing the entire queer community along is not the same as throwing some of us under the bus.

Names matter. I have chosen to name myself “bisexual” as a political stand for all people whose attractions span beyond one gender. Even as I acknowledge the word’s limitations, I also understand its rich history and its role in determining our real allies.

During last year’s fight over the non-inclusive ENDA, the queer community came together in extraordinary fashion and true solidarity with transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Organizations and individuals across the spectrum expressed justifiable outrage that some of us were being left by the side of the road, with only vague promises of getting picked up at an undetermined later date.

During this season of celebration, where is the outrage on bisexuals’ behalf? My gay and lesbian colleagues didn’t even notice that fundraising emails from nonprofits fighting the ballot measure kept talking about “gay and lesbian” couples. Why didn’t they get angry for me? If people I consider good friends and allies don’t even have my back, who will?

At the time of the ENDA fight, I suspected that if bisexuals were the ones left to wait at the side of the road, we would never have received the same outpouring of support. Sadly, I couldn’t even imagine it. Even more sadly, it turns out I was right.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum once said that any erasing of differences is an act of violence. And because words matter, I’ll name this pervasive “G&L scandal” for what it is—violence.

Shocked to hear that word applied here? Think I’m overreaching? Climb inside my heart these days. You’ll feel just how deeply words matter.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

POSTSCRIPT:
Last night (July 3rd) was the first in a series of town hall meetings for the Equality for All campaign (the coalition fighting Prop 8 in California). My partner Emily and I, along with bisexual activist Lani Ka'ahumanu, put together a handout, press packets, and a silent protest we called "unVEILing injustice" -- Emily, I, and several other bisexuals and allies walked into the standing-room-only crowd at the San Francisco LGBT Center wearing white veils to symbolize how bisexuals have been rendered invisible in the marriage equality movement. We even brought a cake, which read, "Having our cake and eating it, too -- Bisexuals exist!"

I'm delighted to report that the very first words from Kate Kendell (Executive Director of NCLR) -- before anything at all about Prop 8 or the campaign -- was an extended and heartfelt apology to bisexuals for leaving us out, and a sincere promise to use inclusive language in all communications going forward (as well as an invitation to contact them if they slip again).

The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but I couldn't have been happier with the outcome at this stage. I'm confident that marriage equality efforts in California will begin to include all of us.

Special thanks to Kate not only for working so hard to win legal protections for LGBT people, but for stepping up to the difficult task of saying publicly, "I'm so sorry. We'll do better."

To donate to the campaign to defeat Prop 8, go to www.equalityforall.com.

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11 Comments:

OpenID bialogue said...

may we x-post this?

8:23 PM  
Blogger thefayth said...

Thank you so much for being a voice for bisexuals in this fight. I agree wholeheartedly with what you've expressed and it's so very important that LG(BT) leaders know we're out there!

10:56 PM  
Blogger Tobi said...

Wonderful article. I've been frustrated by the same language used by my state queer organization for years. They train us to say "gay and lesbian" in phone banks, canvasing, at speaking engagements, and with friends. All because of that focus group study. And because we want to be "in the habit" so that our friends are using the "right" language and don't slip up and say lesbian, gay, bi, and trans when talking to their conservative relatives. Grrr. I've been pushing and seeing some change with them though.

But I am a bit frustrated by your assertion that bi folk would get less community support than trans people. You can't compare the fake-ENDA to the G&L Scandal for a couple of reasons. First off, words do matter, but you have a case where bisexuals are getting rights but being left off the press release, and another case where trans (and gender variant people of all sexual orientations) are being denied rights and then left out of press releases as a reflection of the facts.

Secondly, the G&L Scandal is not the GLT scandal -- Trans people were left out of that as well. Trans people's relationship recognition rights are always at risk. If someone can "prove" that you're not the gender you say you are, then you lose your rights. That's true whether you can access "opposite-sex" marriage or "same-sex" civil unions. Only marriage that removes the sex requirement can really include trans people, and that's why California's Court decision is a big win for trans couples as well. But apparently you don't seem to have noticed that "gays and lesbians" doesn't include trans people in this celebration as well.

Would I insist on inclusion here? I really don't know. I'm so used to being excluded from press releases that the pain is dulled, and I can easily consider the strategic questions around mentioning or not mentioning how trans people benefit from same-sex couples' access to marriage. But either way, comparing the community response to trans people being removed from legal rights protections to an instance of bi and trans people both being given rights but excluded from the press release, and then concluding that the pain bisexuals face is worse, is just insulting. And I say that as someone who is bi (okay really pansexual, but you know what I mean) and trans.

We don't need to get into a whole oppression olympics here, but claiming that the community cares about trans people more than bi people is really hurting your point. Especially when trans people are being just as ignored (if not more so) than bi people in this instance. Now if California started denying marriage to folks who identify as bisexual (but granting it to monosexual trans people) -- then we'd have an accurate comparison. And I'd be aghast (and rioting in the streets) if the LGBT community didn't rally against it.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

No one should be left out. As a married straight guy that has always been pro-gay rights I sometimes feel like pro-gay rights straight people either aren't included enough or don't speak out enough on the issue. Probably some of both...

1:36 PM  
Anonymous shemale said...

"Which is why, as a bisexual woman, I find the current celebrations on behalf of “gay and lesbian couples” profoundly painful. Each time I hear that phrase, I feel physically stabbed."

well that's a little melodramatic.

i and both of my girlfriends are bi, but i don't think i'd say we're in a "bi relationship" so much as we are a lesbian couple (or, more accurately, a lesbian triad), and hearing "gay and lesbian couple" doesn't make me feel stabbed--it's kind of an accurate description of the type of relationship we have (altho the numbers are off a little but w/e).

with respect to the marriage thing (and srsly there are So. Many. more important things than that), as a bi person, you're only discriminated against when you're in a "gay or lesbian" (i.e. same-sex) couple. nobody's going to stop an opposite-sex wedding between two bi people and say "WAIT! THESE MOTHERFUCKERS ARE BISEXUAL!" and have the whole thing called off or whatever.

words do mean things--"gay and lesbian couple" doesn't mean the same thing as "gay and lesbian people," and when the latter phrase, unlike the former, is used in reference to the entire queer community, it's very--as you've said--noninclusive.

"During last year’s fight over the non-inclusive ENDA, the queer community came together in extraordinary fashion and true solidarity with transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Organizations and individuals across the spectrum expressed justifiable outrage that some of us were being left by the side of the road, with only vague promises of getting picked up at an undetermined later date.

During this season of celebration, where is the outrage on bisexuals’ behalf?"


lol fuck you.
are you serious? do you remember how many times the phrase "why don't we just make it 'GLB'" was tossed around during that time? of course you don't, you're not trans and it wasn't directed at you.

like i understand that bi people are marginalized within the queer community and everything but srsly stop being such a fucking drama queen.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Lindasusan said...

IN RESPONSE TO SHEMALE:

well that's a little melodramatic.

i and both of my girlfriends are bi, but i don't think i'd say we're in a "bi relationship" so much as we are a lesbian couple (or, more accurately, a lesbian triad), and hearing "gay and lesbian couple" doesn't make me feel stabbed--it' s kind of an accurate description of the type of relationship we have (altho the numbers are off a little
but w/e).


I'm glad you didn't have the same negative experience with the language that was being put out. If you feel "lesbian relationship" covers you and your partners, however you all identify individually, then that's great.

On the other hand, I did feel literally, physically stabbed in the gut when I read "gay and lesbian couples" over and over. Whether you think this is melodrama or inappropriate isn't up to me -- the fact is, that is how I felt. The simple fact of my experience isn't debatable.


with respect to the marriage thing (and srsly there are So. Many. more important things than that), as a bi person, you're only
discriminated against when you're in a "gay or lesbian" (i.e. same-sex) couple. nobody's going to stop an opposite-sex wedding between two bi people and say "WAIT! THESE MOTHERFUCKERS ARE BISEXUAL!" and have the whole thing called off or whatever.

words do mean things--"gay and lesbian couple" doesn't mean the same thing as "gay and lesbian people," and when the latter phrase, unlike the former, is used in reference to the entire queer community, it's very--as you've said--noninclusive.


Yes, it's same-sex couples that have been denied equal access to marriage. But that's exactly my point -- it's *all* same-sex couples, regardless of how they identify. For me, "gay and lesbian couples" is *not* interchangeable with "same-sex couple". I've never identified as a lesbian (nor has my partner for that matter). Because I'm bi, I believe I bring subtly different things to a relationship (not better or worse, just different) than two lesbians would experience. For me, "lesbian relationship" is never accurate.


lol fuck you.
are you serious? do you remember how many times the phrase "why don't we just make it 'GLB'" was tossed around during that time? of course you don't, you're not trans and it wasn't directed at you.


Actually, I *do* know that there was a lot of pressure to make the bill about sexual orientation only, and I was one of those thousands of trans allies who would *not* accept leaving transgender and gender-nonconforming people behind. Everyone I know *eviscerated* HRC for losing their backbone. In my experience -- and again, perhaps yours is different -- bisexuals have actually been VERY strong trans allies. I've been *thrilled* that the trans movement is getting strong and visible, and that so much more attention is going to the life-and-death issues so many trans people face.


like i understand that bi people are marginalized within the queer community and everything but srsly stop being such a fucking drama queen.

This isn't an either/or issue. I regularly hear people talk about the "lesbian gay transgender" [fill in your favorite noun here]. It's not an isolated thing. When bisexuals are facing our own serious issues -- physical health, mental health, domestic violence, etc. -- with worse outcomes than our gay and lesbian counterparts (see NGLTF's "Bisexual Health" report for details), then this invisibility has real-life consequences. (I can't speak to the comparable stats for transgender people, both because it isn't my area of expertise and because sexual orientation and gender identity are independent variables.)

Call me a drama queen if you must. What I wrote was my experience, and I won't apologize for describing it. If your experience is different, then write it down, send it into the world, and add one more bisexual voice to the mix. I, for one, think we should speak up as often as possible -- it's the best way to remind the everyone we exist.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Lindasusan said...

IN REPONSE TO TOBI:

I think you make an important distinction between people being left out in the law vs. left out in language. However, just to be clear, I wasn't trying to compare my pain (or legal rights) to anyone else's. I was just pointing out the striking difference in how the broader queer community rallied behind transgender people and how there was deafening silence when bisexuals needed allies. As you point out yourself, there's an ongoing pattern of exclusion -- and that invisibility has very real consequences for bisexuals' physical, mental, and emotional health. (Again, see the NGLTF report on bisexual health.)

And of course I'd noticed that trans folks have also been left out of the same-sex marriage picture. It's why my remarks were primarily addressed to G&L leaders.

At the same time, there's a key difference in how the B and T were handled on this issue: according to a friend who is also an FTM activist, Equality for All met with a bunch of trans leaders. Through discussions over a long period of time (a few months, I believe), they collectively decided it would be better to leave transgender issues out of the debate and agreed to non-trans-inclusive language. There was never any such conversation with bi leaders. Your assertion that "trans people are being just as ignored (if not more so) than bi people in this instance" doesn't happen to be the case here.

As I wrote in my response to Shemale above, I'm THRILLED to see the trans community become increasingly empowered and visible (at least in my corner of the world). Do bisexuals get more support than transgender people? Less support? I don't know how to measure that. But I do know that bisexuals are routinely erased in the broader queer community -- no one still debates the existence of transgender people, for example.

Again, your mileage may vary.

Like you, I'm certainly not trying to get into a hierarchy of oppression. In no way am I trying to minimize other people's suffering. I was simply writing about my own.

Ultimately, I'm just ecstatic that our action at the Town Hall made a difference.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Celeste Winant said...

Hey, Lindasusan... I am so glad to discover your blog. May I link to it from mine? http://cdwinant.blogspot.com

As a fellow bi, thank you for this honest post, as well. It made my day. Its so easy to be made to feel neither/nor...

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to respond to one of the points that Tobi made. First I'll say I think this is a Tobi that I know (from Tobi's writing and speaking) and love and want to send cookies and a stuffed bunny. Hum, not necessarily literally (although literally would be fine too), but point being that I have not just respect for these opinions, but much warmth and gratitude. Tobi speaks for positions and feelings that are important to me.

Okay, so now the point I want to respond to -- regarding whether this marriage thing is "getting rights but being left off the press release". I believe that the ENTIRE MARRIAGE THING is about being left off the press release. We are talking about the right to use the same WORD (and thus the same concept). The lawyers-for-the-same-sex-couples stated, in their arguments, that their case was not about whether civil unions are the same as marriage -- that was not their point, they are not arguing this over hospital visitation or alimony. They were suing for the STATUS AND STATURE OF MARRIAGE.

So, to me this seems like the whole thing is all about words. Sure, there is a difference in that the state gives out certificates of marriage, and no one is denying us "state certificates" of "having a valid sexual orientation". So, in that way the nature of the exclusion is less physically evident. And that makes it harder for people to see.

(Wouldn't it be cool if somehow someone could make a ruling that would give bisexuality the status and stature of GLH? I'd vote for that.)

I realize that these lawyers may not be speaking for everyone -- and some people may see the issue as one about rights other than use of a word/concept. None the less, the lawyers claimed that hospital visits are not the issue -- that STATUS AND STATURE ARE. The Supreme Court ruled that [gay and lesbian people and same-sex couples] should have the status and stature of marriage.

This point, although a "little point", is really really important to me -- because the irony of the situation is just driving me crazy! Sue for "status and stature", then argue to the Supreme Court that prop 8 is ONLY discriminating against "gay and lesbian people".

Well, I'd like the status and stature of having a "real" sexual orientation.

And -- by the way -- this gripe of mine doesn't "debate" that ENDA was in an entirely different class. The right to work and have housing and so on are very different than "status and stature" rights.

Thanks for listening!

Oh, and I'm sorry about posting anonymously.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Faith Cheltenham said...

Hey, almost 2 years since this historic post! I think of it as historic cause it actually got me back in the mix of activism after a couple year break! I just wanted to let ya know,
http://www.causes.com/causes/475683

So BiNet USA has joined with the NCLR at their request! Things are getting better all the time!

5:39 PM  
Blogger Shaunitad said...

I love what you wrote. I think it speaks the truth for bisexual people. I have been having the same issue at the present moment. And I really am thankful for your post!!! I have been getting involved in some "LGBT" organizations in my city but it seems like it's not even about the entire spectrum of LGBTs..it's only about gays and lesbians. I feel the same way.

4:32 PM  

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