I had the privilege of giving a keynote address to today’s Civil Service Rainbow Alliance (the national LGB&T staff network) conference at the Ministry of Defence. Also on the programme were Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service; Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions; Liz Bingham, managing Partner at EY; and Peter Tatchell
I was invited to speak having been profiled last year by Stonewall as an LGB role model in its publication “Being yourself: sexual orientation and the workplace“, which gave me the starting point for my speech:
“Being an out politician can often mean acting as a role model not just within my local Council, but also in wider society: demonstrating that it is possible to be queer and play an active part in public life.
Indeed, I would argue that my sexual orientation and my understanding of the experiences of LGB&T people makes me better comprehend the diverse society in which we live and the discrimination which those from diverse backgrounds can face.
And it is on one element of discrimination, often within our own LGB&T communities, that I would like to focus my address today.
Of the seventeen Stonewall role models, I was the only one who identifies as bisexual; that is with the capacity to love people of more than one gender.
You may ask why that matters.
You may say “Don’t we all as LGB&T people suffer the same kind of discrimination in society?”
I would argue that we don’t and that there is a hierarchy where, in general, gay men, especially if they’re white and ‘straight acting’, have it a lot easier than lesbians, bisexual people and trans folk.
Bisexual people in particular often find themselves being made invisible both within and outside LGB&T communities.
Assumptions are often made that a bi person is actually gay or straight based on the gender of their current partner, if they have one.
So let’s be clear, just because a man is currently in a relationship with a woman, or a woman is in a relationship with a woman, doesn’t make the man straight or the woman a lesbian.
Sexual orientation isn’t just about the here and now of our relationships – after all there are enough single folk on the scene and beyond it – it is about attraction and capacity to love, whether that be exclusively with the same gender, exclusively with opposite genders, or with more than one gender.
And that is a lesson our friends in the media could do with learning.
We see soap opera story lines where a favourite gay male character starts dating a woman and is suddenly defined as having ‘gone straight’ without even the possibility that he is bi being contemplated.
We see Daily Mail headlines about married male MPs who have taken up with a same sex lover as being involved in a ‘sordid gay sex scandal’, again not considering that he may still love his wife and in fact be bisexual.
And from Hollywood, we had what was described as the great gay cowboy movie ‘Brokeback Mountain’ forgetting that the two leading characters were also having relationships with women.
Now it may be that assuming the gay/straight binary is just easier for people to comprehend and thus far easier for script writers and journalists, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of people’s lives.
Bisexuality does exist, it is not a fiction, nor is it a phase.
Indeed it is more prevalent than some people are willing to admit. I describe it like this:
There are people who, like me, actively identify themselves as bisexual.
There are people who identify as lesbian or gay or straight but who, from time to time, engage in sexual activity outside the confines of their expressed orientation, be that a couple of straight guys at a swingers party or a lesbian who has an occasional fling with a fella, be he cis or transgender.
And then there are those, who without acting on it, simply find people of whatever gender attractive. I suspect many of us can think of a gay man who thought he was eyeing up a cute twink in a bar and then realises that it was in fact a young butch dyke.
But why is this important? And why is it important to you as civil servants?
Well, I would argue that bi-invisibility is at the heart of biphobia.
It may surprise you to learn that recent research showed that people in general have more negative attitudes to bi people than they do to lesbians and gay men, or those from different ethnic groups – or indeed everyone other than intravenous drug users.
Biphobia exists in our everyday lives:
I have already said that some people assume you are gay or straight based on your current relationship.
Some people will re-closet a bi person, even after having come out as bi, believing that they are actually lesbian or gay and that it’s just a phase.
Some people say that bi people are untrustworthy, or greedy, or hypersexual and others that bi men in particular don’t exist.
Well I identified as gay until I was 31, so perhaps that was just a phase I was going through.
Last year the Open University, in conjunction with BiUK and a whole host of LGB&T organisations published The Bisexuality Report.
Its findings were stark.
The kind of systematic biphobia I have talked about means that bi people are less likely to be out about their sexual orientation.
Bisexual people often suffer from double discrimination of homophobia in mainstream society and from lesbians and gay men in our LGB&T communities.
It’s not very nice to be told to ‘make your mind up’, or for a bisexual sports person to be called a ‘half pint’ or ‘mudblood’ by their gay team mates.
More significantly biphobia and bi invisibility is clearly linked to mental health challenges.
International and domestic research shows that bi people are much more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, self-harm or suicide than heterosexual, lesbian or gay people, and that this is often linked to the denial by others of the legitimacy of their sexuality.
In the education system, bisexual students often report bisexual stereotyping and marginalisation, which then affects their attainment and general well-being.
It is for these reasons that I ask you as civil servants who have influence on both the development and delivery of public policy to reflect on how your work can improve the lives of bisexual people in this country.
So let me leave you with three practical things you can do encourage greater inclusion:
- Firstly, please don’t use the term ‘gay’ to encompass all LGB&T people or communities
- Secondly, please also don’t use homophobia as a catch-all. Biphobia and transphobia are separate issues, especially within LGB&T communities.
- Finally, please do download the full version of the Bisexuality Report and assess if there are any of its recommendations which are applicable to your Department or organisation and which you could help implement.
Thank you once again for inviting me to speak today at this important conference.
I was proud to described as a role model, but you, by the very fact of being here and your involvement in the CSRA are all role models.
Together, through our involvement in public life as a politician or as officials, I am sure we can create a more equal, tolerant and open society and I wish you luck in your endeavours to do so.”