Bay Area Reporter on first US national bisexual conference

The mention of the Revolting Sexologists from Hell in Bi-Issues #1 got me doing a search for them. Before today, Google knew of one usage, in a Bay Area Reporter* article on the first US 'national bisexual conference' in 1990. (And it should have been the 'Radical Revolting Sexologists from Hell'!)

I didn't go to the conference – too poor, amongst other things – but several people from the UK did. I do have a couple of the brochures from it – one as a result of Robyn bringing some to the 1990 BiCon two months later, and one from being married to someone who did go.

That BiCon is probably where I got one of the event's t-shirts from…


The cover of the Bay Area Reporter newspaper, 5th July 1990

Bay Area Reporter article image 1

Bay Area Reporter article image 2

Conference Marks Bisexuals' Stonewall

by Richard McPherson

Four hundred and fifty men and women were in town last weekend to attend the 1990 National Bisexual Conference held at San Francisco's Mission High School.

Two years in the making, this conference, hosted by Bisexual Political Action Group (BiPOL), is the culmination of a nationwide effort of local bisexual centers to create a bisexual network and draw attention to the bi community.

The primary purpose of the conference for participants and the public at large was to: "Educate, Advocate, Agitate and Celebrate."

To this end the workshop, which ran June 21-23, focused on political, general information and AIDS oriented issues with subgroups and tracks dealing with feminism, people of color, relationships, androgyny, spirituality, sexuality and writing and publishing.

One of the highlights of the conference was the presentation by a representative of Supervisor Hongisto's office of a resolution passed by the S.F. board and signed by Mayor Agnos, declaring Saturday, June 23 "Bisexual Pride Day in San Francisco."

David Lourea, a BiPOL spokesperson, stressed that much of the focus of the conference was directed toward coming out and gaining personal and public support while emphasizing the need "of being out there in straight and gay communities as out-front, vocal bisexuals."

In addition to bisexual registrants, gay and lesbian people attended the conference as well, according to Carol Queen, a BiPOL steering committee member.

"We certainly have gay and lesbian-identified people here who are behaviorally bisexual," said Queen. "Gay and lesbian communities everywhere have a bisexual component to them, whether those folks are out or not.

"There are gay and lesbian people [here] who aren't bisexual behaviorally but who consider the struggles of bisexuals real important to them, who are working on their biphobia and working on understanding 'who are these bi upstarts anyway and what are they talking about?'"

A Part Yet Separate

David Lourea, sees similarities as well as differences between the bisexual and gay and lesbian communities in terms of beliefs and concerns.

"You need to see that bisexuals see themselves as part of the gay and lesbian community," he began. "Apart and separate from the community. So, while we have always been a part of every single gay and lesbian organization anywhere, there have been vast numbers of people who have been bisexual and have not felt comfortable to come out or secure to come out — have been discriminated against, ridiculed and have lived within the gay community in silence."

Lourea feels that even though bisexuals see their situation as very much related to the gay cause, they feel cut off from gays and lesbians due to lack of education and understanding.

Debunking the myth that bi people are confused about their sexual preference, Lourea says: "It is realistic to be confused if you live in a world that says that you do not exist. Confusion is an appropriate response to the gay and lesbian community telling you that your heterosexual feelings are just an indication of your internalized homophobia; of the straight community telling you that 'you're just a little strange and need to get rid of your homosexual feelings.' So people who are bi live with monosexuals [gays, lesbians and straights] telling them that they don't exist. It's appropriate to be confused. It's an appropriate choice not to make a choice; we live in a world that says you have to.

Addressing the opinion of some gays that bisexuals can't be trusted, that they'll go back in the closet and take "heterosexual privilege," Lourea responds: "A great many people who are bi are 'out there,' have always been beaten up, have put their lives on the line all the time. In some ways we risk more because the reality is that we don't want to give up our heterosexual partners, we don't want to give up our heterosexual life — we also don't want to give up our gay life. For many of us acknowledging our gay side does mean alienation of our heterosexual side, and that's very painful. Sometimes more painful than it is for someone who is gay or lesbian."

Exploding Biphobia

Carol Queen, a writer, educator, activist and charter member of Radical Revolting Sexologists from Hell, said that BiPOL exists as a political and educational tool to further the understanding and rights of not only bisexuals, but the gay and lesbian communities as well. "Since most of the projects of the gay and lesbian community are also our projects, anything that helps gay and lesbian visibility and identity and combats homophobia helps [us too]." For example, BiPOL, she said, was out in force in support of Project 10, a program to provide S.F. high schools with gay youth counseling programs.

Queen agrees with Lourea that a major part of BiPOL's agenda is to talk about biphobia to the gay and lesbian community, in addition to the straight community. "We want the lesbian and gay community to know that we're here as a part of their community, that we're moving into a new phase of community building and organizing. We're thinking of this as our non-violent Stonewall. 20 years later, thanks to the gay and lesbian community … Our same sex connections are very powerful and precious to us. You know, that's what makes us bisexual instead of heterosexual. We're not heterosexual people."

The conference weekend culminated on Sunday with a contingent of 250 participants marching in the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. ▼

BAY AREA REPORTER JULY 5, 1990 PAGE 20 & 22

Page 20 of the Bay Area Reporter newspaper, 5th July 1990

Page 22 of the Bay Area Reporter newspaper, 5th July 1990


* Founded in 1971, the BAR is the USA's the oldest continually published LGBT newspaper. The article on the conference was just after two pages of obituaries, almost all as a result of Aids:

Obituries in the Bay Area Reporter 5th July 1990 1

Obituries in the Bay Area Reporter 5th July 1990 2

Bi-Issues #1

After the extended end of Bi-Monthly* three newsletters started up in 1991: Bi-Issues, Bi-Us, and Bifrost. (Spot the naming convention used by UK bi stuff…)

Bi-Issues was edited by Kevin Saunders. It was, I think, the first of the three to see print: if he was a member of the London Bisexual Group committee when they took the decision not to publish any more issues of Bi-Monthly, he'd have known of its demise before most people.

Published around February 1991, Bi-Issues #1 was an A5 4 page newsletter (i.e. a sheet of A4 folded in half) given away free. I don't think I have any copies of it (or Bi-Us) but it was converted to HTML by Rowan – editor of Bifrost, the most successful and long-running of the three – around 1999:

Every issue contains all the articles originally published in it with the exception of poetry, reprints from other publications .. Listings are not included in order to avoid confusion. Adverts are generally not included, though they may be if they were for an event within the bi community.

Bi-Issues ran for three editions. Kevin died in summer 2019.


Editorial. Introduction.
Bisexuals Stage Kiss-in at Edinburgh Conference.
Quote from workshop on eliminating internalised oppression.
The 8th National Bisexual Conference.

 

Editorial

Welcome to the first edition of Bi-Issues, a quarterly newsletter for Bisexuals. We will provide news and current issues for bisexuals.

In future editions we hope to publish articles by Iain Ryman, Clare Thompson, Robyn Ochs (American Bi-activist), David Lourea (American Bi-activist and one of the founding members of the Revolting Sexologists from Hell) and many others.

If you wish for a copy of Bi-Issues or you want to contribute then send an S.A.E. to: [address]

Health and happiness,
Kevin Saunders (Editor)

 

Bisexuals Stage Kiss-in at Edinburgh Conference

By our Staff Reporter

Our brave lads and lasses were dispatched to Edinburgh on 7th September to attend the 8th National Bisexual Conference. There fired by the enthusiasm of the occasion, 20-30 people staged a kiss-in on Lothian Rd. Said co-ordinator Ruth from Liverpool, "I think it's unfair that if I were kissing my boyfriend no-one would mind, yet if I were kissing my girlfriend I could end up being arrested."

As a result of this kiss-in 3 men, 4 women, 1 cat, 2 budgies and one baby have subsequently come out as Bisexual. Said Fiona Cambell, mother of three, "I'm worried about my husband. Ever since he saw the kiss-in he's been dating men. He's even lost interest in football".

 

Quote from the Workshop on eliminating internalised oppression

When a young elephant is trained, he or she is tied to a stick with a length of rope. The length of rope becomes engraved on the elephant's consciousness until one day when the rope is removed, the elephant moves around the stick as though the rope were still there.

It is the same with Bisexuals; every time someone puts us down or we limit ourselves because we are afraid of what others may think of us, we are acting as though we had an invisible rope limiting our actions. To move beyond this "rope" is to end internalised oppression. This takes great courage to even move small steps, yet is worth doing.

 

The 8th National Bisexual Conference

I knew I'd arrived in Edinburgh because the railway porters were saying "hey Jimmy, ken ye get the bike off the trean". If I were in London the porters would be saying,"Oi mate can you get this bleedin' load of shit off the fucking train". Anyway, I'd arrived, it was midnight on Friday 7th September, I still hadn't turned into a pumpkin yet and I still had to find the guest house. I took the zig-zag route, finally reached the Armadillo Guest house and crashed out wondering what the 8th National Conference was going to be like.

I went to Tollcross Community Centre on Saturday and crossed a line of religious Fundamentalists complete with long beards and thirteen children.** I stuck two fingers up as I passed and felt considerably better (though I had great difficulty in taking my fingers out again, bigots have very tight asses). The assembly hall*** was packed with Bisexuals all sitting nervously and waiting for the conference to begin.

I was somewhat dazed and overwhelmed by the feelings of being in a hall with people who shared my sexual identity, "God they're all so good looking" was one thought that crossed my mind. The conference duly began with Kate Fearnley welcoming everyone to the three day conference. Then it was off to the first workshop. There were three workshops a day and a choice of 55 workshops to choose from.

I was spoilt for choice; should I go to Bisexuality and Choice?, The Yo-Yo effect, Push me-Pull yous and the Flying Trapeze Syndrome? or the Variables of Sexual Orientation run by the noted author and sexologist Fritz Klein? The agonising decision made I went off to Bisexuality and Choice run by Clare Thompson.

Clare's theory is that bisexuals have special difficulty in making choices and if confronted with two options will tend to find ways of doing both. Her examples of sharing dishes at restaurants, having several part-time jobs, or trying to watch two or more films on TV produced many nods and sighs of recognition.

We explored what it felt like to stick with a choice. It was very thought provoking, a common theme being the hassles we all gave ourselves around choice as well as the fear of taking the unconventional option. Even re-reading the programme in order to write this article has brought up all sorts of regrets about the workshops I missed because of the ones I went to.

I was struck by the openness and the energy of all the people who were there, cuddles and open displays of affection were always present. There were also some excellent speeches by Robyn Ochs (American Bi Activist) and Lisa Power**** (Stonewall Group). I found it particularly encouraging that a Lesbian activist was so positive about bisexuals and bisexuality.

Saturday evening was rounded off by a disco and an Erotic dancing competition (which I missed, sigh), organised by Del Ray, Vice-chair of LBG (Geddit, yes I know this joke is recycled, sorry it's the only one I have available at the moment).

Sunday I ran a massage workshop and missed another of Fritz Klein's workshops, this one being on the advantages of a bisexual lifestyle. Still, maybe at another conference… More workshops and discussions more sitting around in circles and always the energy of bisexuality becoming clearer and easier to see.

One of the most disturbing workshops I attended was on Eliminating Internalised Oppression. We drew up a list of stereotypical sayings and put-downs associated with bisexuals. Towards the end of a very long list I was thinking, "Oh my God is there no end to all this crap"? I left feeling angry and depressed at all the negative messages bi's have to cope with, yet also more hopeful about our power to overcome these messages.

Finally, all too quickly the conference reached Monday evening and we all parted. Robyn Ochs, the American activist, summed it up by saying, "I don't want to leave. I want to take you all with me."


* It had become more and more irregular. The last published issue had a cover date of February/March 1989, but the actual publication date would have been later in 1989.

** It did actually have a tiny picket! First, and so far, last time.

*** The community centre was also a primary school. Again, first, and so far, last time BiCon's been in one of those. Another one in Edinburgh was in a church / Methodist Hall.

**** Legendary activist Lisa identifies as lesbian, but has famously had relationships with more than one gender.

UK bisexual phonelines

One of the sessions at BiCon 2003 was "Number unobtainable – what next for bisexual phonelines?"

This is an expanded version of that session, now with added bisexual phoneline.. that I forgot about until after first publishing it, ahem.

At that point, there had been five six 'bisexual phonelines' in the UK and none of them were operating any more.

All phonelines have some factors in common. Some callers have had the number for years before deciding to actually call it; others have only just noticed it. The caller choses when to call, can hang-up at any time, and may never call again.

You will wish that some people who do call again wouldn't – learning to spot a repeat caller you can do nothing to help and is blocking the line for other people is a very useful skill.

Compared to many other LGBT phonelines, the bisexual phonelines got far fewer abusive calls – possibly because they were never so widely publicised. We also had fewer silent calls, where the caller would say nothing before eventually hanging up (after a minute or two, the person answering the call usually says a little spiel about it being ok not to say anything and to call back at another time – unlike some, the London phoneline didn't have a policy of never hanging up on silent callers, but would do so after giving a gentle warning), and 'wank calls', where the caller is more or less obviously masturbating while on the line.

So what were the six?

1. Do it from home

As part of organising the first meeting of the London Bisexual Group back in September 1981, David Burkle put his home phone number as a contact. Although the group itself soon started renting a mail forwarding address ('BM Bi' at British Monomarks), the phone number stayed fairly widely publicised..

.. and around twenty people a week rang it. Some were straight information calls ("What's happening at the LBG this week?") but most were counselling calls from people who wanted personal assistance. David wrote about the experience in Bisexual Lives and, as he says, "there are several disadvantages in operating a telephone counselling service from home".

By 1987, he'd had enough of doing it this way. Because of how phonelines work – see above – he doubtless continued to get calls, but callers could be 'signposted' to another bisexual phoneline…

2. Do it from an office

In January 1987, the Edinburgh Bisexual Group was meeting at the (then) Lesbian & Gay Centre in Broughton Street on Thursday evenings. The basement room they used had a side room, and once a couple of phones were installed, this became the home for the Edinburgh Bisexual Phoneline.

The advertised hours, two hours on a Thursday evening, were the same as the EBG's. If a call came in, one of the two people 'on duty' would leave the meeting and answer the phone. They planned to have a man and a woman available each Thursday.

Having an office is the classic way for groups with resources to have a phoneline: it's how London's Gay / Lesbian & Gay Switchboard – now just 'Switchboard' – has operated since starting in 1974, for example. They used a room above Housemans, the alternative bookshop in London's Kings Cross area, before moving up the road a bit to their own offices.

Similarly London Friend, venue for the London Bisexual Group from the late 80s until it ceased meeting, runs their phoneline from their basement.

The disadvantages include that you need somewhere, and that usually costs money, sometimes lots of it.

If you're doing this somewhere like London, you can often have people spending an hour travelling to the 'office', doing a shift of two or three hours, then spending an hour going home afterwards.

The advantages include that there's a clear separation between 'phoneline' and 'normal life'. If you have a secure office, you can keep resources and records there. It is also easier to have more than one phone line for your phoneline if you have a single location.

There's a 1997 Bi Community News article from two people then helping organise the Edinburgh phoneline. (The 'Friday' in the last paragraph is almost certainly a typo!)

It stopped operating in early 2000, when the Edinburgh group closed. The Centre had been the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Centre since BiCon 1994.

3. Do it from home.. via a central number

David organised the London Bisexual Helpline which opened later in 1987 for many years. It had a new number that could be redirected to people's homes. At the start, this was done by an expensive* box – bought from a telecoms shop that was right by Housemans – which was located in someone's flat and could do what was then almost magical…

Callers to the published number got a message that said something like 'Please wait.. connecting..' while it dialled out on a second phone line to one of ten or so numbers that had been programmed into it. When that number answered, the two lines would be effectively connected together.

From the person on duty's perspective, you dialled the box at the start of your shift and then, as it answered, dialled a series of code numbers that said 'Hello, I'm someone who really has the right to do this, and** I'd like you to redirect incoming calls to the nth phone number in your list until told otherwise'. That list was presumably set up by another set of codes that I was never given.

At the end of the shift, you dialled the box again, and gave it the codes for 'stop redirecting calls'. Callers would then get a message from an answerphone that was plugged into the phone line and/or the box.

From the phoneline's perspective, it meant paying for two phone lines (the published number and the number that dialled out), and the occasional repair to the box when it stopped working, but the saving in travel costs – time and money – meant it was worth it.

Training was done by having the new person visit an existing person's home, listening to them dealing with calls for a couple of evenings, then taking calls with them listening. After a few shifts like that, they would almost always be added to the rota.

Every two or so months, usually on a Sunday, everyone working on the phoneline would get together somewhere – the main place I remember was the London Lighthouse (an Aids hospice in Kensington) which had a nice cafe and very comfy chairs and beanbags in its meeting rooms – to discuss calls, the shift rota, and have some continuing training and support. It was an opportunity to spot repeat callers and talk about policies like the 'non-directional' approach the phoneline took: callers wouldn't be told what to do, but we'd explore options with them and leave the final decision about whether to come out or visit a bi group or.. up to them.

Initially operating on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, at some point in the early 90s, Saturday lunchtime was also added for a total of six hours a week.

With the exception of the initial donation, all this was largely unfunded work as usually understood. There were 'bucket rattle' collections at events like BiCon, and the London Bisexual Group did the odd fundraiser too. A trio of anonymous donations around the 9th National Bisexual Conference in 1991 raised an impressive £1,600 which would have been enough to keep the London one going for around four years.

The main exception followed the second (and final?) run of the Health Education Authority's 'hands' ad, the only bit of "bisexual" advertising they ever did. That one included the two bisexual phonelines' numbers and they were willing to fund the London one to extend its service to six days a week for a couple of months.

The HEA's 'hands' ad - close up photo of two middle class men holding hands, with the strapline 'If a married man has an affair, it may not be with a woman'

A combination of their refusal to fund existing work and – I think – the way that the money was officially for England & Wales only meant they wouldn't let the Edinburgh group have any of it, annoyingly. There was enough money for the London line to recruit some additional people, do some additional training, and pay people a few quid per shift during those months.

When the HEA ran their 'torsos' ad (a male and a female torso, both topless, with a strapline of 'Which do you find more attractive? If you're not certain, read on.') they absolutely refused to mention the bisexual phonelines. This was for "undecided" people, not bisexuals! They did provide the number of the (then distinctly biphobic) London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard though…

The HEA's 'torsos' ad, showing a male and female upper body, both topless

 

In 1995, the box either needed an expensive repair or the services available from BT improved to the point that we no longer needed it*** or both.

When I investigated, it turned out that for around than the cost of the second phone line, we could use BT's then brand new 'Smart Divert' service which did what the box did, including charging us for the call 'from' the published number to the actual destination, except instantly and without needing a second phone line, all for a "quarterly fee for the privilege of letting BT charge twice for one call".

It meant that, for example, people could do shifts even if they weren't at home. We could have even, if we'd been prepared to pay the international call fees, redirect calls to almost anywhere in the world.**** The phoneline was one of the first BT customers to use it***** and I had to explain to some BT sales person exactly what to do to find it in the company's extremely long price list.

Overall, the new system was a noticeable improvement and it all went fine, until the point where the person whose flat the phoneline's number went to moved home.

 

What the article doesn't say is that, in common with most of the helplines I talked to, we were already noticing a significant drop in the number of calls because of the increasing popularity of 'the internet', i.e. the web. Instead of getting a handful of calls per shift – the number depending on how long they were more than anything else – it was getting increasingly common to have no calls at all.

Obviously, that made doing shifts somewhat frustrating and made training new people in the way that had worked for over a decade almost impossible.

At some point early in 2003, there was a problem with the 0845 number or the BT line that it redirected to, very probably the latter. I can't remember exactly what it was – BT deciding to charge more for something and not telling us, I think.

In any event, it would have cost us more to have the phoneline continue and, asking around, given the call volume we were getting, the people left doing it decided to close the line. An annual financial cost of around £340 for phone line, smart divert and calls, plus £120 for the 0845 number is one thing when you're getting up to a thousand calls a year; when you're getting closer to fifty, it's another.

I still think it was the right decision, but before the line at my flat was cut off, one young woman left a message on the answerphone there that expressed the reason that it existed. I hope she was able to find help elsewhere.

4. 'We'll do it for you'

.. or, the one I forgot about until earlier today.

The first run of the HEA's 'hands' ad had, in its completely different body text, an invitation to call "the special bisexual helpline" on an 0800 freephone number, open from 4pm to 10pm seven days a week.

This one was run by the same people who ran the National Aids Helpline on a different 0800 number. Just as that had drawn away volunteers from places like the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard by paying people answering the phone, this paid people like David to do some training on bisexual issues. I think the people answering it primarily came from the NAH staff.

I have no idea how many people called it or what the HEA were charged for running it. Quite a lot, I suspect. In fact, I would be utterly astonished if, in its short life, this didn't cost much more than the total of all the other ones over their entire lives – for the London and Edinburgh ones, that's about thirty years, combined.

The person who ran the NAH around this time came to BiCon a couple of times in the early 90s. He had several amusing stories, including the way that he had to keep explaining to visiting ministers that calls were confidential, so no, they couldn't ever listen to one.

The 'special bisexual phoneline' was phased out after a number of months, but the NAH is still going today, rebranded as the 'Sexual Health Information Line', and ultimately funded by Public Health England. It has kept the same phone number from the 1980s too, although it's likely to change to an 0300 freephone number at some point.

5. Answerphone

In the 1990s, the (mixed) Nottingham Bisexual Group had one of these for a while: a simple answerphone had a long outgoing message that mentioned the bi groups in Nottingham and several other bi resources. The phone number was publicised locally.

The big advantage is that it's extremely simple to set up.

For something more complicated, the Asterisk open source software has made having a phone tree ('press 1 for more about answering Am I bisexual?, press 2 for more about..') on an internet server relatively easy for over a decade. Getting a 'cheap to call' phone number redirect to such a server can be free. Having something like this was talked about in BiCon 2010***** * but as far as I know, no-one's ever actually done it.

6. Like #1, but to get laid

The exception, in more ways than one!

Also at one point in the 1990s, people working on the London Bisexual Phoneline noticed an ad in somewhere like Diva for a "bisexual women's helpline" with a phone number from somewhere near London.

One of the women on the London phoneline called it, and was later able to confirm what was happening: after chatting for a while, the woman on the other end would invite the caller to come and visit them in person at their home for further 'discussions'. They were also able to confirm, having gone along there, that the discussions expected were the horizontal kind…

Obviously this is appallingly unethical behaviour for a phoneline (even if our test caller did enjoy themselves!) and the policies of any worthwhile phoneline will include 'don't arrange dates with callers' as well as issues around confidentiality etc.

The ads disappeared from Diva a while later.


* Several hundred pounds. An anonymous donor covered the cost.

** Update: having found the instruction sheet, there wasn't a PIN and the only protections against random people doing this were a) not publishing the box's private number and b) a forty second wait until it picked up and you could start programming it to do something via pressing the keys on your phone. Fortunately, the way that local calls were charged for in the UK meant that 'wardialing' – dialling endless numbers until an interesting one answered – was never a big thing here, unlike the USA.

*** Sadly, I think the original box was junked when the new system was introduced, because it would have been fascinating to open it up and see how it worked. There must have been an 8-bit CPU in there somewhere! There were strict limits on what you could electrically connect to a BT phoneline, and I did wonder if it was being naughty and efficient or good and rather less so.

**** There were a couple of exceptions, probably due to fraud.

***** I can't remember where I heard about it – probably the online conferencing service cix where someone working at BT may have mentioned it: "In its heyday, CIX was one of the UK's premier online locations for both technical and social interaction" (Wikipedia)

***** * At the same venue as BiCon 2003!