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Sep 30 2013

The Politics of Colour: Being an invisible minority within an invisible minority

Bisexuals are not a very visible part of the LGBT community. Unfortunately biphobia is very much alive within the Lgbt community. This unfortunate issue has been cause for Bisexuals to come together to organize and gain more visibility in the LGBT communityDSC_0951 new.

When I moved to UK in 2009, I was eager to join the LGBT community and also be part of the bisexual community. I soon realized that although it is easy to have a social life beyond virtual interactions with Lesbians and gays activists, it is very difficult to actually meet bisexual activists.

Almost all the LGBT events I attended were dominated by homosexual concerns, nothing much about bisexuality. I have had to raise the question of more bi visibility at these events.

I also noticed that it is one thing to find Bisexual events, it is quite another to find people of colour represented at these events. Unlike most lgbt events (which are actually gay dominated events), there are at least a noticeable number of people of colour, the few bisexual events I have attended failed in this area.

Sometime last year, after making enquires about bi groups and events in UK, a Bi friend who lives outside UK sent me a link to a bi weekend event organized by bisexual activists in UK.  I was glad to attend and was also happy that one of the main themes for the weekend was Race. The event was held outside London and I had to travel a bit to get to the destination, optimistic that it was going to be a great weekend with fellow bi activists.

I had of course notified the organizer that I was coming. I arrived at the entrance same time with a white woman who was also attending the program for the first time. One of the orgainsers came to get the door and usher us in. I must say that was the point my bubble began to burst. She was all over the other woman asking her about her journey and all, while all I got was a cursory hello. I started thinking “Have I done something wrong?”

When attention was finally directed at me, the question was focused on how I got to know about the event. It seems my answer of “Through a friend” was not good enough; I was prodded to give the name of the friend.  I was told that the reason she asked is because some people think it is a pick up /dating weekend. The alarms bells started ringing because it seems I had to prove I wasn’t there to pick up dates but for real activism, while the other woman didn’t have to go through that cold reception.  I put that down to the colour of my skin.

One step into the meeting room, I realized immediately I was the only black person in the group. The other black identified person was a facilitator of the Race workshop,she is Bi-racial and identifies as Irish/African.

I must say as a trainer, facilitator and activist; I enjoyed the workshops as I had a lot to contribute to the discussions and also learned new things. At a point we were asked if there was any instance any of us felt isolated in the group because of our race, everyone said NO except me. Needless to say, mouths were aghast and all eyes upon me piercingly screaming “What the heck do you mean you felt isolated?”

Anyway, I took the opportunity to explain to the group that when one enters a room for a large group meeting and suddenly realized that one is the only black African in that room, there is a tendency to feel a sense of isolation. They probably did not notice I was the only black person in that room, but that wouldn’t stop me noticing this important fact. I know I am not the only black bisexual in UK and when attending a weekend meeting with an established bi activist’s coalition group in UK, I would expect to see a bit of diversity. So it came as a shock to me that I couldn’t find another of my skin colour at the event. The fact that they did not even notice the absence of that diversity was worrisome but when some of them  puts it down to being ‘Colour Blind’, it is irking to say the least.

I did have a good weekend at the event and when I couldn’t get a room at the hotels the other participants suggested (SDC15091since they were sure that there were available rooms in their hotels, probably my heavy ‘African’ accent puts off the hotel managers?), a pleasant couple offered to accommodate me for the night.

Unfortunately I have not been able to attend subsequent meetings mainly due to financial constraints as they do involve travels and hotel bookings. But I do also note that as an organizer, if I had a minority attend my program for the first time, I would make an extra effort to reach out to the minority to get feedback and also encourage them to attend subsequent programs. This is a way of building diversity, in this case, this was not done by the organisers.

I also think many bisexuals in England find it more convenient to identify as lesbians or gays. Lesbians and gays are words that many outside the LGBT community are already familiar with, and with this come legally recognized rights. Bisexuality on the other hand often needs to be explained to people and it also doesn’t come with easily recognized rights. For example, I have seen cases of bisexual asylum seekers been told to identify as lesbians by their lawyers because it is less cumbersome to win a case as a homosexual than as a bisexual. This unfortunately also promotes invisibility of bisexual cases in the judicial system.

One contrast I have noticed between UK and Nigeria where I come from, is the number of people within the lgbt community who willingly identifies as gays and lesbians. In Nigeria, because of the oppressive laws surrounding homosexual activities and the sodomy law inherited from Britain during colonization, the words Lesbian and Gays are known taboo words. Bisexual on the other hand is not even a known term to people outside the LGBT community.

In Nigerian LGBT community, it is normal to find a self identified lesbian or gay in a relationship with the opposite sex, they claim it is a cover strategy to dispel any rumor about their sexual orientation. Because of this ambiguous lifestyle, it is sometimes difficult to know who is really homosexual or bisexual.

Also, in the UK, I have noticed that in contrast to the ugly situation in Nigeria where members of the LGBT community have to operate underground and also hide their sexual orientation, this is not much of a problem in the LGBT community in UK. They have rights and can freely identify has LGB or T. Many have chosen to identify with the L and G because those are more recognized and protected by the law. Some who would fall into the bisexual identity would rather identify as Lesbians or gays because the LG words are more powerful and inclusive than the B word.

It is unfortunate that bisexuals suffer such invisibility within the LGBT community but it is also shameful that the few bisexual groups trying to gain visibility have not really reached out to Bisexual people of colour in their community.

I will like to be part of an all inclusive groups. When I hang out with my LG activist friends, it is often inclusive in terms of race but not inclusive in terms of Bisexual representation. On the contrary, when I hang out with bisexual groups, the non representation of people of colour is one glaring gap that bugs me. It is sad when one is part of an invisible minority but it is utterly sad when one becomes an invisible minority within an invisible minority.

This issue of people of colour within a minority is also one that rears its ugly head in some other groups I identify with, for example the Atheists community. Atheists are a minority in many countries and atheism as a movement is dominated by white people. It seems almost a myth that we have intellectual black atheists.Yemisi ilesanmi speaking at the London 2010 pride

However there is a growing call in the atheist movement for better representation and visibility of Atheists people of colour. While I appreciate this call, one thing that continuously bugs me is that people of colour who are part of a minority group never get contacted unless the group wants to do a feature on people of colour or to promote a PR stunt about its diversity policy.

It seems the only time an activist of colour gets contacted to write or speak about a topic in their group event is when the theme is on race or focused on their colour and diversity.  People of colour hardly ever get contacted to talk about the main reason they are part of that movement without having to tie it to their race. I mean, I’d be very comfortable speaking on topics on bisexuality or atheism but the very few times I have been contacted to do this, it has been to ask me about my perspective as a person of colour within this movement. This sometimes makes one feel that many people think the only thing people of colour are capable of bringing to a movement is their skin colour to boosts the movement’s claim to diversity.

I do hope bisexual groups, atheist groups and other progressive groups start appreciating diversity and also appreciate the contribution each individual brings to the group aside skin colour.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Grant Denkinson

    Thanks for saying all of this. Sorry your experience of the bi activist weekend was as it was.

    Do you know about http://bisofcolour.tumblr.com/

  2. 2
    Yemisi Ilesanmi

    Thanks, Grant. I am not on tumblr, but once i signed up as i intend to, I will follow Bisofcolour. :)

  3. 3
    Emma J B W

    Thanks for that link, Grant, however while I think the idea of a ‘bis of colour’ group to be a good one, I think the article above is talking about inclusivity rather than more segregation and separation.

    As a bi woman of colour, I too feel like it would be lovely to just feel included and just ‘one of the gang’ rather than to be singled out for my opinion on ‘BME’ issues. I have opinions on a variety of topics -- not just those affecting people who have the same skin colour as my own.

  4. 4
    Emma J B W

    Also, I meant to say thank you for your article, Yemisi, I enjoyed reading about your experiences and point of view.

  5. 5
    Erwin

    There is also a twitter-account to follow: @BisofColour

  6. 6
    Yemisi Ilesanmi

    @Emma J B W -- Thanks. While I too appreciate the importance of an exclusive group, it is important to feel part of and be truly welcomed in the mainstream group. I don’t just want to be included in events because of my colour, but because I am really part of the group. I hope we are able to achieve this in our lifetime. :)

  7. 7
    Yemisi Ilesanmi

    @Erwin- Followed.

  8. 8
    Pen

    That was interesting to read -- I do have a feeling that there is a particular pressure on people of mixed identities, it could be bisexual where gender orientation is concerned and I suspect similar pressures arise for people who want to identify as mixed race. I know it applies to people of dual culture or nationality and I feel it where gender identification is concerned (I identify as gender-neutral if anyone asks me, not ‘cis but I don’t really know what I’m talking about’ which is the identification a few people have kindly assigned me).

    On to mixed groups, I wanted to ask you about something about that? On the one hand, you said you would have liked to be more explicitly welcomed and followed up, particularly because you’re black, you were the only black person there, first time, etc… Is that explicitly because you’re black, or just a desire for some extra effort with nothing said? And on the other hand as a speaker or contributor, you would prefer bisexuality and race to be at least potentially in separate boxes? And everyone’s getting it the wrong way round for you?

    I’m not implying anything about what you should think or what I would think, by the way. I’ve functioned in groups where I was the cultural isolate since early childhood and it’s coloured my whole view of life and how other people experience these things. Possibly, many people at that meeting had no experience of being cultural or racial isolates -- gender orientation isolates perhaps, but that’s something they can choose when and how much to reveal.

  9. 9
    Yemisi Ilesanmi

    @Pen -- Thanks, i am glad you found the article an interesting read. . Now, to answer your questions-

    1- I wouldn’t have cared or notice any lack of explicit welcome if I arrived alone and was given same cursory hello I had. I noticed the lack of explicit welcome because I was waiting on the doorstep with another new comer, who happened to be white and who was ushered in with much enthusiasm while all i got was a cursory hello as i tagged along behind. And being quizzed about how i got to know about the meeting while the other newcomer was not subjected to such question. So, No, I didn’t want an explicit welcome because of my colour but i definitely would have loved that there was no disparity between the welcome i received and that received by the other newcomer.

    2- As I stated, if a mainstream group is missing a big part of its community, it should make effort to fill the void. Persons of Colour are a big part of the Bisexual community, therefore if they have a significantly low representation in a mainstream bisexual event, efforts should be made to correct this. This is where the issue of follow up and feedback comes in. With feedback , the group can learn how best to attract and retain its diverse membership.

    3- No, I would not prefer Bisexual and Race to be in separate boxes. Intersectionality should be encouraged. We cannot afford to be colour blind or gender blind in a diverse society.

    All I ask is that the mainstream groups should endeavour to have a good representation of its members across boards in all its activities and events, be it gender, race, faith, non faith , age etc. All should have good access to the events and feel included. However, this cannot be achieved unless we make extra efforts to reach out , break the silence about how we really feel and together find solutions to build a more inclusive movement.

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