Where do we go from here? Addressing conflicts within LGBTQ etc. communities

Meg Barker reflects on recent debates about relations between bisexual and lesbian women in DIVA magazine, and considers wider issues of the ways in which we engage with such divisions within our communities.

The DIVA Article

Back in January Louise Carolin, one of the team at DIVA magazine, decided to write a piece about relationships between bisexual and lesbian women. She wanted to explore the fact that some lesbians are cautious about dating bisexual women, or even have exclusion criteria around bisexuality, and also about the sense of rejection and marginalisation experienced by bisexual women who come across such attitudes within lesbian communities, or from partners or potential partners.

Louise put a post up on the DIVA facebook page (January 18th 2012) entitled ‘why won’t some lesbians date bi women?’ and asked for comments from both groups. The post got 102 responses altogether which included a diversity of views. Of the original 80 comments, the majority were from lesbians and bisexual women who said they hadn’t experienced such exclusions or that they had good relationships; or questioning why it should make a difference whether someone is left for a man or for a woman and challenging myths around bisexuality. These positive comments received several hundred ‘like’ responses. There were also some accounts of painful experiences of infidelity or rejection, and some examples of biphobia (such as claims that there is no such thing as a bisexual person, or that all bisexual people are untrustworthy). There were fewer of these than the positive comments, and they were ‘liked’ less by other readers, but they certainly stand out for a bisexual person reading the comments.

Louise also interviewed me, as one of the authors of The Bisexuality Report to talk about these responses and to reflect, as a relationship therapist, on potential ways forward for bisexual and lesbian women who do come up against these issues in their relationships.

Following the publication of the article there have been several blogs and online discussions complaining about it (including two thoughtful posts on blogwasred and one on mercury_pheonix’s livejournal). Glasgow LGBT students’ association has demanded that DIVA reconsider their policies and practices around bisexual inclusion. Interestingly, they’ve suggested that DIVA editors read The Bisexuality Report – the very report that prompted them to contact me in the first place.

Most of the commentators don’t have too many problems with the article itself (although I’ll address some that they do have below). Rather, their problem is with the way in which it the article is framed. Whilst the title of the article is ‘why do you have to be a heartbreaker?’ (which could refer to either the bisexual or lesbian women involved in such situations), the front cover strapline is ‘bye biphobia – how to overcome your fears and date a bisexual’ which clearly suggests that intended readers are lesbians rather than bisexual women, despite DIVA being described as a monthly magazine ‘for lesbians and bi women in the UK’. Commentators pointed out that this is exactly the kind of bi invisibility which has been linked to feelings of alienation amongst bisexual people in countless studies. They were also concerned with the biphobic views expressed by some of the readers whose experiences were included alongside the article, and (in the case of the Glasgow LGBT student association) with an earlier piece of satire in the same issue of the magazine sending up the stereotype of bisexual people being ‘paralyzed by indecision’ (which could perhaps be read either as pointing out the ridiculousness of such stereotypes and/or as perpetuating them).

Addressing such conflicts

I am very interested in these debates, not just because of the content – which has such relevance for bisexual visibility and for relationship conflict – but also because of the process of how the debates are playing out. These processes are reflective of so many conflicts that we have seen in recent years, within LGBTQ communities and more broadly, when issues of marginalisation, privilege and oppression are being discussed.

I care passionately about these processes because so often the result is fragmentation, feelings of being raw, battered and burnt-out on both sides, and an end to dialogue. It seems to me that there must be other ways of addressing such issues than the way in which we currently do – ways which could open up the possibility for alternative outcomes.

When I invited Jamie Heckert to discuss such issues with me last year, we focused on ways in which we might build compassion in such situations, without silencing the very real privileges and marginalisations that are in play. Potentially, both lesbians and bisexual people are particularly well-placed to find different ways through such conflicts because we can draw on experiences of being on ‘both sides’: We all experience marginalisation and discrimination, and our communities have also been accused of the marginalisation and exclusion of others (for example some lesbian communities being accused of marginalising bi or trans women – as in this situation – and some bisexual communities being accused of being exclusionary in relation to race, class or trans). A good starting point, we thought, was for us to remember what it feels like to be on the ‘other side’ of such conflicts. That may open up more capacity for empathy and to hear what others are saying rather than, for example, simply responding defensively to accusations and denying the experience of those who feel marginalised, or simply attacking and dismissing those accused of marginalisation for their terrible behaviour without understanding the context in which it occurred, or the ways in which such behaviour might shift. I think the correspondence between the author of blogwasred and Louise Carolin on April 10th are a good example of this more compassionate communication in action.

The author, Kenneth Gergen, argues that a big problem with conflict is the fact that we tend to see ourselves as separate, fixed and boundaried, rather than as complex, fluid and inevitably related to each other. In conflicts between groups like this that means a ‘them and us’ situation where we cluster under the identity labels (lesbian and bisexual in this case) seeing these groups as entirely separate (which much of the research on the similarities between lesbians and bi women shows they clearly are not). It also means viewing the ‘other side’ as singular and impossible to change. For example, in this case, many of the lesbians writing in about their experience with bisexual women made the mistake of generalising from one woman or group of women (e.g. bi-curious women they have met in nightclubs) to all bisexual women. It is also a mistake to view DIVA magazine as a single, unchanging, object given the commitment of some of those involved (like Louise) to bisexual inclusion. It can be the case that such a publication, or community, is both inclusive and exclusive: that it can be moving forward in some ways, whilst retaining a legacy of marginalisation in others.

Reframing the aims

I think that an important first step in such disputes is to consider what we are aiming at. It is common (both in intimate relationships, and conflicts between groups) to have the aim of proving that we are right and that others are wrong. This generally leads to an attacking and defending style of conflict which offers little room for dialogue and a likelihood of escalation of aggression.

What are alternative ways of framing such conflicts? One possibility is pragmatic. We could focus on the outcome that we would like to achieve (for ourselves and our group) and think about the most likely way of accomplishing this. For example, if bisexual groups are keen for DIVA to be more inclusive of bisexual people how might they best get that message across? One of our aims of writing The Bisexuality Report was exactly this: It seemed like an accessible summary of the research findings with clear recommendations might be more positively responded to than individual criticisms of each example of poor policy and practice around bisexuality. Similarly, the editors of DIVA might decide that the outcome they would like would be not to receive negative responses like this, and look to possible ways forward (such as meeting with the individuals and groups involved to discuss ways forward, or inviting more bisexual content and articles explicitly addressing biphobia – as they are currently planning to do).

Another possible re-framing of what we are aiming at is to focus on dialogue rather than truth. In our culture we are encouraged to view the point of discussion and debate as getting at the ‘truth’ of the situation (often who is really in the right and who is really in the wrong, with the winner being the one who is proven right). However, things are often a lot more complicated than that, with tensions and contradictions rather than easy truths to get hold of. This can be particularly the case in these kinds of debates around marginalisation and suffering. The truth of who suffers more, or who is most marginalised is impossible to get hold of given that we can’t know what another person is experiencing, and that there are intersecting aspects of power and privilege in operation which means that we can’t generalise, for example that all lesbians have more privilege or power than all bisexual people, or vice versa.

Instead of aiming to get at the truth, we could aim to open up dialogue as fully as possible, to enable as many perspectives to be shared as possible, to learn as much as we can from the situation, or to come to as full an understanding as we are able of the other position/s. Perhaps we could focus on valuing the truth of each experience, rather than on finding some absolute truth of the situation, recognising that people will have different experiences shaped by their own lives and situations. As well as focusing on the content of the situation we could also enter into it with the aim of using the situation to learn as much as we can about disputes of this kind and what works well in terms of process.

Erasing experience?

The possibilities I’m considering here are similar to those which I explored with Louise in the article itself about potential ways forward in romantic relationships between lesbian and bisexual women. In relationship therapy we generally re-frame the situation so that it is no longer about finding individual blame and fault, but rather about viewing the relationship as the thing that is in trouble and finding ways of shifting the dynamics between people (for example through opening up different kinds of conversation or ways of understanding each other).

Mercury_pheonix raised a problem with this kind of approach on their livejournal discussion of the article. In encouraging both lesbian and bisexual partners to try to understand where the other’s anxieties are coming from and to find ways to reassure the other person, aren’t I suggesting that both views are equally reasonable (e.g. a lesbian partner’s distrust of a bisexual partner, and the bisexual partner’s pain at being distrusted)? Why should the bisexual partner be expected to reassure the lesbian partner’s unreasonable prejudice? Taking this to the community level, does encouraging ‘both sides’ to develop empathy for the other risk erasing very real power differences and dynamics of privilege and oppression? If we, as the more marginalised group, work towards hearing and understanding those who are oppressing us, might we be implicitly suggesting that what they are doing is okay or colluding in our own victimisation?

This is the real challenge in all such debates and conflicts and I certainly will not claim to have the answers. We need to find ways of communicating and addressing such situations together which do not sweep real oppressions and power dynamics under the carpet, but instead recognises them in all their complexity, and the impact that they have on those involved. In the article that Jamie and I wrote together, we tried to work towards a form of mutual understanding (of what it is like to be marginalised and to be accused of marginalising others) which would increase awareness of patterns of privilege and discrimination, and make it easier for people to recognise and own up to our involvement in these, rather than hiding from them or denying them. For this reason, I am glad that Louise included the accounts of lesbians who didn’t date bisexual women in the article, because we need to hear such accounts in order to understand where they are coming from. However, I agree that it would also have been good to include some comments from lesbians who felt differently about the situation.

Committing to a learning process

Perhaps one thing that we can commit to is to noticing each time a conflict or debate like this bubbles up in our communities and – rather than simply responding to it in isolation – linking it back to previous such conflicts and being prepared to learn from it for future ones. That involves stepping back to reflect upon the process of what is going on rather than being only embroiled in the content of this particular dispute (perhaps at least reflecting upon it after some time as passed if it isn’t possible to during the situation).

Towards the end of the DIVA article I suggested that difference is inevitable in romantic relationships. We are all different in various ways, and we will come up against such differences at some point along the way and likely struggle to negotiate it. One thing that Jamie Heckert found in his research with people who had relationships across sexual identities (like bisexual and gay people being in relationships together) was that in such relationships difference was apparent from the outset. Instead of believing themselves to be perfectly compatible and similar (as many people in relationships do during the initial stages), those with different sexual identities are challenged to be aware and respectful of difference from the start. This can lead to a greater intimacy and mutuality if we can rise to the challenge of being with another person in all their difference, rather than wishing they were more similar to us or trying to mould them into what we want them to be (as people often do in relationships). It also requires the courage to face our own vulnerabilities and capacity to hurt others, instead of pushing this onto other people.

Perhaps something similar can apply to these debates and disputes between groups. Can we view our differences as potentially useful and productive rather than attempting to pretend that they aren’t there (on the one hand) or using them as a reason not to engage with other groups (on the other)? If we did, might we even come to appreciate the times when these disputes bubble up for the opportunities they afford for greater intimacy and understanding, rather than trying to avoid them or silence them when they do occur?

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