More than 1,500 New Yorkers gathered today in Manhattan to mourn the death of a 32 year-old gay man, who was shot down on Friday just blocks away from the historic Stonewall Inn in an apparent act of anti-gay bias.
Q & A with Bisexual Activist Robyn Ochs
This Q & A with Robyn Ochs is part of GLAAD's tribute to Celebrate Bisexuality Day, September 23rd 2009. Join GLAAD as we dedicate a day of posts to highlight bisexual visibility in honor of all bisexual people and allies past, present, and future. Keep checking the national news section on glaadBLOG as we will be updating throughout the day.
Can you tell me how you got your start as a bi activist?
I grew up in an activist home. My mom was a community activist and my uncle was an anti-war Civil Rights activist. I was raised with the idea that you have a responsibility to make the world a better place. I cared about a lot of different issues, but there was one issue that hardly anybody was working on: making space for bisexual people and bisexual identity. And of course, as someone who identifies as bi, I had a great deal of personal investment in the subject, and my activism and my personal journey were mutually reinforcing.
You’re also active in the marriage equality movement – can you talk a bit about that experience and what it has been like for you as a bi person in that movement?
There is an enormous overlap between quote unquote bisexual issues and quote unquote lesbian and gay issues. We share an interest in eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation. As a result, much of my activism has been within the larger LGBT movement and one of these issues has been marriage equality. This subject is of great personal importance to me because on May 17th 2004, Massachusetts became a marriage equality state and I was able to marry my long-term love. I’ve served on the board of MassEquality since 2004. In June, 2008 we won a successful battle against a constitutional amendment, and took this issue off the table.
You’re also vocal about transgender issues; can you about the work you’ve done with transgender activists?
I’m a firm believer that all types of oppression are related. I have the responsibility to stand up for my friends in the same way I stand up for myself.
After we won marriage equality in MA, we at MassEquality saw our top priority as passing a bill which would add the category "gender identity or expression" to our hate crime laws as well as to the employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and public education non-discrimination laws. We have been working in close partnership with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. We are committed to working in harmony with MTPC, mobilizing our resources to support their work rather than jumping in like a big monster and trying to take over.
Passing this bill has been MassEquality’s number one priority for 2009 and we are hopeful of success.
I also served for several years on the Trans Task Force at Harvard University and we succeeded in adding gender identity to the university’s anti-discrimination policy. Currently, TTF is advocating for the University to better meet the health needs of transgender people, including access to hormones and medical procedures. TTF has also done work on name changes, admissions, housing, identifying and increasing the number of single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms, lots of “Trans 101 workshops,” and more.
I see a natural alliance between bi and trans activists.
What is that?
We challenge over-simplistic binary thinking and we all too often get forgotten. We both often have to remind people to pay attention to our issues, to remember that we’re a part of the community.
What are some of your most memorable moments as a bi activist? A moment that made you go ‘Aha! – this is why I do what I do.’
Most of them come about as a result of my work as a speaker and educator. There are so many, it’s hard to choose just one. So I won’t!
Speaking to a 19-year-old student in New Hampshire who said ‘I’ve never before met a grown-up bisexual who was happy and has a real life.’ There’s so little information out there. I can’t even describe the look on her face – it was so beautiful. She was so excited to meet me because she realized for the first time that it is possible to have this identity and grow up to be a healthy, happy adult.
Having the privilege of meeting local activists who are working to change their own communities. There are so many people doing this work in small towns – and it’s hard enough to do this in New York City, or LA. Every single time I meet one of these activists and hear their story, I am honored to be in their presence. How do they find the courage to do what they’re doing? They are doing the hardest work of all. I give something to them by being as out and public as I am and coming to their community to tell my story. And they are giving me their stories and inspiring me in return. I don’t know if they realize how much strength I get from meeting them.
A few years ago, I was at the University of Wyoming on National Coming Out Day and a young man said ‘To me, you’re a visitor from a future world that I hope to live in some day. Meeting you gives me hope.’ He said that to me and we both cried.
You were recently honored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for longevity in the movement. As someone who has been doing this for a long time, how have things changed and how have things stayed the same?
One of the things I brought up when I keynoted the Bi Media Summit in New York City back in May is that creating bi-visibility and illuminating the spectrum is a job that is never going to be done. The human mind will continue to reduce things to binaries unless constantly reminded of reality, complexity. This is not a job you can do once, and finish.
On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of really positive change, such as the increasing inclusiveness of most LGBT organizations.
I was an invited guest at the LGBT Stonewall Reception at the White House this past June, and when President Obama spoke, he said “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” That meant a huge amount to me. Hearing the President of the United States use inclusive language was music to my ears. It reminded me that while we still have a lot of work to do we have come a long way.
Robyn Ochs has identified as bisexual since 1976. She is the editor of Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, the editor of the Bi Women newsletter and a consultant who travels around the world speaking about bisexual identity, marriage equality, and other subjects. She lives in Boston with one wife, two cats and a Uromastyx lizard.