This Q & A with Sheela Lambert is part of GLAAD’s tribute to Celebrate Bisexuality Day, September 23rd 2009.
Can you tell me how you got your start as a bi activist? What has motivated you to focus on bisexual issues?
I’ve been out as bi since I was 16. I’ve liked boys since I was 3 and the minute I had feelings towards a woman, I just announced to my friends that I was bi. That was in 1972.
In college, in 1974, I was the only female member of the campus gay and bisexual group. It had been a gay group before, but they changed it to gay and bisexual because of me. Since I was the only girl, they asked me to be the female co-chair. I was the only out girl on my whole college campus and very visible.
Then I found a bisexual women’s group at the LGBT Center, which at the time was the Lesbian and Gay Center. I was going to the bi women’s group twice a month as well as other groups and I got tired of walking in the door under a sign that said lesbian and gay but not bisexual or transgender. I brought it up with the bi women’s group and we drafted a letter, got some bi guys involved and went to the Center and said, ‘Hey bi and trans people are here and we participate, can you expand your name?”
But that took ten years to actually happen.
So when did they change their name?
It was in 1991 that we made first formal request. They changed it in 2001.
Now that the Center has made the change, they are fully LGBT-inclusive. It’s not just lip service they really get it. That’s why we love them.
Before that, every time I walked past that sign, I felt pain and I knew that other bisexual and transgender people felt that pain as well. That’s what motivates me to do activism on inclusion.
The Pride march was the same thing – before the name was changed being in that march was both euphoric and extremely hurtful. And I knew that others were feeling the same pain that I was.
It was the same thing with NewFest. Within a period of 3 years they all switched from lesbian and gay to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Pauline Park, who is this amazing trans activist, worked with me on that.
Can you talk a bit more about your collaboration with trans activists around bi and trans issues?
There was a big grassroots effort. We, Pauline and I, were the catalysts of that effort at that time. Obviously, if it was just us, just two people, nobody would’ve cared.
We are actually working on another project right now. Since we were successful in New York, we are taking it national. As you know, in May, the Bi Writers Association, together with the LGBT Center held the National Summit on Putting the “B” in the LGBT because we felt that it’s still not being done anywhere near as much as it should be.
One of the issues we raised was that there are many national LGBT organizations that still have lesbian and gay names. A lot of the organizations responded by saying ‘yes, we ought to think about changing our name.’ We’re taking them up on it. So now we’re in the process of sending formal letters to a half dozen organizations.
I want to congratulate you on the wonderful success you had with organizing “Putting the ‘B’ in the LGBT.” I know it was hard work. You were able to bring a lot of people together – what was that process like? How long did it take? Was this something you’d wanted to do for a long time?
It was a year out of my life.
What sparked the idea--I was on the ENDA conference calls in the beginning of the year in 2008 [about trying to get congress to make the ENDA bill transgender-inclusive] and I noticed that in the beginning that one person had written a press release about it that used lesbian and gay language in describing why a trans-inclusive ENDA isn’t just important for transgender people. They were saying that language protecting gender expression is important for lesbian and gay people too. There was a press release that said something like “if an employer thinks a gay man walks too swishy or a lesbian looks too butch, they could still be fired,” if only sexual orientation but not gender identity and expression was included in the bill.
I pointed out to them that this can also be true for bisexual people who are not trans. There’s quite a wide range of gender expression in the bi community. But this non-inclusive language had already been sent out by the committee and reproduced by all the state orgs prior to my involvement. By the time the official inclusive ENDA press release was changed to include bi people in their example (actually, they only changed it to include bi men—not bi women), it was already too late because 50 state organizations had already posted the action alert on their website and the press were already repeating it.
So I was thinking about, how do we break this cycle? How do we make sure that the first press release and the reporting that follows it are bi-inclusive? And I was thinking about the presidential candidate debate on Logo where “lesbian and gay” was used by the politicians and their questioners much more than LGBT.
I realized we needed an event where we were talking about putting the B in the LGBT where we invite the people who write press releases at LGBT rights orgs, the press, politicians – we had to hit all points of the cycle so that it can go from being a vicious cycle to a positive, inclusive one.
I’ve really been enjoying your column in the Examiner – how did that all come about and what has the experience been like for you?
It’s a great opportunity. Writing about bisexuality is my passion. I love to write about bisexuality as it shows up in media, arts and culture. I also have complete freedom. As soon as I get an idea, I can execute it. I can spend all my time writing articles instead of spending half my time pitching articles to magazine editors. And I don’t have to convince an editor it would be newsworthy to the non-bi majority of their readers before I can get it published...it only has to be of interest to the bi audience, although non-bi people are reading them too.
When I was growing up, there was nothing gay or bi on TV. Because of that, it seemed very mysterious, like there must be something wrong with being bisexual or gay because no one wanted to show it or talk about it.
It was so exciting for me to see anything gay or anything bisexual on TV, whether it was a movie, a guest character on a show, a passing comment. No matter what it was, I would tape it. Since Logo came on (laughs) I had to kind of stop taping everything. Now I just stick to bisexual themed material and mainstream reporting on LGBT rights news.
Every time I see something, it’s exciting. Even if it’s some horrible stereotype, it’s meaningful. Of course, I’d rather see a representation that’s not a stereotype, that’s not biphobic.
I was very excited to see the character of Callie on Grey’s Anatomy for example, who I think is one of the most well rounded bisexual characters on TV and then of course, there’s Torchwood.
You’ve gone from working to change how bisexual people are perceived in the media to now also being a part of the media yourself. What, if any, major changes have you seen in the ways bi people are perceived/depicted?
Of course, I still see the stereotypes being promulgated. There are those stereotypical categories that get repeated over and over.
What are the ones you see the most?
That we’re super sexy, oversexed, easily distracted, not serious minded, shallow, cheat on our partners - and I’m very, very tired of that.
What I liked on Torchwood was Captain Jack Harkness, a character that was very nonchalant about his bisexuality. He was like ‘oh you people and your quaint little categories.’ There was no coming out or fearfulness. He was just very confident. And a hero. Ianto was bisexual too, he had a girlfriend and after she died, a relationship with Jack. And all the other main characters had bisexual episodes too. What I like about Callie on Grey’s Anatomy is that she’s very real and an admirable character without being a superhuman hero, just human.
When it comes to bi issues, what is your biggest hope for the future?
I have to name just one? (laughs)
I’d like to see all the LGBT rights organizations become fully inclusive and change their names because that will send a message to the world that it’s the LGBT community not just the LG community. That will be an important step.
I’d like to see everyone getting it, getting that bisexual people marry their same sex partners, bisexual people are in the military and have been kicked out for being bi and have had to actually sign a statement saying that they are bisexual. We’ve been fired from jobs and bashed on the street.
People don’t understand that these issues affect us. People don’t see that because they’re reading newspaper articles and hearing speeches and interviews that say “gay marriage” or “gays in the military.” I’d like to see the press to start include us whenever they’re writing about LGBT issues. Interview a bisexual same-sex couple or a bi veteran. I’d like all the LGBT orgs to include a bisexual example in their examples of how an issue affects real people when they put out a press release about an LGBT rights issue.
I would like to see newly coming out bisexual people be accepted and supported for who they are. When bisexual people come out, they go to whatever queer community they can find and very often - much to their great surprise - they get rejected for being bi. I would like to see newly coming out bi people not have to go through that same pain that so many other bi people have gone through.
Many gay people went through a phase where they thought they were bi. So when someone comes out as bisexual, the gay people who used to identify as bi draw from their own experiences and say ‘this is just a phase, you’ll get over it.’
As a result, sometimes it takes bisexual people a longer time to come out because they’ve been told that their feelings aren’t real and will go away as they get more involved in the gay community.
So we’re trying to educate. That’s part of my reason for doing the column - so that bi people can be validated. So they can know - these are all the representations of you that you might have missed, characters on TV, articles that have been written, I’m trying to pull together everything in one place so that bisexual people don’t have to feel so alone. So that they can be educated as well as entertained.
Sheela Lambert is a veteran bi and LGBT activist, presenter and writer with a national bisexual column on Examiner.com. She founded the Bi Writers Association and co-founded the New York City group Bi Women of All Colors. She has been published in LGBTQ America Today Encyclopedia, Huffington Post, Advocate.com, Curve, AfterEllen, Bi Magazine, AfterElton, Lambda Literary Review, Jane & Jane and GO Magazine.