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Legacy: Looking Back at the Queer/Bi Movement and the Road Ahead

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Bisexual activism has been taken up by newer generations in America and elsewhere, the latest examples being four bi leaders listed in The Advocate's "40 Under 40." That such a sometimes-stodgy/sometimes-surly frienemy of bi people (at least in the past) would now list a bi leader, let alone four, among a select few is itself a sign of progress -- and of the legacy of the bi movement to date. Another legacy, of course, is the seemingly inexorable (or so I hope/perceive) growing consensus of acceptance and enlightenment, epitomized recently by President Obama; perhaps we are arriving at a realization that we as a nation shouldn't be discriminating against anyone, including bi people.

(A reminder here: My use of the term "bi" is simply semi-lazy shorthand for the much broader concept of an all-encompassing sexual orientation that includes people who self-identify or exhibit traits of bisexuality, pansexuality, sexual fluidity, and a panoply of other attractions to other people of the same gender and other genders. "Bi," like "gay," is for me a convenient semantical bridge or ladder to that day when we discard use of such terms and just say "human" and "my own sexuality" and "romance" and so on without the need for labels. Perhaps one of our greatest legacies as a culture will be when the individual is prized, as Dr. King said, for the content of our character and not the color of our skin -- or the sense of our sexuality.)

The concept, let alone the intent, of leaving a social legacy never dawned on me in the "early" days of the bi movement, nor even earlier this year. It still feels alien to me to consider "legacy" as I pause to reflect on what has been achieved (and not) in the "bi movement," a movement for social justice and acceptance of bi people. "Legacy" is not something any of the bi activists were thinking about at the start (at least not that I know of); we were just trying to get something accomplished in the here-and-now.

I'm now spurred to think of legacy not because I'm about to die (I'm not, as far as I know, although I'm no spring chicken, either, and I drive on crowded roads a lot) but because of such things as the president's recent "evolving" toward acceptance of gay marriage, The Advocate's inclusive article (tip of the hat to Faith Cheltenham, Micah Z. Kellner, Mallory Wells, and Martin Rawlings-Fein), and my recent, unexpected excursion into my distant past when a bi-accepting girlfriend from decades ago contacted me out of the blue. In catching up with her about our diverged, separate histories (and thus legacies), I learned that hers included the establishment of a stable, fulfilling family life that I personally could never have given her: a longtime relationship, kids, a home, a steady husband with a steady job, etc. To be clear, being bi itself doesn't make me or anyone else unstable, unsteady, and unsuited to settling down; indeed, I finally did so after living a (usually) fun, unapologetically semi-hedonistic/semi-itinerant lifestyle of my own semi-choosing (given the cards I was dealt), moving from town to town for career advancement, and continuing to increase my bi activism. But part of all that shuttling about was the search for social justice (thus my devotion at the time to journalism), so in that sense, my own legacy (though I've never until now conceptualized any of that as such) includes having helped nurture broader acceptance of bisexuality, individuality, and certain social-justice organizations (albeit in fits and starts).

This exercise in looking back also has prompted me to retrospectively examine -- and appreciate -- choices made, roads taken and not ("The Map" again), other legacies formed purposely or inadvertently, and accomplishments achieved (or not). Not that I've had any misgivings or second thoughts about decisions I've made along the way; in virtually every case, there were well-thought-out reasons (sometimes excruciatingly arrived at) as to why I did whatever I did. But still, in hindsight, what was "permanently" achieved?

Near the top of the list of my accomplishments as an accidental activist: asking myself what in all my wanderings and haphazard ways I had done that has benefited bi people and the world at large. For example, if any of my ex-girlfriends' kids (or even my own grandkids) turns out to be bi (or gay or whatever), has anything I've done made the world a better place so that they can live their own lives openly and safely? I think so -- and in that sense, I feel a sense of relief that my peripatetic ways and inefficient activism have paid off for future generations and those here now.

Separately, this new concept of legacy (new for me, at least) now fascinates me for several reasons:

  1. I never intended to be an activist, just a journalist who was covering, among other issues, the state of bi activism, the state of bisexuality as an alternative to the rigid gay/straight social paradigm, and the future of all of that (it took author-activist Lani Ka'ahumanu to point out that the mere fact that I was actively covering such issues made me an activist, as well).
  2. I never thought of us bi activists as doing anything historic or monumental, merely moment-to-moment, just trying to get a table scrap of appreciation, validation, and respect from various communities so that "folks like us" could be themselves (it was at least 10 years into "the movement" that, again thanks to Lani, we collectively paused to realize that, hey, history was made and still being made, that it wasn't just ephemeral, and that it wasn't just "for the moment").
  3. I never thought in terms of "legacy," as in what would be left behind.

So what has been accomplished in the 20-plus years that BiNet USA and other such groups (BiPOL, Bay Area Bi Network, Boston Bi Women's Network, Seattle Bi Women's Network, Bi Resource Center, American Institute of Bisexuality, etc.) have existed? What has lasted in terms of bi visibility and validation since activists quietly or loudly asserted their right to be themselves?

Well, almost no one in public office says just "gay" anymore; it's "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender" -- and often "and queer and fluid." Campus groups likewise never are named just "gay"; it's LGBT (and Q and more). Those sorts of subtle but constant reminders are more than a huge accomplishment in helping people self-identify, find themselves, and find fulfillment. Along the way, supportive communities have formed, consciences have been raised, minds have expanded, and a broader appreciation for human diversity has emerged.

So, yes, I guess I was indeed a small part of a large collective effort by a lot of bi people to accomplish something lasting and noble, and, by gosh, that is a historic legacy.

But while history and legacy should be appreciated and honored, the problem with dwelling on the past is that you might not move forward personally, and you might not keep the movement moving forward, either. Legacy is a foundation on which to continue to build, repair, and remodel while dwelling at the same time, and outside that dwelling is the roadbed of the movement upon which we resurface and improve, even as we travel upon it (yes, "the map" again).

I have never thought of "my" legacy, but now that I have briefly enjoyed stopping at a roadside scenic rest area along the movement's path to appreciate the vista overlook, it's time to move on and look at what's up the road ahead. But where to, exactly? Aha! That requires (or should require) laying out the next legs of our roads to social justice, planning and improving our routes further, maintaining the roadways, and improving our dwellings, and all of that is -- to my quiet surprise -- a legacy.