Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bisexuals at work

Offices of the Metropolitan Life Ins Co, New York, 1896

It’s nearly the end of January, thank the lords, which signals the end of all those media articles about how this is the most miserable day of the year. In the northern hemisphere the days are also slightly longer and lighter than they were a month ago, which makes getting up for work slightly easier.

Ah yes, work.

I had been thinking about posting on this earlier but got waylaid, and this seems like a good time to do it.

Stonewall report
According to a recent report from the British LGBT equality organisation Stonewall, bisexual people experience prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping at work which stops them/us achieving their/our full potential.

The good practice guide, downloadable here, is a practical resource geared at employers who want to enable bisexual employees to make the most of their potential at work. They garnered this information by asking bisexuals what their experiences were, what stopped them doing as well as they might have, and how they felt their workplaces could be improved.

As far as I know, this is the first report on bisexual people at work to be published anywhere, ever, and the fact that Stonewall has produced it is very very welcome.

Stonewall was often criticised for being anti-bi in the past, or for saying lesbian, gay and bisexual when they were simply incorporating B into the L and G, and this is report obviously step in the right direction.

So what does it say? That bi people have experiences and challenges which are not the same as lesbians and gay men. They/we encounter prejudices and stereotypes not met by lesbians or gay men In particular, the support networks of the latter often excluding us. That there is a lack of awareness of bi issues, and that bi people’s sexuality is often dismissed. As one woman says:

Bisexuality is something that you can still poke fun at, partly because people don’t think it’s as serious as homosexuality.

There’s more but you get the drift – it’s the usual panoply of spite, insecurity and confusion directed against us.

Out at work
The report considers the extent to which bi people feel able to be out at work and not many are.

As far as my own experience is concerned, anyone I have worked with consistently since the late 1980s has known I was bi. Personally think it important to be out anywhere. To me, being out is not about talking about your sex life; it’s not even talking about your romantic/sexual/dating experiences necessarily – it’s being able to be honest where relevant. For instance, when I discuss “girlfriends”, people know I’m not talking about female companions with whom I drink cocktails and moan about useless men.

However, despite this I have never met another out bi at work. Ever. The nearest I got was when I exchanged emails with one woman who outed herself to me - with the request that I kept this information to myself.

I have, though, worked with some lesbians and quite a few gay men. One of the latter (an arrogant-shit type editor of mine) was absolutely convinced that bisexuality didn’t exist because he “didn’t know any and he had met thousands of people”. My own experience of interviewing hundreds of people and meeting many more was, of course, irrelevant.

However things are changing in some quarters: when I left my job recently and I filled in an exit form, the first box to tick in the sexual orientation section of the monitoring box was “bisexual”. I felt a strange mixture of pride and being almost sorry that I was going.

And in
While I am a big fan of being out when possible, as for so many people it really isn’t possible, and I believe in bisexual visibility helping all of us, it’s not necessarily a good idea to be out all the time in all circumstances.

In recent years, I have been lucky enough to travel a fair bit for work – often to countries where homosexuality is at least frowned upon, and often illegal. Clearly being out there would have been wrong/insensitive/foolish/dangerous for the people I was with.

But this has often made me feel awkward as I did think that I am hiding, that a significant part of me – not just in the sense of who I choose to have relationships with, but in terms of my history, politics, and a substantial part of my “work” - was hidden and they would feel cheated in some sense if they had found out.

I feel a bit similar in not having a religion, travelling in places where faith is extremely important ... but that leads more to reactions of pity and bafflement, rather than disgust.

Anyway, when you are travelling to a developing country as a journalist, it really isn't about you.

Everyone has to weigh up the extent to which they can face the discrimination/endless explaining they may have to do if they are out as bi. But ultimately hiding significant parts of yourself, or pretending to be something you’re not, is not going to help you be happy or productive at work – or anywhere else.


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Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I participated in this research and found it a genuine step forward for Stonewall in terms of treating bi people as a group with their own individual issues and unique set of problems, especially in the workplace, rather than the lumped-together LGB (and the missing T) we usually get from them. I'm openly bi in all areas of my life, to everyone I know (or if they don't know then they haven't been paying attention) and the workplace has been somewhere I've found problematic in terms of being out.

My employer, on the whole, is great and improving on their greatness, but my co-workers individually tend to let the side down a bit. I'm well aware that my employer can't fix societal prejudice and ignorance, but they can help (and are doing so, I feel).