20 years later, bisexuals still feel left out

Co-founder Victor Raymond remembers that they almost canceled the first BECAUSE conference when they realized the night before that only 12 people had signed up. They decided to follow through, and the next day over 120 participants showed up to register.

That was back in 1992. Now the BECAUSE conference, which stands for Bisexual Empowerment Conference, A Uniting Supportive Experience, draws more than 200 participants from all over the United States every year. The conference, sponsored by local nonprofit Bisexual Organizing Project, aims to bring higher visibility to the sexual orientation, which advocates claim is mostly ignored in mainstream society. The event also provides a forum for support and activism for the bisexual movement. This year's conference was held at the University of Minnesota, June 6 through 8.

"Our notion is that ... the BECAUSE conference would make bisexuality visible, it would bring bisexual people together, and it would provide a way to show that bisexuality existed," Raymond said. "It's a big deal."

He's surprised that the discourse around bisexuality still revolves around the question of its existence, he said, especially since, by some estimates, bisexuals make up the highest percentage among those who identify LGBTQ.

Nationally, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of LGBT adults, 40 percent of respondents identified themselves as bisexual, 36 percent as gay men, and 19 percent as lesbians.

Statewide, a 2013 update of the Minnesota Center for Health Statistics Minnesota Student Survey asked Minnesota students in 9th and 11th grade to identify their sexual orientation. Three percent of the respondents identified as bisexual — more than the combined one percent who reported identifying as either gay or lesbian.

Despite the growing evidence indicating its existence, bisexuality continues to be ignored or rejected by mainstream culture. This issue is known as erasure, said BECAUSE Conference Chair Lou Hoffman.

"The contributions to the larger GLBT community by bisexuals are not recognized," Hoffman said. "We are often mislabeled as lesbian or gay ... I seem to keep running into the same issues over and over again."

Conference organizer, Bill Burleson, said BECAUSE conducted a needs assessment for the bisexual community last year, but that even 20 years later, the needs are still the same. Bisexuals continue to participate in the gay and lesbian movement, he said, yet they continue to feel left out of the conversation.

Hoffman said the issue of erasure is complex and talking about it at the conference has become increasingly "sophisticated" over the years.

"We have 23 workshops. There's no way I can sum them up," she said, "It ranges all the way to health issues to political issues."

Recently collected data indicates that bisexual youth show higher health disparities, said Rainbow Health Initiative program director and conference speaker John Salisbury. The state of Minnesota is only now beginning to collect data on bisexual youth health disparities.

According to the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, bisexual youth have the highest rates for tobacco and alcohol use, as well as the highest rates for mental health issues.

One third of bisexual youth who took the survey reported using tobacco within the last 30 days, and more than one third reported drinking alcohol. Around 20 percent reported consuming five or more drinks in one sitting, and almost 20 percent reported attempting suicide at least once that year.

These numbers are just a snapshot of the bisexual community in Minnesota, Salisbury said, since this is the first time that the Minnesota Department of Health addressed sexual orientation in their surveys. After a few more years, the data may reveal trends in the state, he said, so that officials can begin developing appropriate solutions.

One example, he said, is that the data shows the importance of school safety. Feeling safe at school lowers stress rates and suicide ideation rates among bisexual students by as much as 20 percent, he said.

"This is common sense," Salisbury said. "But it's nice to see it in the data."

Bisexual activist and BECAUSE conference presenter Lauren Beach said the survey results are just another example demonstrating the higher disparities among the bisexual population. The bisexual community needs to be pushing harder for data like this and getting it into the hands of researchers, she said, so that they can better target interventions to communities that need it the most.

University of Minnesota sophomore Nina Ewest said that bisexual and queer students aren't looking enough toward their elders in the LGBTQ community for mentors and friends. Recently she attended another conference on LGBTQ issues, she said, and it inspired her to come to BECAUSE to learn how she can better reach out to her peers and get them involved in the movement.

For Raymond, the conference is a powerful part of the movement, he said, but he still believes they can do more, especially in communities of color where bisexuality is still mostly ignored.

"It's great that we're having this conference," he said. "But the real challenge is reaching out to these communities where these problems aren't being dealt with."

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