By the time this is published UK Pride Month will be over and the 14 July gave us a chance to mark International Non-Binary People’s Day.
But our commitment to LGBTQ+ equality should not waver on any day of the year!
I often introduce myself as a lifelong, black Londoner, mother of 4 children in a blended family. What I don’t say naturally, or easily, is that I am a bi/queer cis woman. This blog is about that. At a time when there is a horribly polarised and distressing public discussion around sex and gender, when trans and non-binary people are persecuted, mocked and ridiculed, I wanted to take some time to explore fluidity and change in terms of identity and sexual orientation.
The last few years working at King’s College London and having the opportunity to hear and listen from many colleagues – particularly from our Proudly Network (the staff LGBTQ+) network – I started to have some self-realisations. And recently I listened to one of my favourite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend.
They discussed a book called Detransition Baby. I haven’t read it yet, but the discussion really struck home with me. It looked at the norms and frames and boxes that society creates and that we feel we must put ourselves in. How those norms are underpinned by patriarchy and heteronormativity and that often that is invisible. I see it as much the same way as many of us were shocked to find that many of our actions and behaviours were underpinned by bias we didn’t know existed and that leads to race and gender (and other forms of) exclusion.
I grew up in London – daughter of immigrants, born 1971, teenager in the 80s. In my school, I was very much in the minority as a brown girl. I never felt attractive or wanted (sexually/romantically). Boys being interested in me was a risk for them – far better to stick to the mainstream (white girls). As I grew up all around me the only family models and relationships I understood as legitimate were male/female. At university I met gay people and gradually over the years have got to know many more. A King’s event ‘What is Love?’, a couple of years ago, helped me realise that there was a much broader spectrum of relationships and attraction than I had been prepared or able to understand previously. It unblocked something in me – and led me not long after that to tell my partner of many years – that I felt I was bi. His reaction – was to not bat an eyelid. Part of me wanted a much more dramatic reaction to what to me was an enormous revelation, another part of me was so pleased it wasn’t a big deal. In truth – it isn’t, is it? I am the same person I was and have always been – but my ability to understand myself has improved.
Yet I don’t easily tell people I’m bi – I haven’t really told my family in any meaningful way. Partly, this is because I feel a bit fraudulent – I am a notional bi-sexual. All my acknowledged romantic relationships and certainly all my sexual ones have been (as far as I know) cis straight. Romantic love and sexual attraction are all part of your sexual orientation, but they are not synonymous. It has made me think back to a couple of relationships where the men’s next and future relationships were with men. The first time it happened, I remember being mortified and embarrassed and how much of a ‘big deal’ it was me and everyone. I felt betrayed – that somehow this person had lied to me and their choices were some sort of reflection on my adequacy as a lover. The second time I was much less bothered. I came to a realisation that for me and my relationships – when you are with someone that is who you are with – what does it matter who they go on to? As long as in the bounds of our relationship, they treat me with dignity and respect. If they actively mislead me that is a different story. I realised my assumption was – you’re with me therefore you only date cis women. What right do I have to make that assumption?
This understanding that people’s perspectives about themselves can change as they learn more about others and themselves is something that I have thought a lot about as an EDI practitioner. It presents a challenge. Not just in terms of the polarity of the views but also practically, how do I develop solutions, toolkits, interventions etc if people can just change what box they sit in? How do we measure discrimination and disadvantage without the rigidity of fixed identity and orientation? My years of practice enable me to recognise that there is broad and structural disadvantage and discrimination and so we can develop approaches that are intersectional and adaptive. Rather than believing we can do something than once and for all. I augment this by listening to people and learning from their lived experience, understanding that nothing in society is fixed and EDI ‘solutions’ need to adapt as the world and our understanding grows.
As the great Maya Angelou said, ‘When people tell you who they are believe them’ I would take that one step further and say, ‘and accept them’!