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First-Ever Bisexual Leadership Roundtable Bolsters BiNet USA

by Conswella Bennett

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 1, 2013

A National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference held almost two months ago in Atlanta served as a backdrop for a group of bisexual activists who gathered for a first ever Bisexual Leadership Roundtable (BRC) to discuss ways to handle issues facing bisexuals.

BiNet USA president, Faith Cheltenham, and Bisexual Resource Center (BRC) president, Ellyn Ruthstrom, planned and facilitated the roundtable to establish deeper connections among the diverse attendees who came from California, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Texas and Washington, DC, according to a press release.

In an interview with EDGE, Ruthstrom said plans for the roundtable had been in the works for years, but lack of funding kept their dreams of holding a roundtable discussion from taking place years earlier.

"It took about two years to get it together," Ruthstrom recalled of the plans to one day hold such an event. "It was pretty exciting to finally make it happen."

The roundtable provided an opportunity for the various bi organizations and leaders to talk to each other about things happening in the bi-movement and to see if they could do a better job communicating and raising funds, she said.

Both the BRC and BiNet USA are more than 20 years old, and like most organizations catering to the bisexual community, Ruthstrom said that most of the bi-organizations have been able to survive on volunteer support and donations solely. The lack of funding keeps the organizations from being able to develop strategic planning and to have a paid staff.

Both Cheltenham and Ruthstrom feel that it is ironic that while there are a number of foundations that support LGBT organizations, many of them do not pay attention to bi-organizations.

"We've all tried to build our own donor base," Ruthstrom said of the unique ways the BRC and other small bi-organizations have had to raise money to operate their groups.

According to a Huffington Post article published last January, reports from Funders for LGBTQ Issues said, "The total amount given from foundations for bi-specific grants in 2009 and 2010 (the last two years of available data) was $0."

"The 2010 report contains some positive indicators as well as some that continue to challenge our sector... Grants dollars increased by 12 percent to the lesbian community and by 24 percent to gay men," reads the Huffington Post. "Though the number of transgender-focused grants increased, the amount of total dollars to transgender issues decreased by 5 percent, and support to bisexual-focused issues remained at zero for the second year in a row. Zero. As in, not one single dollar. For two years."

Bisexual Organizers Hope Funding Opportunities Are On the Horizon

But Ruthstrom is hopeful that this may be changing soon. According to her, attendees of the BLR were able to meet with some funders of LGBT organizations at the 25th Creating Change conference this year, and she is hopeful that there will be opportunities for bi-organizations to receive funding.

Although bisexuals are included in the acronym for LGBT they are often discriminated against not only among the mainstream society but also among the LGBT community.

Along with the full-day roundtable, members of the roundtable also met with the White House liaison to the LGBTQ community, representatives from LGBTQ fundraising organizations and The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Executive Director Rea Carey, to brief them on concerns of the bi community and to forge stronger relationships to expand the work being done.

While funding is a major area of concern, the group is also trying to tackle the big issue of discrimination. Although bisexuals are included in the acronym for LGBT, Cheltenham said that bisexuals are often discriminated against not only among the mainstream society but also among the LGBT community.

In an interview with EDGE, Cheltenham said the goal is to focus on overcoming discrimination -- especially workplace discrimination and educating people about bisexuality.

"Bisexuals are discriminated in the workplace. They are seen as unpromotable on the job because they are not seen as reliable," Cheltenham noted. Which is why many bisexuals do not come out on in the workplace. "As gay becomes more normal, bisexuals are becoming the new queer."

Cheltenham feels that this discrimination may still be prevalent against bisexuals because, "nobody works on bisexual issues." Cheltenham, a proud bisexual and advocate added, "I don't know nothing about being straight...Folks like me make up about one half of the LGBT population."

Ruthstrom agrees. Discrimination and confusion still exists about bisexuality, but she said, "Bisexuality is an orientation -- like being straight or gay."

Referring to the popular Lady Gaga song "Born This Way," Ruthstrom suggested that bisexuality is an orientation of sexuality, although a lot of people see it as sexual behavior. Her wish is that people will learn to see bisexuality as an orientation, "and really understand that it is a positive thing. Human sexuality is complex," she noted. "Not everyone's sexuality fits into gay and straight boxes."

Those in attendance at the roundtable were happy to have such an opportunity. According to the group's press release, Billy Jones-Hennin from Washington, DC, was the most tenured participant on the roundtable and enthusiastically endorsed the leadership gathering.

"Given the ongoing exclusion and invisibility of bisexuals, as well as the ignorance and denial about bisexuality, I welcome the coming together of bi organizations to give us a stronger voice for true equality," said Jones-Hennin "The BLR is long overdue, a breath of fresh air, and a reflection of our diversity."

Cheltenham added, "BiNet USA salutes each and every member organization of the BLR for the thought leadership they've provided in the spirit of collaboration and community. While we may have different mission statements, each organization has brought to the table a true commitment to work together on the urgent needs of our deeply underserved community."

While most of the work is done grassroots, she said it's important to have places like BiNet because, "when you do, it saves lives." The group is also working on putting out public service announcements through various social media outlets talking about how wonderful the lives of bisexuals are and can be, Cheltenham said.

The roundtable attendees set out plans for quarterly conference calls and an annual face-to-face meeting at which representatives from national, regional, and local organizations can convene to continue the work. Working groups were established in fundraising strategies, political outreach and people of color and trans community networking, social media skill-building, media and public education, BLR governance and a national needs assessment project.

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