Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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So my gf convinced me to join her on a panel about bisexuality and religion at BiFest Wales. To be fair I didn't need very much convincing. And it was a pretty cool experience which I should write up before I forget about it.

The travel was really horrendously awful; on the way out there was an incident where someone stole a tractor and crashed it into a railway bridge such that it blocked all rail access into the West Country and Wales. So my train got turned round back to Birmingham, and some time after midnight the rail company organized taxis to get the passengers to their destinations. My sweetie and her husband ended up rescuing me from Cheltenham, which is not by any realistic definition near their home. So we got ridiculously too little sleep, and they did far too much driving, and I was basically running on adrenalin by the time the panel came. Then on the way back, a car crashed into ours while my sweetie was trying to drop me at the station; nobody was hurt but it was deeply unpleasant.

Anyway, BiFest itself. It's a tiny little event, run by a woman who has been involved in bi activism since her teens, with basically no budget, in a couple of rooms in the YMCA that can be hired cheaply. The attendees were a mixture of the kind of people I think of as typically bi scene folk: mostly young, very Tumblr-savvy, wearing jewellery and make-up in bi or rainbow colours, concerned about pronouns and inclusivity and social justice, many of them genderqueer. And a smaller but noticeable group of older... transfeminine folk, I think is the best generic term; some introduced themselves as trans women, others talked in ways that made me think they probably didn't exactly identify with the most common contemporary gender categories. About half the people I spoke to were, to simplify things, non-scene; they didn't wear their sexual orientation metaphorically or literally on their sleeves, and weren't necessarily familiar with all the lingo or the political stuff. This included some people who said they were supporters or curious or allies rather than bi, including a policewoman who had been given the hate crimes and diversity brief and clearly knew very little about bi issues, so she was asking very basic questions, though obviously well-meaning.

I'm ashamed to admit I did the useless flaily cis person thing over putting my pronouns on my badge. I know it's bad form to say that I don't really mind which pronouns people use for me, when correct pronouns are something that many trans people really have to fight for, but equally I felt weird about actively choosing to use female pronouns rather than just letting people assume. A little after the fest I saw this gender paint chart, which I really like. Partly because I often feel comfortable when a second axis gets added to a scale previously assumed to be linear, and partly because, well, placing myself somewhere in the middle of the one-dimensional line from male to female feels wrong to me, whereas I think I might well fit somewhere up in the top right, ie a lot more feminine than not, but also very very pale in hue. But we don't have a pronoun for 'why do I have to care about this?'; in theory epicene or gender-neutral pronouns should serve that function, but at the moment they don't, they are much more likely to convey the impression that I care passionately about identifying outside the gender binary. I felt even more uncomfortable asking for gender neutral pronouns than for female ones. But even with all that, I do like being in an environment where pronoun badges are standard.

Our panel went well. It was well moderated, and we had an audience who were engaged and interested and also very respectful, so we managed actually productive discussion rather than rehashing the obvious clichés and more of a comment than a question, actually derails. My sweetie and I talked about bi-friendly readings of Jewish and Christian scripture and the third panellist, a Druid, talked about creative ways of working with some of the traditionally heterosexist / gender-essentialist bits of Pagan ritual. I am anyway experienced at being the Explainer of Judaism at events like that, though I'd never done it in a specifically bi context. There were some questions coming from a place of pain, people who had had lost their faith and their communities when they came out, but they were all open to hearing about the panellists' generally much more positive experiences of being bi and religious. I was tired enough to be a little punchy in my response to a question about homophobic ritual laws in Leviticus, noting that Christians have a long history of blaming Jews / the OT for things that are actually problems within Christianity, but I think I avoided offending anyone.

There were a fair number of people, of whom the poor policewoman was the most vocal, who were pretty ignorant about bisexual identity and culture. In particular, there was quite a lot of explaining that bi doesn't imply having multiple partners, even though in practice all three speakers on the panel are, well, poly. And it's bad enough doing, plenty of bi people are monogamous even though I'm personally not, without having to explain from the ground up what ethical non-monogamy even is. Still, I think people who hadn't previously come across these concepts did learn something.

I attended two workshops led by the organizer, who's clearly a kindred spirit with our shared history of running this kind of thing from a young age. One on intersectionality, which didn't exactly work for me. Partly because there was no acknowledgement of Crenshaw's work, and it's an ongoing problem with white-dominated feminism that white people take credit for and distort her ideas about the subject. Obviously I don't have a problem with the idea of applying intersectionality to bi disabled people, that's the point of intersectionality, but I felt the discussion should have kept more of the focus on race. I was a bit uncomfortable with the way people commented on the fact that bi circles are often really white; it felt more like an act of self-criticism than an actually useful way to address the issue. And lots of random speculation about how 'minorities' don't like the word 'bi', which is too facile an excuse and I imagine would have made me feel even less welcome if I had been a non-white attendee. Generally the audience were just too mixed, and there wasn't really a good dialogue between people encountering the concept for the first time (though all of them were basically on board with the idea) and people well versed in internet social justice discourse.

The other was the kind of exercise I've done lots of times where you provide a bunch of prompts to get people talking about identity issues. I may have offered to run that workshop next year. But generally what happened was that people had really good, mostly free-form conversations, and we started to make connections between the scene / activisty bis and the people who just happen to be bi. One of them was a fill-in-the-blanks exercise about I thought everybody at BiFest would be ____ / and I would be the only ____ , and really quite a lot of people had thought they'd be the only Queer identifying or genderqueer person, so they all found eachother and that was heartwarming. I had a rather annoying middle-aged man in my particular buzz group, one of those who just wouldn't shut up about how the human spirit transcends labels, but the workshop as a whole went really well.

Our co-panellist asked for permission to take a photo of us, which he said was for his collection of selfies doing interesting religious things. I was completely cool with that, but did not understand that his request implied he was going to put said photo on Facebook. And then my metamour tagged me with my wallet name, which meant that the photo of me doing a BiFest panel was displayed to some random subset of my FB connections. I'm not exactly closeted on FB, but there plenty of people there, mostly people I've worked with in various Jewish communities as well as some ex-colleagues, I haven't explicitly told I'm bi, and given the choice I might have preferred not to wave that in everybody's faces.

Also, in the comments the panellist referred to me as 'Professor', and somebody asked my metamour if I was the 'rabbi' they'd met at his wedding. So I put up a FB post requesting that people not refer to me by either unearned title. This led to some really interesting discussion. Regarding Prof, several of my American friends think of it as just a job description, and didn't realize that in this country it is a title of high respect and that it would look really bad professionally if I appeared to appropriate it.

And regarding rabbi, several people had some really interesting thoughts about whether I count as a de facto rabbi because of the kinds of roles I fill within the Jewish community. I do tend to a pretty traditionalist view of this question, that rabbis have to be formally ordained, and as such have the authority to interpret halacha, whereas just doing bits of Jewish education and pastoral stuff and leading services doesn't count. Among knowledgeable Jews I refer to myself as shlicha tzibbur, no more than the representative of the congregation, or sometimes, half-jokingly, as a maggid, a preacher or story-teller. But some of the people who argued that I'm a rabbi in practice were members of my own community, which is worrying me as it confirms my suspicion that people are giving me authority just because I happen to read Hebrew fairly fluently and I'm moderately knowledgeable and confident.

One of the reasons I think rabbis need formal ordination not just a general community consensus is that it's important to me that lay people can run most aspects of Jewish life without recourse to a rabbi, and just dubbing everybody who volunteers for this sort of thing 'rabbi' really undermines that. Another is in fact the issue of ordination of women; just general community consensus would never have regarded Progressive women as rabbis in the 70s and wouldn't regard Orthodox women as rabbis today, but if specific individual (male) rabbis like R' Weiss give these women smicha by the expected formal process, that's harder to challenge.

Having this kind of conversation in semi-public on Facebook is not my favourite thing anyway, which is why I've brought the conversation over here. Well, the post is public but it's also anonymized in the way Facebook largely isn't, and I have in many ways a better idea who's reading than I do with my supposedly friends-only FB posts. Also because DW discussions tend to be rather more nuanced than FB ones. In fact nothing very bad happened because of unexpected people seeing the discussion, but I did get a comment from the sister of someone I'm really close to, jokingly quoting Matthew 23:8. I was a little nervous about that, because I hardly know the sister, and it does look a bit odd for a Christian to bring into a discussion mostly between Jews a bit of the Gospels which has historically been applied in nasty antisemitic ways. My friend pointed out to me that her sister probably just meant literally that verse in isolation, and didn't realize that I would go and look up the whole chapter, let alone think about the historical connotations. So anyway, that was only mildly awkward, but it's one of the ways that having nuanced discussions about tricky subjects seems more prone to going wrong on FB.

But anyway, it felt quite relevant to the discussions we'd been having at BiFest itself, about different aspects of identity and the subtleties of being out or not in different contexts.

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Tags: issues

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