By Lila Hartelius
This university year, I’m incorporating the topic of climate
change into classes I teach in a food engineering department.
At a certain point in time, I felt that to be sufficiently prepared
for work in the agri-food sector, my students should be guided
to integrate climate change into every aspect of their training,
and I wanted to do my part in that.
I also wanted to feel I was addressing climate change in a more
effective way than getting lost in a sea of protestors. Participating
in rallies or marches can be fun and even exhilarating, and there
is power in numbers. But sometimes I feel I can more efficiently use that
power exponentially by acting on and spreading ideas to others who in turn
can act on and spread them.
I’m discussing climate change in this BWQ issue for two reasons. When I
realized the climate situation’s urgency, taking action on bi+ issues paled in
comparison. Working for bi+ causes has helped me better understand my
assumptions about what an activist is and how these have impacted how I
take action on climate change.
Have you heard the expression “card-carrying bisexual”? It reflects
misinformed attempts to conceptually separate “real” or “practicing” bisexuals from “fake” or “non-practicing” bisexuals. It was not until I heard a woman on the radio refer to something she called her “carte d’ecologiste” that I realized “card-carrying activist” might be as real a notion to me as “card-carrying bisexual.” As much as I recognize activism’s intent to challenge established structures or ideas, I’ve sometimes been hindered in taking action, feeling that to be qualified to be an activist I must possess some sort of pre-established set of specific skills, knowledge, experience,
personal qualities, or time commitments I may not have. This has been more the case concerning climate change than bi+ issues; I know less about the former.
This feeling of being unqualified has sometimes prevented me
from even recognizing opportunities to create beneficial change.
This has been most pronounced in my professional life, partly
due to a limiting personal belief that, because I don’t feel I
have the training and experience to call myself a “professional
activist,” work is not an appropriate place to play the role of
activist, because this might be regarded as interfering with
business matters and put my financial security at risk. As a lay activist, my presumption said, I should stick to taking action in appropriate places, contexts I could think of as “activist friendly” or “activist spaces.”
Writing for BWQ has opened a space in my mind for a category
called “writing as activism,” which has led me to the idea that
there might be many ways to be an activist. Yet it was not until
the end of this summer that I realized the influence I have as an
educator regarding climate change. How many opportunities do
most people have in their daily lives to speak to an audience of
fifteen to thirty young people who are there to listen and learn?
In implementing the initiative I’ve taken in my professional
life, the urgency of the climate situation has motivated me to
overcome the feeling of being unqualified as an activist. I’ve realized that what matters is not the label I adopt, but the action I take.
Five to seven years ago, having recently moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to a rural region with no bi+ group close enough to attend regularly, I
began combing YouTube for anything on bisexuality, hoping to assuage a new isolation I felt. In the process, I discovered some negative bisexual stereotypes that, to my shock and dismay, had been circulating in society while I was spending my latter adolescence and twenties feeling privately that being bisexual was pretty awesome. Sure, I got embarrassed
when I thought evoking the word “bisexual” in certain contexts might be
perceived as an obscenity, a taboo, but my exposure to and involvement in bi+ and LGBTQ communities had helped to buffer that sentiment.
What troubled me most in my online search were some of the
messages coming from within the bi+ community in attempts
to debunk common myths like those claiming all bisexuals are
polyamorous, “indecisive,” or “loose.” Though I appreciated
this myth-busting, it seemed to be accompanied by negative
attitudes toward what I have heard called the “bad bisexual,”
meaning any bi+ person who allegedly perpetuates these and
other “negative” bisexual stereotypes simply by being themselves
and living their lives.
Concerned that this discourse could lower self-esteem in bi+
individuals who might see themselves reflected negatively in
these stereotypes and internalize this harmful idea, I wanted to
voice another side of the argument: biphobia, not bi+ individuals,
perpetuates these stereotypes and deems them negative. For this
reason, in 2016 I led a EuroBiCon workshop on the notion of
the “bad bisexual.”
It was not until writing this essay, however, that I realized
that, in my university initiative on climate change, I had been
asking myself the question, “Am I a ‘bad activist’ if, instead of
participating in local environmental protests, I collaborate with
an industry that contributes negatively to what I want to help
change?” Once I became aware of this question, the analogous
parallels of this self-doubt with other negative stereotypes in
LGBTQ culture about bi+ identity rolled out like a tapestry
in my mind. I had, I realized, been subconsciously wondering,
“Am I ‘sleeping with the enemy,’ as some bi+ people have been
accused of doing when involved in heterosexual relationships;
am I ‘not radical enough,’ in a similar way to that in which some
bi+ people have been accused of being ‘not queer enough’ or of
being ‘straight-acting, straight-looking’?” In other words, I had
been carrying around an idea that to be worthy of approval from
real activists, I had to work against and not with contributors
to the problem in question. I realized that in my own mind I
was a rebel in an arena of rebels—and on top of that, I was a
“rebel without a card.”
Seeking inspiration for a work-related project, I pulled a book
from my bookshelf about recovering customer loyalty called A
Complaint Is a Gift. I opened the book to a random page, never
expecting it would help me articulate an approach to activism
I had been discovering that countered the “oppose the enemy”
concept. The page introduced the term “activist” in business
“As a group, activists are consumers who tend to be the
most alienated from the marketplace. In this case, alienation can be described as a mindset that when something
goes wrong, normal complaint channels will not work so other
methods of redress must be chosen.” (emphasis mine) (Barlow & Møller, p. 112)
On the one hand, this seems to echo how classic ideas of what
constitutes activism (marches, activist groups, etc.) have understandably emerged in response to sentiments that traditional
routes of creating change (e.g. trying to negotiate within industries) are sometimes futile. At the same time, this description
of “alienation” crystallized for me an important piece of what
I’m coming to believe an effective activist should be—namely,
someone who looks for and responds to opportunities for new
paths of action where none currently exist, inasmuch as one sees
futility or insufficiency in following beaten paths of action.
If I didn’t feel participating in marches or protests was the most
effective way for me to make a difference, I realized, it was legitimate for me to find other ways of creating change. Instead
of seeing the agri-food sector as a force to oppose, I’ve chosen
to regard it as a system within which a plethora of opportunities
for collaboration and change can be found. I’ve chosen to circumvent normal activist “complaint channels” like protests and
rallies and instead work from the inside out, planting seeds of
reflection that I hope will grow into actions that help transform
the way the agri-food sector operates.
Start where you are. Look for opportunities at work, at home,
in the supermarket, on the train. Where aren’t people acting on
climate change? How could activities there link to it? Don’t be
intimidated or limited by the word “activist.” What matters is
taking thoughtful action where needed.
One sapling can become a tree, but many saplings together can
grow into a forest. Bi+ community can provide opportunities
for dialogue (it could start with a conversation over tea about
an idea), which can germinate collaboration; but keep collaboration branching out beyond just “activist-friendly” spaces to
other areas where it may be needed.
You don’t need a card to identify as bi+, nor do you need one to
be an activist. You don’t have to fit in with specific ideas of what
a bi+ person should be like to get approval; you don’t have to
take action in a specific way to adhere to a standard idea about
what activists do. Just act—with sensitivity, accurate information, and a sincere heart.