By Dr. Herukhuti
I am a member of America’s contingent faculty—a scholar-activist committed to social justice and ecological wellbeing. Seven years ago, two years after obtaining my doctorate, I was sleeping on my mother’s couch. I have not had health insurance for the last nine years and am still awaiting approval from my state’s health exchange for ACA assistance. I have had asthma since 2003. I earn too much to receive social service subsidies and too little to keep my head above the rising financial waters without the support of family and friends. I live among other poor and working class people of color, many of whom are living with mental and/or physical illnesses, substance addictions, and the results of the structural violence of social inequality. I am also a black bisexual man.
So when I received the invitation to Boston for a meeting at the large and impressive Fenway Institute—a research division of Fenway Health, an organization committed to “enhance the wellbeing of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and all people in our neighborhoods and beyond through access to the highest quality health care, education, research and advocacy” with total net assets for 2013 of nearly $44 million according to its latest annual report—to form a bisexual health research agenda, I considered it a big deal.
Dr. Judith Bradford, Co-Chair of The Fenway Institute and co-convener of the meeting, invited me to attend based upon my participation in a White House forum on bisexual public policy issues in September 2013. Ellyn Ruthstrom, President of Bisexual Resource Center and another of the three co-conveners of the meeting was also instrumental in arranging my participation. This September the Bisexual Resource Center will be publishing Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men an anthology I co-edited with noted bisexual speaker Robyn Ochs.
The one-day meeting, which was a who’s who of bisexual research, LGBT public health research, and LGBT practitioners, included a few bisexual activists and junior scholars. I lost count at the number of people with Ivy League affiliations, academic journal editorial board memberships, White House experience, or principal investigator experience on large research studies. And I wasn’t diligent about counting from among the approximately twenty-five (25) bisexual, gay/lesbian and heterosexual attendees the numbers of bisexual men or people of color but there were a few of both.
Allies are people who put their privilege, access, and social currency in service of people who don’t have those resources. The group affirmed that Judy’s decision to convene such a meeting, with Ellyn and the third co-convener, Dr. Wendy Bostwick, assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, for bisexual health was a powerful example of being an ally. Her commitment to support the furtherance of a bisexual health research agenda and her willingness to resist colonizing the process with the substantial power, wealth and influence of Fenway was clearly evident.
The need for community-driven bisexual health research is too high for imperialist, competitive politics. One of the attendees, Lisa Diamond, Ph.D., professor of psychology and gender studies, University of Utah, told me, “It is high time that activists and researchers come together to focus on the health and well-being of the enormous number of bisexually-identified, -attracted, and -behaving individuals.” Dr. Brian Dodge, associate professor, Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington who also participated in the meeting agreed, “I have attended scientific meetings on bisexual health. I have been at bisexual community events where conversations on health research took place but I think this was the first time that those worlds came together around a table.”
Sabra L. Katz-Wise, Ph.D. instructor, Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital, Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School shared, “I really enjoyed participating in the meeting. It was incredibly inspiring to be in a room with many of the top bisexual research experts and community activists. The collective knowledge about bisexuality allowed us to dive in and discuss the nuances and challenges of research on bisexuality.”
We emerged from the meeting with a commitment to continue the conversations we developed throughout the day; an idea to partner with a bisexual community organization in seeking funding for a bisexual health research conference, and a tentative name for our group, Bisexual Research Collaborative on Health (BiRCH). These next steps will provide the members of BiRCH opportunities to demonstrate their values.
In the popular card games spades and bid whist, running a Boston is when a team wins all the hands in a round. It is the most feared and sought after experience for aficionados of the games. To have had an opposing team run a Boston on you is to give lifetime bragging rights to them. To have run a Boston on someone else is to have solidified your place in legend. Running a Boston fits well in the winner-take-all competitive culture in the United States. The culture teaches and rewards competition over cooperation, self-interest over self-sacrifice, and upward mobility over collective success.
This has been painfully evident in LGBT movement politics. Many middle class and wealthy gays and lesbians of European descent have pursued LGBT issues directly related to their self-interest and in ways most advantageous for them—leaving to their own devices the queer others of the sex and gender justice movement e.g., poor and working class people, people of color, bisexuals, transgender people, sex workers, the incarcerated, etc. The mainstream pays lip service to people like me—my neighbors, friends, and family.
When asked about her experience of the meeting, Kerith Conron, ScD, MPH, Research Scientist, Center for Population Research in LGBT Health, The Fenway Institute declared, “Our meeting was a unique opportunity to integrate three key aspects of my life: social justice, community, and sound science.” How the group continues to integrate those three elements will tell us everything we need to know about who wins, loses, or runs a Boston.
Will the priorities and prejudices of funders take precedence over the needs of bisexual people (see page 11 of the 2012 Tracking Report of Funders of LGBT Issues to see the funding inequities bisexual organizations face)? Will the bulk of the future funding the group secures enrich already prosperous members of the group or be distributed in ways that support less privileged members and build the capacity of bisexual scholars to research the health needs of their community? To what degree will the representation of groups of people too often left out of mainstream LGBT decision-making spaces such as people of color, bisexual men, and working class people be developed?
I will keep you posted.