Speaker shares with students the art of ‘Getting Bi’

By Gwenn Barney

More than 30 students gathered in the second-floor ballroom of the O’Hara Student Center last…More than 30 students gathered in the second-floor ballroom of the O’Hara Student Center last night to receive their “vaccinations.”

The vaccines, administered by professional speaker and educator Robyn Ochs via her speech “Bisexuality 101 and Beyond,” weren’t for any sort of biological malady, nor were they a preventive measure.

“I call this my bi-phobia vaccine,” Ochs said before presenting to the audience the six reasons she believes bisexuality carries a stigma in America.

The event was sponsored by the Rainbow Alliance, Pitt’s student LGBTQ advocacy group. Ochs, bisexual herself, is author of the book “Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World.” She speaks across the country advocating for the bisexual community.

Ochs expressed to the audience that understanding the “why” behind common negative stereotypes of bisexuals can help them combat stereotypes.

“By understanding which of the six categories underlies each stereotype [of bisexuals], I can address the assumption underneath the statement instead of taking the statement as a slap in the face,” she said.

Over the course of her hour-long speech filled with audience participation and humor, Ochs explored each of the six categories, pairing them with a complementary hand motion.

For the first category, Ochs had the audience position their index fingers and thumbs from both hands into a triangle to resemble an iceberg. She said the first reason bisexuality is misperceived is because it’s difficult to determine whether a person is bisexual by only looking at them.

“[Bisexuals] don’t get recognized as bisexuals unless they’re in a threesome,” Ochs said.

Ochs described a second reason for stigmatization of the bisexual population as “erotophobia,” a pervasive uneasiness with anything to do with overt sexuality.

“In the United States, we have this perverse relationship to the erotic,” she said. “Sex is used to sell everything, but on the other hand, we’re in a culture that is so sex-negative.”

Ochs said this negative take on sex in America especially harms the LGBTQ community because of the close association many Americans make between members of that community and the ways in which they express their sexualities.

Sexism was the third aspect of American culture that Ochs viewed as working against the LGBTQ community.

“If we lived in a culture where people really were treated equally, then we wouldn’t really care so much who was doing what with whom,” she said.

She explained that many Americans have expectations of what gender roles should look like and that bisexuals break from these expectations.

“I think bisexual people are really scary, because we’re uncontained,” she said.

In her fourth reason, Ochs interpreted the disgruntled feelings some members of the gay community hold toward bisexuals.

Citing a study by sociologist Paula Rodriguez Rust, Ochs told the audience that lesbians can express negative sentiments toward bisexuals as a result of a sort of territorial struggle. She drew a spectrum on the board with the word “straight” on one end, “lesbian” on the other and “bisexual” in the middle to show visually what little space stands between a person being considered bisexual as opposed to lesbian.

She illustrated this point with a personal anecdote about a lesbian friend who jokingly said of bisexuals, “You’re stealing our lesbians. You people are coming in and diluting our lesbians and stealing our people.”

Ochs presented the human tendency to split everything into two categories as the fifth reason behind bisexual stigmatization.

“We have trouble with complexity,” Ochs said. “We try to put everything into a binary, even when it’s not.”

She admitted that even after years of studying this element of the human mind, she still makes the mistake of trying to place people into the binary categories of gay or straight.

“You can’t avoid doing that,” she said. “But you can be aware that you’re doing it and correct it.”

Finally, Ochs relayed the most recent addition to her list of reasons behind the stigmatization of bisexuals, one added only this past spring when a student suggested it at one of her speeches.

She described this final problem as a lack of information about the LGBTQ community in general and bisexuals in particular.

“It makes me feel a little bit more forgiving,” Ochs said of those influenced by this final category. “Because people aren’t responsible for what they’re not taught.”

After finishing the explanation of all six categories, Ochs left her audience with an affirmation.

“Now, you’re all vaccinated,” she said.

The author’s appearance last night marked her first time on campus since speaking at Pitt three years ago.

“We thought we’d bring her in for a new generation of people,” Rainbow Alliance President Tricia Dougherty said.

Dougherty’s organization decided to bring Ochs in after Rainbow Alliance Business Manager Brandon Benjamin heard her speak at the Creating Change Conference, a national conference on LGBTQ equality, and raved about her speaking ability.

“She was my favorite event at the Creating Change Conference,” Benjamin said. “Robyn has this infectious enthusiasm. She allows you to kind of discover what she’s trying to teach.”

Benjamin also expressed the importance of Ochs’ role as a voice for the bisexual community.

“We bring plenty of gay speakers and lesbian speakers in,” he said. “But we don’t speak to all the letters in the LGBT. That’s something we’re working hard to change.”