Rabbi Debra Kolodny Reflects on White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing
As I sat in the Eisenhower Office Building next to the White House, I was reduced to tears three times even before the White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing began. Reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen in 25 years; watching dozens of veteran and emerging activists converge for this moment; all I could think was, “Wow.”
This second-ever White House event was a long time coming, and was the product of four decades of activism from the bi+ community. (I use the term “bi+ to be inclusive of all non-monosexual identified and behaving people, including those who identify as bisexual, pansexual, fluid, etc.).
For me, it’s been three decades. In 1984 I co-founded the first bi+ support group in Philadelphia. I was tired of friends meeting my bisexuality with everything from discomfort, to downright hostility, to objectifying me as exotic. It turns out I was not alone in that experience. Today I am sorry to say that while recent studies put the bi+ population at over 50% of the LGBTQ community, many bi+ people continue to have the same negative experiences I had 30 years ago.
Yet at the same time, so much has changed. Incredible terrain has been covered, bringing us to this moment.
My activist trajectory took me to Washington, DC, where I continued bi+ social and support group leadership. I soon moved on to political action work, co-founding AMBI/the alliance of Multicultural Bisexuals and its direct action arm, AMBUSH, the Alliance of Multicultural Bisexuals United to Stop Heterosexism, Homophobia, Hate Crimes and everything else toxic that starts with “H”.
For five years I served on the team of National Coordinators for BiNet USA. I represented us at the National Policy Roundtable, a semi-annual meeting of the leaders of all the national LGBTQ policy-oriented organizations. I lobbied Congress on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, taught about the bi+ community in hundreds of venues, published a newsletter, created an ally campaign, and facilitated meetings. You know, like you do.
As I eased out of volunteer organizational leadership, I published the anthology “Blessed Bi Spirit, Bisexual People of Faith” in 2000. I also continued public speaking, and along the way, something shifted. I became a professional in both the LGBTQ and Jewish worlds who just happened to be bisexual. I continued to advocate, educate and represent, but in a different way. I watched with delight as some of my colleagues worked with an astounding next generation of bi+ activists who picked up the mantle and made huge strides.
Though there is always room for improvement, today there is much more research capturing the realities of bi+ people’s lives. LGBTQ organizations, publications and conferences continue to address our stories and issues, and many finally have out bi+ staff. New policy mavens have emerged, bringing together brilliant analyses on a multiplicity of issues. They are influencing state and federal policy on matters related to employment discrimination, immigration rights, violence against bi+ folks, mental and physical health issues specific to our population, youth needs, HIV concerns and more.
My activism shifted gears as amazing new opportunities opened to me. I facilitated the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, became the first out bisexual Executive Director of a religious movement’s headquarters (ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal), became ordained—becoming one of only a handful of out bi+ rabbis—, and most recently, became the first out bisexual Executive Director of an LGBTQ organization, Nehirim. I kvell; I glory in being able to sink into the leadership of the next generation.
One of my greatest delights in being a bisexual leader is the commitment the bi+ movement has always had to intersectional activism. That was quite evident at the White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing. Attendance at the meeting helped ensure no one felt tokenized—at least 25% of those attending, and over 50% of the speakers, were people of color. Many were trans* activists. The issues we addressed took into account the complexities of the intersections of class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and all aspects of our communities.
As the meeting came to a close, I pondered with gratitude having met and developed a deep and abiding friendship with Sheikh Ibrahim baba in DC over 25 years ago, as two of several co-founders of AMBI and AMBUSH. Though he was not present at the White House, he will be with me in Portland at Nehirim’s Inter spiritual Queer Clergy Conference. Together with Rev. Tara Wilkins, we will lead the group in activating queer clergy and our constituents around the U.S. to take part in the Black Lives Matter movement.
So much has changed in the 30 years I’ve been a bi+ activist. Yet there is still so much work to be done. What a blessing to be here now.
by Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Executive Director, Nehirim