Bisexual advocates are hailing an upcoming roundtable at the White House as an opportunity for greater discussion about their issues — despite the closed-door nature of the panel.
For the first-time ever, the White House Office of Public Engagement is set on Monday to hold a meeting on bisexual issues at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The roundtable, which is closed to the press, will take place on Celebrate Bisexuality Day on which bisexual visibility is observed.
Two groups responsible for putting together the roundtable are the Boston-based Bisexual Resource Center and BiNet USA, an umbrella organization for bisexual groups.
Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, said she’s “excited” the administration is taking time to talk to members of the bisexual community about their issues.
“Our community is definitely in desperate need,” Cheltenham said. “We’re hoping that this dialogue is just the start of a very long, fruitful relationship to help serve our community.”
An observer might reject the idea of the need for a separate discussion on bisexual issues when they’re closely to tied to gay and lesbian issues. After all, bills like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act provide protections based on sexual orientation, which is inclusive of bisexuality.
Cheltenham, who’s married to a straight man, rejected the notion that bisexuals automatically face the same challenges as gay or lesbian people, saying many bisexual people suffer additional discrimination.
“When we do come out, the things that happen to us are different than what happens to gays or lesbians,” Cheltenham said. “We won’t get promoted sometimes because we’re out and people think we’re flaky. That has nothing to do it. Bisexuality is sexual orientation; it’s an innate part of who we are.”
These advocates also say bisexual visibility is necessary because bisexuals face disparity not only in the general population, but within the LGBT community.
For example, as Cheltenham noted, a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control Control found 61 percent of bisexual women have faced intimate partner violence, sexual violence and stalking based on their sexual orientation. Comparatively, the numbers are 44 percent for lesbians, 35 percent for straight woman, 26 percent for gay men and 37 percent for bisexual men.
Cheltenham also said bisexual men face unique problems compared to gay men in terms of increased vulnerability to mental health issues and HIV/AIDS.
“Te HIV prevention models that have been working or do work for gay men and heterosexual men — there’s no specific bisexual one, and that’s a problem,” Cheltenham said. “So bisexual men aren’t being educated on HIV at the levels that we want them to be. We’re not seeing them reflected in HIV materials.”
Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the Bisexual Resource Center, said the White House roundtable provides an important opportunity for bisexual advocates to come together to “share their perspectives” with LGBT advocates and administration officials.
“Our bisexual community is suffering to a larger degree on many of these different health disparities, mental health issues,” Ruthstrom said. “You just assume if we’re addressing just the LGBT community as a whole, then we must be taking care of bisexuals. And that is not the case.”
Although bisexuals may not be considered as publicly prominent as lesbian or gay people, a 2011 report from the Williams Institute estimated that they actually make up a majority of those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Among the 3.5 percent of the population identifying as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority, or 1.8 percent, compared to the 1.7 percent who identify as lesbian or gay, the report says.
Cheltenham and Ruthstrom were reluctant to talk about how many people will attend the roundtable, or disclose any names of participating advocates or administration officials because the event is off the record.
Still, they confirmed they planned to attend along other bisexual advocates and researchers from across the country, including a large percentage of people of color. The Human Rights Campaign has previously said it would take part in some capacity.
Asked whether President Obama would attend, Cheltenham said she couldn’t speak to it, but hasn’t heard he’ll be in attendance.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, confirmed the roundtable would take place on Monday, but declined to provide additional information other than to affirm it’s closed to the press.
“As it routinely does with interested parties on any number of issues, the White House Office of Public Engagement will hold a briefing on Monday on issues of concern to the bisexual community,” Inouye said. “This event is closed press.”
It’s not unusual for the Office of Public Engagement to hold meetings that aren’t public. That’s generally the ground rules for the events that office holds — LGBT or otherwise.
Asked whether she wants the White House to open up the event, Cheltenham would only say generally she sees value in discussions on bisexual issues be open to the public.
“I’m totally in support of any public event that gives us a chance to dialogue about the disparities of our community — whatever they may be, whether that’s at the White House, or at HRC or at other places,” Cheltenham said.
While the meeting may be a first for the White House, bisexuals have been organizing independently of the LGBT community for some time. The Bisexual Resource Center, for example, was founded in 1985 following a regional conference.
Cheltenham said bisexual advocates have engaged with the White House for years and first brought up the idea for a panel with then-White House LGBT liaison Brian Bond in June 2010.
“From there, we started having discussions about what that would look like,” Cheltenham said. “We engaged the White House, and this is sort of where we came together.”
Robyn Ochs, a Boston-based bisexual activist and educator, told the Washington Blade via email she’s “delighted” the roundtable is taking place because the needs of bisexual people “are not exactly the same” as others in the LGBT community.
“Yet in research, in public policy and in health policy we are usually either lumped in with lesbians and gay men, or else completely ignored,” Ochs said. “For this reason, I am delighted that this meeting is taking place, as it is an opportunity to shine some light on issue facing this sizable population.”