Interviewer:

 Mason Funk

Camera:

 Kate Kunath

Date:

 August 15, 2016

Location:

 Home Of Robyn Ochs, Jamaica Plain, MA

Robyn Ochs was born in 1958 in San Antonio, Texas. She studied Language and Culture and Latin American Studies at the State University of New York at Purchase, and received a Masters of Education degree from Harvard. As a writer, teacher, speaker, and activist, Robyn has worked to promote the visibility and rights of people of all orientations and genders – but her primary mission has been carving out space for people who call themselves bisexual.

At age 23, Robyn came out as bisexual to her friends and family. Since then, she has created multiple organizations to promote bisexual visibility and community. In 1983, she co-founded the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network, followed by the Bisexual Resource Center in 1985. In 1990, she was also a founding member of BiNet USA, an umbrella organization bringing together bisexual organizations, communities, and resources.

In addition to creating multiple organizations for equality, Robyn has taught courses at MIT, Tufts University, and Johnson State College. Her classes focus on identity politics, the history of sexual minorities, and non-binary identities. She also worked as an administrator at Harvard University for 26 years, where she co-founded LGBT faculty and staff groups. In 2009, she received the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her advocacy on the Harvard campus. Robyn also served from 2004 until 2016 on the board of MassEquality, Massachusetts’ statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, working for marriage equality and the rights of transgender people.

But perhaps Robyn’s most tangible accomplishment has been creating a definition of bisexuality for people around the world: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree.”

Robyn’s editing collaborations include the 2005 anthology Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, and Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men, which appeared in 2015. Since 2009, she has edited Bi Women Quarterly (1983-present), the longest-running bisexual women’s periodical in the world.

Robyn currently lives in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with her wife Peg Preble. When our OUTWORDS team showed up there in August 2016, at the end of a 13-day, 19-interview marathon, they discovered that Robyn had graciously secured a neighbor’s air-conditioned house for her interview. OUTWORDS thanks Robyn for her thoughtfulness, and for her dynamic, tireless leadership for a fully inclusive LGBTQ+ community.

Time Speakers Transcript Text
Robyn Ochs: Poor Emma.
Mason Funk: As much as I love her. Do me a favor, tell me your first and last names and spell them please.
Robyn Ochs: My name is Robyn Ochs, and it’s spelled R-O-B-Y-N O-C-H-S.
Mason Funk: Great. Okay. Tell me when and where you were born.
Robyn Ochs: I was born in San Antonio, Texas but only lived there for a hot minute. I was raised in New York City in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Mason Funk: What year were you born?
Robyn Ochs: I was born in 1958, the same year as the original Rockin' Robin song came out.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] Great. Give me a quick overview of who your family was and what your family was like.
Robyn Ochs: My family was somewhat non-standard. I was raised by ... Let me start over with that.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Robyn Ochs: I love you Emma.
Mason Funk: Bye Emma. Okay sweetie pie. Here we go. Are we speeding?
Kate Kunath: Speeding.
Mason Funk: Okay. Start again about your family.
Robyn Ochs: [00:02:00] I was raised in New York City in a secular Jewish, definitely left of center family. The biggest influence on my upbringing was my mom who was very very much a community activist. She was involved in many issues facing our community including being involved in getting the first daycare center into the Rockaways. She did work on anti-racist work where they challenged landlords who were refusing to rent apartments to people of color. They would send in a white person with the exact same qualifications and when that person got offered the apartment they would call the landlord and say, "Do you want to go to court or you going to rent to the people who came to see you yesterday?"
She did some of that. She was involved in the local NAACP and she did all kinds of really great stuff. My mom was a wonderful influence on my life and I think she really is a person who made me who I am.
Mason Funk: I'm just always curious to know your mom's activism. Where did she get her activism?
Robyn Ochs: [00:03:00] My mom's activism came out of I think part of it was being at the right moment of history. My mom did most of this activism in the 1960s and in the 1970s and so that was a time when a lot of people were getting involved in social movements where a lot of social movements were being generated and were growing and doing all kinds of exciting work. Part of it was definitely being at the right moment in history and part of it was that she genuinely cared.
In my family, my mom's brother was a singer songwriter who was also very much an activist. His name was Phil Ochs and so he's one of my other role models in terms of modeling the idea that if something's wrong, it's your responsibility to fix it, to do something to make it better and in fact he wrote a song, “when I got something to say, sir, I'm going to say it now.”“When I got something to say sir, I'm going to say it now,” and so he did.
I think also being Jewish. Being secular Jewish. One of the things I like best about Jewish culture is the idea that you're responsible for the healing of the world and I don't think I ever heard that explicitly but it was part of what I saw every day being done by people who were important to me.
Mason Funk: That's really cool. Phil Ochs. That's a big name. Another woman we interviewed said she grew up in a family where again, it wasn't stated explicitly but the implicit ethos was service is the rent you pay for living.
Robyn Ochs: Yeah.
Mason Funk: That's cool.
Robyn Ochs: I also grew up on the bus. Some of my earliest memories are getting up a 4 o'clock in the morning and going down to the bus that was parked in front of the local library and getting on the bus and riding down to D.C. so we went down to D.C. for peace marches, for civil rights marches, for anti-war marches, for all kinds of other issues, for women's rights marches and so that was definitely part of the fabric of my childhood.
Mason Funk: [00:05:00] That's really cool, growing up on a bus. You were raised in an environment where activism is encouraged and modeled for you. When did you start to feel some or did you ever not feel a spirit of activism as part of your own identity?
Robyn Ochs: [00:06:00] Interestingly, growing up I really wanted to make a difference. I saw that as something that was one of my goals. Making a difference seemed like a really good thing to aspire to. The challenge for me was figuring out how in the world I could do that. I cared about so many different issues but it seemed that everything I cared about, there were already other people leading and doing really wonderful work. Women's rights, there were people doing that. Save the seals, save the whales, save the dolphins, save the cute kittens and puppy, save the environment, stop the war. It seemed that everything I cared about there were people who were already doing it so I didn't really see an easy way to make a difference. I saw lots of ways to show up and be one of the many people involved who show up and stuff envelopes, to show up and be a body at a rally, but I wasn't quite sure how to become a leader, and I wanted to be. I wanted to make a difference in a more substantive way than just showing up.
I was stuck there for a really long time. In fact, that's partially why I became a bi activist.
Mason Funk: Robyn Ochs: Mason Funk: We're going to get to that because I think that comes in a little some years later. Over the phone, you mentioned a pivotal incident in your live when, and I forget the details, but I think it had to do with the first time that you expressed the idea that you might be a bi person and that you received a very negative response to that. I remember you saying to me, “And then I went underground or I went in the closet for…” Five! I remember it was a significant chunk of years.
Robyn Ochs: [00:07:00] I went to school at SUNY Purchase which is one of the state universities of New York and my very first month of college, I fell head over heels in love with a woman who lived on my floor and it was very very unsettling. I did not know what to do with it. It was exciting, it was unsettling. Actually, let's start over. That one. Should I say … You could say a year? Does that matter?
Mason Funk: It's always good to have the actual year.
Robyn Ochs: [00:08:00] Okay. In 1976, I graduated high school and trundled off to college and up until that point I had been to my knowledge entirely heterosexual. It had never even crossed my mind that there was any other possibility and I started college. My very first month of college, I fell head over heels in love with another woman who lived on my floor, and that turned my life upside down.
I was terrified, I was excited. Having a crush is a really exciting and wonderful feeling but I was scared because I didn't know what that meant or what that would mean for my life and I felt that the consequences would be dire, that if I said it out loud, really, really, really bad things would happen. I was certain I would lose all my friends, I was certain no one would love me anymore. I was certain that ... It just felt scary and dangerous.
I took those feelings and I spent a lot of time journaling. I spent months and months and months writing in my journal and I went through this whole process of analysis to figure out what did it mean. What does this crush mean? I went through the question am I really a lesbian? After all, I'm a woman who is in love with a woman and I decided to be a lesbian, I would need to figure out that all my previous attractions toward men had been false. I sat down with my journal and I made a list of all of my crushes that I had had in recent memory in reverse chronological order and I looked at the names, I looked at the first name and I thought what about him? Was that false or was I really attracted to him? I thought I was really attracted to him.
Went to the second name. Yeah I was really attracted to him too. Went to the third name. By the time I got to the third name, I thought, this is ridiculous. Those were real. This is real but so were those. I don't think I'm a lesbian. I don't think lesbian is what describes me so then I thought well maybe I'm really straight. That would have been a really easy solution. I thought maybe I'm really straight.
The way I was trying to figure out if that was the case, I thought if I'm really straight then maybe this is just a blip on the radar. Maybe it's just the exception that proves the rule, maybe it's just an aberration, maybe it's just this one person and not a whole category of people. I sat on that attraction and I thought, maybe if I wait it'll just go away and needless to say, it didn't. It persisted and I even ended up having crushes on other women as well. Then I had to throw out the straight part too and I thought what's left? I'm bisexual. Clearly, I'm not lesbian, I'm not straight, I must be bisexual. I wrote that in my journal and I own that at as an identity. I took that on as my own identity but I still didn't know how to say that publicly. I still didn't know how to go from knowing to being. I didn't know what to do next.
Mason Funk: [00:11:00] I guess it's a little surprising to me that coming from this liberal family, at least you and your mom where change and difference was theoretically supported and embraced that you were so terrified of being a lesbian. Have you thought about that and maybe why that was?
Robyn Ochs: [00:12:00] It's a very interesting thing that I grew up in a family like mine and still had such a hard time coming out. Part of it looking back is that I grew up BG, before Google. That's a big part of it. I grew up in a time where there was no easy access to resources. If you had a question about your sexuality, it was really hard to figure out where to go to find information or where to find support and furthermore, coming out as bisexual felt particularly hard because I listened to some of what was going on around me and there were lesbians on campus and I listened to what they had to say and they didn't have anything nice to say about bisexual people.
I heard comments like, "I would never date a bisexual" or "They're not trustworthy" or "They're really straight and just want to come in and dabble in our community" or "They're really gay and afraid to come out." I heard a lot of negative stuff so I didn't feel like that was a place I could go for support. That closed off the usual door. I think also it was a time when they were not talking about this topic. There was nothing in television. There was nothing that I could remember on television. I didn't know anyone in my personal life who I knew before college.
Before I started college, I didn't know a single person in my life who I knew was LGBT except for I had heard by way of whispering that 3 of the guys in my high school were gay but I had never had a conversation with them about that. I got all the way to college where even coming from a progressive family, it didn't feel possible to be LGBT. It just didn't even feel possible to me.
I think part of it also perhaps was my own lack of self confidence. If I had been a more self-confident all engines thrusting forward kind of person, maybe it would have been easier. Maybe I just would have done it anyway but I wasn't self confident. I was very unconfident at the time and I was stuck. I was stuck for 5 years and it wasn't until 5 years later when I was working in a group home and one of my co-workers, we were doing an overnight-
Mason Funk: [00:14:00] Let me interrupt you for a second. Let's reset. This is a good place to break off and start your chunk. Basically by the time I realized that I was most likely neither straight nor lesbian but that I was probably bisexual, that I was bisexual, I was really stuck and then carry on from there. Some version of that.
Robyn Ochs: Let me think about that for a second.
Mason Funk: Tie it to your freshman year, maybe you can reference the woman that you had this huge crush on but when you say I was stuck, just let us know what you were stuck in.
Robyn Ochs: [00:15:00] Okay. By the end of my first year of college, my journal and I were very clear that I was bisexual and that that was not something in dispute but I got stuck in the place between knowing and being. I had no idea what to do next and the only things that I could imagine doing were things that I thought would have terrible terrible costs and to me coming out felt like running off the edge of a cliff not knowing what was on the other side and so it was just unimaginably frightening to me and so I stayed silent. I stayed silent for 5 very very long years.
Mason Funk: Great. Great. During those 5 years, you say you stayed silent. How did you present outwardly?
Robyn Ochs: Outwardly, everyone just assumed I was straight-
Mason Funk: Do it again and say, "For all intents and purposes during my college years" something like that.
Robyn Ochs: [00:16:00] During the 4 years I was in college, to the best of my knowledge everyone just took for granted that I was straight which is after all the default assumption in our culture that everyone's straight. I did one thing that was strategically smart that I didn't realize at the time was strategic. My first year of college I made best friends with 3 gay men. Ernesto, Terrence, and Kenny. What that gave me was a ticket into Gaytown. It gave me access into the LGBT community. At that time it wasn't the LGBT community of course. It was the lesbian and gay community.
It gave me access to certain social circles so I could be part of that community without having to disclose my own identity. I was their fruit fly. Their fag hag. Their straight friend. Looking back, I think that was a really smart thing to do because it gave me information and a doorway.
Mason Funk: This is great. Just as I expected, you're telling great stories with nice beginnings, middles, and ends. When then did you get unstuck and how?
Robyn Ochs: [00:17:00] 5 years after I first came out to myself, I had graduated college, I was working in a group home and one of my coworkers one evening said, "Hey Robyn, I want to talk to you. Let's sit down." I said, "Sure, what's up, Joanne?" She said, "There's something I need to tell you about me." I said, "What's that?" She said, "I'm bisexual." I said, "So am I" and it just finally popped out of my mouth. It burst out of my mouth. I felt such a powerful sense of relief and it was so interesting because I had been so afraid that if I said that out loud terrible things would happen and what actually happened at that moment is she said, "Really? Wow, that's great." She smiled and I smiled and we smiled and everything was smiley and it was just, that was it? That was it?
It was such a sense of relief and I don't think I realized until that moment how much my silence was costing me, how heavy and how weighty silence is. I honestly felt as though someone had lifted a huge heavy boulder off the top of my head. It was that kind of sense of relief. Perhaps the similar to the feeling you might have if you are carrying a very heavy sleeping child for several blocks and then you finally put that child down and then you keep walking and you feel like you're lighter than gravity. I felt like that. I felt great, well relatively great.
Mason Funk: Why do you say relatively great?
Kate Kunath: Mason? I'm going to put this blanket on your chair because-
Mason Funk: My chair's squeaking.
Kate Kunath: It's doing a little ticking.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Kate Kunath: Maybe that will-
Mason Funk: Try to muffle the sound a little bit. Okay.
Robyn Ochs: Creaky floor too.
Mason Funk: Yeah the floor's a little creaky. Okay.
Kate Kunath: Forgive him if he doesn't do a lot of nodding because that moves his body which moves the chair.
Robyn Ochs: That was a hint for you.
Mason Funk: That was it. Don't move. Oh great.
Robyn Ochs: [00:19:00] Be relaxed. Let me think-
Mason Funk: You said, "I was great, or relatively great."
Robyn Ochs: It was relatively great because even though I had finally-
Mason Funk: Tell me what was relatively great.
Robyn Ochs: [00:20:00] Finally saying out loud that I was bisexual was a huge relief but it was really just the beginning of the journey. I still had to come out to everyone else or not but I had to make the decision about what to do and how to do it and the hardest thing about coming out ... There were a lot of things that are hard about coming out but some of the hardest things about coming out are number 1, being afraid of ... You don't know how other people are going to respond so that anticipatory fear of wondering when I tell you, what's this going to cost me? What's going to happen? How are you going to respond? Are you going to still love me? Are you going to want to still be my friend or my sister or my brother or whatever?
And then the other challenge about coming out that I found was finding a way to do it that didn't seem completely inappropriate. “Speaking of homosexuality,” which we weren't, “I am.” How do you even bring it up? “Speaking of bisexuality, dad, I am. Please pass the salt.” I really felt like I couldn't even think of ways to do it. I kept thinking I want to come out to my brother but how? Looking back I probably should have just written a letter to everybody but that didn't cross my mind at the time. Looking back, that might have been a very easy thing but at the time, I didn't think of that so I spent ... Several times my brother came up to visit me where I was living, my younger brother and I would think I'm going to come out to my brother tonight. Tonight. I'm going to do it tonight.
Then we'd be having a conversation and I'd think how about now? I'd think ... Then it wouldn't come out and the moment would pass and then it wouldn't be appropriate anymore and 2 hours later, there'd be another moment and I'd think how about now? I'd gather my courage and I'd gather my wits and I'd try to think about what to say and again the moment would pass and I would chicken out and this happened for several visits and then finally one night I told my brother.
Mason Funk: The thing that that I find so fascinating and I can only imagine must be so difficult is in everything you just said, the difficulty of coming out, a person listening to this who didn't know you were bisexual would think that's coming out, that's what every person who needs to come out, they go through those experiences but you it feels like coming out as bisexual, my sense of it from having talked to a number of your community now is that it's got this whole additional layer of ... You could be fully out as a "lesbian" and you'd still have to come out-
Robyn Ochs: You're still not out.
Mason Funk: [00:22:00] Yeah exactly. I wonder if you can just riff or explain or express some of those condundra if that's the proper Latin form that you face when you're a bisexual person vis à vis coming out.
Robyn Ochs: [00:23:00] Coming out as bisexual is its own unique challenge. One of the responses I got from 2 different family members was, "I wish you were just coming out as lesbian. The fact that you're coming out as bisexual makes it much, much harder for me." One of my brothers and my dad both said that. My dad said, "If you were lesbian I could just say that's just who you are and you can't help yourself and you have no choice and therefore I have to accept you but the fact is you're bisexual and that makes me think that if you have a choice, why don't you just go on a cruise and meet men?" He said.
Incidentally it was a very strange thing to say because nobody in my family had ever been on a cruise but I think maybe he was thinking about Love Boat or something. He said, "Why don't you just go on a cruise and meet men? If you could potentially be attracted to a man, why don't you just do everything you possibly can to meet one?" The fact that I wasn't doing that I think at the time felt to him like personal rejection of heterosexuality and therefore of him and it felt very personal.
My brother too felt that it would be much simpler to digest if I were a lesbian. Another challenge of coming out as bi is the easiest way to come out is to bring home the person you love or to tell the people around you, mom, dad, or best friend, I've fallen in love and this is her name. This is who she is. The fact is that if you come out as bi, that isn't coming out. It might be signaling that you're not straight but it still doesn't signal how you identify because people will just have a different wrong impression of you and so to come out as bisexual you really have to come out as an identity with words.
Mason Funk: Almost by definition it has an abstract quality to it because you're saying just want to let you know, I can fall in love with virtually anybody on the planet.
Robyn Ochs: Actually I'm very very fussy about who.
Mason Funk: Good, I thought it might be stepping into that. Clarify for me. You get the general idea which is that you're not giving them anything easy. You're giving them something that is hard to wrap their minds around.
Robyn Ochs: [00:25:00] Another challenge of coming out as bi is that many people don't understand why it even matters so if you're you and you're in love with that one person, why don't you just call yourself straight or gay whatever gender matches the person you're with? Why does that even matter? Why do you keep insisting that you're bi? For me, identifying as bisexual is not about what I'm doing, it's about how I understand myself. That's a very different thing. The fact is, I identified as bisexual for 5 years before I ever acted on it. I have had periods of my life where I was definitely acting on it and I've had periods of my life where I celibate and for the last 18 years, I've been with my wife in a monogamous relationship.
My bisexuality is obviously not about acting on it. It's not about what I'm doing but I believe that I was just as bisexual when I was 18, 19, 20, 21 and had never ever been in a relationship with a woman of any kind as I am now in a hopefully lifetime partnership with another woman and that my bisexuality is not behaviorally defined. It's very much about how I understand my own potential.
Mason Funk: [00:26:00] Right. Right. That's awesome. All of this I have to say and this is obviously not to denigrate the other bisexual community members we're talking to but it's really helpful to have someone explain in pretty simple, relatively simple terms that for the [inaudible 00:26:10] are thinking oh-
Robyn Ochs: I'm an edumacator.
Mason Funk: Edumacator, exactly. When did you decide that you wanted to become an activist?
Robyn Ochs: [00:27:00] After identifying privately as bisexual for 5 years and then coming out to other people over the course of the next year, I moved to Boston. I had been here only about a week and I opened up the local newspaper which was called Equal Times. Actually, let me start over.
5 years after coming out to myself privately and about 1 year after coming out to other people-
Mason Funk: Sorry.
Kate Kunath: Is that your phone?
Mason Funk: Yeah, it's my phone. Sorry my phone's been buzzing at me. Okay, people are responding and I'm now going to turn my phone completely off.
Kate Kunath: Do you know how to turn the vibrate off?
Mason Funk: No I just turn my phone off. You can teach me later how to turn the vibrate off but why would I want to? Okay.
Robyn Ochs: The do not disturb? Do you have an iPhone?
Mason Funk: Yeah. I don't know anything about it but anyway.
Robyn Ochs: Ready?
Mason Funk: Yes.
Robyn Ochs: [00:28:00] After 5 years of silence ... After 5 years of identifying as bisexual only to myself and after several more months of finally beginning to come out to friends and a few family members, I moved to Boston. I had been in town for only about a week and I opened up the local women's newspaper which was called Equal Times and in the calendar section there was a listing for this thing that they called Women's Rap Group and it was this weekly group and every single week they had a different discussion topic and lo and behold, the first time I ever opened up this newspaper the discussion topic for that particular night was bisexuality.
I was so excited. I was beside myself with excitement because up until that moment, I had only met 2 people besides myself who I knew identified as bisexual and I really thought bisexual people were extremely rare creatures and so I showed up at this meeting at the women's center and I walked in the door and there were 20 women in the room counting myself and 19 of those women identified as bisexual. The 20th was a lesbian named Madge, she was there to cruise. Truth. There were 19 women in the room who identified as bisexual just like me and I honestly before that moment, I don't think I believed there were that many bisexual people in the world.
It was so validating and we talked for a couple of hours and my main takeaway from that night, my main memory of that night was just grinning and grinning and grinning and looking around the room and her and her and her and her and her and her and me and oh yes. Wow I'm not the only one. It was so, so wonderful. It was such an empowering feeling and so even thinking about it makes me goosebumpy. I remember that night when I left the meeting, I smiled so much that my cheeks felt funny. I had that funny numb feeling in my cheeks just from grinning with my entire face for the entire 2 hours and at the end of that meeting, one of the women stood up, this woman Marsha Deihl stood up and she said "Is there anyone interested in being part of a support group because I'm thinking we should start one?"
Out of that meeting, we ended up with 8 of us being part of a support group called the BiVocals. This was 1982, September of 1982. We started meeting and we met monthly for almost 10 years. We were 8 women with ... We were in our mid 20s and mid 30s, half and half and we had not all that much in common besides that we all identified as bisexual and we disagreed on lots of things but the one thing that we had that we shared was that we were all supporting each other around our bi identities and it was so nice to go into a place where that would not be challenged, where the fact that you identified as bisexual was just completely and completely given. It was not something that anyone was going to dispute and it was such a relief in my life to have that kind of space.
Mason Funk: Sorry, let me ask you a question before we move too much further on. Everything you're saying implies that the previous 5 to 6 years must have felt very lonely. Can you ... I don't know you talked about the years of silence.
Robyn Ochs: Suffocating.
Mason Funk: Suffocating for example.
Robyn Ochs: That's kind of lonely.
Mason Funk: That's not so fun. Maybe just give us a little bit of a sense of what it was like carrying this knowledge about yourself inside yourself and not saying a word. People have experienced this but from your personal point of view what that was like.
Robyn Ochs: [00:32:00] Oh my god. The 5 year period between coming to be certain that I was bisexual and actually saying it out loud to other people was a really hard time. Looking back, I was profoundly uncomfortable. I think I engaged in some coping mechanisms that were probably not too healthy. I had again an undiagnosed eating disorder. I think I had an eating disorder back then. I definitely drank too much when I was in college and I think all those things were ... I smoked cigarettes. I think all those things were ways of coping and it was a horrible time.
Again, carrying that feeling that there was this information about you that was so unpalatable that if you told anyone else who you were, they would no longer want to be your friend, to carry that feeling, even if it wasn't a rational feeling it’s so horrible. It's a horrible thing and that's partly why I'm an activist now. I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I went through.
Mason Funk: Great. Great. This support group, The BiCocals.
Robyn Ochs: Vocals. V.
Mason Funk: V, that's what I figured. BiVocals. When did you start meeting men who were bisexual?
Robyn Ochs: [00:34:00] The BiVocals started in 1982 and 1 year later, we helped the Boston Bisexual Women's Network form and we had helped 2 other smaller support groups form during our first year of existence and those 3 groups got together and formed the Boston Bisexual Women's Network and that grew really quickly ... and we had monthly meetings at one of the local women's bars when there used to be women's bars and we met and we'd get a really good turn out and we'd have really great discussions and we grew pretty quickly. We started Bi Women which was a newsletter that we put out that's still in existence.
In 1984 or so, actually let me step back. Break there. After the Boston Bisexual Women's Network formed, we started hearing from bisexual men saying, "Hey, hey, what about us? What about us? Why is your group just a women's group?" We felt very strongly that it needed to be a woman's group because we believed that women had different issues than men and I still think that there's some truth in that but not as extreme perhaps as I believed then. We were also worried that if men started coming to our group that they would just try to pick us up. That it would become a cruising site and we didn't want that to happen and our group was very much based on feminism and women's empowerment and we just really wanted a space that was by us, about us, and for us.
What we did end up doing was a Boston Bisexual Men's Network formed and lasted for a short period of time and then after that, a mixed gender group formed and there were many women's in the women’s group who were also in the mixed gender group. I think there was a lot of overlap and crossover between the groups which I think was a great thing. We had our space but we also had our larger community and I think that was a very healthy thing.
That's the group that became what is now the Bisexual Resource Center. That's not true. Actually that's not true. Take that back. We had women's space and we had mixed gender space and we also started organizing conferences on the east coast and they were called the East Coast ... Probably East Coast Bisexual Conference and we had one in Boston in 1980 ... There was one in Hartford in 1984, there was one in Boston in 1985, there was one in Portland, Maine, there was one in New York City. They moved around the east coast and because we needed a checking account to carry over funds from one conference to the other we created this organization which eventually became the Bisexual Resource Center.
Mason Funk: Gotcha. Great. Do you think now that the differences that bisexual women work with and struggle with to a certain extent are different from the differences of the experiences of bisexual men? Is it fair to ask you to speak for bisexual men and their experiences?
Robyn Ochs: [00:38:00] Thinking about bisexual women and bisexual men, some of the experiences are very similar. Some of the ways in which our identities are erased, denied, some of the fear that people have about being in a relationship with a bisexual person I think cross over to all genders. Thinking in an intersectional way, bisexual women are also women so we also have to deal with all the challenges and specificities that women have to deal with in US society and that includes sexism, that includes being devalued, that includes our sexuality not even being taken seriously at all.
I believe that one of the reasons that people are so much more flipped out by gay men than they are by lesbians is because a lot of people think, "Well, what could 2 women do together anyway?" It's all foreplay or something, it's not real. For me, that's sexism in action. I think that women have to deal with a lot of not being taken as seriously and having our sexuality not being taken seriously and just the same sexism that all women have to deal with in this culture so there are specific issues and I do think that there's a place to create a specific space to deal with the specificity of experience.
Mason Funk: [00:39:00] Right. Great. Great. All that is super helpful but I don't think ... I still feel like you haven't told us necessarily when you decided to become an activist. When you decided to make this in some way, shape or form, this is not all of your life's work but this became-
Robyn Ochs: It is. It's my number 1 thing anyway. One second here. Hey Kate, I realized I turned off my phone and turning on my phone I won't be able to keep track of the time. Do you have a way to monitor the time?
Kate Kunath: Yeah. It's 4:30.
Mason Funk: Okay perfect. I don't even know. Maybe it's not even really a very simple thing to say this is when I decided to become an activist.
Robyn Ochs: No, it sort of is.
Mason Funk: Okay great.
Robyn Ochs: [00:40:00] Here I am, I'm 23 years old, I'm brand new in Boston and trying to figure out what to do and how to make a difference and when I started getting involved in bisexual organizing, that was when a big light bulb went off. I thought finally here's something that is important and nobody else is doing it. No, that's not true. Take that back. How far back should I go?
Mason Funk: Just start right there again. When you were 23.
Robyn Ochs: [00:41:00] Here I am 23, 24 new to the Boston area and establishing friendships and social networks and looking for ways to get involved and ways to make a difference and the whole issue of bisexual visibility and educating people about bisexuality was something that was very very personally important to me and finally it was something that other people weren't already doing. There were very few voices being lifted up about bisexuality, there was very little that had been written, there were no visible leaders, and so my group, the BiVocals, started doing some leadership.
The woman in my group, some of them had come out of the lesbian movement, some of them had come out of the mainstream feminist movement but they all pretty much – the whole older half of our group – came out of a history of activism and so they became my mentors and 1 thing that happened that really lit our fire was the local paper, the Gay Community Newsdid their April Fool's issue and they had a cartoon about bisexuality insurance which we were not amused by. We were really really angry. It was protect yourself from up to 2 lovers simultaneously. I forget what it was but basically bisexuals are going to leave you was the underlying message and we were pissed. We were so angry and we wrote a letter to the paper and I remember it said, "Some of us are monogamous, some of us are polyamorous, some of us are this, some of us are that, and some of us are assholes just like some lesbians."
The basic point of the letter was don't judge us as a group. We're individual people and don't judge us as a group and we are not amused. For me that was a very empowering thing to fight back against that letter and to take a stand and I guess I finally found a way to make a difference and then in 1985 we got a phone call from some folks at Wesleyan University saying, "We want to do a program about bisexuality. Do you have anyone who can come speak?" This woman Laura and I went and I kind of caught the speaking bug. I thought I like this, I like this. At the end of the speaking engagement, they actually handed us a check which was also something I had not really conceived of. I thought wow. Interesting.
I ended up doing more and more speaking. I joined the Speakers Bureau in Boston which at the time was called The Gay and Lesbian Speakers Bureau, then it got changed to the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexuals Speakers Bureau, and then it became Speak Out. I joined that and I got some experience doing speaking on panels and I guess I started to believe in my own voice and I started to realize that by telling my story and by talking about this topic that I could really make a difference, and I know I did because people would come out to me afterward in tears sometimes or people would write to me afterward and just say how much it had meant and so many people shared stories about feeling that they were impossible. They didn't feel it was possible for them to identify or feel the way they felt and how important it was to get validated.
Realizing that you can make people's lives a little bit better and realizing that maybe you can do something to make other people not have as a hard of time as you had is a very inspirational feeling.
Mason Funk: I can imagine.
Kate Kunath: Someone's phone is dinging. Is that one of us?
Mason Funk: It's not me. There is a phone ...
Robyn Ochs: Okay, it's a deal.
Mason Funk: 2 more.
Robyn Ochs: [00:45:00] I had a can't make me smile contest yesterday with an 11 year old and I lost.
Mason Funk: That's a good contest to lose.
Robyn Ochs: I kind of lost on purpose.
Mason Funk: Rats. The question I ... There's no point in trying to regain it right now. Kate, I'm going to give you some time. I always give ... I don't want to be rushed at the end and so Kate, are there any questions that are on your mind right now?
Kate Kunath: Not at the moment.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Robyn Ochs: You got a bunch of questions about what advice would you give?
Mason Funk: Those are at the very very end.
Robyn Ochs: I like those.
Mason Funk: Okay great. Did I tell you about them or did you already hear them?
Robyn Ochs: [00:46:00] It was on a PDF. I didn't really read it. I read it really quickly and I couldn't find it after that. It's somewhere on my computer but I thought hmm.
Mason Funk: I know one question I have is talk about your relationship with Peg and this conundrum, one of the conundra is that as a bisexual person, you get into a relationship and in a weird way people are like, got it. I got her figured out. You have to make the choice or you get to make the choice how do you want to ... Maybe first of all, why don't you just tell us, because I love the story you told me in the car about meeting Peg and the thing is she was a lesbian-
Robyn Ochs: Big old lesbian.
Mason Funk: She knew about you and she's like ... I think that story is really illustrative of some of the challenges that someone from the bisexual community faces when getting in to a new relationship.
Robyn Ochs: [00:47:00] About 21 years ago, I was looking for an electrician to do some work on my new condo that I had just bought and a friend of mine gave me a list of women in the trades and so I picked a name off the list and I called this woman, Peg Preble and she came and did beautiful work on my house and I remember at the time thinking that she was very very very cute. Very very attractive but she came, did the work, and she left and then over the next 3 years, she did more work on my house here and there, and I remember at the time I thought wow, she's cute. I also just took for granted that she would not be interested in dating me.
I just thought, oh she's a big old lesbian from that crowd and in my experience, some of the lesbians in that crowd had a really hard time with the idea of bisexuality and I had heard many people say, "I would never date a bisexual person. They'll always leave you for someone else." I just thought she's nice, Oh well. She's cute, Oh well. 3 years later, I was at a play and I had arrived early and turned out so had she and also she was there with a friend who was someone I knew from dancing and so the 3 of us ended up hanging out and talking and that's when I really fell for her. That's when I really decided wow she's more than cute, she's cute and she's interesting, and I'm interested.
We went to the play together, the 3 of us sat together and afterward the 3 of us went out to pizza and we went out on our first date which was a very very cold wet motorcycle ride that I pretended to enjoy even though I was really cold and really really wet and then our second date was in a Japanese restaurant in Jamaica Plain and we were sitting across from each other and I was thinking to myself I really really like this woman. I was also thinking I don't know how she is about bisexuality. I was afraid that if I told her I was bisexual that she would just leave the room, that that would be our second and last date but I decided to go ahead and tell her because either she would leave or she would stay.
I wanted to know which of those things was going to happen so I remember we were sitting across from each other in the restaurant and I took a really deep breath and I gathered up my courage and I said, "So, so Peg, I just want to make sure you know that I identify as bisexual." I waited. Peg is one of those people who is very annoying in that she thinks about her responses before she speaks and so I waited and it felt like about a million years. It felt like I was waiting forever and I was turning blue and finally she tilts her head a little bit and she said, "Actually, I already did know that about you but I do have a question." I said, "Okay. What's your question?" She said, "Can you tell me more about what identifying as bisexual means to you?"
I remember at that moment thinking this woman is smart. This woman has a brain and she's using it. This woman's a keeper, and so I kept her. We had this really good conversation and it was such a relief to have someone who asked me what my identity meant to me and also what that meant in terms of relationships instead of thinking that she already knew. Needless to say, it's now been 18 years and we're still together, so I judged well.
Mason Funk: [00:51:00] That's great. That's a great, like I said just such a great illustration of how it works. Again, I'm struck, I don't know why this keep striking me but I don't mean to, I'm not making you all into victims but you've got to come out. You're a minority within a minority. You've got to come out within a community that also already has ... I don't know the coming out never seems to end.
Robyn Ochs: There's all kinds of data that shows that people who identify as bisexual have very high rates of minority stress and that in many areas it's actually higher than lesbians or gay men. In some areas it's similar, in a few areas it's lower, but in some areas it's higher.
Mason Funk: What are some of the areas where it's higher?
Robyn Ochs: It's higher in-
Mason Funk: Say, "Bisexuals have higher rates of"
Robyn Ochs: Bisexuals have higher rates of suicidality than lesbians or gay men. They have higher rates of intimate partner violence. In fact, they have significantly higher rates of intimate partner violence and those are the 2 areas that stand out the most to me.
Mason Funk: What would be the underlying reason for this vulnerability?
Robyn Ochs: [00:52:00] Oh, wait, there's more. In addition, bisexual youth, there was a study done by the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign and 3 of the bisexual organizations collaborated to make a bisexual health report and one of the things that they found was that when you separate out bisexual youth from lesbian and gay youth, bisexual youth are 10% less likely to believe that they have an accepting adults to talk to. We're less likely to feel that we have someone to talk to. We're also less likely to be aware of resources, we're less likely to be happy.
For me the data is very disturbing and it points out how important it is to not just look at LGBTQ youth as though they were one uniformed mass. Trans youth also have a lot of health disparities, and bisexual youth have a lot of health disparities and if you're trying to think of programs that serve those populations, you can't just have 1 program, you really need to do specific things for specific subgroups and I think also when you look at youth of color from different ethnicities and racial identity groups, you really need to drill down and customize services and you need to make sure that you're not just doing a bland program that is just reaching white middle class cisgender kids.
Mason Funk: I know the question I was going to ask earlier that I remembered was ... Was that you raising your hand?
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Oh okay. Go ahead. It's so funny I can see the reflection in the window. Yes, ma'am Kate.
Kate Kunath: I have a really annoying question. My annoying question is ...
Robyn Ochs: [00:54:00] Nice lead up.
Kate Kunath: As I was listening to you talk about coming out to Peg and your list which I really enjoyed that part of the story when you were talking about the list you made and you were like was that real, was that real, was that real. I couldn't help but think of how if you look at your own sexuality over a lifetime and you have to incorporate everything you've done from point A to point B then I think we would all be more likely to come up with something that included more of a pansexual experience whereas if you look at yourself just right here and now, people would be likely to say-
Robyn Ochs: Right, right, right.
Kate Kunath: [00:55:00] I'm wondering if there really is a static sexuality. For you, is your sexuality static or does it evolve? Is it possible that at one point you were bisexual and now you are a lesbian? Do you know what I mean? I have more questions but it just confuses everything so maybe if that brings up anything that you want to talk about, then you can talk about it or if you want to move on to my next non-verbose question.
Robyn Ochs: [00:56:00] I would ... Okay. One of my workshops that I ... I'm an educator now. I travel around the country and sometimes other countries doing workshops on identity and sexuality and one of my programs is called Beyond Binaries. In that program, we do an anonymous study of ourselves. Everyone in the room is invited to fill out a 1-page questionnaire which asks a whole bunch of questions including where would you put yourself in a sexuality continuum? Also asks questions about different periods of time. How about before age 16? How about 1 year ago? How about in the past month for your fantasies or your behavior or different things? One of the questions is how do you self identify?
There are a bunch of other questions but sticking with these, what we do is everyone fills it out and then we collect them and shuffle them and hand them back out so that every person in the room is now holding someone's sheet but it's not theirs and then we look at the results in physical space. One of the things that I've learned from doing that exercise is that first of all, many people change over time. They may have felt this way a year ago and that way now. Their fantasies ... We're not the same every minute of our lives. I think most people in various ways change as they go through their lives but one of the things that's really really interesting is how many people in fact do report that before 16 this was their experience, 1 year ago this was their experience, now this is their experience.
I think that when thinking about identity, I like to think of it in a holistic way, it's not about how you feel at any given moment but rather how you feel in some or on average. For me, identifying as bisexual is owning my whole self. Past, present, potential, fantasies. Even though now I've been with the same person in a monogamous relationship for a really long time, that doesn't mean that my brain has stopped having fantasies. That doesn't mean that occasionally someone doesn't turn my head. It means that I've made a decision about where I'm going home at night.
One of the other things that I've learned in that workshop is that when people think of straight, they think of exclusively heterosexual with no same sex attraction or experience whatsoever and when people think of the word gay or lesbian, they think of exclusively homosexual with no different sex attraction or experience and when they think of bisexual they think of people being exactly in the middle between those 2 polar opposites and one thing I've learned is that from doing that workshop that people can put themselves on the 7 point scale on 1, 2, or 3 and still identify as straight. They can put themselves on 7, 6, or 5, and still identify as lesbian or gay. They can put themselves on 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 and still identify as bi.
What that tells me now is that identity is not so tidy, that identities are really complicated, and that the word lesbian is not a place but rather a region. The word straight is not a place but rather a region. The word bi is not a specific place but rather an area of identity space and furthermore, you could have people who put themselves on the same number in their own self assessment but who use different words. It would be very easy for someone ... I'm sure there are people whose histories are very similar to mine who might identify as lesbian now because they've been in a relationship with someone for a really long time and for that person it might not be important to own all the rest of it publicly. For me, it's important.
Another thing about that workshop that I love pointing out is that someone could identify as straight and be gayer than a gay person or gayer than a bi person. Wait. One thing I love about doing that workshop is that if you think about that 7 point continuum with straight being usually the first 3 numbers, lesbian and gay the upper 3 numbers, bisexual being the whole middle area that someone could identify as bi and actually be straighter than a straight person or gayer than a gay person. These are not places with clear lines dividing them but rather regions of identity. It's changed the way I think about identity and I think it's really opened it up and so now I try to remember when someone tells me that they identify as lesbian, I try to remember that I don't know what that means yet.
I don't know if they mean that they have never had any attraction to people of a gender other than their own, I don't know if it means that they mostly don't, I don't know that it means even that they're currently not involved with a man because I know lesbians who are involved with men. I don't know what it means and so I think our tendency is to just think we know what people need and to define people based on these words but I've learned just to try to really push back against that and not assume I know what someone means or how someone is or what their experience is based on these labels.
Kate Kunath: It sounds like an argument for the fact that everyone is really the same.
Robyn Ochs: We're not really the same though.
Kate Kunath: Or that everyone is bisexual.
Robyn Ochs: I don't think we are. One of the other things that I've learned from doing this exercise is that some people are really really really-
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. Don't say "this exercise" because we heard about the exercise a long time ago. Maybe say "One of the things I've learned."
Robyn Ochs: In my work.
Mason Funk: [01:01:00] Yeah.
Robyn Ochs: One of the other things I've learned in my work-
Mason Funk: Just say, "One of the things I've learned in my work." Just because other ... people go what were the other things? One of the things.
Robyn Ochs: One of the things I've learned in my work is that the following 2 statements are both untrue. “There's no such thing as bisexuality” and “everyone's really bisexual.” Some people really are on the edge of the sexuality continuum and exclusively only attracted to people of 1 gender and some people aren't but I've learned to believe everybody that I think it's just as offensive to say "Everyone's really bisexual" as it is to say, "There's no such thing as bisexuality" so I've tried to come to a place where I respect each person is the best judge of their own experience and I want to respect that.
Mason Funk: Can I interject one?
Kate Kunath: [01:02:00] No, that's good.
Mason Funk: Okay. Just this one question for now and then I'm also watching the clock. We're almost-
Robyn Ochs: No.
Mason Funk: I know. We are in the home stretch. What are the challenges you face now that you are in a long term committed relationship with a woman? I'm sure to your neighbors for example in this neighborhood if they don't know you well, they think they're a lesbian couple. They might even call you that. In their own minds, they might just think that. Does that matter to you and if so why?
Robyn Ochs: [01:03:00] It matters to me to come out because I'm an educator. It matters because every single time I come out to someone, I'm presenting a possibility model and because bisexuality isn't visible on the surface because you can't look at a person and know that they're bisexual or pansexual or any other kind of non-binary sexuality, it matters. It really matters that people speak up and voice those identities because that is the only way that they become visible in a healthy way.
Mason Funk: Right. That makes sense. Kate?
Kate Kunath: Do you have any feelings towards non-educator types? I guess you can't really disappear into bisexuality. You can't really do that.
Robyn Ochs: [01:04:00] No, you have to constantly reassert it. One of the challenges of identifying as bisexual is that you have to constantly reassert it. Even if you tell someone you're bisexual, 2 years later, it's very likely they'll say, "Do you still identify as bisexual?" Or "I know you said you were bisexual 2 years ago but now you're with this person and so you've gone gay right?" I think it's an identity that has to be constantly constantly constantly reinforced.
My mom is heterosexual and she hasn't been in a relationship with a man for a really long time and I don't think anyone has ever said to her, "Are you still straight?" It's not the kind of thing that gets challenged but for bisexual people, we have to keep on reinforcing our identity and reasserting it and that’s kind of exhausting but also I believe it's important to do so.
Mason Funk: I want to hear briefly about some of the historic struggles for example that the bisexual community has gone through to get these days we ... pretty much LGBT rolls off people's tongues, but once upon a time it didn't.
Kate Kunath: Unless you're Trump.
Mason Funk: Unless you're Trump. Yeah. I know there was a ... Lani told a story about a march-
Robyn Ochs: The march on Washington.
Mason Funk: [01:05:00] Yeah that famous story.
Robyn Ochs: They only put the word bi because the word sexual was too sexual to put [inaudible 01:05:01]
Mason Funk: Exactly. She was the last person and they were begging her to shorten her line of speech to 2 and so on.
Robyn Ochs: I was invited to speak at the 2000 march and I turned it down.
Mason Funk: What I want is just a sense of the struggle that it has been within the gay and lesbian, now the LGBTQ community to gain a place for B that is actually anchored and is actually acknowledged as opposed to either being just put the B in because we have to-
Robyn Ochs: So they don't yell at us.
Mason Funk: So they don't yell at us. So we don't get yelled at. Exactly. That I'm assuming that work is far from finished.
Robyn Ochs: [01:06:00] We're not even close. I've been an active ... I've been a bisexual activist now for 34 years and we are still far from done. We spent a long time trying to get people to even acknowledge that we existed, to get the letters in there. I was in part of the the Speakers Bureau in Boston and we … actually a gay man proposed that we add the B word to the L and the G words.
There were people who were apoplectic. They were saying, "No if we add the B word it's going to fundamentally change the nature of this organization and I can't be part of an organization that is changed in that way" and we had a few people who actually ended up leaving while the vote was overwhelmingly for adding the word bisexual, there were a few people who left in a big huff because the world had changed in ways that were unacceptable to them.
I've been through so many different organizations and I've been through so many different discussions and struggles, working with people to try to get them to use inclusive language always and consistently and then of course there's adding the B and the T doesn't mean that we're really included. Sometimes that's just scotch taping on a fake B and a fake T onto something else and that's not real change.
It's important to do it but it's not all that needs to be done. We are so far from finishing that discussion but I do believe though that we've made a lot of progress and I do think that even having those words in the names does make a difference because people hear those words over and over and over and over. The first time I heard President Obama say the word bisexual I was just so happy. It makes a difference when politicians, when lesbian and gay activists, when general people use inclusive language and the bigger challenge of course is what does it mean to actually be inclusive. We're working on that.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Kate?
Kate Kunath: No.
Mason Funk: You good?
Kate Kunath: Good.
Mason Funk: All right. Final 4. Sounds like a game show. Final 4 questions I ask every single person are first of all to someone who is just about to come out, whether that person is young, middle aged, or old and whatever that coming out is for that person, what crystallized wisdom or guidance would you give from your own experience?
Robyn Ochs: [01:09:00] My advice to someone coming out would be to first of all assess the environment to really figure out if it's safe. There are some places where it really isn't safe. Some people live in families where violence will happen to to them if they come out so I don't think that everyone should just come out but if it's safe, if it's physically safe, I would also suggest getting ... Start over.
My advice to someone who is considering coming out would be first of all to assess the environment around them to make sure that it's actually physical safe to come out. Some people live in families where there's violence and where the cost of coming out could be physical violence and that's not ... I wouldn't recommend coming out in those circumstances but if in fact it's physically safe and if in fact you're in a place where you can take care of yourself like a teenager could get kicked out of a family but if you have supports around you, I would say first of all find support outside of your immediate circles whether it be on the internet or whether it be a youth group or whether it be an adult support group, find some support and do a little bit of processing first.
Then I do recommend coming out if you can because you'll feel so much better. You'll feel such a sense of relief. Silence is really really really unhealthy and so if you don't have to be silent, I would recommend speaking up. I also recommend educating yourself like doing some reading. There's a lot of, there are a lot of good resources out there. I edit the Bi Women Quarterly which is available for free online to anyone who wants to read it.
I've edited a couple of anthologies. Find resources, read them, validate yourself. Validate yourself. Most people I've spoken to who have come out have told me that the reality of coming out is much less scary than the fear of coming out. I know that was my experience. I went through that feeling that if I told anyone, everyone would reject me and the fact is that only a couple of my friends got weird. Most people especially over time figured it out and came to understand and accept me. Just do it if you can.
In terms of how to come out, I've become a big fan of writing a letter. Writing a letter because that gives you a chance to control your own narrative and to control what you want to say and it makes it more likely that you'll get all of your points out there to the person you're trying to talk to and not be interrupted or diverted or distracted. It also would give the other person a chance to think about what you said before reacting.
Mason Funk: That's great. That's great. Number 2. What is your hope for the future?
Robyn Ochs: My hope for the future ... Oh god.
Mason Funk: These are intended to be relatively short and pithy.
Robyn Ochs: [01:13:00] Here's what I'd like to see. Here's how I'd like to see the world change. I would like to see within the LGBTQ community, I would like to see us really listen to each other. I would like to see us accept each other. I would like to see us respect our various and sundry identities. I would also like to see more work across movements. I want to see the LGBTQ community make more linkages with other social justice movements because you can do organizing saying, "I want to change the world to make it safer for me or people like me to be here and to exist" or you can look at the larger systems of oppression and the larger systems of justice and say, "Actually I want to make the world a place where we can all be safe, where we can all be respected, where we can all live."
I'm trying really hard to understand the linkages between the African American rights movement and the LGBTQ movement and the disability rights movement and the women's movement and all these other movements because I think together we're really powerful but in order for us to really work together, we have a whole lot of work to do because we are all so ignorant about other people's experience and I think we also need to be a lot more mindful about intersectionality and understand how hard it can be for someone who has several identities that are challenged and stigmatized in this culture. How hard it must be to find a place where you feel like you can be whole, where you feel like you can be fully welcome in all of your complexity and all of your wholeness and our work isn't done until we can make that happen. We need to make a space where people can be whole.
Mason Funk: Great. Why is it important to you personally to tell your story?
Robyn Ochs: [01:15:00] I see myself as a possibility model. I come out to people all over the place. I come out to people on airplanes, in stores, and it's easy for me to come out because I'm a writer and an educator and this is my profession so when someone says, "Are you traveling on business?" I can say, "Yes, actually I am." Then they can say, "Oh what's your business?" I can say, "Well…" and I can do a little bit of educating about LGBTQ issues and specifically – if I'm in the mood – about bisexuality and what's interesting is that when I come out to people who I don't know, my first feeling is fear and worrying about how they're going to respond. Are they going to look like I just vomited in their lap or are they going to smile?
I don't know. I really don't know but one thing that strikes me is how most people I come out to, the next thing they do is they tell me a story about someone they love who is LGBTQ. When I say, "I identify as bisexual" or “My wife and I,” they'll say, "Oh, my nephew is bisexual" or "My nephew is gay" or "My niece is a lesbian" or "My grandmother is a lesbian" or "My best friend in college was gay" and then they tell me stories about that person and I think that we don't have enough space in our culture yet to tell these stories. Even straight people don't have space to tell stories about those that they love who are LGBTQ. I just love doing it now. It's really become very very very entertaining and very affirming and a lot of fun.
I think it's important work and just remembering that a lot of straight people still don't feel like they have the space to even talk about this topic.
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Robyn Ochs: They need to be able to brag about the people they love, too.
Mason Funk: Great. Last question of all:What do you see as the importance of a project like OUTWORDS?
Robyn Ochs: I want to say one more thing about the first question about the movement. Can we go back to that one first?
Mason Funk: Sure.
Robyn Ochs: A big challenge facing our movement is that we are-
Mason Funk: Define the movement please.
Robyn Ochs: [01:17:00] A big challenge facing the LGBTQ movement is that we are comprised of a lot of people who have been treated very very poorly by the larger culture and we have a lot of people who are hurt and there's an expression “hurt people hurt people” and I think sometimes we aren't so nice to each other and one of the ways that people sometimes deal with being hurt is that they take out their hurt sideways on each other and I think some of the tensions that happen within our community are in fact horizontal hostility which is just people taking their pain out laterally and one of my goals is to figure out how we can address that dynamic and challenge it and change it because again, together we're stronger and we are not each other's enemy and we need to figure out a way where we can support each other and not play the game and not use the master's tools against each other.
Part of that is when we do inadvertently hurt each other, I'm trying to figure out how we can call each other in instead of calling each other out. I'm trying really hard to come up with ways to say what I need that call people in and invite people in and give people tools that they can use to help support me as opposed to just shuttering and screaming in rage and yelling at them and shutting them down. That's a challenge. It's a big challenge when you're feeling pain to find that space and I'm working toward that and I'm working toward figuring how to help other people do that.
This particular project of OUTWORDS is tremendously important. First of all, we need to create a history. We need to take control and write our own history. So much of history is written by people who are not us and for LGBTQ people to take control of telling our own stories and documenting them and preserving them is hugely important and I also believe that it's really important too for us to communicate across generations. People who are older really need to listen to people who are younger. People who are younger need to listen to people who are older and we all need to remember that we're on a journey of learning and we're on a journey of progress and everything that I had when I first came out came on the backs of people who came out before me.
People who are coming out now are coming out on the backs and on the works of people like me and people before and also I guess now people after me and just remembering that we're on this journey together and that I'm personally fascinated by ... Let me start that over. There's something I want to say.
I learn so much by listening to the stories of people who have come out before me. It's really easy to look back at that and say, "Why didn't they just do this or why didn't they just do that?" Because there are some things that now seem obvious but one of the things I've learned is that there are things that we know now that we didn't know 10 years ago and that 10 years ago we didn't even know that we didn't know, and there are things that in 10 years we will know that right now we don't even know we don't know, and so if we can create conversations across generations and opportunities for people to hear people's stories across generations, I think we can come to a place of greater respect and if we can have that respect for each other, then we can make change more effectively.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] Great. Give me a quick overview of who your family was and what your family was like.
Robyn Ochs: [00:02:00] I was raised in New York City in a secular Jewish, definitely left of center family. The biggest influence on my upbringing was my mom who was very very much a community activist. She was involved in many issues facing our community including being involved in getting the first daycare center into the Rockaways. She did work on anti-racist work where they challenged landlords who were refusing to rent apartments to people of color. They would send in a white person with the exact same qualifications and when that person got offered the apartment they would call the landlord and say, "Do you want to go to court or you going to rent to the people who came to see you yesterday?"
Robyn Ochs: [00:03:00] My mom's activism came out of I think part of it was being at the right moment of history. My mom did most of this activism in the 1960s and in the 1970s and so that was a time when a lot of people were getting involved in social movements where a lot of social movements were being generated and were growing and doing all kinds of exciting work. Part of it was definitely being at the right moment in history and part of it was that she genuinely cared.
Mason Funk: [00:05:00] That's really cool, growing up on a bus. You were raised in an environment where activism is encouraged and modeled for you. When did you start to feel some or did you ever not feel a spirit of activism as part of your own identity?
Robyn Ochs: [00:06:00] Interestingly, growing up I really wanted to make a difference. I saw that as something that was one of my goals. Making a difference seemed like a really good thing to aspire to. The challenge for me was figuring out how in the world I could do that. I cared about so many different issues but it seemed that everything I cared about, there were already other people leading and doing really wonderful work. Women's rights, there were people doing that. Save the seals, save the whales, save the dolphins, save the cute kittens and puppy, save the environment, stop the war. It seemed that everything I cared about there were people who were already doing it so I didn't really see an easy way to make a difference. I saw lots of ways to show up and be one of the many people involved who show up and stuff envelopes, to show up and be a body at a rally, but I wasn't quite sure how to become a leader, and I wanted to be. I wanted to make a difference in a more substantive way than just showing up.
Robyn Ochs: [00:07:00] I went to school at SUNY Purchase which is one of the state universities of New York and my very first month of college, I fell head over heels in love with a woman who lived on my floor and it was very very unsettling. I did not know what to do with it. It was exciting, it was unsettling. Actually, let's start over. That one. Should I say … You could say a year? Does that matter?
Robyn Ochs: [00:08:00] Okay. In 1976, I graduated high school and trundled off to college and up until that point I had been to my knowledge entirely heterosexual. It had never even crossed my mind that there was any other possibility and I started college. My very first month of college, I fell head over heels in love with another woman who lived on my floor, and that turned my life upside down.
Mason Funk: [00:11:00] I guess it's a little surprising to me that coming from this liberal family, at least you and your mom where change and difference was theoretically supported and embraced that you were so terrified of being a lesbian. Have you thought about that and maybe why that was?
Robyn Ochs: [00:12:00] It's a very interesting thing that I grew up in a family like mine and still had such a hard time coming out. Part of it looking back is that I grew up BG, before Google. That's a big part of it. I grew up in a time where there was no easy access to resources. If you had a question about your sexuality, it was really hard to figure out where to go to find information or where to find support and furthermore, coming out as bisexual felt particularly hard because I listened to some of what was going on around me and there were lesbians on campus and I listened to what they had to say and they didn't have anything nice to say about bisexual people.
Mason Funk: [00:14:00] Let me interrupt you for a second. Let's reset. This is a good place to break off and start your chunk. Basically by the time I realized that I was most likely neither straight nor lesbian but that I was probably bisexual, that I was bisexual, I was really stuck and then carry on from there. Some version of that.
Robyn Ochs: [00:15:00] Okay. By the end of my first year of college, my journal and I were very clear that I was bisexual and that that was not something in dispute but I got stuck in the place between knowing and being. I had no idea what to do next and the only things that I could imagine doing were things that I thought would have terrible terrible costs and to me coming out felt like running off the edge of a cliff not knowing what was on the other side and so it was just unimaginably frightening to me and so I stayed silent. I stayed silent for 5 very very long years.
Robyn Ochs: [00:16:00] During the 4 years I was in college, to the best of my knowledge everyone just took for granted that I was straight which is after all the default assumption in our culture that everyone's straight. I did one thing that was strategically smart that I didn't realize at the time was strategic. My first year of college I made best friends with 3 gay men. Ernesto, Terrence, and Kenny. What that gave me was a ticket into Gaytown. It gave me access into the LGBT community. At that time it wasn't the LGBT community of course. It was the lesbian and gay community.
Robyn Ochs: [00:17:00] 5 years after I first came out to myself, I had graduated college, I was working in a group home and one of my coworkers one evening said, "Hey Robyn, I want to talk to you. Let's sit down." I said, "Sure, what's up, Joanne?" She said, "There's something I need to tell you about me." I said, "What's that?" She said, "I'm bisexual." I said, "So am I" and it just finally popped out of my mouth. It burst out of my mouth. I felt such a powerful sense of relief and it was so interesting because I had been so afraid that if I said that out loud terrible things would happen and what actually happened at that moment is she said, "Really? Wow, that's great." She smiled and I smiled and we smiled and everything was smiley and it was just, that was it? That was it?
Robyn Ochs: [00:19:00] Be relaxed. Let me think-
Robyn Ochs: [00:20:00] Finally saying out loud that I was bisexual was a huge relief but it was really just the beginning of the journey. I still had to come out to everyone else or not but I had to make the decision about what to do and how to do it and the hardest thing about coming out ... There were a lot of things that are hard about coming out but some of the hardest things about coming out are number 1, being afraid of ... You don't know how other people are going to respond so that anticipatory fear of wondering when I tell you, what's this going to cost me? What's going to happen? How are you going to respond? Are you going to still love me? Are you going to want to still be my friend or my sister or my brother or whatever?
Mason Funk: [00:22:00] Yeah exactly. I wonder if you can just riff or explain or express some of those condundra if that's the proper Latin form that you face when you're a bisexual person vis à vis coming out.
Robyn Ochs: [00:23:00] Coming out as bisexual is its own unique challenge. One of the responses I got from 2 different family members was, "I wish you were just coming out as lesbian. The fact that you're coming out as bisexual makes it much, much harder for me." One of my brothers and my dad both said that. My dad said, "If you were lesbian I could just say that's just who you are and you can't help yourself and you have no choice and therefore I have to accept you but the fact is you're bisexual and that makes me think that if you have a choice, why don't you just go on a cruise and meet men?" He said.
Robyn Ochs: [00:25:00] Another challenge of coming out as bi is that many people don't understand why it even matters so if you're you and you're in love with that one person, why don't you just call yourself straight or gay whatever gender matches the person you're with? Why does that even matter? Why do you keep insisting that you're bi? For me, identifying as bisexual is not about what I'm doing, it's about how I understand myself. That's a very different thing. The fact is, I identified as bisexual for 5 years before I ever acted on it. I have had periods of my life where I was definitely acting on it and I've had periods of my life where I celibate and for the last 18 years, I've been with my wife in a monogamous relationship.
Mason Funk: [00:26:00] Right. Right. That's awesome. All of this I have to say and this is obviously not to denigrate the other bisexual community members we're talking to but it's really helpful to have someone explain in pretty simple, relatively simple terms that for the [inaudible 00:26:10] are thinking oh-
Robyn Ochs: [00:27:00] After identifying privately as bisexual for 5 years and then coming out to other people over the course of the next year, I moved to Boston. I had been here only about a week and I opened up the local newspaper which was called Equal Times. Actually, let me start over.
Robyn Ochs: [00:28:00] After 5 years of silence ... After 5 years of identifying as bisexual only to myself and after several more months of finally beginning to come out to friends and a few family members, I moved to Boston. I had been in town for only about a week and I opened up the local women's newspaper which was called Equal Times and in the calendar section there was a listing for this thing that they called Women's Rap Group and it was this weekly group and every single week they had a different discussion topic and lo and behold, the first time I ever opened up this newspaper the discussion topic for that particular night was bisexuality.
Robyn Ochs: [00:32:00] Oh my god. The 5 year period between coming to be certain that I was bisexual and actually saying it out loud to other people was a really hard time. Looking back, I was profoundly uncomfortable. I think I engaged in some coping mechanisms that were probably not too healthy. I had again an undiagnosed eating disorder. I think I had an eating disorder back then. I definitely drank too much when I was in college and I think all those things were ... I smoked cigarettes. I think all those things were ways of coping and it was a horrible time.
Robyn Ochs: [00:34:00] The BiVocals started in 1982 and 1 year later, we helped the Boston Bisexual Women's Network form and we had helped 2 other smaller support groups form during our first year of existence and those 3 groups got together and formed the Boston Bisexual Women's Network and that grew really quickly ... and we had monthly meetings at one of the local women's bars when there used to be women's bars and we met and we'd get a really good turn out and we'd have really great discussions and we grew pretty quickly. We started Bi Women which was a newsletter that we put out that's still in existence.
Robyn Ochs: [00:38:00] Thinking about bisexual women and bisexual men, some of the experiences are very similar. Some of the ways in which our identities are erased, denied, some of the fear that people have about being in a relationship with a bisexual person I think cross over to all genders. Thinking in an intersectional way, bisexual women are also women so we also have to deal with all the challenges and specificities that women have to deal with in US society and that includes sexism, that includes being devalued, that includes our sexuality not even being taken seriously at all.
Mason Funk: [00:39:00] Right. Great. Great. All that is super helpful but I don't think ... I still feel like you haven't told us necessarily when you decided to become an activist. When you decided to make this in some way, shape or form, this is not all of your life's work but this became-
Robyn Ochs: [00:40:00] Here I am, I'm 23 years old, I'm brand new in Boston and trying to figure out what to do and how to make a difference and when I started getting involved in bisexual organizing, that was when a big light bulb went off. I thought finally here's something that is important and nobody else is doing it. No, that's not true. Take that back. How far back should I go?
Robyn Ochs: [00:41:00] Here I am 23, 24 new to the Boston area and establishing friendships and social networks and looking for ways to get involved and ways to make a difference and the whole issue of bisexual visibility and educating people about bisexuality was something that was very very personally important to me and finally it was something that other people weren't already doing. There were very few voices being lifted up about bisexuality, there was very little that had been written, there were no visible leaders, and so my group, the BiVocals, started doing some leadership.
Robyn Ochs: [00:45:00] I had a can't make me smile contest yesterday with an 11 year old and I lost.
Robyn Ochs: [00:46:00] It was on a PDF. I didn't really read it. I read it really quickly and I couldn't find it after that. It's somewhere on my computer but I thought hmm.
Robyn Ochs: [00:47:00] About 21 years ago, I was looking for an electrician to do some work on my new condo that I had just bought and a friend of mine gave me a list of women in the trades and so I picked a name off the list and I called this woman, Peg Preble and she came and did beautiful work on my house and I remember at the time thinking that she was very very very cute. Very very attractive but she came, did the work, and she left and then over the next 3 years, she did more work on my house here and there, and I remember at the time I thought wow, she's cute. I also just took for granted that she would not be interested in dating me.
Mason Funk: [00:51:00] That's great. That's a great, like I said just such a great illustration of how it works. Again, I'm struck, I don't know why this keep striking me but I don't mean to, I'm not making you all into victims but you've got to come out. You're a minority within a minority. You've got to come out within a community that also already has ... I don't know the coming out never seems to end.
Robyn Ochs: [00:52:00] Oh, wait, there's more. In addition, bisexual youth, there was a study done by the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign and 3 of the bisexual organizations collaborated to make a bisexual health report and one of the things that they found was that when you separate out bisexual youth from lesbian and gay youth, bisexual youth are 10% less likely to believe that they have an accepting adults to talk to. We're less likely to feel that we have someone to talk to. We're also less likely to be aware of resources, we're less likely to be happy.
Robyn Ochs: [00:54:00] Nice lead up.
Kate Kunath: [00:55:00] I'm wondering if there really is a static sexuality. For you, is your sexuality static or does it evolve? Is it possible that at one point you were bisexual and now you are a lesbian? Do you know what I mean? I have more questions but it just confuses everything so maybe if that brings up anything that you want to talk about, then you can talk about it or if you want to move on to my next non-verbose question.
Robyn Ochs: [00:56:00] I would ... Okay. One of my workshops that I ... I'm an educator now. I travel around the country and sometimes other countries doing workshops on identity and sexuality and one of my programs is called Beyond Binaries. In that program, we do an anonymous study of ourselves. Everyone in the room is invited to fill out a 1-page questionnaire which asks a whole bunch of questions including where would you put yourself in a sexuality continuum? Also asks questions about different periods of time. How about before age 16? How about 1 year ago? How about in the past month for your fantasies or your behavior or different things? One of the questions is how do you self identify?
Mason Funk: [01:01:00] Yeah.
Kate Kunath: [01:02:00] No, that's good.
Robyn Ochs: [01:03:00] It matters to me to come out because I'm an educator. It matters because every single time I come out to someone, I'm presenting a possibility model and because bisexuality isn't visible on the surface because you can't look at a person and know that they're bisexual or pansexual or any other kind of non-binary sexuality, it matters. It really matters that people speak up and voice those identities because that is the only way that they become visible in a healthy way.
Robyn Ochs: [01:04:00] No, you have to constantly reassert it. One of the challenges of identifying as bisexual is that you have to constantly reassert it. Even if you tell someone you're bisexual, 2 years later, it's very likely they'll say, "Do you still identify as bisexual?" Or "I know you said you were bisexual 2 years ago but now you're with this person and so you've gone gay right?" I think it's an identity that has to be constantly constantly constantly reinforced.
Mason Funk: [01:05:00] Yeah that famous story.
Robyn Ochs: [01:06:00] We're not even close. I've been an active ... I've been a bisexual activist now for 34 years and we are still far from done. We spent a long time trying to get people to even acknowledge that we existed, to get the letters in there. I was in part of the the Speakers Bureau in Boston and we … actually a gay man proposed that we add the B word to the L and the G words.
Robyn Ochs: [01:09:00] My advice to someone coming out would be to first of all assess the environment to really figure out if it's safe. There are some places where it really isn't safe. Some people live in families where violence will happen to to them if they come out so I don't think that everyone should just come out but if it's safe, if it's physically safe, I would also suggest getting ... Start over.
Robyn Ochs: [01:13:00] Here's what I'd like to see. Here's how I'd like to see the world change. I would like to see within the LGBTQ community, I would like to see us really listen to each other. I would like to see us accept each other. I would like to see us respect our various and sundry identities. I would also like to see more work across movements. I want to see the LGBTQ community make more linkages with other social justice movements because you can do organizing saying, "I want to change the world to make it safer for me or people like me to be here and to exist" or you can look at the larger systems of oppression and the larger systems of justice and say, "Actually I want to make the world a place where we can all be safe, where we can all be respected, where we can all live."
Robyn Ochs: [01:15:00] I see myself as a possibility model. I come out to people all over the place. I come out to people on airplanes, in stores, and it's easy for me to come out because I'm a writer and an educator and this is my profession so when someone says, "Are you traveling on business?" I can say, "Yes, actually I am." Then they can say, "Oh what's your business?" I can say, "Well…" and I can do a little bit of educating about LGBTQ issues and specifically – if I'm in the mood – about bisexuality and what's interesting is that when I come out to people who I don't know, my first feeling is fear and worrying about how they're going to respond. Are they going to look like I just vomited in their lap or are they going to smile?
Robyn Ochs: [01:17:00] A big challenge facing the LGBTQ movement is that we are comprised of a lot of people who have been treated very very poorly by the larger culture and we have a lot of people who are hurt and there's an expression “hurt people hurt people” and I think sometimes we aren't so nice to each other and one of the ways that people sometimes deal with being hurt is that they take out their hurt sideways on each other and I think some of the tensions that happen within our community are in fact horizontal hostility which is just people taking their pain out laterally and one of my goals is to figure out how we can address that dynamic and challenge it and change it because again, together we're stronger and we are not each other's enemy and we need to figure out a way where we can support each other and not play the game and not use the master's tools against each other.