I used to be what I now describe as an angry activist. Like many young adults, I was thirsty for social change. I used the rage I felt toward current attitudes surrounding bisexuality to fuel my activism. It was exciting to feel like I was part of a movement, and I found strength in being surrounded by like-minded people. It became a part of who I was. But this association also made it difficult to separate my emotions from the movement. Anger toward people with opposing views became the foundation of my position. Like so many other activists, I let it guide my efforts and sustain my commitment to the cause.Over time, I began to recognise the limitations of this approach. Although anger can be a strong motivator for the pursuit of change, it’s not the most productive tool. It prevented me from being able to empathise, find common ground, or even communicate effectively with people who had different views, which impeded many possibilities for real social transformation.
I first dipped a toe in the waters of bisexual activism when I was nineteen. I needed those around me to better understand bisexual people, especially bi men like myself, and recognise that we exist. I wanted to refute the biases and misconceptions many had about bisexuality, and felt that I needed to somehow represent the bisexual label by discussing my own orientation with nearly everyone I met. These interactions often became debates, and I would allow the frustration I experienced when unable to convince someone to turn into anger, which I then used as the basis for my continued activism. My rage made me pugnacious, and my pugnacity led to more rage. It was a negative feedback loop.
One encounter stands out in my mind. I was out with friends at a bar one evening when a gay man who knew someone in our group joined the conversation. As we all talked, he voiced disparaging views about bi people, which prompted me to write him off as biphobic and ignorant (i.e. the enemy). When I subsequently interrupted the conversation and tried to “educate” him about bisexuality, he did not seem to understand my points, which only made me more strident and frustrated. Unsurprisingly, he responded with a snarky comment that further degraded the conversation. I ended up calling him out for his biphobia and went on a rant about how gay men have it better than bi men, before he got up and left the bar.
Needless to say, it was not my finest moment. I felt embarrassed by my behaviour. And to make matters worse, all the valuable information I tried to convey about bisexuality and the harmful effects of intolerance, which might have changed his mind, had been so wrapped up in outrage and judgement that there was no way it could have got through. I made the exchange into something personal, rather than a calm conversation in which both sides shared their thoughts. This choice practically guaranteed that we would not find a resolution.
Months after the initial altercation with that man in the bar, I encountered him again and apologised for my behavior. He accepted my apology, and offered his own. He also told me that it was my attitude that spurred him to respond so defensively in the first place, and that while he was able to see the truth in what I was saying, he felt pressured to reflect the same kind of combative behaviour back to me. He had been closed off during our earlier exchange because he felt attacked, and even though he began to sense that he might be wrong, the ire and aggression he felt coming from me prevented him from admitting it in the moment.
That episode helped me begin to recognise that I needed to alter my approach. If my goal really is to change people’s perceptions and increase the social acceptance of bisexuality, then I have to be able to reach them somehow. The best alternative I have found so far is simply to listen—to slow down, hear people out and not immediately launch into attack mode. Of course, I sometimes still feel the urge to react with anger, but I do my best to merely acknowledge it and then let it go. I try to remember not to make things about me, because they rarely are. I keep my focus on the change that I want to see in the world, which helps me stay committed to working toward that vision.
There is a high cost to the angry activist approach. The emergence of radical nationalist and separatist movements that have sprung up around the world in recent years is deeply rooted in this mentality. The violence, intolerance and hatred associated with them all indicate that anger is not the most effective tool for advancing freedom and equality, nor for avoiding regressive change. Instead, we would do better to listen to each other and try to work through our disagreements, so that we can reach a place of mutual understanding and move forward together. Life is a series of relationships. And healthy relationships are those in which people listen to each other.