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.
This piece is published as part of a partnership between Areo and the publication Queer Majority. You can find the original source here.
Refreshingly self-reflective and honest!
Side note: The ‘negative’ in ‘negative feedback’ means ‘opposing’ or ‘self-limiting.’ It is not a value judgement. ‘Positive feedback’ is ‘enhancing’ or ‘self-reinforcing.’ Contrast with the terms ‘vicious cycle’ and ‘virtuous cycle’ which are value judgements about two forms of positive feedback.
Speaking of a much more insidious form of activism which is very much related to the suppression/curtailment of any kind of “deviant” sexual expression, please check out the recent Nov 9th essay by Elizabeth Platt re how right-wing Christians are now Asking Courts To Eliminate Rights For Others. It is available on the always excellent Religion Dispatches website.
Two notable and very influential examples of angry activism are of course the US Tea Party movement, and the Trump inspired MAGA movement which culminated in the very angry storming of the House of Representatives in Washington, and the recent copy-cat occurrence in Brazil.
I’ve defended bisexuality and my own bisexuality many times in my life and it’s frustrating trying to do this with people who aren’t really of a mind to listen to the facts as I have learned them. I quickly learned that there’s no reason to get angry – figuratively or literally – and I’m “content” to let them wallow in their abject ignorance – and they can’t say that they weren’t told the truth. I’ve told the very stubborn folks, “Don’t ask me questions that you don’t want to hear the answers to…” and I will never give them the satisfaction of making me angry or seeing me frustrated; if they don’t get it, they just don’t and my time is better spent talking to the people who do want to understand bisexuality on the whole and specifically in men. I write my own blog and scribble about bisexuality –… Read more »
I’m very glad to hear that an angry activist has realized the fatal error of his rage, and resolved to correct and overcome it!
Angry activism, of course, is hardly restricted just to bisexual, gay, or LGBTQ+ activists. It is just as much and just as often a fatal pitfall also for feminist, pacifist, ethnic, racial minority, disabled, etc. activists as well. Whether indulged in by LGBTQ+, feminist, Black, Latino, Jewish, Palestinian, pro-choice, pro-life, environmentalist, pacifist, or disabled advocates, angry zealotry only serves to alienate potential allies, harden your reactionary opponents, perpetuate polarization, and encourage a mental climate of starkly dichotomous Manichean all-or-none black-and-white Us-versus-Them thinking! We have much too much dualistic binary zero-sum thinking these days. CRT and “1619 Project” advocated could especially profit from Mr. Emba’s fine article!