I met Faith Cheltenham while doing standup in a Los Angeles LGBT bar. She was outspoken, bold, brash, extremely opinionated, and totally approachable. Three years later, I saw her in an Advocate article celebrating LGBT activists and I was blown away by the amount of passion she had invested in the bisexual movement.
When thirty-two year old Faith was growing up in San Luis Obispo, California, there was less than one percent of African Americans in the city. To top it off, she was constantly bullied for being perceivably queer. Although Faith preferred playing basketball and handball with the boys over wearing dresses and doing her hair like most girls at her school, she wasn’t out or aware of her orientation in those early years. In high school, Faith had an attraction to girls, but didn’t think she was a lesbian because she also had an attraction to boys. From kindergarten to high school, a bully always seemed to find Faith walking home from school, going to church, or at recess, and it was because of this bullying solely based on her appearance and mannerisms, as well as the fact that her “butchness” was counter to what was acceptable in her African American and Pentecostal cultures, that Faith was drawn to activism in college.
At UCLA in the late 90s, Faith saw LGBT rights activist and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s half-sister Candace Gingrich speak for National Coming Out Day, specifically emphasizing how people of all faiths needed to start coming out of the closet. Faith says: “I felt like she was talking to me because my name is Faith and she was really cute and I had this attraction to her, but I didn’t feel comfortable coming out as a lesbian because of the idea that I’d never kiss a guy again or be into a guy again. That’s why I gravitated early on to the term ‘Queer’ before I came to the term ‘Bisexual’ as something I was proud to wear.”
Faith first came out to her friends and family as a lesbian, and it wasn’t until half a year later that she came out as bisexual. Regarding the coming out process, Faith says, “There’s a lot of people that come out as bisexual FIRST, THEN they’ll say ‘I’m not bisexual anymore- I am a lesbian or I am gay- or I am straight’ (based on who they’re seeing at the moment)…right now our society defines orientation by relationship status- and that’s what I work on as an activist, to help people understand that your orientation is not based on who you’re dating right now.” For a primer on the bisexual identity, please read this BiNet USA article. Bisexuality is actually an attraction to any gender or sex. Activist and speaker Robyn Ochs says it best: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have 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, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
There is a common misnomer that just because someone is bisexual, that person has to be with a man and a woman at the same time. Faith herself is married to a straight man and recently gave birth to a baby boy, but she does not want to be perceived as “straight”. People have remarked about her marriage: “Oh that must be really hard because you’re attracted to more than one gender and you’re never going to have that other gender again”, but Faith responds that she made a commitment to her partner, and will live by that commitment. Some bisexuals choose not to be monogamous like Faith does, and a lot of bisexuals do not even share their identities because they are stereotyped by both the gay and straight communities as ‘liars’, ‘cheaters’, or ‘closeted gays’. But with more celebrities like Anna Paquin, Cynthia Nixon, and Evan Rachel Wood coming out as bisexuals, or Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Lindsay Lohan embracing their “flexisexuality”, Faith believes more bisexuals will feel comfortable coming out. Faith appeared on CNN to discuss celebrities and their “flexisexuality” and how it has helped bisexuality become more “acceptable” to society.
While at UCLA, Faith worked on LGBT outreach to the African American community. She helped develop the student organization BLAQUE for African American Queer youth, as well as the Queer Black Youth Office, where she also programmed speakers like Clinton Fellow and black gay activist Keith Boykins, as well as National Black Justice Coalition’s Dr. Sylvia Rhue to speak to college and junior high students. Starting as a member of the listserve, then as a volunteer, fundraiser, activist, and blogger for BiNet USA six years ago, Faith worked her way up to co-organizing the Bisexual Organizing Institute’s National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change Conference, where more than a hundred bisexual activists from across the country talk about strategies for inclusion and fundraising yearly. Specifically during the No on Prop 8 campaign, Faith saw that there was a lack of outreach to African Americans and bisexuals. She says, “The language that came out on pamphlets and press releases was supporting ‘gay marriage’ and ‘gays and lesbians’. They were completely non-inclusive (of bisexuals)…Oftentimes people don’t think it’s important to include (bisexuals), but there are higher instances of mental health issues, homelessness, poorer health, teen suicide, and adult suicide for bisexual individuals because we’re being invisibilized by our allies…As a black LGBT person, I thought there also needed to be more attention directed towards people of color- and that was something I was involved with very early on, helping African Americans feel like they could come out in their communities and also be respected in the larger LGBT movement.“
Now President of BiNet USA, Faith has seen an improvement in the inclusion of bisexuals and African Americans in the LGBT movement. In terms of African American inclusion in the LGBT movement, Faith has noticed Los Angeles’ Black Pride event “At the Beach” has grown exponentially over the last twenty-four years. She has also noticed that after making the “It Gets Better” Project more aware of the fact that bisexuals weren’t being included, the co-founder of the project, Dan Savage, has changed his attitude about the community and has since released more positive statements about bisexuals. Faith is most proud of the fact that after attending the White House’s Pride Lunch in 2010 and realizing that not many bisexuals were represented at the event, she, with BiNet USA, created an online map of the more than seventy-five organizations across the USA that do specific outreach to the bisexual community and sends an updated version to the White House each year. By 2011, the bisexual representatives at the White House’s Pride Lunch grew from two to six people. Faith says of the small growth: “We were able to say ‘Look, there’s actually more bisexuals statistically speaking than there are lesbian or gay identified but there is zero funding for bisexuals in this country right now.'”
During her presidency at BiNet USA, Faith has mainly focused on advocacy, networking, and bringing attention to the underrepresented- making communities, corporations, and administrations, like the White House, more aware of bisexuals and bisexual resources so that funding will eventually be made possible. BiNet USA not only helps connect bisexuals across the USA to each other, but it also works to end the stigma against bisexual identity. As an activist, Faith says that more people feel comfortable talking to her about coming out, and if she can help reach people at a smaller level, she has made change. She often looks to abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth for inspiration: “When a white woman told Sojourner to focus on women’s issues before race, Sojourner said ‘Ain’t I a woman too?’ – she said then, let’s NOT take this in stages, equality is equality- don’t you dare tell me we should wait- and that’s what informs me as a bisexual activist- knowing that someone one hundred years ago said ‘I’m a black woman and I’m a multiple minority – we shouldn’t focus on one issue because there’s actually two and we need to work on BOTH of them.'”
Faith’s future goals for BiNet USA are to make sure that there is a more unified bisexual presence- that the Bisexual Resource Center, the American Institute of Bisexuality, and a lot more organizations, can all stay on the same page and together address issues concerning bisexuals, if an outreach letter needs to be written to other organizations. Faith would also like BiNet USA to get more involved with the suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project, and to make sure that the college systems are more inclusive of both bisexual students and faculty. In May 2012, Faith was appointed to the University of California LGBT Task Force where she will provide recommendations and working strategies to University of California president, Mark G. Yudof, as part of his Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. Faith would like to see more bisexual teens come out and feel supported, and to do that, she also plans on organizing a Bisexual Media Awards ceremony that encourages bisexual celebrities to come out. BiNet USA exists so that bisexuals can feel proud about their identity, and help others come out, but Faith encourages bisexuals to also reach out to other communities as well, across Myspace, Facebook, or Twitter, just to see that they are not alone or invisible.
When Faith looks back on the years that she was bullied, she is proud to say that she has come out of the experience more successful than any of her antagonizers. Not only is she the newly appointed inaugral member of the University of California Task Force and Implementation Team on LGBT Climate and Inclusion, the President of BiNet USA and an activist for bisexuals and the African American LGBT community, she’s also a mother, writer, and a successful social media producer by day at TechniChick LLC. If you want to reach out to her and if you have any questions about bisexuality or being a minority within the LGBT community, she would be happy to address them at: email@example.com.
Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.
If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!