These remarks are the keynote speech I gave at MN Out Campus Conference at the University of Minnesota, Morris on Saturday, November 12, 2016.
In the Spring of my freshman year at college, a friend asked me to moderate a campus discussion on sexuality. That event launched a queer focused discussion group that brought college students and local residents together every week. It provided a space for discussion and understanding that none of us had found before. It was also the start of my work as a community organizer. Twenty-six years later, I’m still at it.
My name is Camille Holthaus, as Fiona told you in that wonderful introduction. I am really excited to be invited to speak to you today and I want to thank the organizing committee for this opportunity. I have been a workshop presenter at this conference for a number of years and it is one of my favorite conferences. This morning I’m going to share with you some information about my bi+ community, relate some of my experiences as a community organizer, and offer a few ideas that might resonate with you at this place in your journey.
First, let me explain the term bi+ for those of you who haven’t heard it before. People who are attracted to more than one gender use many labels. Bisexual and pansexual are most common, however fluid, queer, multisexual, omnisexual, bi romantic and others are in use as well. I use bi+ when I talk about my community as a way to recognize the importance of all the personal labels we use. I’ll talk a little more about personal versus community labels later.
I’m going to give you a content warning on this talk. It’s going to touch on some hard subjects and I’m going to bring up both community and personal experiences that might be difficult for you to hear about. However, we aren’t going to spend very long on any one thing.
When I present a workshop with potentially triggering topics, I challenge the attendees to participate with an awareness of their own needs. I’m going to ask the same of you. If something I bring up means you need to take a break from being in the space, you should step out. In addition to emotional reactions, sometimes our reactions squish out sideways and express themselves in our bodies as fear or panic. If you need to take a break, step out, get a drink of water, plant your feet on the earth, whatever it is that you do to calm your body when it tells you there is a threat, you should do that thing if you need to. However, I will remind you: experiencing discomfort can be a sign you are being challenged to rethink your own entrenched ideas, or confront your own privilege. Some discomfort can be a growth experience so in addition to taking care of yourself, you also need to evaluate: how is this feeling threatening? Is it something I can sit with?
Aside from the impacts of emotional discomfort, if your body needs to not sit for an hour in these chairs but rather listen while standing or sitting on the floor, I invite you to listen to your body and participate in the way that is most supportive of you that doesn’t detract from other people who are also here to participate.
Now that I’ve got you worried, I’m going to start easy. I’d like to tell you a little about the Bisexual Organizing Project (or BOP) because they are the organization I focus most of my attention on these days. BOP’s mission is the build, serve, and advocate for an empowered bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and unlabeled community to advance social justice.
We put on a large conference every spring; have monthly groups that meet in the Twin Cities; attend Twin Cities Pride and regional pride celebrations; provide education to allied organizations about how to serve their bi+ members; and collaborate with other bi+ organizations around the country. As with most organizations that are volunteer driven, we always have more we need to do than we have people to do it, but it is a wonderful, vital, and dynamic organization.
I am first and foremost a community organizer. How I define our movements, how I construct my personal identity, how I think about our spaces, how I react to elections, what events I want to be at, and who I want to work with, all grows out of my identity as a Midwestern community organizer. I think it is vital to have visible and strong community spaces to support us as individuals and strengthen those of us who also work as change makers. In addition to spaces where we all come together, we also need more narrowly defined spaces like BOP’s group for bi+ people of color or the identity caucuses we are going to have later today. We need both big tents and small tents.
It’s from this role as a community organizer that I want to address what happened on Tuesday. This election has and will continue to have a profound impact on our country and our communities. There is a lot of analysis happening right now trying to understand what happened in this very unusual election and what it might mean going forward. Meanwhile, activists and organizers around the country are managing their own reactions.
Some people woke up Wednesday feeling unsafe for the first time in their lives, some people had their ongoing safety concerns increased, or added to with new worries. From worrying about the future of their health insurance to wondering if queers or muslims are going to have to register with the government, I’ve heard a lot of different fears. Many of our communities leaders came to leadership during the last 8 years in a time of increasing societal and legal acceptance of many in the LGBT community. Our communities had unprecedented impact on federal policy makers and state law. For a lot of people, the last 5 years in particular has felt like a golden era for LGBT organizing.
The game just changed with Trump’s election and no one fully knows how the hate and discrimination whipped up during the campaign will impact us. Bolder behavior for people who hate us has already started. My FaceBook feed is full of stories. And everyone is trying to process what just happened. And for those of you under 40, trying to process what was done to you. Under 40’s overwhelmingly voted against Trump. So did people of color and non-christians. No shock.
It’s really easy in this environment to start dividing and blaming. In fact, I don’t even blame a lot of the people who voted for Trump. Many of them have had limited exposure to the communities Trump was blaming all our problems on. And in interview after interview, so many Trump supporters said they didn’t think he really meant a lot of what he said. On that, only time will tell, but I’m worried for our safety, our health, even just holding onto what we’ve gained in recent years.
I’d like to apologise for my generation, I’m a gen X’er. I’ve felt for a long time that things would start getting better faster when we got the heck out of your way. Those of us raised in the 80’s “greed is good” generation didn’t always get the best education about social justice. When I was in my twenties, there was no wider conversation happening about social justice. There weren’t marches and protests happening all over the country. We weren’t shutting down highways in major cities.
A lot of us have recovered from the 80’s but when I see things like this election, I feel like we missed a connection or three somewhere. I can’t help but wonder if this conservative backlash could have been prevented somehow. And I’m sorry that some of the burden of educating the older generations falls on your shoulders. Just like White people should educate other White people about racism, my generation should be educating ourselves about the social change movement. I am inspired when I see the leadership of the teens and twentysomethings today and can’t wait to see what happens when you are in charge of more things.
So from this rather questionable start as a child of the 80’s, and a bi+ community organizer the 90’s and 2000’s I only started exploring wider issues social justice and systemic racism in the last six years or so. I was that white, middle class, liberal who was blind to most of the discrimination around me, even the misogyny that affected me directly. I was raised to believe that being colorblind was a virtue and that socioeconomic upward mobility was accessible to everyone.
By about five years ago, I was hearing the activists and organizations I respected the most using terms like “social justice,” “privilege,” and “intersectional” a lot. These weren’t new ideas, but the language around them was suddenly very consistent in the circles I was in. I wanted to understand what this was all about so, as I usually do, I researched and started to get a feel for the social justice movement which was very active in the Twin Cities. As I started to have more leadership responsibilities in the Bisexual Organizing Project, I was very fortunate to have mentors who helped me broaden my understanding of the need to be deliberate about how we work, not just what we do.
The LGBTQIA community is a part of the social justice movement by virtue of the work we do advancing civil rights and equality for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, we must also be social justice organizations dedicated to the intersectional advancement of justice. It has been the ruin of much bigger movements then ours to ignore the many identities people bring into community spaces. When we recognize the relationship between racisim, sexism, abilism, biphobia, classism, agism, transphobia, the list is really long, then we can hold each other accountable for the impact we have. We can create spaces for our community that are welcoming of ALL our identities, make sure the most vulnerable of us have a voice and a seat at the table, and center the leadership of the ones most affected by discrimination.
We are living in challenging times that just got a lot harder. It is important to frame our LGBTQIA community work in the larger landscape. I’d like to acknowledge the struggle that is happening right now for social justice in the United States. The protests at Standing Rock, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fight against anti-trans legislation around the country are just a few of the highest profile struggles going on right now. All of these movements have queer people in their leadership, all of these movements are about our communities. We cannot lose track of the truth: until we are all safe, our work is not done. With this election behind us, we will be finding more and more ways we need to make our voices heard.
In those first few years of being out as bisexual in the early 1990’s, I had many experiences that shaped how I do things even today. The college I started at, and came out at, was a small, private college in WI. There were 1200 students who went to class, lived, and ate on campus that was 4 blocks by 5 blocks. By my sophomore year, I had figured out that if someone wanted to know what you were doing, or with whom, or how, they could find out. So I started making choices that would help me live without regrets. I may not put everything in my life out for public consumption, but I started to consider my choices of words and actions against the question of: how will I feel about this tomorrow if it becomes public knowledge?
While some people might have decided to become very private in this environment, I was learning not to care what most people thought, to have my own moral compass. I live my private live at the edges: bisexual, polyamorous, kinky, and of no easily labeled faith tradition. I decided that being authentic with how I lived my life was more important than what people might find out about me. Finding the balance of being selectively private about myself while also being open and supportive of the communities I belong to is an ongoing exploration.
I expect almost everyone in here has experienced their own version of deciding what to share with whom, and when, and how. To share too little risks being misunderstood, to share too much or with the wrong person opens us up to everything from rejection and ridicule to physical harm. It can impact our ability to work, to get an education, to have a safe place to live, to keep our loved ones safe and with us. Deciding when to be out, and to whom is serious, and no one should ever shame you for how you make that choice.
I encourage everyone in the LGBTQIA communities to be out…if they can safely be out. Being out and open about our sexual orientations and gender identities creates the opportunity for others who share those identities to find us. Its when we work together that we create safer spaces for ourselves and create cultural change. When we stand together we have the leverage to demand our rights and change laws. But we each have to make our own evaluation of what is safe, when it’s time, and how we do it.
One of the realities of the bi+ community is that we don’t just do one big round of coming out and we’re done. Bi+ folks have to come out all the time because we are typically mislabeled based on our current or most recent partner. The mislabeling happens with our friends, co-workers, strangers and in the media. When an A list star surprises people by dating someone of an unexpected gender, the headlines don’t read: She Might Be Bisexual. I’m gay for you is a thing. Our society has distressingly binary thinking in so many ways. In or out, us or them, it is a narrow viewpoint.
All too often we don’t even come out to each other! In most of the queer groups I participate in, we share our preferred pronouns, but we never identify our sexual orientation. Besides making our introductions shorter, it allows the Queer community to continue denying the existence of the full spectrum of people who should be able find their community here: asexual, bisexual, demisexual, grey sexual, fluid, pansexual, intersex. We’re all here, and we always have been.
So I have a group participation exercise. I ask that you stand up if you have ever felt invisible in an LGBTQIA space, if you’ve ever been assumed to be something you are not, if you’ve ever been introduced as something you are not, if you’ve ever been misgendered, misidentified, or heard someone claim that people like you just aren’t in queer spaces or heard someone say people like you don’t belong in queer spaces, please stand. If standing is not comfortable, please raise your hand or stick something up high.
Ok, I know the memories of those experiences can be painful, but I want us to hold this moment. I want you to look around and see the visible representation of something you share with so many of the folks in our communities. And if you are still sitting, I ask you to recognize that when you come into spaces like this, these experiences are a source of pain that is common, just as you may have other types of pain when you come into community. Let’s be blunt, our communities have a lot of pain. It’s complicated, we all have some hurts in common and not others. And when hurt people come together, sometimes we hurt each other.
Thank you, please sit down.
Why did I choose being misidentified or being made to feel invisible to highlight? Because it is the most common complaint bi and pan people have about being in LGBTQIA spaces. And while all of us in the middle sexualities are erased sometimes, the #1 most common misconception about men who are attracted to more than one gender is that they don’t exist at all. Too often, men who come out as bisexual are told to come back when they finish coming out as gay. Bisexual is assumed to be a transitory identity for them.
If the existence of bi+ men is acknowledged, they still face a whole host of negative stereotypes and high levels of violence right along side the rest of our community. Research on intimate partner violence toward men found that bisexual men are 4x more likely to be abused by an intimate partner than straight men. And lest you think that its safer for bi+ men to be in opposite gender relationships, the majority of that intimate partner violence was coming from female partners.
Bi+ women have our own challenges. One of the most worst is that we are hypersexualized and assumptions are made about our sexuality leading to bi+ women being 3x more likely to be raped straight women. Often, bi+ women report their attackers used the woman’s sexual orientation as an explicit excuse for their actions.
Many trans people also identify as being attracted to more than one gender. I am terrified about the safety of my bi+ trans siblings as they navigate through a world that leaves very little space for them to live safely. The violence toward trans women of color is particularly rampant and needs to be addressed with a lot more resources.
All of the leading bi+ organizations around the country talk about gender in ways that are trans inclusive. I think this is a very important point to make because the bi+ and trans communities are natural allies as the communities that challenge binaries which are deeply rooted in our society.
The bi+ community does not now, nor has it ever, used the bi in bisexual to refer to men and women. The binary is self and other in keeping with how we talk about homo meaning same and hetero meaning different. But making people think the bisexual community is anti trans was an awfully good way to keep natural allies from supporting each other.
In fact, it was as a volunteer at trans events that I learned a lot about being an ally. As a bi+ woman, I am usually the one in the room finding allies to support my work. But when I am in trans spaces, like the MN Trans Health conference, I am the ally. It’s time for me to step back, listen, and support in the ways the trans community asks.
While you are here at this conference, you will sometimes find you are the voice that needs to step back and let other voices be heard. You may find you are in a room where you need to listen and accept what you are being told by someone who needs you to be their ally. Don’t miss this just because we ourselves are so often the most marginalized voice in any room. This is not a competition or an oppression olympics. We all deserve to be supported, and we all need to step up as allies to each other.
To support this allyship, we have to learn about each other and especially about our intersectional identities, those identities that are not related to our sexual orientation or gender identity. To truly be in community with my whole bi+ community, I need to educate myself about the violence faced by people of color every day and I need to understand the way common slang hurts people with disabilities. I need to listen to people who are different from me in some aspect and really hear them when they tell me what they need. I need to do my own work to educate myself as an ally and not expect other people to educate me. I need to know when to center their experience and leadership.
There are so many good resources on the web, there is no excuse for putting the burden of that work on the person who needs your support. Everyday Feminism is one of my favorite online sites for discussions on everything from cultural appropriation to 10 things never to say to a bi+ woman. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at workshops taught by some of their regular contributors and I love the way their minds work. Check it out.
In the bi+ community, we talk about the gay and lesbian communities as allies to us. While all of the queer community shares some needs, we all have our own needs as well. All too often we find that gay and lesbian centered organizations believe the programs designed for them meet the needs of the bi+ community. However, a simple review of survey data shows us that mental and physical health outcomes are different between the gay, lesbian, and bi+ communities.
Don’t get me wrong, no one is doing well. The L, G, and B communities are more likely than straight people to struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, to smoke, to experience depression and anxiety and to attempt and complete suicide. Until about 2008, health data was always aggregated: gay/lesbian/bisexual together. Finally, in 2009 we started to get disaggregated data and had statics to back up what that bi+ community had been saying for a long time: the programs designed to support the gay and lesbian communities were not having an equal impact on the bi+ community.
I divide bi+ activism into before and after this data became available because when we had data, the conversations all changed. We started to get traction with large LGBT organizations and finally, were able to break through some of the barriers that had kept the bi+ community from being supported. Surveys of LGB folks tell us that almost 50% identify most closely with the bi+ community, but bi+ folks are least likely to be out to friends, family, or at work. Bi+ folks often find the “LGBT” community is no more welcoming or understanding than the straight community. All this closeted living takes its toll on mental and physical health, a phenomenon that is well documented across a wide variety of often marginalized communities.
But let’s not put being closeted back on the bisexuals. A recent study showed that the lesbian and gay communities are more prejudice against bisexuals than the straight community, and yet, too many gay men and lesbians keep telling us if “we would just come out” it would all be OK.
I personally find doing bi+ 101 presentations for gay and lesbian groups to be more difficult than for groups that are largely straight. For decades, bi folks who wanted to work at the highest levels of LGBT organizing had to hide their orientation. National organizations did not have out bi+ individuals on their boards or in their staff leadership and that was reflected in their priorities and the attitudes encountered by bi+ folks who did come out.
Let me call out something that can be deduced by the information I just gave you. I don’t want it to escape your notice that my community’s health data is being used by LGBT organization to get grants which fund programs that don’t serve my community’s needs. This pisses me off. And it continues today even with our access to disaggregated data. Don’t forget, I’m not saying any of us are doing as well as we should, but we cannot ignore the needs of almost half our community the way we have been.
Now that we are slicing and dicing data, lets get back to that idea of personal versus community labels. Actually, lets back all the way up to behavior. This is the set of things we actually do or want to do with our bodies and sometimes with other people’s bodies. We typically share this only with our most intimate companions.
The next layer of identity is our personal label. This is where you get the wide variety of terms for people who share many things in common. I mentioned quite a few of the labels used by the community of people attracted to more than one gender. The gay and lesbian communities have their versions too as we talk about twinks, bears, femmes, and dykes. Although there is still a lot of individual variation in these identities, they have more nuance than our community labels. Community identities are the inherently uncomfortables boxes we check on demographic forms, are the way data is analyzed, and is how we find each other.
Many people will dual identify: pansexual and bisexual, bisexual and fluid, and so on. Because the label most folks understand is bisexual, and giving both makes more of an opportunity to talk about community and personal identity. I have always said the our labels should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end. And just to keep you on your toes, bisexual is both a personal and a community label.
One final thing about community labels: what demographic box you check matters! The grants that fund the majority of nonprofit work, the work that supports our communities and tries to balance out the inequities, is all based on data of this type. Every time you check Other you’ve just opted out of a demographic. So here’s the thing: if the form in front of you offers you an imperfect community label, check the damn box. If their choices are wrong, work on changing the form. But we need every voice speaking for our communities so we can make clear the needs and get those needs met. “Other” is not a community.
My best example of this comes out of the affordable care act. The ACA gave direction to the national institutes of health that anytime a health disparity could be identified for a definable demographic, the NIH had to work to erase the disparity. With the data they have on the bi+ community, we were identified as one of those with disparities and they approached us with plans for community health conferences, further studies, and resources to support our community. Data matters. And any time someone asks me what the bi+ community’s public policy focus is, I say data. We actually have a nice public policy document that was drafted with a lot of community input, but all of it depends on data. It was first introduced at the 2015 White House Breifing on Bisexualty that I was honored to help organize. The document was polished after that meeting and is now available from many sources including BOP. So if you are interested in issues of public policy, you should check it out. It was drafted from the vision of things that were achievable in the remainder of President Obama’s term based on the current federal resources.
Now public policy work is just one type of activism that supports and advances equity. When I was first coming out in college I got involved in online discussion lists about queer activism. These were email list serves, we weren’t even up to bbs’s at this point. I emailed with people from all over the country and got in huge arguments about what was radical, what was enough. It was the early 1990’s and Queer Nation was shaking up the community with its radical forms of protest to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic. Act Up was its slightly less radical sibling and all of this was happening in a much more public way then the gay and lesbian communities were accustomed to.
It’s from those discussions that I came to realize the importance of all the different types of work we do, and that all of it is radical. Coming into community is radical. Trust me, people who are worried about how we want to change things know that community is where the power is. It’s why the right of assembly is so important in our constitution. And in a world that all too often tells us we are bad, shameful, unworthy of respect or happiness, making the decision to come into community is huge. How many of you remember walking into your first queer space? I see some nods. How many of you had to work up the courage?
It’s a radical act to walk into a queer space and be a part of something that challenges decades if not centuries of cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality simply by existing. By being in this space, you have all committed a radical act.
When we come into these spaces, these events, these organizations, we find that there are a lot of different types of work that get done, and many different ways to do it. From leading marches and protests to the people who keep the emails going out, from folks who work from the outside in to those who are subverting from the inside out, it all serves a purpose.
Regardless of what you are most comfortable doing, there are ways you can contribute. Protests, rallies, and marches are vitally important to any movement for social change. They attract media attention, raise awareness of issues, and are sometimes the only way to get the establishment to pay any attention. On the other side, are the people who work on the inside, in the board rooms and in government pushing against the huge inertia of these institutions. It takes all of it, from making the speeches to making the coffee, to keep movements like ours working. If you haven’t thanked one of the organizer or volunteers at this conference yet, you should.
Now one term I’ve used through this whole talk that I haven’t defined is community organizing. I have found this term changes depending on who you talk to. For people with a background in politics, this is door knocking campaigns and getting people to talk to their neighbors about candidates.
The work I do is creating spaces where people with shared identities, needs, or interests can come together. Sometimes that coming together leads to other organizing like political activism. For the bi+ community, survey after survey tells us that the #1 thing people want more of is community. And I think that’s true of the whole LGBTQIA community. We need spaces where we come together with people who understand us, who can support us, and give us safe space to just be.
And so this brings us back around to intersectional organizing. You see, when I create a space that feels all warm and cozy for me a bisexual, White, cis gendered woman that space may offer no respite to my friend who is black, nonbinary, and bisexual. And because they are black and trans, they are more likely then I am to experience violence and discrimination as well as microaggressions from their own community. If I as a community organizer am not supporting the creation of spaces that are safe for my entire community of people who are attracted to more than one gender, then I am leaving some of the most vulnerable members of my community unsupported. I’m not saying this work is easy, I’m saying it is necessary. It involves a lot of education and building trust.
These intersectional spaces raise some interesting questions. When everyone at the table is from an often marginalized community, whose voice do we center? Who is the ally and who is one to be supported? In a room filled with many races; all body shapes and sizes; people who have disabilities, visible or not; people from different faith traditions or from none at all; neurotypical and neurodivergent; trans and cis, L & G & B, who steps up and who steps back?
These are not easy questions to answer and I invite you to consider these questions while you participate in this conference. This is a great space to practice this awareness.
When we won marriage equality a lot of folks checked out of the movement. We’d won. We had won marriage equality and that’s important. It addressed a whole host of things that had devastated the LGBTQIA communities in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. But it didn’t address workplace discrimination or housing discrimination. It didn’t even begin to discuss the fact that bi and trans people are more likely to live in poverty and without adequate health care than lesbian, gay or straight people. We have a lot more work to do.
And trust me, the people who are actively working against our safety and civil rights didn’t just pack up and go home when they lost the marriage fight. All that money pivoted smoothly into anti-trans legislation at the state level all across the country.
Congressman Keith Ellison has been quite clear with local LGBTQ leaders that he sees conservative organizers testing anti-trans legislation at the state level in preparation for introducing it to the U.S. congress. After this election, I have no doubt conservative leaders are looking to introduce federal legislation as soon as they can. In the meantime, conservative money is also being used to undermine and defund every advance we make such as the Minnesota state anti-bulling laws.
We have to stay in the game, stay engaged, keep working protect what we have and expand those rights and protections even further. Whether you see yourself as radical or not, whether you have a little time to give or a lot, you have a part to play.
For some people, the volunteer work I do to stand up in front of strangers and talk about myself and the bi+ community is radical. To me, Act Up! and Queer Nation were radical. #BlackLivesMatter shutting down major highways, that’s radical. But then, I’ve never been a front line agitator. I like to have permits for my marches, signup sheets at my meetings, and I want to know the rules, even if I choose to break them.
It took me a long time to say I was an activist. I was more comfortable identifying as a community organizer. Then I realized, activism comes in many forms. I talked about you being in this room as a radical act. For most people, understanding their own sexuality is a radical act because it requires breaking down so much of what we have been told. I attended a workshop where one of the questions we discussed was: “What has given you the permission to question?” I thought it was a great question.
So what has given you permission to question our hetero-normative society? To consider that you might not be a part of that narrative? Knowing how we got to the understanding of ourselves that we currently have can help guide us in future explorations of ourselves.
After we start understanding ourselves, coming out to other people is a radical act. It sure feels like jumping off a cliff the first few times. But then, what’s next? For some people it’s enough to come out to a few people. They find their circle of friends or their chosen family and they are done. They have what they need, they feel they are insulated from the harsh world, they have their safe havens where they are loved and understood. And there they stop.
But a lot of us look for a wider community. We want to meet other people like ourselves, we want to understand the breadth of experiences there are in the queer community. Forming these communities beyond our immediate social circles is a radical, subversive act.
If it wasn’t subversive, why would there be so many forces working against us? If we get together, if we understand what we have in common, if we celebrate our differences and still choose to work together, we are a dangerous force that questions some of the most basic foundations of our society: the roles of men and women, a binary understanding of gender, and the family structures that traditionally have and raise children.
We need to keep remembering that showing up, making the coffee, giving a hug, that is all supporting radical change in a society that is long overdue for the seismic upheaval that is rumbling now. That doesn’t mean any of us has to do it all, but it does mean we don’t get to check out. Until we are all safe, we are not done.
So I started on the journey that put me at this podium when a friend asked me for a favor 26 years ago. 26 years later my work with the LGBTQIA communities, and especially with the bi+ community, still feeds my passion for leaving the world a better place than I found it.
I’d love to take questions. I know I touched on a lot of subjects so everything’s on the table, ask what you want.