Activist Fundraiser

Hi! I’m Camille Holthaus, a community organizer and activist for the bi+ community. My volunteering is on behalf is people who are attracted to more than one gender and who use labels such as bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and queer.

Donations are being accepted through PlumFund.

This summer I am traveling twice as an advocate for my community. Some of my expenses are being covered by organizations associated with the work, however I need to raise the funds to fly to Alexandria, VA and to cover some of the expenses I have because I am attending BiCon.

The first trip to Alexandria, VA is at the end of July. I have been invited to participate in a presentation at the Equality Federation Leadership Conference to discuss the importance of bi+ inclusion in state and local policy work. My hotel has been covered by a private donation and conference registration has been covered by OutFront MN. However, I need to raise my airfare.

The second trip is to Leeds, England. The Bisexual Organizing Project and BiCon have agreed to each send two organizers to each other’s conferences. Our goal is to share conference organizing skills and building stronger connections between the U.S. and the U.K. bi+ communities.  I have agreed to co-chair BOP’s BECAUSE conference for 2018 – 2022 and hope to use skills learned on this trip to create a stronger, more sustainable BECAUSE conference. BOP is covering airfare and BiCon is covering conference registration and meals. However, there will be additional expenses I need assistance covering including my passport cost and  boarding my dog while I am away.

Many of you know how important this work is to me. I hope that you will be able to support me this summer. Any funds raised which are not needed for the two trips will be donated to the Bisexual Organizing Project.

Creating Community is a Radical Act

 

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.

Autonomy or Laboratory

Do you know how it feels to distrust an institution, be hopeful when new people come in, and then be disappointed when the “new” starts to look like the “old?” That’s how I feel about the Minneapolis Public Schools. In the late 2000’s, a number of new people joined the school board in a reform movement that looked to refocus decision making so it would consider the needs of students first. Many of us were excited to finally have parents on the board which had long felt like it had uncomfortably close connections to business and construction interests in Minneapolis.

In the last couple of years, I’ve increasing felt we are back to opaque decision making with questionable outcomes and poorly managed communication. A prime example is the new school funding formula. Last spring, families with kids in special education found out the new funding model was going to decentralize the services many of them received. What they weren’t told is that the new funding model was in year two of a three year roll out and that a lot of money had been spent on consultants who had planned this new strategy. Families who initially thought they might be able to affect the announced changes soon discovered it was much too late for that.

The new funding model puts control of more of school budgets into the hands of individual schools, but may not always provide the funding needed for the expanded programming that results from this new model. Add on top of that the  Community Partnership School experiment that was rolled out at four schools this year, and one wonders if MPS is trying to create a district of charter schools or just a laboratory with our kids as the rats.

The elementary school I attended in the 70’s was the testing ground for my district’s bright new ideas. We had new curriculum every year with new teaching methods based on new ideas about how kids learn. Sometimes we even changed strategies in the middle of the year. Reflecting back on that experience, I’ve felt that it was largely detrimental to the kids who were subject to all these high concept teaching methods. I know it had a negative impact on my later success in school.

This personal experience may explain why I got upset as the idea behind Community Partnership Schools was explained to me. Four schools in MPS are being given a lot of autonomy to decide how they are going to run their schools and how they are going to engage with the district. This model is not based on what the community wants, but on the plans of the district, which has consistently been vague about the details, even as schools applied to participate. It sounds like four laboratories to me: four sites allowed to make lots of decisions on their own so the district can learn what works…and what doesn’t. In addition, it lays the ground work for wider adoption of charter schools.

It worries me that in a district with a poor track record on engaging and empowering marginalized communities, these four schools self selected to participate based on the desires of the (mostly white) staff. How do I know the staff are mostly white? Because the teaching staff at MPS are most white, something that is very out of step with the diverse communities that make Minneapolis their home. Just another problematic aspect of MPS.

I understand that this “local school control” model is quite popular right now, but for a district facing many challenges, decentralizing responsibility for the services provided to students does not seem like a good way to improve outcomes for students or increase parent trust. It creates even more challenges around being transparent and accountable, both of which MPS already struggles with.

While all this is happening, the district is busy looking for a new Superintendent. In a blog post this week, David Fox raised some important issues about the search process, how community engagement has been managed, and the quality of the finalist candidates.

I think there are some on the school board who still have good intentions, but we all know where those can land you. I am frustrated with the district administration of MPS doing their best to obfuscate what they are doing, why, and to whom. For a district at the center of a lawsuit over segregated schools, I would think MPS should be working to build trust with district families and engage in culturally relevant ways, not continue business as usual.

Schools Aren’t Broken, but They Need To Be

Today over lunch I was looking online for discussions from different perspectives about the history of U.S. public schools and how people were talking about the question: is our public school system broken, or is it in fact doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

Last month I gave two workshops at the Twin Cities Social Justice in Education Fair and at the end of one, we were discussing the historical purpose of the public education system. One of the participants put her finger on it when she said the system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. While I had heard this before, that day it had a different impact on me. Suddenly, everything I had doing and thinking that entire day about social justice in education was turned on it’s head and I realized I had been approaching everything backwards. While we might need to work within the existing system on pressing problems like bullying or inequitable applications of punishment, if we want things to really change in the areas of opportunities and empowerment, we need a new system.

No amount of lobbying the school board or attending district meetings or reforming how funding is allocated is going to change the fact that our current system sets aside much of what we know about how people learn, much of what we know about childhood development, and continues to use tools and techniques that were designed over a hundred years ago to control populations and create workers for the industrial revolution.

While reading along, I ran across the following statistic in an article on howstuffworks.com:

Spending on elementary and secondary school students has risen dramatically throughout the past several decades. Back in 1959, schools spent only $2,101 per student. In the 2007-08 school year, by comparison, schools will have spent nearly $10,000 per student.

{The following paragraph has been edited to reflect a reader’s comment about my interpretation of these statistics}

There are quite a few different statistics thrown around regarding spending per pupil. There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to sort out useful information. We are asking our schools to do more every year, and not all those programs are tied to the metric of test scores. We want healthier lunch options, we provide more special education services, and we have joint programs in the schools to provide mental and physical health care and other wrap around services. Regardless of how much are are spending per pupil, our infrastructure is old, our classrooms are over crowded and our teachers are underpaid.

That being said, I’m not suggesting we should just throw more money at our education problems. While all those things are problems in our system, the real problem is the system itself. Students are not the problem, although standardized testing of students is problematic. Teachers are not inherently a problem although redefining how we judge performance and provide professional development would be good discussions. The problem is we are expecting a system to become something it was never designed or funded to be. If we want a system that empowers individuals to develop their unique abilities in a setting that prepares “young people for life, work and citizenship” than we need a new system from top to bottom.

In my lunch time reading, I found some discussions of the details behind this idea of changing the system, but what I didn’t find was a plan to change it. There are some interesting frames which reimagine how students engage with learning and debate the merits of various education reforms. However, I didn’t find a good discussion of what the entire system looks like that will give us the results we want. What do administration, local control, and equity look like in a new system? How do we move from what we have to a new way of approaching education? Who and what will try to block our way? How will we know when we have been successful in our reform?

I encourage you to set aside what you think you know about the education system and really examine our system. What do you think it should be doing? How should it do that? It’s 2015 and it’s time to envision what a new system looks like and how we are going to get there.

Selected (and expanded) Remarks from the Opening Session of BECAUSE 2015

(I adjusted these remarks as I spoke due to technical issues as well as time considerations–this is the original text I had intended to present)

Welcome to BECAUSE 2015!

Our theme this year is Developing Leadership to Empower Communities and I want to take a little time tonight to talk about leadership and what it is.

First, why do I talk about developing leadership, not leadership training? Often we hear about leadership training. Using “training” implies leadership is something that can be standardized, taught in steps, and understood through continuing education classes. The truth is that leadership is developed, nurtured, mentored.

Leadership comes in a lot of different forms and some people embody more than one type. When we start talking about leaders, we often think of elected leaders, business leaders, or the leaders of organizations of our community. Those leaders share some characteristics: vision, the ability to bring people together around ideas, and the personality to move work forward. Those types of leaders are important—you’ve heard a few already tonight and you’ll be hearing from more throughout the conference. But that isn’t the only kind of leadership there is and it isn’t the only kind we need to develop.

Depending on the community you grew up in, you might identify people with a lot of life experience as leaders. I call them elders, sometimes to their chagrin. People with a lot of life experience can provide leadership by virtue of their experiences. Our history informs our present,which shapes our future. Understanding how we got to where we are now is vitally important to moving our community forward.

I’d like you to think about those people you know that don’t have a title, who haven’t sat at the head of the table, who’ve never been elected. However, when they walk in the room, people gravitate toward them the way plants turn to the sun, because they are a person that other people want to be like. This is another kind of leadership.

There are people who are leaders because the jump in and get things done. When they come to the meeting and the chairs aren’t set up they don’t wait to be told to move chairs, they move them.

These are just a few of the ways leadership shows up in community. I want to recognize all of the ways people are leaders and explore them this weekend. I even have a couple of people on my board who don’t think of themselves as leaders, but their ideas and their work are shaping what we as an organization are doing. That’s leadership, too.

I’ve inviting a couple of attendees up to share their experiences with leadership. They both came to where they are now by very different routes and they are examples of different kinds of leadership.

I first met Aud Traher last year at BECAUSE. They have made a mark writing for both their own blog, Even Aud, as well as guest blog responses to a number of high profile events in the past two years including the Task Force’s “Bye, Bye, Bi” which the Task Force published on Celebrate Bisexuality Day in 2014.

[Paul Nocera introduction off the cuff due to technical problems. Among other things, Paul is facilitator of Bi Request NYC]

…and of course our amazing keynote speakers Andrea Jenkins and Eliel Cruz will be sharing their thoughts on leadership.

I also want to speak to you about the unofficial theme of this years conference: exploring the impact of intersectional identities in our community.

There is a lot of discussion about radicalism in the circles I spend time in. For some people, the volunteer work I do to stand up in front of strangers and talk about myself and our community is very radical. To me, the people like Act Up! and Queer Nation were radical. #BlackLivesMatter shutting down major highways, that’s radical. 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.

I was talking to a long time acquaintance of mine a little while back. She asked me why I did all these things: hours of volunteering for Bisexual Organizing Project, speaking engagements, organizing conferences. Why couldn’t everyone just live together? She didn’t care if people were gay or trans or bi or whatever. Why couldn’t everyone just live together and let these things be.

I only had one answer to give her: we’re not living together, we’re dying. In Minnesota, 20% of bi identified teens have attempted suicide. [BiEssentials Suicide.110614] My trans siblings are dying at the hands of people who are angry and afraid and hateful and by their own hands. Our health statistics are terrible: cancer, depression, the list goes on and on. We have to change the culture we live in so it is hospitable to our lives.

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, just like leadership. You being in this room is a radical act. For most people, understanding their own sexuality is a radical act.  It requires breaking down so much of what we have been told, saturated with. I attended a workshop last weekend and one of the questions we discussed was: “What has given you the permission to 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? To question the models of gender, of gender roles, of relationships?

After we start understanding ourselves, coming out to other people is a radical act. People say to us: “if bisexuals would just come out there wouldn’t be any more bierasure and biphobia.” As if it was that easy. You all know what we face. I’ve been coming out for over 25 years. There are days when I don’t know how to do it right. There are days I don’t want to do it anymore. Because our reality is we have to come out all the time. That is part of what wears our community down, it’s part of why we struggle with mental health issues, and it’s part of why we don’t come out. It is also the reason we have to have spaces like this, like BECAUSE, where we can be ourselves, where we are with people who get that part of us that most people never get. We must have local community spaces, online community spaces, and spaces within LGBT organizations and events where we are not always on the precipice of having to come out. Again.

After we come out to ourselves, and then to at least a few other people, what’s next? For some people that’s enough. They find their support network, their chosen family, their circle of friends 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 living as someone who is attracted to more than gender. Forming these communities beyond our immediate social circles is a radical act. It’s subversive.

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, the binary understanding of gender, the family structures that have and raise children.

Sometimes, something happens when we seek out a wider community. Sometimes, they turn into our personal circle, our support network, our chosen family. This is no surprise. We work on projects together, we celebrate our accomplishments and survive our disappointments together. We work in community and sometimes we draw that community closer to us. This is not a bad thing—some of the people I love most in this world are in this room and I would never have met them if it weren’t for this work we do for the bi+ community.

The problem arises when we forget that working in community is about more than the people you like and it’s about more than the people you already know. Our best estimates right now is that, when asked privately, 3 – 4.5% of the US population identifies as something under the bi+ umbrella. That’s not even talking about behavior, just labels. And that’s a lot of people. You aren’t going to like them all. Sometimes, they are going to do things you don’t like. But they are ours. My bi+ community is everyone who is attracted to more than one gender. Period. Think about that. Everyone attracted to more than one gender, period. I know that makes some of you uncomfortable but I challenge you to take a broader view of community than just the circle you want to know.

I tell my board of directors that I surround myself with people who make me uncomfortable. I surround myself with people who make me uncomfortable because I want to be kept out of my comfort zone, I want to be challenged to grow and change and understand more about things I think I’ve already figured out. It keeps me on my toes.

I feel a responsibility to make sure my community, especially the most vulnerable, are getting their needs met. You’re going to hear a lot about intersectionality this weekend because the board of Bisexual Organizing Project has taken a strong position: we believe that we must educate ourselves and our community to be more inclusive in real, substantial ways.

So this is the next step: we have to change the structures of our organizations to be representative of our community and support the organizations started by and run for the empowerment of the most marginalized identities in our community. I say this as a person with a presence on both sides of this issue. As a bisexual person, I hold LGbt organizations accountable for all too often ignoring the needs of bisexual people in their work and for not having inclusive leadership. As the leader of an organization, I hold myself accountable for moving our organization to a place where our leadership and our programming reflect the intersectionality of our community. This is the true purpose for learning about privilege. We do not learn for learning’s sake but learn to understand the changes that need to be made and to promote social justice.

We want to be a part of creating structural change in the world not just on bi+ issues but on issues of social justice for marginalized communities because bi+ people are everywhere, and they are all ours. Will we always get it right? Of course not. It may take us a long time to make progress—this isn’t a goal, there is not endpoint where we can look around and say, “There, we’re done.” But we’ve started taking actions.

We’ve started with training for our leadership and eventually we will have funding to offer inclusion and access training to our entire community at no charge to attendees. Our training goal? Create more spaces for bi+ people with other marginalized identities where they feel welcomed and included. We are changing the way we hold our monthly meetings to serve the needs of more of our community. We’re changing how we pay for BECAUSE and what we ask from our attendees to make it more economically accessible. We’re creating connections with other organizations and offering to show up in the ways they want us to show up. We’re training organizations in bi+ cultural competency and working with them to expand their programming to include bi+ specific programming that is created within their own community to meet their own community’s needs.

Do we have enough people and money to do all these things, much less all these things as fast as I want us to do them? Nope. But we’re working on that, too.

These are just a few things that organizations can do. If you believe as I do, that our progress must include our entire community, and we know that parts of our community are being left behind not just in queer organizing, but by our society, then I challenge you: what are you personally and organizationally doing to change? You can’t just invite people of color in and expect them to join your board. You can’t just tell trans folks that they are your closest allies and expect they will attend your events. This isn’t about being a good person or having the best of intentions. This is about working to understand the needs of bi+ people in all our diversity. It starts by believing people who are attracted to more than one gender have enough in common so that we have a responsibility to each other to create a more hospitable world for all of us. And once you have expanded your community to hold all bi+ people, you may find that all marginalized people have enough in common with each other so that we have a responsibility to create a more hospitable world for all of us. That’s radical.

The Future of Bisexual Activism

Back in August, I was contacted by QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking. They wanted to publish an article that reflected on the past and looked to the future of bisexual activism. I consider myself a community organizer first and an activist second, but I definitely had some thoughts on the subject and accepted the challenge. While I write this blog and contribute to the blog for Bisexual Organizing Project, I had never produced a 5000 word article on any topic.

I consider the topic of the “future” of anything to be a moving target. Written before the tragedy in Ferguson and the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, this article begins a discussion of social justice both for the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and unlabeled (bi+) community as well as the social justice we must work for within our community.

However, there is a lot to do. While I obviously suggest you read the entire article, there are two parts I want to highlight. First, a summary of what we need to build strong supports for our activism:

There are four key elements needed to move bi activism forward. First, there needs to be a better understanding by grantors and other institutions about the needs of the bisexual community. Second, the bi community needs to have organizational structures in place to allow grantors and institutions to work effectively with bisexual organizations. Third, bi individuals need to understand
where and how they can get involved as activists and why it is important to do so. Fourth, there must be high-quality research on the bi community to identify needs and provide evidence about the disparities experienced by bisexuals.

And my vision for the future:

The future of bisexual activism will require a new set of skills, a new level of organizational commitment, and a broad vision. However, it builds on both a rich history of an inclusive community and a new commitment by activists to national coordination and leadership. Bisexual activists will be creating more types of organizations to support this work, including political fundraising organizations, research institutions, and foundations. Although this vision is ambitious, the energy, momentum, and expertise present in the bisexual community today provides just the place to begin such an ambitious undertaking.

I hope this article sparks conversation and energy in the bi+ community and inspires more people to become organizers and activists.

Future of Bisexual Activism