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SpeakOUT “Back-to-school” Season Begins

“Back-to-school” season is a great time for SpeakOUT. We get excited to be returning to classrooms and assemblies across the state as we speak about LGBTQ lives. And we value our connections with students and faculty who are working to improve the supportive climate in their school systems for all students.

Jennifer Wolfrum, Assistant Coordinator of Physical Education and Wellness in the Lexington Public Schools, shares with us below why the high school has invited SpeakOUT into their classes for many years.


Lexington HS front

The entrance to Lexington High School.

For over 20 years, SpeakOUT speakers have come into our junior health classes at Lexington High School to discuss issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The speakers have provided valuable perspectives, insights and life experiences that have enabled our students to better understand the issues that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face.

When asked on a course survey, 95% of all juniors recommended that SpeakOUT come back for future health classes. Here are some of their comments:

     “They were very informative. It is always good to hear first-hand accounts. They provide a story that no one else could, which made it very important.”

     “These were great speakers and they helped a lot in understanding some of the struggles homosexuals/bis go through in their everyday lives. It puts perspective on your own life and says that you need to treat everyone equally, everyone is human, and their sexual identity doesn’t make that much difference.”

     “I myself am straight so I didn’t really know how it felt to be gay/bi/lesbian in a non-accepting community so it helped me understand that.”

     “They were very helpful because people could ask questions that would be uncomfortable to ask in real-world situations, but that are important to know and understand.”


See a sample of an engagement that was filmed at Lexington High School in 2014. SpeakOUT is booking engagements now for fall months. To find out more about how to bring speakers to your school, college or other venue, call 877-223-9390. Or visit our website and email us with your request.

Question, Persuade, Refer

“You seem to be experiencing a lot of pain.  I am worried about you.  Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

National Suicide Prevention LIfeline

If you need to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Can you picture yourself saying those exact words to a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, or maybe a student? Does the thought make you squirm, just a little? Be honest. Asking someone if they are thinking of killing themselves might be the difference between life and death, and until attending Socializing for Justice’s workshop I was uncomfortable asking the question.

Recently, SoJust held a professional development workshop, led by Robbie Samuels, on the theme of “QPR Suicide Prevention Training for Community Leaders.” QPR stands for Question, Persuade, Refer and, much like CPR, it offers a potentially life-saving process with which to engage a person who is considering suicide. Samuels recommended we all have it in our toolbox of ways to respond to those needing emergency care. This is especially important information for those of us who work with LGBTQ youth. As a speaker with SpeakOUT, I am regularly talking to young people and their teachers. Being able to share this information and these tools will be helpful in particular because, as the Trevor Project reports, suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 10-24 and LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

We don’t talk much about suicide, as if uttering the word could create a self-fulfilling prophecy, or, like Harry Potter’s Voldemort, might invite the villain to visit us. Our silence is effectively reinforcing a taboo that has the destructive consequence of limiting access to support systems and stigmatizing those who would benefit from them. In reality, speaking the question out loud, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” is like turning the valve on a pressure tank and releasing just a bit of air, providing a little more room to breathe. We learned that directly asking someone often allows the person to talk about their suicidal thoughts and to feel that release.

Identifying suicidal warning signs is the first step to helping someone. Direct statements like “I’ve decided to kill myself” or “I wish I were dead” are obvious warning signs that should be taken seriously, but indirect clues such as behavioral changes, giving away prized possessions, or stockpiling pills might also point to suicidal thoughts.*

We also received a packet of materials that included local and national resources that might be useful to helping people through a suicidal episode or other mental health crisis. For more detailed information on how to help, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Or visit this listing of suicide hotlines for immediate support resources.

Saving a life begins with one question. So say it with me, out loud, “You seem to be experiencing a lot of pain. I am worried about you. Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

*as listed in the training booklet “Question, Persuade, Refer” by Paul Quinnett, Ph.D.

 


Kara Ammon

Kara Ammon

Kara Ammon has been a SpeakOUT member and volunteer since the fall of 2014. She is active in the Boston bisexual community. Kara works with Reconciling Ministry Networks promoting the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in faith communities.

The World was Different on June 26th

John Sheehy and dads

John Sheehy with his dad and step-dad on their 22nd anniversary, when they signed their marriage license.

The only marriage license I’ve ever signed is the one between my dad and step-dad. Signing it was a given, almost to the point that it felt meaningless. What is a squiggle of ink on a leaf of flattened pulp? For that matter, what is the word “marriage” compared to the fact that they have been together since before I can remember, loving and caring for me the whole time? Their “marriage license signing dinner party” was one of the best, but it didn’t change my world.

On June 26th, the world was different.

When I sent my dad a selfie I took exiting the Supreme Court on the day they heard oral arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges (April 28th), he told me how proud he was of me. I was appropriately chuffed, but I texted back that I’m just standing on shoulders. I wasn’t pandering cliché, either; I was distinctly remembering smaller times when I would actually sit on his shoulders, holding onto his hair and learning about the world, literally, from his point of view.

With a profundity that is ringing especially loudly in the ear these days, my dad taught me the absolute importance of being true to yourself. He taught me about belief and conviction. I had to figure out for myself that he was so keen on these lessons because they were the hardest lessons he had to learn for himself. I would have been angry and sad, but by then he had already shown me what it means to live with dignity. Instead I grew, however indirectly, to know the dull heartache that haunts anyone who feels alone in their beliefs.

state house crowd

An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Massachusetts State House on June 26th to celebrate the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.

The Supreme Court’s marriage decision on June 26th was so, so much bigger than more squiggles and leafs of pulp. I daresay it’s even bigger than love. That victory is for anyone who has ever felt alone. For anyone who has ever fought and sacrificed for change they didn’t even expect to see for themselves. That decision shows what faith and conviction can earn.

Thank you, from the depths of my being, to everyone who added their voice to this chorus, to everyone who refused to let anyone suffer this alone. Thank you for being an example, for being brave, for being loud. Thank you for what you’ve given my dad and my step-dad and all their friends and everyone’s families.

But let me be selfish and thank you most for validating everything my dad taught me. Some day there will be a tiny Sheehy on my shoulders, tangled in my hair, and whatever I’m teaching her will be built on the lessons of conviction that come down from her grandfathers. I’ll tell her she can change the world, even if it takes her whole life, if she just stays true to herself.

And when she asks, “Really?” I’ll be able to answer, nostalgically, “Really.”


John Sheehy was raised bi-coastally between his mom in Boston and dad and step-dad in Seattle. After studying linguistics at Brown University, wandering the world, and freelancing in Brooklyn, he attended Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he started writing Queerspawn!, a book gathering stories of individuals who grew up in homes all across the LGBTQ spectrum. Chapter and essay drafts for Queerspawn! are available at https://www.beaconreader.com/john-sheehy, and John would like all agents to note his distinct lack of representation.

Celebrating the Inclusive Spirit of Pride

June is not just any month to the LGBTQ community. It is our high holiday season. We honor the history and heroism of those who came before us, we recognize the current struggles that we are still facing, and we celebrate the beauty and fierceness of our diverse community. Being an activist, I love the politics. Being queer, I love the glitter and the boom-boom beat of the dance floats. And being bisexual, I don’t have to choose which one I like more. 😉

Ellyn&WoodyThis year, Pride is particularly meaningful to me because I have the honor of being one of the pride marshals to ride at the head of Boston’s 45th Pride Parade. I was nominated for my work as president of the Bisexual Resource Center (BRC) for ten years and the efforts I’ve put into raising awareness of bisexuality in both the LGBTQ and straight communities. I will be riding in a car alongside Woody Glenn, one of the co-founders of the BRC, so we are the bookends of the 30-year history of the organization.

This is historic as it will be the first time that out bisexual leaders have been elected as pride marshals in Boston. Within the bi community this is a huge occasion as it is very rare for bi people to be chosen to represent the LGBTQ community at this level. One recent example comes to mind from just last year when New York City’s Pride organizers very publicly patted themselves on the back for being so inclusive by having a gay, a lesbian, and a transgender marshal—somehow forgetting to include a bisexual marshal.

Brenda-HowardI feel honored to be representing the bisexual community as a Pride Marshal, and to be joining other bi activists from Pride history such as Brenda Howard (photo at left), who helped to organize the first commemorative march in New York. Often nicknamed “Mother of Pride,” Howard planned the Christopher Street Liberation Day March a month after the Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969. On the one-year anniversary of Stonewall, Howard again helped organize a march that would be considered the first Pride march of its kind in 1970.

My personal pride is certainly partly due to my work in the bi community, but it is and always has been tied to feeling connected to the larger LGBTQ family as well. The work of SpeakOUT, for example, is enhanced by having individuals from various identities and intersections speak in the schools, colleges, religious classes, and corporate settings to tell the truths of their lives. We strive to have people from every letter in our community’s acronym to feel empowered to tell their stories and to help open minds and change attitudes in the spaces in which we speak.

On Pride Day in Boston, a few hundred thousand people will be out on the streets keeping this tradition of activism and celebration alive. As one of the oldest LGBTQ organizations in Boston, SpeakOUT will again be there to be a part of the festivities and to spread our mission of creating a world free of homo-bi-transphobia. Having been the Executive Director of SpeakOUT for a year now, I feel so lucky to be working with a team of such talented and committed volunteers. Stop by our booth and meet our team to find out more about what’s kept us going for 43 years and counting. We hope to see you there! Happy Pride!

Ellyn Ruthstrom, Executive Director

Speaking Out: Queer Youth in Focus


Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 6.15.22 PM
I believe there is strength in numbers, power in words, and freedom in art and I strive to raise awareness with this book.
-Rachelle Lee Smith

On Thursday, June 4th, 2015, SpeakOUT Boston and BAGLY will be co-hosting a book event with author Rachelle Lee Smith for the release of her book Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus. Smith’s book is a photographic essay that explores a wide spectrum of experiences told from the perspective of a diverse group of young people, ages 14 to 24, identifying as queer. With more than 65 portraits photographed over a period of ten years, Speaking OUT provides rare insight into the passions, confusions, prejudices, joys, and sorrows felt by queer youth. The collaboration of image and first-person narrative serves to provide an outlet, show support, create dialogue, and help those who struggle.

SpeakOUT interviewed Rachelle Lee Smith in anticipation of the event.

What inspired you to make Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus?
I was very fortunate and had a great “coming out” experience. I was supported and accepted by family and friends.  I know that I was lucky, but did not quite realize how lucky until I went to college and met people with dramatically different experiences than my own. It was hearing the, often, tragic stories from friends that inspired me to do something… to tell our stories!

I wanted to create a place where people could learn about other experiences and share their own. My hope was to create a place for dialogue, inspiration, and hope. Photography was my means for storytelling and an outlet for creative expression. I thought the faces and handwritten text would be a powerful combination of real-life, present-day, for-youth/by-youth experiences.


Speaking OUT coverWhy do you think it is important to provide spaces for LGBTQ people to express themselves?

I think it is important for everyone to have a means of a cathartic, creative or expressive outlet, but LGBTQ people in particular because we are often an under-represented group of people. Personal or group expression allows us to learn, grow, heal, teach, and challenge ourselves.

Bottling up emotions is not healthy, and neither is closing off from the world. By having spaces for LGBTQ people to express themselves it allows us to open up within ourselves and also helps open the minds of others. Conversation and dialogue are enormous educators and any form of expression incites discussion.

What kind of response have you gotten from queer youth and from adults in the LGBTQ community?
I have received an overwhelming amount of support and positive feedback for capturing these snapshots in time and also for creating a body of work that spans over a decade and really shows the change over time within our community.

People have told me how they relate, draw inspiration from, or learn from the words that these people have written.  My goal is to show people that they are not alone, that there is a variety of experiences and so much diversity within the LGBTQ community. I hope this work accurately represents that for the community.

What did you learn through your process of making the book?
This was my first endeavor in the publishing world and I learned a great deal about that process from start to finish. But I also had the opportunity to review and read and re-read the words from these brave young people who put their words and lives out there for the world to see. It allowed me to see how far we have come in the last decade. The book also allowed for a unique opportunity to reach out to those who were photographed over the last decade and include a follow up from them.  People reflected on what they wrote 5-12 years ago, how they have changed, and how the climate has changed. I am constantly learning through the experiences of those in the book and the people I meet along the way.

Rachelle Lee Smith is an award-winning photographer based in Philadelphia. Rachelle’s work in Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus combines her passions for activism and photography. 


Join SpeakOUT and BAGLY at First Parish in Harvard Square in Cambridge on Thursday, June 4 from 6:00-8:00pm to kick-off Pride season in Boston and support the work of SpeakOUT and BAGLY in our community.

International Transgender Day of Visibility

The International Transgender Day of Visibility, commemorated on March 31, was started in 2009 to celebrate transgender people’s lives and to raise awareness about the discrimination that transgender people experience. SpeakOUT invited several of our trans speakers to describe the importance of visibility and why they choose to speak about their lives out in the community. These wonderful speakers are part of the long SpeakOUT history of “telling the truths of LGBTQ lives.”

 

alley

Alley 

My goal as an LGBT speaker is to gently encourage people to think more flexibly about gender and sexuality, to look beyond the binary boxes that we are too often pushed into: gay/straight, trans/cis, man/woman. I’m a trans woman who lived as a man for decades, but finally reached a point where I had the internal and external resources to transition. Although I now happily live and identify as a woman, I’m the kind of woman who continues to question what it means to be a woman or man. In my speaking, I hope to encourage the emergence of a future in which we can all live outside the box, expressing our own complex genders and sexualities. A future in which people aren’t reduced to their bodies.

 

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Kai 

As a trans-masculine person, I’m often asked, “Why be visible?” I can so easily fade into the fabric of our society, so why make myself stick out? I like to respond with a few questions of my own:  In a world where transgender people are still arrested, molested, assaulted, tortured, violated, and murdered for simply living their lives, how can I honestly choose to disappear? How can I hide behind a privilege that offers me the very safety not afforded to others? How can I leave my community without a helping hand? The world still clearly needs a lesson in humanity. We are teachers, firefighters, lawyers, bankers, truck drivers, engineers, doctors, police officers. We are parents, children, siblings, and grandparents. We are every-day, run-of-the-mill people, and yet, we still suffer gross injustices each day. Our youth are still seeking suicide as an answer to their suffering. Why be visible, you ask? Because I want every non-trans*person to realize that we are everywhere. And I want every trans*person around the world to know that no matter how bad it is, or how bad it gets, they are never, ever alone.

 

mitzzy2-small

Mitzzy Anne

Why is it so important for me to live and speak about my life experiences as a transgender person? I live my life as a visible transwoman everyday, loving my family and friends, doing volunteer work, working hard at my job trying to be a good person as an example to others. I choose to speak about who I am so people will see that trans people are human like everyone else.

I believe that the more I can talk about my own life experiences, the easier it is for people to accept the trans community for who we are. The more of us who speak up to be heard, the easier it is for all of us to be treated with basic human rights, not just here in our community, but across the globe. When I tell my story, I talk about the hard times I had growing up in the hopes of making it that much easier for the next person to be who they are. I also feel that the more people who know about some of the outrages I have seen in my life, the easier it will be to rid the world of these injustices.

What I love most about sharing my story through SpeakOUT is that I, in turn, get to hear so many other inspiring stories of love and hope.

 

Oscar

Oscar

I love being an out trans person because of the people that I am able to relate to and form connections with. I hope that my enthusiastic visibility can show people that trans people are important because of the unique perspectives they bring. I am a special education teacher that works with autistic students that have intensive support needs. Recently, I had a student that expressed interest in wearing a dress and I was able to advocate for his right to make choices about what he wears. There were some people who wanted to prevent him from making this choice, but as an out trans man I knew how to advocate for him. I was able to find a ton of support amongst the administration and he’s been very happy wearing his new outfits at school.

 

Laurie Wolfe headshot

Laurie 

Being visible as an out trans person is important to me as a social and human rights activist. The more people see me (us) and get to know me (us) the more friends we make. When our common human experiences are out for all to see, the differences begin to be a source of interest and even wonder; we begin to live in the similarities. Therein lies the transformation of society from discrimination to inclusion, and from hate to appreciation and admiration. As a byproduct it creates community and safety, and helps bring about laws which protect me and my friends. This ensures a greater sense of ease for all our families.

Introducing the 2015 Board of Directors

SpeakOUT is proud to introduce the newly elected Board of Directors for 2015. This talented group of new as well as tenured members offers a wonderful array of experience, interests, and commitment to help chart the next leg of SpeakOUT’s journey. If you are interested in learning more about SpeakOUT and how you can become involved with the organization, please email Executive Director Ellyn Ruthstrom at ellyn@speakoutboston.org or read an earlier post with more details.

Bill Barnert headshotBill Barnert is the most tenured member of the Board of Directors, having been speaking for SpeakOUT since 1980. He was a co-host of SpeakOUT TV (the weekly cable show produced by the organization from 1993-2007) and PrideTime for Boston cable. Bill is proud of the organizations he has helped to co-found, including the AIDS Action Committee, Brown University TBGALA, and the Cambridge Men’s Group. Bill has sung with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, danced with the ReneGAYdes, drummed with the Freedom Trail Marching Band, and has volunteered at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s GSA, “Project-10 East.” Currently, he sits on the City of Cambridge GLBT Commission, and he helps run the Cambridge Men’s Group. Professionally, Bill is a User Experience Designer, and is active in BostonCHI. In what’s left of his spare time, he is an amateur actor, comedian, and playwright.

Michael Bookman headshotMichael Bookman’s attendance at SpeakOUT’s Speaker Training in 2012 inspired him to learn more about the organization and he has been volunteering and speaking for SpeakOUT ever since, joining the Board of Directors in 2014. Michael has served on the Volunteer Recognition Committee and as a disaster services instructor for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, and as the co-chair of Boston Pride’s Human Rights and Education Committee. Currently in graduate school at Emmanuel College, Michael holds a bachelor’s degree of science in psychology. He is a human resources professional and belongs to the Society of Human Resources Management. Michael has been a proud member and executive club committee member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organization that helps its members develop their public speaking and leadership skills, for over six years.

Michele C-C headshotMichele Canero-Conklin has been on the SpeakOUT board since 2012. Her passion is community service, and she is especially dedicated to life preservation and meeting and connecting with people one-on-one, wherever they may be on this journey we call life. Michele is a seasoned, dedicated, compassionate, and service-oriented campus law enforcement/communications professional with a true passion for mentoring youth to become successful leaders and mentors. She’s also a mother of two adult children, coaches little league softball, and teaches self-defense and CPR/first aid classes.

George Grattan headshotGeorge Grattan’s career track and volunteer history has wound through the woods of academia, non-profits, marketing, writing, acting, public speaking, board service, environmental activism, and general “doing of stuff.” George joined the board of SpeakOUT the fall of 2014, and prior to that was a board member of Living Routes, an environmental study-abroad program. His day gig focuses on marketing academic and social media content for Bentley University in Waltham, where he resides with his wife Mary. He has worked in the past for Earthwatch, the Urban Ecology Institute, Boston College, and the College of the Holy Cross. He’s co-authored and co-edited both editions of Writing Places, a place-based composition reader for first-year college courses, and can be found every third Tuesday of the month at a “Bi Guys Bowling Night.” A SpeakOUT newbie speaker, he looks forward to many future speaking engagements.

Jenn Guneratne arrived on the Boston scene nearly five years ago following several years of studying across the pond in England. Jenn has a background in music, theatre, and photography, and she currently works at Boston University’s College of Communication. In her spare time, Jenn enjoys yoga, cycling, and recently developed a small obsession with learning to play the banjo. Jenn officially joined SpeakOUT’s board in July 2014, having initially signed on as a volunteer in late 2013 to assist with the organization’s social media presence. Since then, she has watched the board build with a number of highly talented and enthusiastic members who she is thrilled to be working with during this time of growth.

Tracey Solomon-White headshotTracey Solomon-White is a fashion, entertainment and communication industry insider who is happiest working and playing in her hometown of Boston. With that said, it’s been a personal goal to use her passport at least twice a year to explore countries such as Europe, the Caribbean islands, and Central America. Tracey was elected to SpeakOUT’s Board of Directors in December 2014 and previously held committee positions with New England Financial, Wayland Public Schools, and Sporty Rich Entertainment. A lifelong volunteer, specifically dedicated to organizations that improve the lives of women and children, Tracey donates her time to Rosie’s Place, More Than Words, and the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation. Currently, Tracey is employed at Sotheby’s Imprint as the Account Liaison for cosmetics company, L’Oreal. Tracey’s favorite diversions are anything to do with fashion, reading books of all genres, and playing with make-up—though none of those activities compare to recreating unique meals for her husband and three kids.

 

 

Sometimes Inspiration Comes With Instant Coffee

SpeakOUT presentation

By George Grattan

Here’s what I expected: Hard folding chairs. Bad instant coffee. Binders full of “how to” materials. Nervous strangers. A chilly church basement. Assorted bagels. A long day with an early start. Sincere interest alternating with jaded boredom.

Yup: I was heading into a training session.

In this case, the one-day Fall 2014 Speaker Training for SpeakOUT Boston, the nation’s oldest LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual) speakers bureau. And I was heading into a room with 21      fellow trainees, 6 trainers, and a few other volunteers.

At first, I got what I expected, for the most part, with some key differences and some critical improvements. For one thing: the instant coffee was really good. No, really.

More importantly, I got a surprise almost from the start in the group’s diversity. Every identity along the LGBTQIA acronym seemed to be represented, and by more than one person, which is rare in circles that tend to be disproportionately full of cisgender gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women.

Scott training

Scott Grady, senior trainer, kept the training flowing throughout the day.

As a bisexual cisgender man, I was floored to discover myself just one of at least four in the room—that rarely happens, even at meetings of bisexual organizations. The transgender and intersex communities were well represented as well, with at least 5 people present identifying their sex and/or gender identities in these ways. Allies were in the circle in the form of two PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of LGBTQ People) members, one a retired dad with a lesbian daughter, the other a grandmother with a gender non-conforming granddaughter.

We hailed not only from around Boston and Massachusetts, as I had expected would be the case, but also from New Hampshire, Colorado, Illinois, and even California, with representatives of the American Institute of Bisexuality in attendance from Chicago and Los Angeles. All in all, it was, to me, a pleasantly and surprisingly eclectic and engaged group of would-be speakers, veteran speakers and trainers, and other volunteers.

James & Julie

James and Julie told their stories early in the day to demonstrate SpeakOUT’s format to the trainees.

And the food? The food was actually amazing. All day. Loads of fresh fruit. Greek yogurt. Peanut butter. Good bagels. Tacos for lunch. Homemade cookies, fresh-baked in the afternoon. Go figure.

But we weren’t there, officially, to nosh. Rather, we were drawn by the promise of becoming ready to “tell the truths” of our lives to a wide range of audiences—from high school health classes to college and university clubs to church-affiliated social justice groups to corporate diversity training gatherings—in order “to create a world free of homo-bi-trans-phobia and other forms of prejudice.” Simple, right?

Far from it. Even for those of us with a background in theater, teaching, presenting, or others forms of performance (many of us in the room), the prospect of getting up in front of groups of people and telling some of our most emotionally intimate, significant, and transformative life moments in order to foster greater understanding was daunting. I confess to having had more than one bout of butterflies during the day, and this was only training.

Still, as one veteran trainer told us in a session on dealing with fear, “You can’t stop the butterflies from coming, but you can teach them to fly in formation.” Marshaling the nervous energy that comes with public speaking—which ranks tops in surveys of what people fear most, along with death, snakes, and spiders—is a key part of being able to put oneself “out there” to the audience in an authentic way, and we picked up a number of tips and tricks and time-tested techniques for doing so. From breath control, to articulation, enunciation, and projection, to providing story hooks and sensory details, we learned how to craft stories a few minutes long and deliver them with some sense of calm and authenticity.

Ellyn talking

Executive Director Ellyn Ruthstrom described the process of setting up engagements and working with speakers.

As is nearly always the case with such trainings, by far the best moments of the day occurred during small group sessions, where we got a chance to drill down into our stories and work on story-shaping with smaller teams. I found myself moved to tears at hearing the expression of a father’s anguish over the fear his lesbian daughter had felt at coming out in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death. I shared in the rueful, painful laughs offered by a bisexual woman as she recounted two instances in which those in the LGBTQIA community who should have known better had called her very identity into question. I marveled at the story of a transgender child having found near-instant acceptance and support of his transition from his grandmother. I enjoyed hearing the journey one young woman made from being a combative outsider because of her “big gay family” (she has a lesbian mother and grandmother) to being proud of her own queer identity. I went cold and clammy with recognition at the story told by a fellow bisexual man about the moment he felt “found out” by his high school classmates in a publically humiliating way. Hearing the truths of these lives transformed me, and inspired me to try to tell my story in better, more powerful, more honest and transparent ways.

Bill explaining

Tenured speaker and board member, Bill Barnert, contributed many great tips to the training.

In a morning session I worked on a tale about first realizing I was “different” when, in the fourth grade, I was told I couldn’t give Valentine’s Day cards to both a little girl and a little boy I had crushes on, and about my sense of disappointment in not getting any recognition of my affections from either of them. It’ll make a cute story, and will probably work well for younger audiences and high schools, especially if I remember to include the sensory details of the construction paper and the paste on one’s hands alongside the emotional roller-coaster of waning childhood and its first crushes. By the afternoon session, I felt moved and supported enough to tell a story that plunges a bit deeper into my heart, that of coming out as bisexual only “partially” in my twenties, and of “completing” that process with my family just this past year, including coming out to my mother on Mother’s Day. (Yeah, I’m working on a pitch to Hallmark…)

The helpful critiques and support I got from the small groups and the larger groups throughout the day were immeasurably valuable. I’m not quite ready to tell my stories in front of a “real” audience, but I’m close. A few “shadowing” opportunities to see how it’s done will allay my lingering hesitancy, which is great because SpeakOUT requires exactly that kind of observation before sending new speakers out to be paired with veterans to give their first talks.

Alex & Rob

Rob Mersereau and Alex Lucchesi demonstrated how to respond to difficult questions.

I’ll be honest: I’m as much of a cynic about these types of trainings (having been to a number of them over the years on various topics) as I am an idealist about the value of the work they’re training people for. I came into this training prepared to endure, and to check several requirements off a list, expecting I’d pick up a few tips and techniques and maybe gain some confidence, but not much more. Mostly, I expected my butt would be killing me from sitting on a folding chair all day.

(Okay, that last one did happen.)

I didn’t expect I’d be crying at more than one story during the day. I didn’t expect I’d get to engage with such a diverse group of people. I didn’t expect the lead trainer and all his assistants would be knowledgeable, funny, kind, tough, supportive, and capable of sticking to a schedule. (Wow.) I didn’t know I’d meet so many fellow bisexuals, along with so many transgender people, and parents, and grandparents, and young activists. I didn’t know I’d conquer my own fears enough to speak in front of the whole group at the end of the day, which I would have told you I absolutely wouldn’t do if you’d asked me a day or two before. And I really didn’t know I’d find myself in a group-hug at the end of a long day, in a chilly church meeting room, not squirming, but enjoying these people, and wishing I had more time to spend with them. I don’t “do” group hugs.

But we’d all earned this one.

So, I guess I’ll be getting out there on some SpeakOUT engagements as soon as possible, because if I learned one thing in training it’s this: everyone gets a lot more from a SpeakOUT experience than they’re expecting. Even cynical idealists like me.

 

 

Stories from the B-Side: Bisexual Voices


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On Thursday, October 16, approximately 60 attendees were blissfully exposed to diverse voices and stories from the Bi-side of the Boston LGBTQ community. The event was co-sponsored by SpeakOUT Boston, the City of Cambridge GLBT Commission, the Bisexual Resource Center, and the Cambridge Public Library. Caitlin Drechsler, a member of Cambridge’s GLBT Commission, welcomed the audience and introduced the moderator Ellyn Ruthstrom, the executive director of SpeakOUT and board president of the Bisexual Resource Center. Ellyn delivered an empowering and intellectually digestible presentation about bisexuality. Presented in a fashion that was similar to an undergraduate 101 course, her short presentation was concise and gave context for the panelists and audience members to refer to during the duration of the panel discussion that followed her introductory information.

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Ellyn noted the word bisexual can have many meanings depending on who is asked, and short definitions don’t always grasp the complexity of the orientation. There’s also a difference between community and personal identity labels. Using “bisexual” as a community label unites all who have multi-gender attractions and aides in linking politically. Whereas personal identity labels such as “fluid” and “queer,” speak to an individual’s labeling preference. Ellyn also spoke of the Kinsey Scale, a measuring system designed by Dr. Alfred Kinsey to describe the spectrum of sexuality. In addition to reviewing the statistics on the percentage of bisexuals within the queer community (about 50%), Ellyn explained that according to Dr. Mimi Hoang, the stages of coming out as bi are different from gay and lesbians. Bi people often come out later in life due to having a longer coming out process, and the journey is not always a confidence builder due to misperceptions from monosexual individuals about bisexual identities.

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To begin the panel discussion, Ellyn asked the four panelists: What does bisexual mean to you?

Panelist Priscilla Lee is a mother and educator with the Department of Human Services Community Learning Center and she shared the intersections of her Chinese heritage, dating diverse genders, and navigating her identities while engaging with her parents, students, and colleagues. Being with a long-term same-sex partner often has others identifying her as a lesbian, but she asserted that the bisexual label “feels authentic to me.”

Tangela Roberts is a second year Ph.D student at UMass Boston in Counseling Psychology who is also a facilitator of Bisexual Women of Color’s monthly Bi People of Color Coffee & Chat.Originally from Alabama, she spoke of the rigid gender roles and limited gender expression imposed on African-American women in her community. When she first thought of coming out as bi, she stated, “I didn’t think it would be hard for me, but it would be hard for my family.”

Charles Strauss is a psychotherapist who also facilitates the Bisexual and Bi-curious Men’s Group at Fenway Health. He spoke about the Klein Scale, created by Dr. Fritz Klein, which accounts for various types of attractions and change over a person’s life and how that scale often helps give legitimacy to the experiences of his bi male clients. He highlighted gender expression, masculinity, and societal gender roles and commented that “coming into your bisexuality and the beauty of it” is how people become their authentic selves.

Alyssa Marino Medina is a Latina bisexual tryke who pushes gender roles while working as an engineer. She spoke of why it is important to explain her different identities, “Whom I am attracted to has nothing to do with my gender identity. The fact that someone is bi is not a neat category. The fact that someone is trans is not a neat category. Everyone wants nice neat categories. Bisexual and trans are separate.” It is her experience that being in “the middle” is what others find uncomfortable.

After the panel discussion, the audience had an opportunity to engage with the panelists with a Q&A session. A social worker asked Charles Strauss how local organizations can be more bi-inclusive and he suggested that when providing services to LGBTQ clients to meet them where they are, let clients speak of their own experience, and not assume how they identify. A high school student of African descent asked Tangela Roberts if she felt it would be more challenging to come out as a bisexual black male than as a gay black male and if the black community is less accepting of bisexuals compared to white communities. She responded that in some black communities bisexuality is less affirmed and accepted due to a stronger intellectual understanding of monosexual identities and a strong religious tradition. The last question for the evening was directed to all the panelists regarding coming out in the workplace. Priscilla Lee suggested to do it in gradual steps and not to feel you have to come out to everyone in a work setting. Charles chimed in and advised displaying one LGBTQ item in your workspace, than maybe another, and then build up to talking to trusted colleagues.

The evening concluded with a reception, providing an opportunity for audience members and panelists to network with each other, local bi and LGBT activists and community members. To stay connected with the bisexual community of Boston visit the Bisexual Resource Center’s Meetup page , Boston Bisexual Women’s Network, Bisexual Women of Color (BIWOC), and Fenway Health’s Bisexual and Bi-curious Men’s support group.

Gwendolyn Henry, EdM, MSLIS is a writer, librarian, archivist, mental health advocate, and vegan personal chef. She is the founder of Bisexual Women of Color (BIWOC), an online and in-person support and discussion group based in Boston, MA. She was recently awarded the 2014 Unsung Hero Award by the Bisexual Resource Center for her work in the Boston bi community and for founding Bi Women of Color (BIWOC) and Bi People of Color social and support groups.

Seeking Community to Strengthen My Bisexual Identity

This week is Bisexual Awareness Week and I am honored to be a contributor to the SpeakOUT blog this month. When first asked to write for the blog I began reflecting on why I made the decision to join the SpeakOUT family in the first place. The simplest answer to this question is that I was in need of a community. Although I have long identified as bisexual, and have other friends who identify within the LGBTQ spectrum, I had never before consciously sought out a community of like-minded individuals within the queer community. The topic of community seems to be the perfect blog topic, especially for a week that is intended to bring our bi (and other non-monosexually identified) community together.

It is difficult for me to pinpoint precisely when I realized I needed the support of a community. I have always identified as bisexual. I have never doubted or questioned this identity, and for a long time I thought that this assuredness precluded me from the need for community support. It took a long time for me to realize that I do, in fact, need others who understand my identity, who know how I feel when other people in my life don’t know how to relate. I think I began to capture a glimpse of how validating a support system can be shortly after I moved to Boston. A friend of mine came out to me as bi and began to confide in me about his thoughts and feelings on the matter. The conversations we had were some of the first in a very long time to get me to open up about my own experiences, and I was almost surprised at how relieved I felt to have someone to talk to.

Another signifying event on my road to seek out a community was my marriage to my husband. This, of course, was a wonderful event and I have no doubt in my mind that I love him deeply. However, I now unintentionally give the impression of being monosexual, and heterosexual at that. It’s not an unusual experience for bisexuals to be presumed to hold a certain identity based upon the relationship that they are in. I’m not particularly comfortable with being mistaken for either of those identities – not that there’s anything wrong with being either of those descriptors, but there’s not much comfort being caught in a perpetual state of mistaken identity – and so needed a way to show my involvement with the community in an attempt to validate my own identity.

I know that validity is a question that comes up for many bisexual individuals – we talk a lot about bi erasure and invisibility. We are tired of being told that we don’t exist, that we’re either standing half in the closet or that we’re just experimenting with our sexualities. A personal favorite from my own life experience is the time I was accused of trying to be trendy – a moment of bi erasure that I choose to find more humorous than offensive. Due to the mere prevalence of these topics I did not want to make them the focus of this particular post, but it is difficult to ignore them completely when talking about the importance of community. By banding together and discussing these issues we are able to educate, and to hopefully eradicate, the stereotypes held against our community.

There are two recent occurrences in recent memory of the bi community banding together. The first of these is the recent Twitter campaign started by @HuffPostGay around the hashtag #WhatBiLooksLike. This launched an immediate virtual community within the Twittersphere of bisexually-identified individuals, providing a lookbook of sorts sampling the variety of people who identify somewhere under the non-monosexual umbrella. A quick search of the hashtag today shows that the community is reappropriating its use for Bi Awareness Week. If you’re not familiar with the campaign I recommend you run a search for it, even if you’re not on Twitter. It’s a great way to find others who are openly celebrating their identities, and if you are on Twitter you may find a handful of new interesting people and organizations to follow.

A second occurrence of the bi community coming together is currently happening right here in the Boston area. By extension of my involvement with SpeakOUT, I currently have the pleasure of sitting on a planning committee for a panel discussion called “Stories from the B Side: Bisexual Voices” that intends to raise awareness on bi experiences for anyone kind enough to listen. Yes, this is partially a shameless plug for the event, but that’s not why I’m bringing this up (though if you would like more information take a look at the event page here). While sitting in one of our meetings, I found myself for the first time knowingly in a room filled (almost) entirely with bisexually-identified individuals. It was admittedly both humbling and terrifying at the same time. Humbling, I think, because I felt honored to be sitting on a committee of people working toward a common goal for our community. Terrifying, perhaps for the same reason.

So why, you ask, did I choose to become involved specifically with SpeakOUT? That is, why did I involve myself with an organization that is geared toward the entire LGBTQ spectrum rather than in a bi-specific group such as Boston’s own Bisexual Resource Center? I definitely believe in the importance of sticking together as a unified bi community and am glad organizations such as the BRC are out there, I also believe in the importance of remaining connected to the diversity of the wider queer community. The more people within the LGBTQ spectrum who understand the perspectives of the non-monosexual community, the more allies we will have and the more visible we will be. We must stand together as a unified bisexual community, and we must also situate ourselves within the wider queer community and our allies in order to truly have a voice.

Jennifer Guneratne is a board member of SpeakOUT Boston and assists with event planning and social media for the organization.