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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


B-Side-Postcard-2014-Front

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.

Ruthstrom_BiSide_2014

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.

Panel_BiSide_2014

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.

SpeakOUT’s Board Readying for New Directions

Are you looking for a way to give back to the LGBTQ community?

There is something very exciting about reaching a crossroads and figuring out what your next direction will be. Exciting and challenging. SpeakOUT is at such a crossroads and we are currently looking for board members who are interested in volunteering their time to plan the future of one of Boston’s oldest LGBTQ organizations! Please pass this information along to others who you think would be interested in making a difference for LGBTQ lives.

SpeakOUT is the oldest LGBTQ speakers bureau in the nation, established in 1972. We are a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. We train members of the LGBTQ and allies community to tell their personal stories as a form of activism to audiences in schools, colleges, churches, synagogues, service organizations, businesses, and government. Our mission is to work to create a world free of homo-bi-trans-phobia and other forms of discrimination.

Responsibilities of board members:

  • Attend board and committee meetings and functions, such as SpeakOUTings.
  • Serve on committees or task forces and offers to take on special projects.
  • Understand the organization’s mission, services, policies, and programs, and inform others about the organization.
  • Actively recruit, orient, and train new members.
  • Follow conflict of interest and confidentiality policies.
  • Ensure compliance with federal, state, and local regulations and fulfillment of contractual obligations.
  • Maintain knowledge of the organization and personal commitment to its goals and objectives.

Ways you can contribute to the board:

  • Fundraising and development knowledge
  • Networking within the LGBTQ community
  • Organizational development
  • Event planning
  • Volunteer coordination
  • Public speaking and/or training ability

How to Apply:

If you are interested in learning more about board service, please contact Ellyn Ruthstrom, Executive Director at Ellyn@speakoutboston.org or call 877-223-9390. Please supply a resume and references.

Happy Pride!

SpeakOUT logoThis year I will be celebrating my twentieth Pride in Boston. It’s remarkable to think how this yearly ritual for our community has evolved and changed since I first joined the throngs along Boylston Street. What used to be considered a political march is now much more a celebration of the diverse ways LGBTQ people are represented within the greater community at large. There are varied opinions about whether this is a positive development or not, but whatever your politics it’s hard to deny the impressiveness of seeing thousands of people from all walks of life making their way through the streets of Boston together.

The bikers leading the way and revving their engines to signal the start; church and school groups proudly marching with their banners; dancing boys shaking their booties to the pulsing music on the club floats; political figures shaking hands and looking for votes; the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence spreading joy wherever they go; parents pushing their children in strollers; the PFLAG contingent that always gets heartfelt applause as they pass by; the Hat Sisters in their new ensembles; corporate groups in their matching t-shirts; and the eager crowd cheering and jockeying for their favorite colored pride beads and other cool swag.

Those are just a few of the many snapshots of Pride I look forward to every year. We are such a vibrant and multi-faceted community and on our high holiday we DO know how to celebrate! SNAP!

speakouttableatcityhallplazaSpeakOUT will be staffing a table at the Pride Festival again this year. As one of the older LGBTQ organizations in Boston, SpeakOUT has the distinct pleasure of having decades of volunteers who’ve spoken for us and who love the work we continue to do and we often get to reconnect at Pride. We’ll be spreading the word of our mission to tell our stories and to fight homo-bi-transphobia in the world. Come by and say hello to me and to the other volunteers at the table and pick up our flashy new pens and get tattooed by our volunteers…much less painful than the real thing.

Happy Pride, everyone!

Ellyn Ruthstrom, Executive Director

SpeakOUT Announces a New Executive Director

The Board of Directors of SpeakOUT, the nation’s oldest gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer speakers bureau, is pleased to announce Ellyn Ruthstrom has been named Executive Director for the organization. Ruthstrom has been active in Boston’s LGBTQ community for 20 years and has been the president of the Bisexual Resource Center (BRC), the oldest national bi organization in the U.S., for the past 8 years.

E Ruthstrom headshotIn her role as the BRC president, she co-organized the first White House Roundtable on Bisexual Issues in 2013 and has been instrumental in establishing the Bisexual Leadership Roundtable, a network for activists and writers across the country. Ruthstrom focused her career in publications and nonprofits, including her work as Editor in Chief of Teen Voices Magazine and Project Manager of the Hood Children’s Literacy Project at Lesley University. She’s also a writer and editor and has published in The Women’s Review of Books, Bilerico.com, The Review Review, and other print and online publications.

“I’ve been a speaker for SpeakOUT for several years and it’s an honor to now be charged with taking the organization to the next level.” Ruthstrom said. “We are planning new directions and new ways to engage with the community. We will continue to focus on our mission to create a world free of homo-bi-trans-phobia by telling the truths of people’s lives, but we are also looking at other ways that our work can help serve the LGBTQ community.”

For over 40 years, SpeakOUT has provided training in public speaking to build the skills of its volunteer speaker network – speakers who conduct informal, interactive speaking engagements in settings like high schools, colleges, businesses, churches, synagogues, and community service organizations. The group’s mission focuses on using personal storytelling and sharing the truths of people’s lives to open minds and change attitudes.

SpeakOUT board member Bill Barnert, who has been a speaker since 1980, said, “SpeakOUT is about to move into a new stage of growth. We are excited to have Ellyn join us as Executive Director, and look forward to building a better, stronger SpeakOUT with her. With Ellyn’s leadership, we hope to reach many more people than we would as an all-volunteer agency.”

“Some people might question whether we still need an LGBTQ speakers’ bureau in 2014 in Massachusetts,” Barnert commented. “Come with us to one of our high school or middle school speaking engagements, to our visits to church or synagogue youth, to colleges, grad schools, medical & educational groups, or businesses, and you will see how much work still needs to be done, even here in the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.”

Ruthstrom added, “I’ve seen the individual change that comes from the personal connection and open dialogue that SpeakOUT excels in and I’m excited to be envisioning where this dynamic organization will be headed in the future.”

Ruthstrom earned her bachelor’s in English from Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio and her Master’s in Women’s Studies from The Ohio State University.

 

Contact:

Ellyn Ruthstrom

SpeakOUT Boston

877.223.9390

Ellyn@speakoutboston.org