LGBT speaker at MNSU talks identity

On Friday Minnesota State University, Mankato hosted Robyn Ochs, LGBTQ+ activist and professional speaker. 

Ochs led a workshop in Centennial Student Union 245 titled “The Changing Landscape of Identity: Understanding and Supporting Students of All Gender Identities and Sexual Orientations”. The talk was a partnership between the LGBT Center and the Women’s Center on campus, and drew a small crowd of students with interest in the topic.

Ochs, who has written and edited for multiple published works including the Bi Women’s Quarterly, Getting Bi, and Recognize: the Voices of BIsexual Men, said that she has identified as bisexual for 45 years, nearly her entire adult life. 

Within her career, Ochs’ main focus is on increasing the understanding of complex identities and giving support.

“When I came out to myself as bi,” said Ochs, “I came out into a world before Google, a world before the internet. As a bewildered 18 year old, I had nowhere to turn with all my questions. So I came out in silence, I came out terrified. I felt that I was suffocating in my own silence.”

Ochs describes her first time actually coming out to someone as something that she had not planned in any way. One of her coworkers came out to her as bisexual, and Ochs excitedly spit out that she was too. After that, most of her coming out experiences were good. 

“Most people responded better than I feared they would,” she said.

After moving to Boston in 1983, Ochs dedicated herself to creating the resources that would have helped her when she was first figuring out her sexuality. 

“Ultimately, we have to exist here, so the world has to learn and change. It’s this idea of ‘how do we explain LGBTQ+ identity to everyone?’”

With this, Ochs kicked off her talk with a discussion on the progression of LGBTQ+ representation and rights. She discussed media progression, how characters are given queer identities that are not their only character traits and do not make them villains. 

Marriage legalization, the trans equal rights bill, language in medicine, such as “gender affirming surgery” and using “what are your pronouns” vs “what are your preferred pronouns” were some of the other topics discussed that morning.

Ochs then shared a question that she asks students at each of her events: ‘What are things that queer people understand that is often different from the mainstream?’ 

To answer this herself, Ochs stated, “LGBTQ+ people create these little bubbles where we feel that we can be more fully ourselves. We create terminology, we create a language.”

When she asks, Ochs said that there are some things that always show up on every list: the concept of asking and respecting pronouns; that sex is not gender identity, not gender expression, not sexual orientation; that there are endless gender and sexuality labels; the whole idea of nonbinary; the difference between sexual and romantic attraction; the idea of asexuality; that identity is a journey, and labels can change; the idea of intersectionality (that your identities overlap and affect each other, whether it gender, sexuality, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, etc.); and that stereotypes are incorrect and hurtful.

The percentage of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the US is growing exponentially – the number has risen over 2% in 8 years. Now, nearly 1 in 6 Gen Z people identify as LGBTQ+.

“Identities nowadays are being used more as adjectives, less as nouns,” said Ochs. Identities are a way to describe someone, a feature of them, not who they are. Understanding that people have stories- that they are complex humans who have all led different lives- is crucial to progression as a society.

Ochs’ talk ended with a Q&A and an invitation for the graduate students attending to join her for lunch. 

When asked about her experience with the presentation, graduate student and LGBT Center assistant Gabrielle Skibbe said, “In general, having queer women role models is incredibly important. I think Mankato is this mix of conservative and liberal and it’s nice to just have exposure like this.”

Janelle DeReubeis, who attended the seminar with Skibbe, said the conversations were helpful with her career. “I am currently at an internship for mental health counseling, and I am working with a lot of queer clients. I also love coming to any sort of queer learning event.” 

DeReubeis said that she also greatly appreciated the open dialogue that Ochs offered.

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