BEMIDJI -- National Coming Out Day is Monday, Oct. 11, and as such, two Bemidji organizations are hoping to raise awareness and offer support for LGBTQ+ people in the community.

In recognition of National Coming Out Day, the Phoenix, an LGBTQ+ student club at Bemidji State University, will hold a 2021 Coming Out Day Panel at 6 p.m. on Monday in the Beaux Arts Ballroom.

“In the past, (the panel has) been more geared towards BSU students,” Phoenix co-president Icarus Lott said regarding the panel. “This year, we’re treating it more as a community event.”

Open to the public with masking required, the panel will consist of five student panelists who will be discussing their coming-out experiences.

The term “coming out” refers to the process in which someone accepts their sexuality or gender identity and shares it with their loved ones, as defined by the Northwoods Queer Outreach of Bemidji. Those who come out may do so as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning or asexual among other identities which may remain constant or change over time.

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With the panel being open to the public and in person this year, the club aims to connect with the broader community in order to help more people who may be struggling with their gender or sexual orientation or other issues that may stem from coming out.

“It’s always felt like there are two communities in Bemidji,” Lott said. “There’s the college community and then the rest of Bemidji, and it seems there’s a line in the sand. We really want to get rid of that.”

Following the club’s participation in a Bemidji Pride event on Aug. 28, the club took note of the community support and wanted to continue the dialogue regarding queer experiences in rural Minnesota.

“It seems the community of Bemidji is very open to hearing about the queer community and what we’re doing,” Phoenix co-president Caitlin Stern said. “So, opening (the panel) up to the community is a really big step and really exciting.”

Stern, along with several other Phoenix members, mentioned that not everyone’s coming-out experience is the same and that there are many assumptions about who is part of the Bemidji community.

“Coming out is different for everyone,” Stern said. “We may be in the same community and know each other, but everyone has a different experience because they may have had a different support system growing up.”

The panel aims to highlight these different experiences and provide educational resources for those who attend.

“Some people who are questioning their identity don’t know what the term is and don’t know where to find that information,” Lott mentioned. “That’s basically the job we’ve taken upon ourselves. To provide those resources to people who need them or want to support someone.”

Group endeavors

The Phoenix was unable to hold a panel in October 2020 due to COVID restrictions and low membership, though they were able to hold a virtual "Breaking the Silence" coming out panel in April 2021. They also remained active by offering virtual Safe Zone training for other student organizations at BSU.

According to the Safe Zone Project website, trainings are opportunities to learn about LGBTQ+ identities, gender and sexuality, and examine prejudice, assumptions and privilege.

Stern and Lott became Phoenix co-presidents following Coming Out Day in 2020. At that time, only two club members were active.

Currently, they help lead a rotating group of 36 members weekly, switching off between virtual and in-person meetings.

“We outgrew the (Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at BSU) at our first meeting which was one of the best possible problems to have,” Lott mentioned regarding the first meeting of the 2021-2022 school year.

With the higher level of membership, the group has extended its meeting invitations to Northwest Technical College students. They’ve also started a separate advocacy committee aimed at seeking opportunities for community improvement.

The club has seen higher participation in community events including tabling at Bemidji Pride and walking in the BSU homecoming parade on Sept. 25, for which they won Best Student Entry.

Supported by co-advisors and BSU psychology professors Kathryn Klement and Kate Larson, who also co-direct the Northwoods Queer Outreach, the club has expanded their programming and are collaborating with other student organizations.

Beyond the Coming Out Day panel, they will be hosting their first annual silent art auction fundraiser from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 14 and 15 in the American Indian Resource Center.

Donations are accepted until Tuesday, Oct. 12, and if interested, donors can contact thephoenixbsu@gmail.com.

The club is also co-hosting a lakeshore clean-up from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, at the firepit behind the lower Hobson Memorial Union along with clubs Students for the Environment and American Fisheries Society.

Looking ahead to next semester, the club would like to offer more in-depth Safe Zone trainings, host a queer-inclusive safe sex panel, collaborate with the Student Center for Health and Counseling for a mental health training and host a drag show.

“The Phoenix right now is extremely active,” Klement said before detailing the club’s other collaborations with the Black Student Union and Council of Indian Students. “(Larson and I) are following (the Phoenix) asking, 'what can we do to support you?' We’re just in awe of what they’re doing.”

Northwoods Queer Outreach

Aside from being full-time professors and Phoenix co-advisors, Klement and Larson’s involvement with Northwoods Queer Outreach started after they applied for funding in April 2020 during the Minnesota State System’s 5th Annual Shark Tank Open.

According to a release, 64 pitches for project ideas were pre-recorded and submitted to panelists to review with 21 being selected for Innovation Funding. Two BSU pitches were selected, including one from the Northwoods Queer Outreach, which received a $9,974 small-seed grant for the 2020-2021 school year.

Since then, NQO has been working to provide LGBTQ+ educational resources and professional training along with creating a presence in the community.

While there is not currently a physical space for NQO, they someday hope to have a separate location that’s near the BSU campus for housing-insecure LGBTQ+ students and community members.

“It would be available for emergency housing. The idea is that there would be a stocked kitchen, a full-time staff member there to be a house-parent, a meeting space, a computer lab…” Klement detailed.

Another support they’re working towards includes offering scholarships for queer students as well as emergency grants, though different funds would likely be needed for these initiatives per Minnesota State System funding regulations.

NQO reapplied for a second year of Innovation funding for this year which has helped them compensate a work-study student, BSU senior Casey Johnson, who is in charge of NQO’s online presence.

“It was really cool when we had our first person connect with us from a Google search,” Larson mentioned when somebody searched for queer and trans resources in Bemidji. “We’ve had more interactions like that ever since.”

Unable to further apply for this specific grant, NQO will be exploring options for more institution-level support from BSU to cover their budget for student workers, resources and training moving forward.

“We’ve heard time and time again of queer and trans students in financial hardship,” Larson said. “What drives us is wanting to create a space or mechanism to raise money to give to students.”

NQO also had a presence at Bemidji Pride with Klement mentioning that “one of the downsides of being queer in Bemidji is that you have to look under rocks (to find queer folks). Going to Pride and seeing so many people, even if they’re not part of the queer community, was awesome.”

Klement also detailed a climate survey conducted at BSU in April, funded through the first-year Innovations grant, that focused on queer/trans issues and diversity.

The results of this survey will be presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference in February 2022.