by Robyn Ochs
It is an honor to feature Hilde Vossen, a long-time activist who has had a major impact on both the Dutch and international bi movements.
Robyn: Please tell us about yourself.
Hilde: Hallo! Ik heet Hilde Vossen… Hi! My name is Hilde Vossen and I live in The Hague. My twin brother and I were born on International Women’s Day, 8th March 1967. Besides my full-time job as a communications officer for the Dutch government, I play field hockey and enjoy my volunteer jobs. Creative writing, photography, hiking and reading books are things I should do more. Instead, I’m busy volunteering as referee for my local field hockey club, as assessor in acknowledgement of prior learning for immigrants and refugees at Vluchtelingenwerk, as coordinator of the Queer Kick-off BiTransdag, as publicity officer for Queer aan Zee-meetings, as a board member of Homosport Nederland, publicity officer for the Dutch Hockey Divas, a nationwide group of gorgeous lesbian and bisexual women, and moderator for the European Bisexual Network.
Robyn: Yikes! That’s a lot of activism! Hilde, please tell briefly the story of your coming out as bi.
Hilde: The first time I understood that lesbian or bisexual identity was about me was when, at 19, I left my parent’s house in the village where I grew up and started to live on my own in the city of Nijmegen. An ad in a newspaper led me to a weekend for lesbian and bisexual women of all ages. A 50+ woman who was just out of the closet as lesbian felt so happy for me that I already “knew.” She puzzled me, because I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t label myself like she did. There I met the first person in my life who openly identified as bisexual. A few days later I visited my parents and told them where I had been. Mum said, “I hope you aren’t a lesbian, because my colleague is and the students call her bad names and harass her. She’s always depressed.” And Dad said, “Do you still like men? Because if you do, a relationship could also be with a man.” I didn’t respond.
Another magazine ad led me to the first meeting of the bi women’s group of GoBi in Nijmegen. I knew I belonged and started labeling myself as bisexual at 21. Coming-out as bi is something I still often do.
Robyn: When did you first become a bi activist? What caused you to get involved?
Hilde: At 21, I invited the members of GoBi’s bi women’s group to meet at my place for its second meeting. I got involved because I wanted to experiment with taking responsibility. Although I lacked self-confidence at that time, I thought, “Yes, I can do this.” I once heard somebody say that being a bisexual activist is simply “showing up at meetings that are bi-inclusive.” That made me smile. For me it’s more than that. It’s a commitment to myself and to an organization. I give a helping hand as often as I can. I take this seriously, and at the same time enjoy the fun that it brings.
Robyn: Please tell us about a recent bi-related project that excites you.
Hilde: Coordinating the Queer Kick-off BiTransday was really hard work but big fun. This event took place in The Hague on June 13th, 2009. For the first time in the Netherlands a nationwide group of queer, bisexual and transgender people organized a day all together. It was so rewarding! At the first meeting I was the only one who I was certain would attend. I prepared the meeting. My stomach ached. “If you can,” I asked the nine people who showed up, “and if you like, please tell us your sexual identity and your gender identity.” Recognition, laughter! This happened to be the icebreaker the group needed. Some of the organizers had multiple identities, like “I’m bisexual and transgender.” We decided to become allies and to work together. We also had two allies, a heterosexual transgender woman and a lesbian, who volunteered.
The day was organized in just a few months. Because of the worldwide economic crisis, we had little money. We co-operated with the local COC, the Dutch Bisexual Network and the Dutch Transgender Network. The program consisted of an opening speech by the famous Dutch author Karin Spaink, a powerful debate with representatives from the European Parliament, COC Netherlands, an organization offering special programs for transgender youth, an umbrella organization for Dutch anti-discrimination offices, a trade union, etc., eight workshops, dinner and a party. Over a hundred people showed up and we were delighted with this unexpected high number of participants. People gave us a lot of positive feedback. “It was an inspiring day, very well organized. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Robyn: Why do you continue to participate in bi activism? What do you get from doing this? Why do you stay involved?
Hilde: Coordinating the Queer Kick-off BiTransday was a welcome test for me. Am I still an activist? Is this something I can enjoy again? In 2007 I stepped back from activism and now I had that mysterious longing for a big project that combined two topics I personally love to bring into the light: sexual identity and gender identity. I wanted to continue participating in bi activism, because my answer to the question, “Will you do better than before?” was a hundred percent positive. I was fully aware of pitfalls I’d experienced in the past, like too much hard work, too little joy, or taking on too much responsibility when others don’t. Because the role of sole coordinator was unexpected—my transgender counterpart had a medical emergency shortly after the first meeting—I learned a lot about leadership.
The day is over now, but I’ll stay involved. This new, creative combination of queers, bisexuals and transgenders working together makes activism perfect for me again. Roze Zaterdag (Pink Saturday, or Pride Day) moves to a different city in the Netherlands each year, and the Pride organization in Amersfoort, the city organizing the 2010 event, invited us to come over and organize something similar for queers, bisexuals and transgenders. They want to be certain to have these target groups covered. I’ll also nominate this project for the Diversity Prize 2009. Of course, I want us to win. I keep my fingers crossed!
Robyn: You started and oversee an email list called EuroBiNet. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Hilde: Yes… the European Bisexual Network, EuroBiNet! Laurence Brewer from the UK, Hanna Bertilsdotter from Sweden and I founded this email list in 2001. It was a result from my workshop, “How to create a strong and sexy European Bisexual Network” at the 1st European Bisexual Conference in Rotterdam, June 2001. The list—like any list—has had its ups and downs, but it still exists and provides, for example, people who contributed to the book Getting Bi and stops for your European book celebration tour, Robyn. The current moderators, Lars Naesbye Christensen from Denmark, Laurence and I, are now preparing for the international conference to be organized in the UK in 2010. We’d like the list to be up-to-date, so we can be of help for the organizers of this conference. I’d also like to welcome bi activists from Poland, because in 2010 there’ll be EuroPride in Warsaw. Recently the young, feminist bi activist Shiri Eisner from Israel joined us. Her activist story is wonderful! That keeps the spirit going.
Robyn: You’ve personally done a huge amount of international networking. Why is this important to you? What do you get from it?
Hilde: International networking is important to me. I learn a lot from it for myself. I meet bi activists from other countries at conferences or when I visit their countries. I listen to their stories and look at their qualities. Who are they and what do they prefer as an activist? For example, in 2006 I met a girl in Norway. She assured me that she wasn’t a bi activist. “I just live my little life,” she said. That made me question myself. Why am I moderator of EuroBiNet, for example? Who on earth is waiting for such a thing?! Well, it’s something I like. I really enjoy keeping the flock together. That’s me. I’m the networking type. I’ll never forget the moment of gathering during the evening before the 1st European Bisexual Conference. People from all over Europe were arriving. Within minutes they were talking and laughing with each other. Safe space. Happy people. Love it!
Robyn: What value, if any, do you see in international activism, in keeping in touch with bi activists in other countries? Do you think the movement in the Netherlands was inspired/influenced by movements in other countries, or has been an inspiration/influence on others?
Hilde: The value I see in international activism is the information exchange between people. Tell others what you know about media, grants, resources, researches and events. Share your best practices and activists. Empowered, self-confident bisexuals make stronger communities.
I don’t know if or how the Dutch or European bisexual movements influence foreigners. I think so, but how precisely? I prefer to share what influences me. I know for sure that international bi-conferences and gatherings do! There I learned how lesbian, gay and transgender people can put the B in the LGBT, how your identity can feed your activism, how it works for somebody to be bisexual and disabled, how you can have fun when you’re interviewed in the media, the history of pride days from a bisexual perspective, and how cooperation between bisexuals and transgenders can be successful. Thanks to Cheryl Dobinson whose workshop influenced me at the international conference in Toronto in 2006, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It was one of the best sessions during the Queer Kick-off BiTransday!
In 2007, when I walked side by side with Lars Naesbye in the Copenhagen Pride Parade, a Spanish guy and a Portuguese girl joined us, because they recognized the international bi flags that we carried with us. It was great to see their joy when they took the flags for a while. My bi flag was ordered from the US. It was a gift from bi-activist Sólver Sólversson from Iceland while I visited that beautiful country. Talk about international influence!
Robyn: Yours is one of the very first countries to have an organized bisexual community. Why do you think that is?
Hilde: The bisexual community in the Netherlands started off with many highly educated people in a left-wing political environment. They knew quite well how to influence the media. When I read about the first bi-groups and saw interviews with the first Dutch bi activists, I realized it was quite extraordinary to identify as bisexual at that time. The behavior was common, but not the identity. The local and nationwide magazines from the LGBT organization COC, the feminist magazine Opzij, and some big newspapers wrote about it.
We had the openly bisexual famous writer—now First Chamber member of the Dutch government—Anja Meulenbelt, who took invitations from bi groups for panel discussions seriously. We had a bi foundation that organized the first scientific research about bisexuality and made a documentary about bisexuals in the Netherlands. We had the people, politics, media and money. Need more?
Robyn: What similarities and differences to you see between the bi movement in the Netherlands and that in the US?
Hilde: The Netherlands is geographically small. You can travel almost anywhere in the country in a couple of hours. That makes it much more possible to coordinate a national movement. Activists know each other. Another difference is the level of development. The US has more money for bi research: Fritz Klein was one of the founders of the first fund dedicated to bisexual projects. The last difference is the level of humor. You have the extremely funny Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe. Tears of laughter run over my face while I read that book. Over here, we finally have two female, openly bisexual stand up comedians: Sara Kroos and Claudia de Breij. That’s great, for a start. Now our chances for laughter increase.