If you don’t stand up for what you believe, who will?
Riley Held caught our eye when she stood up to give a speech at a recent Minot, North Dakota city council meeting. After seeing councilwoman Carrie Evans’ treatment and viral response during a town hall debate on flying a pride flag in the city, Held drove fourteen hours to her hometown to speak out herself.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Riley, I was born and raised in Minot but I currently live in the Twin Cities area. I just graduated and am a proud bisexual woman that loves cooking, wine, and documentaries on the strangest topics I can find. I’ve been very into the music of Shamir and Softee (two amazing queer artists) lately. Something that is incredibly important to me are politics, social justice and human rights issues. They’re so important and critical, paying attention to them is the minimum we should all be doing. You can never do enough when it comes to protecting the lives, safety and wellbeing of people.
You drove almost fourteen hours to a town hall in your hometown of Minot, North Dakota to make a statement regarding the town’s recent decision to put up a pride flag. Why did you feel compelled to make the trek in order to speak up?
I felt compelled to come speak because it was just the right thing to do. I’m really just a passionate gay gal with public speaking skills and access to a microphone, nothing special. As a white, cis bisexual I am certainly easier for them [those opposed to the pride flag going up] to digest as a gay person. My fellow BIPOC, trans, non-binary members don’t have that same privilege. I am very lucky to have been able to move to a place that is much more accepting and kind to the LGBTQIA community but not everyone has that ability. I just hope I used that privilege to start a much bigger conversation about homophobia and move towards educating people on the LGBTQIA community. I think Minot goes unchecked on a lot of its prejudices toward various communities in the city, so seeing those prejudices on video will hopefully help open someone’s eyes, or make one more person there comfortable to be themselves.
What does community mean to you?
I think community can be a lot of things. For me, community right now means a group of people you interact with that make you feel appreciated, listened to, loved and open to be yourself. Those people that feel easy to talk with and have genuine desire to help you however they can. That doesn’t have to be anyone specific like family, friends, partners, etc. , it can be anyone you feel makes you feel at home. My community is continually evolving to make space for more love and experiences everyday.
Have you been involved in local government before?
I have never been involved with the government on a formal level, though I’ve always been relatively outspoken on various issues. I find that “get out into the streets and spread as much information as you can” style has been more of my way of being active in political or social issues. For example I was out this summer during the Floyd protests, donating, bringing supplies around and spreading information on various platforms. There’s some incredible community organization happening in Minneapolis. Minneapolis is a great place to see that process happen, they are taking care of their own.
What advice do you have for people in Minot who might feel unwelcome after hearing some of the statements made during the meeting?
First, I would like to apologize [on behalf of those making anti-gay statements.] I know those statements can’t be taken back and I really do understand the hate and discomfort caused by them. Second, I would say that I’ve gotten an outpouring of support from my statement from the Minot community, so there are many allies and LGBTQIA people who want to see you succeed. It can feel like such a hard place to be, but there’s a community waiting to accept you just as you are with open arms. Magic City Equality is a great resource on gay news, events, people in Minot to connect with. The love people have will always be more powerful than any hate, even though it doesn’t always feel that way.
North Dakota doesn’t have a single statewide law protecting LGBTQIA residents. Are you hopeful that things are changing? What will it take to make the necessary change here?
I’m definitely hopeful that things will change, but based on North Dakota’s history, that might take a very long time. We seem to be decades behind on human rights. I hope this was the beginning of a serious conversation to address the rampant homophobia here. I think the only thing that will help make those changes is the acceptance of the LGBTQIA by a majority of ND citizens. It feels a bit obscene to need to educate people on the gay community in 2020, but there is clearly a need for it.
What does it feel like to see a councilwoman in Minot who is openly gay?
It feels kickass! Representation is so important for people to see, it helps normalize gayness in a much needed way in Minot. This visible gayness is especially important to those struggling with being gay in such a small area. To see someone who’s accepted, powerful and in charge means everything to someone who has been told how horrible being gay is. Carrie Evans has gotten so much bigotry thrown at her recently, but her strength is inspiring. I’m so excited that Minot has chosen to elect her, but clearly we still have a long way to go when it comes to acceptance of the LGBTQIA community.
Who inspires you to continue speaking up for LGBTQIA people in your community?
I don’t even have time to list all the incredible inspirations I follow, I’m constantly finding powerful people speaking up. The LGBTQIA community is so important and so deeply intertwined with other human rights issues like racial justice, feminism, economics, access to food, etc. There’s intersectionality between them all. Here’s a few of some of the incredible queer and/or activist organizations/people who inspire me: @jenerous, @nowhitesaviors, @reclaimtheblock, @ashleemariepreston, @bowtiesandbooks @diaryofangryblackwomen