Picture it: Pittsburgh, October 2014. Janice Thom of the National LGBTQ Task Force addresses the assembled members of InterPride at the Annual General Meeting. InterPride members had just finished reporting on their events and, of the more than 200 delegates assembled, we determined that our event attendance numbered in the millions. These events ranged from small parades with a handful of people, sometimes less than 100, to events like World Pride, held in Toronto this year, where visitors there alone numbered in the millions. And The Task Force was formally inviting members and organizations to consider attending Creating Change in February 2015.
What? Attending a non-Pride conference where other LGBTQI organizers at all levels of experience would be? Just when you thought you knew everyone who is an organizer, around the world and locally, an opportunity happens. This invitation was just the thing.
Creating Change is the brainchild of Sue Hyde and Urvashi Vaid, with the first conference having happened back in 1988. This 27-year-old conference was launched from the desire to put the tremendous energy of the 1987 March on Washington where it could do the most good—in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods to reduce violence, raise awareness, and leverage the power we have as a community among our co-workers, neighbors, and people we love. The first conference was organized the old-fashioned way—via telephone, posters, and word of mouth and 300 people from all over attended. This year, there are more than 4000 delegates, some from as far away as Taiwan, and all have one desire—creating change where they live and work so that there is equality for all.
InterPride Co-President Sue Doster and I decided to enter our Communications Workshop for consideration for the conference. We have presented our full cycle and aspects of our Communications series regionally and internationally and we wanted to contribute if we could, as well as learn more. From more than 800 applicants, we were selected and our journey began.
Months of anticipation culminated in my plane ride out Denver early this month, a place I'd never been to before. Remember that weather wasn't particularly cooperative in January and February, yet the flight was smooth and uneventful into Denver—uneventful, that is, except for the inevitable Conversation. Perhaps you know the one, where you strike a conversation with the people sitting next to you. You're on the plane for a few hours, might as well make a new, possibly temporary friend. As you talk, you realize you have a choice to come out—or not. My choice is always to talk about my life as it is, just as everyone usually does. So I came out to my seat mate, told her where I was headed, and gave her the Cliff's Notes version of what was what. All good! Friends were already in Denver and picked me up and soon we were at the Sheraton Downtown and settling in getting ready for the first day.
Day One of the conference consisted of day-long Justice Institutes, and I could only arrive in time for February 5, Day Two. An army travels on its stomach, so that morning my friends and I set out with Ways and Yelp and found the perfect spot—Snooze—a restaurant dedicated to breakfast! We had a hearty and delicious start to the day and then it was full tilt into the conference. After registration, I settled in with my conference book and the useful, ledger-sized grid to plan my weekend. There was an app available for our phones, which was remarkable and easy to use. All the tools together made it very easy to plan and easy to determine where to go next. Friends were arriving all afternoon and before we knew it, it was time for the opening plenary session.
Plenary sessions are the times that set the tone for the conference. Organizers welcome you and give awards and vital information. Keynote speakers inspire and entertain and you see groups coalesce in different ways during the different plenaries in ways that are interesting. Initially people tend to hang with their friends, but as the conference progresses they meet new people and, at each plenary, there are different groupings. Brilliant!
Russell Roybal, Deputy Executive Director for External Affairs of the Task Force, and Sue Hyde, Director of Creating Change, welcomed everyone to the conference and introduced Kate Clinton as Mistress of Ceremonies. Then air horns blared from the back of the gigantic ballroom, where upwards of 4000 attendees were seated. Running up the aisles were people with signs painted in the pale pink and pale blue of the Transgender advocates. "Trans Lives Matter" and "Jesse Hernandez RIP," among other signs, let us know why our brothers and sisters were outraged. A mere nine days previously, this young trans-identified person of color was killed by the Denver Police. The Mayor, Michael B. Hancock was scheduled to welcome us to Denver, however, in the strength of the protest and out of respect for the sentiments of the group, Hizzonor decided to bow out. The protestors were not part of the planned activities and they took over the mic to make their demands—make changes in how police approach people and deadly force, disproportionately directed to transmen and transwomen of color, needs to stop. Their biggest demand was that we, their brothers and sisters in the equality movement, ally with them to make our presence that much more powerful. This pop-up protest energized the rest of the proceedings, with everyone speaking afterward acknowledging the power in what was done and what was asked. Keynote speakers Rinku Sen, President and Executive Director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, and Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorOfChange, engaged in a dialogue, Ferguson [Missouri] on Our Minds, and what it means for all of us. Cutting across gender, race, and politics, we are poised for change. Rather than waiting for a fabled someone to lead us from the darkness both Ms. Sen and Mr. Robinson encouraged us to look within ourselves for that leader.
Awards for community activists inspired us with the breadth of work going on in our communities. A brief history of José Julio Sarria, the first gay person to ever run for public office—11 years before Harvey Milk's successful bid—and founder of the dynamic fundraising group the Imperial Court was given, so all would know the context for the Empress I José Sarria Award for Uncommon Leadership, which was given to Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, creators of #BlackLivesMatter. They were gracious in their speeches and, acknowledging the protestors, they went in a different direction than they had prepared. They read the names of the three transwomen of color killed since the beginning of the year with a minute of silence for each. They then lead us in a chant that got our hearts beating as one—pledging to change, unite, and fight for equality for all. Also recognized was Dr. Genny Beemyn, with the Award for Research and Assessment, presented by the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals. Dr. Beemyn was gracious in accepting this highest honor from her peers. Senator Michael Bennett received the SAGE Advocacy Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues and, despite the uphill climb in a conservative Congress, Senator Bennett's video acceptance was gracious and to the point. He wanted to be there, but the fight in Washington must continue. His aide, accepting the award on his behalf was also brief, and she said, "When Senator Bennett calls me tomorrow to ask how it went tonight, I'll tell him 'I saw the face of the Movement and it's beautiful.'" The final award of the evening was the Susan J. Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement, awarded to long-time Denver activist Anthony Aragon. Over the years, Aragon has been a tireless fundraiser, but he too was humbled by our protesting brothers and sisters. Director of Boards & Commissions for the Mayor's Office, he pledged his resources and support to the fight for equality for all. Kate Clinton made the announcements, also know in conferences as "housekeeping," and we all completed our day.
February 6 was the first full day of sessions for me and I had lots of plans! First, I discovered 16th Street Mall, immediately outside the host hotel. Whenever you travel, locate the nearest drug store. You'll need water, especially in a city like Denver, where the humidity is beyond low and more people succumb to dehydration than altitude sickness. That said, take it easy—breathlessness can sneak up on you.
After getting a nice big bottle of water, I attended a session on how we in the United States can better support LGBTQ people in other nations, with advice and money, certainly, but also by being aware. What works in one culture—or state, province, or country—may not work as well in another. What works in the United States will work less well in China, for example, where the culture is definitely less accepting than the one we have here. What works for adult advocacy may not work for youth advocacy and the people native to the culture need our support while they work as their awareness of the best ways to proceed far exceeds ours. The United States has an "I'll save you!" complex when what we really need to do is empower others.
After lunch, there was a State of the Movement plenary, where fallen activists who had passed in 2014 were honored, young transwomen and transmen activists, and activists from Ferguson took the mic to remind us we struggle together and while all lives matter, people of color are most endangered right now, today. Follow #blacklivesmatter on Twitter for more information.
Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, gave a moving address on what we've accomplished, what our setbacks have been, and where our opportunities are for success. She discussed the rebranding of the Task Force to be more inclusive and her words had great impact. "I am not less human when more of your humanity is recognized ... the question for our movement is what's next. No one person, no one group is responsible for moving this forward. We will do it together." There were several times where Carey was visibly emotional, which gave greater impact to her words. When discussing Jessie Hernandez's death, Carey spoke eloquently of the dangers our community faces. Carey's questions to us all remain in my thoughts: "What would it take to be fully yourself? What would it take for you to feel whole?" This is something I consider most often when I'm surrounded, as now, by my community: immersed in the warm waters of a LGBTQ conference, where we effortlessly meet and exchange ideas. It is only then that I realize how living in a world where I am a silent, invisible minority affects my work. The Task Force' new slogan is "Be You." That's more work than it sounds, but Carey's next words resonated most: "The work of being you is never done. With every change we make, every law we pass, every heart we open ... the path is being paved with the work we do. YOU are the State of the Movement." Now that's encouragement to continue the fight!
Next I was off to a session on Transgender messaging with some dynamic presenters from Arcus, Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, Transgender Law Center, and Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). I learned that how we say what we say needs to be carefully tailored. One of the speakers discussed how new and very different information, which brain has never encountered before, triggers a shutdown in the limbic brain. The limbic brain is the reactive fight or flight, survival oriented "animal" brain. If the shutdown can be circumvented, then we can begin to reason with the more rational, thought-oriented portion of the brain and that's where change begins.
February 7: Up and about early, I caught up with Andrea Bowen of Garden State Equality. Recently appointed, Bowen brings a wealth of experience to her position, having passed legislation during her time in Washington, D.C. that she hopes to pass in New Jersey, regarding birth certificate changes for people who transition in the state. That is proving to be a very different task and she's more than equal to the challenge!
My first session of the morning, Breaking ID Barriers, included Bowen as one of the panelists, along with representatives from the National Council for Transgender Equality, TransLAW, and a Chicago-based collective affiliated with Lambda Legal that helps people in transition align their documents with their true self. It was especially thought-provoking to hear the hurdles that other states and other countries put in place to make something as simple as a name change so difficult. Consider how your life would change if your documents didn't match your persona.
The beauty of a conference like this is in part meeting new people, and also in seeing people you already know in an environment where you may connect a little differently. My badge holder is filled with business cards for future resources.
The next session was presented by my colleague Sue Doster and me, where we showed leaders how being just a little bit flexible can make for more effective leadership and better communication. A popular session, it gained a full audience, with lively questions throughout. Next year, we're going to need a bigger room!
My final session of the day was geared toward getting a job where my heart resides. I'm initiating my five-year plan to work to serve the LGBTQ community in paid employment and this session included great tips to do just that. I know the competition will be fierce, but the speakers were very encouraging while tempering our enthusiasm with knowledge of the work ahead.
Finally, there was a Pride Organizers Caucus, at which we convened to meet and discuss ways to help one another. Most of us volunteer with InterPride, the international association of LGBTQ pride coordinators, yet we discovered new friends and new ways to help one another. That's another benefit of Creating Change!
February 8: Sadness! It was the final day of the conference, with much packing to be done and a final spin to take around the exhibitors. The closing plenary included brunch and a dynamic performance by the Cleo Parker Youth Ensemble of modern dancers and the annual Paul A. Anderson Youth Award. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came for those of us headed back East–our flights were cancelled and that caused a mad scramble among the delegates that culminated in a more circuitous route for me to get home, but more accrued air miles. I had plenty of time in the Denver airport to ruminate about what was to come and how my life had changed because I agreed to leave my comfort zone and kick my own butt to learn more about my world. I’m energized by the struggles of the transmen and transwomen of color, who struggle with daily ignorance that my walk in privilege renders less visible to me. When we are all equal, true justice will have won. Until then, I’ve got my marching orders.
Next year, Creating Change is in Chicago. Care to join me?