A palpable sense of frustration permeated the halls of the Hilton Chicago during the 28th annual Creating Change conference, organized by the National LGBTQ Task Force. That tension, however, is reflective of the seismic shift now happening in the broader LGBT community as activists and organizations recalibrate after winning the freedom to marry nationwide, according to conference leadership.
"It was another extraordinary year," Rea Carey, executive director of the Task Force, told The Advocate in a conversation after the final session had wrapped January 24. "Creating Change has always been the leading edge of what our movement should be paying attention to, or what we need to attend to. It also tends to manifest whatever's going on in the larger society."
At this year's gathering, that manifestation seemed more tense — and at times angry — than it has been in recent years. While the conference's agenda was explicitly intersectional in its approach, encouraging attendees to "bring your whole self" resulted in several high-profile conflicts.
Most discussed of these conflicts was a Friday night demonstration, when more than 200 people shut down a scheduled reception for A Wider Bridge, an LGBT Israeli group. The Task Force's scheduling, cancellation, then reinstatement of the reception inflamed activists on all sides of the issue, both those arguing that Israel's LGBT-affirming policies offer unparalleled protection for LGBT people in the region, and those accusing A Wider Bridge of "pinkwashing," or touting those pro-LGBT policies in the interest of obscuring critique of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Compounded by logistical issues that saw the crowd bottleneck in a narrow hallway outside the doors of the reception, the protest quickly became heated, and hotel staff ultimately called Chicago police to disperse the group.
While movement leaders and columnists have condemned the protest as anti-Semitic, organizers involved tell The Advocate that they felt the demonstration successfully voiced some of the frustration that's long been simmering under the surface.
Protestors wanted "to create a space of rage more generally within a conference that has been fraught with multiple and long-standing issues with hosting (and tacitly endorsing) racist, colonizing, imperialist, and warmaking institutions," says Janani Balasubramanian, a member of Dark Matter poetry collective and one of the organizers of the pro-Palestine demonstration. "While the Task Force has not met any of our demands, on some level I think there was a good deal of visibility and space for rage."
But even setting aside the escalated tensions that always accompany discussions of Israel and Palestine, many attendees noticed a palpable frustration among the estimated 4,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and allied people gathered at the Hilton.
"The atmosphere at Creating Change reflected the unrest in the larger LGBT movement and the failures of the nonprofit industrial complex," says Cherno Biko, a media activist and black trans woman whose workshop on trans women of color's experiences in sex work was protested by a trans Latina woman. "Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, we must face the fact that we resourced millions of dollars and decades of time and energy while leaving behind the most marginalized members of our community, black folks, HIV-positive folks, and homeless and undocumented youth."
January 21's opening plenary, a well-attended and enthusiastic panel discussion on black feminism, set the tone for the intersectional approach of the conference — and foreshadowed some of the confrontations to come.
Before introducing feminist luminary Barbara Smith, trans activist and writer Reina Gossett, and queer black youth organizer Charlene Carruthers, Creating Change conference director Sue Hyde addressed the crowd.
Hyde personally apologized for initially accepting a workshop proposal from officials with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also noting that the session was canceled after activists complained that having federal agents on site threatened the safe space the conference purports to create for LGBT people, including undocumented immigrants.
"The presence of ICE, uniformed or not, threatens the safety of undocumented [attendees]," Hyde told the crowd, who booed at the mention of ICE. "I apologize for the original error in accepting the proposal. I shouldn't have done that."
But the apology and cancellation of the ICE workshop wasn't enough for one of the key groups opposing ICE's potential attendance. In a statement titled "Apology Not Accepted," a coalition of LGBTQ immigrant rights groups argued that the federal agency "should not have been invited in the first place."
"We are putting our bodies [on the line] and facing arrests at actions and using the very little resources we have for organizing and advocacy efforts with almost no support from mainstream LGBTQ organizations," continued the statement, co-signed by Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, GetEqual, #Not1More, and the Transgender Law Center. "When we shout 'Not1More' we are demanding an end to all the ICE raids, the release of all LGBTQ undocumented immigrants from detention centers, and an end to all deportations."
As usual, the conference was full of workshops, day-long institutes focused on racial justice, trans issues, youth homelessness, higher education, affirming faith communities, and the nation's only annual meeting of LGBT Latino activists. Four well-attended plenary sessions featured Task Force staff facilitating conversations on black feminism, HIV and AIDS, youth and intersectional advocacy, and the annual State of the Movement address. That address, historically issued by Task Force executive director Rea Carey, took on a new format this year, featuring seven Task Force staffers each sharing highly personal stories about how they came to the work, and reflecting on the "State of the movement" from their particular perspectives, diverse in race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation. (Watch the address below).
State of the Movement Address Creating Change 2016
During our annual Creating Change State of the Movement Address, LGBTQ voices from the National LGBTQ Task Force staff share their stories and visions for the future of the LGBTQ movement at our afternoon Plenary on Friday, Jan 22.Speakers were: Stacey Long Simmons(Director of Public Policy & Government Affairs), Candace Bond-Theriault(Policy Counsel for Reproductive Rights, Health and Justice), Meghan Maury(Senior Policy Counsel), Kayley Whalen(Digital Strategies and Social Media Manager--who spoke on behalf of Victoria M. Rodriguez-Roldán(Director of our Trans & Gender NonConforming Project, Russell Roybal(Deputy Executive Director) and Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr.(Director of the Academy for Leadership and Action).
Posted by Creating Change Conference on Sunday, January 24, 2016
In her conversation with The Advocate after the closing plenary, Carey offered insight into how the speech came to be, and why she chose to be the only person on stage who didn't speak during the address.
The annual address is drafted through a series of all-staff meetings, Carey explained, then culled down to be a single speech that she has historically issued. But "as one white 49-year-old lesbian who is gender-nonconforming," Carey says she has long worried that her perspective was lacking, her voice unable to represent the diversity of the LGBT community. So in December, the Task Force collectively decided that the address would be issued by a diverse cross-section of staffers, who each wrote their own speech, candidly discussing their own identities and struggles.
"I really wanted their voices to be heard, and I wanted, in a variety of ways — including not speaking — to honor the range of voices not only on our staff, but in the movement," Carey said. "And I wanted to stand with them, as each single one of them took that risk, to stand up on that stage and say their story."
For all that there was substantial controversy at Creating Change 2016, some attendees — and Task Force leadership — maintain that this tension is merely a reflection of the shift happening in the broader movement for LGBT equality.
While Zack Ford, LGBT editor at ThinkProgress, acknowledged that the Friday night protest "cast a pallor" over the conference, he said his experience was ultimately a positive one. He pointed to workshops on deafness and making the LGBT community more accessible to disabled people as some of the most impactful he attended, also noting the diversity of workshops offered, including those exploring ways to find healing through kink, and decriminalizing sex work. All of the sessions he attended went as smoothly as they have in years past, Ford says.
"It was warm and inclusive and educational, and people made new connections and new friends, and it was exactly what the conference should be," Ford tells The Advocate.
If there was anything distinct about this year's conference, Ford contends, it's a reflection of this moment in history, as the loosely connected LGBT community reassesses its outstanding goals in the wake of nationwide marriage equality and open military service.
"The fight for the Equality Act, and the fight for transgender protections in particular, don't galvanize people in the same way [as marriage and military service did]," he explains. "And I think that opens the doors for us to have a lot of important conversations about divisions within and across that big umbrella of the LGBTQ community. And that's where we're starting to see some of these other kinds of internal critiques."
That internal tension is compounded by the shrinking financial resources available to state, local, and national LGBT organizations after securing high-profile victories, each person interviewed by The Advocate agreed.
"As the funding once earmarked for same-sex marriage dries up, we'll continue to see this struggle for power play out in these national community spaces," says Biko, the trans media activist.
"We have a lot more resources in terms of visibility, and in terms of access for people to speak out," adds Ford. "But there's a lot less money coming into the movement, and coming into the local and state organizations that still have a lot of work ahead of them to do."
For her part, Carey recognizes the work ahead of her and the Task Force. Even hours after the emotionally draining conference, she was resolute that the fight continues — as will Creating Change in years to come. Carey concludes:
"As a community, and as a people, [we have] faced these broad range of issues. Deportation is not a new issue. Being in prison is not a new issue. Not having the ability to vote because your ID card doesn't match what the person sees in front of them, that's not a new issue.
"So, where we are now as a movement, is I believe on the precipice of the next era of the movement. Because we must attend to the broad range of issues that effect our lives. That's what Creating Change is. It has never been a one-issue Creating Change."