If you accused me of being one of those people who gush and awe too much, you wouldn't be the first. I'll take it as a compliment, though -- one of the few vestiges of my Southern upbringing I'm proud to hold onto.
I just got back from my first Creating Change -- you know, the National Conference on LGBT Equality that Bil and others have been blogging so much about these past few days.
I had the unenviable task of organizing a day-long training institute (that's 8 hours of single topic training, y'all) without ever having been to one of these conferences, and it's only now that "Families to the Front: Cross-Issue Social Justice Work Around a Central Family Theme" is over and went well that I'm willing to admit that :)
My personal triumph/contribution to the conference was not my only joy, as it turned out. I had any number of "Creating Change" moments during my 5 days in Detroit. And what follows not only amounts to a recommendation that others do what they can to attend next year's Creating Change in Denver, but also an endorsement of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as the national, multi-issue LGBT organization of choice.
MEETING JOHN D'EMILIO -- ON ACCIDENT
I became a queer history geek in college. The LGBTQ student center I worked for, Blegen House, had a treasure trove of a queer library in one of the musty rooms upstairs, in our little yellow house with the half-moon shutters on Collegeview Ave.
Blegen's Director, John Schoonbeck, through his labyrinth of ties to important (if mostly forgotten) queer figures of the post-Stonewall era, had collected shelves and shelves of out-of-print titles, newsletters, magazines, journals, etc., all for the use of students. Some names stuck out more than others; some titles duplicated more often.
John D'Emilio's works were among them.
D'Emilio is known for his work on queer history, the civil rights movement, queers in the academia, and queer political culture. Notable works include Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities; Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University; and Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy and Civil Rights. He was the Founding Director of the Policy Institute at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
D'Emilio also wrote Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, a biography of the oft-forgotten civil rights activist who was a key adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., mastermind of the 1963 March on Washington, and out gay man. Rustin is one of my heroes; I'm currently reading the book.
Well it never crossed my mind that John D'Emilio might be among the 1,500 or so queer people attending this year's Creating Change, but he was there, and we were introduced via exercise, if you can believe it, at the beginning of a workshop on movement history.
He was, as are so many of the people in our movement, especially the people who've been around the longest, entirely accessible. He took interest in my story about how and when I first got active in queer rights. He told his story as if he had never written some of the most important historical and political books of the last 30 years. And before we got settled back in our seats -- some of us to learn, others to review -- I leaned over and thanked him for his work and told him that Lost Prophet is wonderful.
It was a great moment for me, a moment not often offered these days, as our movement grows, and the circles widen and it's harder to bump into people like D'Emilio. And anyone could have had that moment -- those of the kinds of spaces Creating Change provides. We weren't seated in any way that reflected his status as a key figure in our movement and mine as an employee of one of its organizations. More likely than it, we sat next to each other because the geeks tend to sit in the front.
PLENARIES AND PLENARIES AND PLENARIES, OH MY!
Every once in a while, I have to throw it back to Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz. Really, I should have called this section "Mandy Carter and Her Brilliance Astound Me!"
Carter is a longtime activist and former executive director of SONG -- Southerners on New Ground. SONG's bold and innovative approach to social justice work should impress anyone; it should especially impress fellow Southerners, who know that voting for a Democrat these days is tantamount to a radical act, much less multi-racial, multi-issue queer education and organizing.
For her 40 years of work for our community and others, Carter was awarded the inaugural Sue J. Hyde Activism Award for longevity. There were many great speeches given at Creating Change. Carter's moved me the most:
Elsewhere in her speech she called on us to build a movement that reflects our community fully. I couldn't think of a better call-to-action than that, with all the division we face within our own communities these days.
(For more on Carter's life story, check out H. Alexander Robinson's post.)
THE MARRIOTT APOLOGIZES -- AND COMES OUT!
There was an incident in the hotel bar Friday night, one that I just missed by going to bed a little early. So far as I've been told -- and other attendees, please chime in if you know more -- one security guard was requested to go down and encourage the queers to head on back to their rooms so the bar could close. (We're not the typical Detroit Marriott bar crowd....)
Turns out something like 6 or 7 security guards went down and caused a mild panic among conference attendees. Creating Change isn't just filled with white guys in suits. There are any number of constituencies who have reason to fear men and women in uniform -- hotel security included.
Some thought it was an immigration raid; others reacted as they've become accustomed to, fearing violence of some kind.
Of course our community responded, engaging hotel staff in dispersing the many guards, and things settled down. The next day, a member of the hotel staff addressed attendees at the end of a plenary session.
She gave the usual public relations-driven speech, highlighting how happy the hotel was to have our business, how sorry they were for the incident, but her emphasis on apology seemed more genuine than expected. She approached the end of her comments, which I'll paraphrase for you now:
And, on a personal note, I'm so glad to have you all here, doing the great work that you do, so that one day no one will have to fear or suffer the way some of you did last night, so that my sister will no longer have to fear.
It might sound trite in blog-retrospect, but it was a powerful moment, and there were any number of misty eyes in the room (mine included). Here we had gathered to hear some "corporate lackey" apologize and move on, saving face, when in the process she came out as a straight ally and acknowledged that she, too, benefited directly from our work. It made us feel more at home in the hotel (which also, awkwardly, houses GM's headquarters) than we had in the few days leading up, and reminded us that we were not the only queers in the building, and we were especially not the only people affected by homophobia, transphobia, and other forms and anti-queer discrimination.
LONG LIVE THE TASK FORCE & CREATING CHANGE
As someone who works for a national organization, it's not really in my "best interests" to express partisanship when it comes to other orgs. But I have to say, Creating Change pushed some buttons in me, and it's hard not to give credit where it's due to an organization and a conference that ever attempts to build the base of our movement and encourage us to expand our own circles to reflect the true diversity of our community.
We have essentially two major, multi-issue, national queer rights organizations in this country -- and I hesitate, even, to use the word "queer" as it relates to one.
These organizations don't always work at cross-purposes, and I'm not, as a rule, opposed to plurality when it comes to having multiple groups advocating on our community's behalf. Still, it drives me a little batty that one organization gets all the visibility and most of the credit for work that is so obviously bolstered by the grassroots approach of the other.
If I had to stand in line behind one organization or the other, I'd stand in the Task Force line, for what they've given us these last three decades, for what they stand for today (a UNITED ENDA, for one thing!), and for what they encourage us to be in the future -- a community made stronger by the hard and not all that glamorous work of truly bringing the many people in our vastly diverse community together under one umbrella for the cause of social change.
I'm on a Creating Change high and I hope it lasts. I can't remember the last time the "other organization" gave me a high, but I can remember when it gave me a low.