Dustin Kight

My Very Own Creating Change Moments

Filed By Dustin Kight | February 11, 2008 10:42 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Gay Icons and History
Tags: Bayard Rustin, Blegen House, Creating Change conference, Detroit, ENDA, H. Alexander Robinson, John D'Emilio, Mandy Carter, queer history, Southerners on New Ground, straight ally, task force

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:


iPhone users: Click to watch

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.


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Dustin,
I definitely feel where you're coming from on that score.

My first GLBT convention after transition was a Creating Change held in Oakland in 1999, and I still have fond memories of it to this day.

I've had the pleasure of meeting Mandy Carter, and she's definitely one of the people I admire and look up to in this community.

Unfortunately I couldn't be in Detroit this year for it, but attending another Creating Change is definitely high on my list as far as GLBT conventions go.

Don't forget that one of NGLTF's key strategies is to guide by building (and listening to) grassroots activists. United ENDA would have been nothing more than a few outraged groups if it hadn't been to the other 350+ groups that rallied behind the idea--not because someone twisted their arms, but because it was what they believed. The other multi-issue national queer organization is much for fond of telling us what the strategy is and how we should react.

There's a role both NGLTF and that other group must play in the movement, but I don't think the power dynamic will EVER be the same again.

Thank you for your warm and personal stories about Creating Change. I've never gone, as there are so many conferences out there to attend, and it's so expensive to attend them. Your post made me realize that this conference might be the one.

Thanks.

Jill

Jill, it is most definitely the one to attend. I've never felt so empowered and full of great ideas. It was a life-changing experience. Hands down.

Go.

(And just for the record, I talked about you specifically to three different people. LOL)

Oh - btw...

It was really nice to meet you Dustin. I'm glad you're coming to Indy so we can hang out a bit together.

(And I'd be in the Task Force line too!)

Michael Bedwell | February 12, 2008 1:56 PM

Thanks for telling the story about the hotel rep, Dustin. It reminds me of last year when the conservative Republican mayor of San Diego shocked his city and moved anyone with a heart who saw the video of his public about face on marriage equality because of his own lesbian daughter.

One hopes that D'Emilio has detached himself entirely from the intellectually absurd "social constructionist" cult but, in any case, I treasure his biography on Bayard Rustin [while still thinking he gives too much a priori credence to prison officials regarding exactly how extensive and flagrant Rustin's WWII prison sex life was while not, as I recall, commenting on how much such unwise behavior might have been exacerbated by sudden incarceration of a black gay man in an authoritarian super straight white controlled prison system].

The book should be required reading by every LGBT person and person of color regardless of their orientation. While Rustin's "gay activism" came very late in his life, his relative openness over all of those decades while playing such a huge role in Martin Luther King, Jr's., achievements and the civil rights and peace movements overall are staggering. Oscar Wilde wrote some fun plays, created a still legendary personality, and suffered for it. Walt Whitman wrote some timeless, breathtaking poetry that inspired real activists [relatively speaking] of his day. But Rustin was a modern Renaissance man and a mover and shaker when being that took not just talent and brains but courage of steel. [When he failed to start bowing and scraping after being beaten by white cops in a southern jail the sheriff erupted, "Nigger, you're supposed to be afraid when you come in here!"]

After you finish the biography, I suggest you read, "Time on Two Crosses, the Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin" and purchase on eBay the CD of his singing and commenting upon classic "Negro spirituals" that his surviving partner Walter Naegle periodically sells. Naegle, after being asked by officials for a list of people who should be invited, was not himself invited to attend the opening ceremonies for the high school named for Rustin in his hometown. The documentary, “Brother Outsider,” is mandatory, too, of course.

As for NGLTF, as I wrote in the thread regarding Matt Foreman’s resignation, I viscerally disagree with some of their decisions over the years, but am even more angry than you how another, come later group has arrogantly and intentionally tried to eclipse them. I casually knew Bruce Voeller, then “NGTF’s” first director/cofounder, was once his house guest in NYC, and Steve Endean, the founder of then “HRCF,” and once his cohost in DC. While NGTF/NGLTF was the first gay group to do serious lobbying and would continue to do some, that and electing/defeating gay-friendly politicians were to be HRCF’s exclusive focus.

Every organization has a right to evolve, of course, but HRCF became imperialistic and territorial, exploiting an organizational void that developed as a result of some bad leadership times at NGLTF, ultimately creating and raising their own flag over the movement, and finally turned into a gay Borg by its first female Queen, Elizabeth Birch. Few remember that her original idea, a good one IN CONCEPT, was to merge HRCF and NGLTF. One can only imagine the exact reasons that failed but something veteran San Francisco and national activist Jim Foster once said to a fresh-to-San-Francisco-and-activism Harvey Milk comes to mind: “We accept converts, Harvey. We just don’t make them Pope the first day.”

Birch ironically dropped the “f” for “Fund” even as she turned vacuuming up money into the group’s first raison d’etre. She’s officially gone, but her former life partner remains on their foundation’s board and at least one person perpetuating the “assimilating hive” mentality and modus operandi. First major opportunity to question candidates for President? Why, of course—only The Borg should be in charge of that! Servicemembers Legal Defense Network undergoing leader changes? Why, of course—we can assimilate that issue, too! Share money with local organizations as NGLTF does that we suck from their communities? It is to laugh! Publish the details of the cost effectiveness or ineffectiveness of what we do with those millions of dollars every year? It is to laugh harder!

But back to NGLTF. Long past time they need to add another T to their title. And there needs to be considerable more balance between screaming about inequality and scheming to overcome it, with much more emphasis on the latter. But, one trusts, that's what Creating Change is supposed to accomplish, and, at the proper moments, it will be "out of the conference rooms and into the streets!"

Happy conference memories!

I seriously considered attending, and wish now that I had done so. From what I've read, this appears to be a unifying force in our diverse group. I think that's a very good thing.

Next year, when it's in Denver, I will make every effort to go.

Thanks for sharing your experiences.