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Creating Change: An LGBTQ Activism Conference that Draws Few Lines

“These moments have created a platform for us to exclaim: Time’s Up. Say Her Name. Never Again. Sí Se Puede. Black Lives Matter,” declared Kierra Johnson, the Deputy Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, each of her words strong and full of conviction.

It was the Friday plenary of Creating Change, an annual LGBTQ activism conference that has been organized by the Task Force every year since 1988. Creating Change aims to build the political power of the LGBTQ rights movement from the grassroots level, aiding activists in their work to achieve full justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people across the United States.

Together with Rea Carey, the Task Force’s Executive Director, Johnson was delivering the “State of the Movement” address to a room full of conference attendees from all corners of the nation. As she acknowledged movements that have sought to raise awareness of sexual harassment, police brutality against black women, gun violence, threats to farm workers’ rights, and state violence against black people, Johnson appealed to a common theme underlying the conference. Throughout the weekend, activists at Creating Change made clear their belief that no social movement can stand in isolation. Intersectionality—the idea that people can be members of multiple marginalized groups—and the importance of cooperating with other social movements were constantly invoked.

Johnson invited the crowd to join her, and soon the room was full of voices calling, “Time’s Up. Say Her Name. Never Again. Sí Se Puede. Black Lives Matter.

The largest LGBTQ activism conference in America, Creating Change spans a weekend when thousands of participants convene and attend workshops, plenaries, caucuses, and social events. This year the conference attracted more than 3,000 people, many of whom work at local LGBTQ centers, campus offices, or at non-profits that specifically aim to promote LGBTQ rights. In the numerous conference rooms of the Detroit Marriott Hotel at the Renaissance Center, presenters led 340 workshops, four plenaries, and dozens of affinity group meetings. From its kickoff on Wednesday, January 23 to the closing on Sunday, January 27, the conference also provided “community care spaces” offering services such as child care, areas for spiritual practice and reflection, and HIV testing.

“Marriage equality did not solve all of the discrimination,” said Johnson at the Friday plenary, her voice emphatic and just slightly reproachful.

“If the social and political environment has taught us anything, it is that our fates are tied together,” she said. “My progress is connected to yours.”

As they laid out the recent triumphs and trials of the LGBTQ rights movment, she and Carey celebrated the success of the “Yes on 3” campaign in Massachusetts, which preserved a transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination law by a two-thirds majority in the November election. But they also lauded the amendment that was recently passed in Florida and restores the right to vote for over one million Floridians with past felony convictions. And Carey highlighted the diversity of the 116th Congress, not just for its addition of LGBTQ members, but also of record numbers of women and people of color.

“I love the importance that they’ve placed on intersectionality and on gender justice and racial justice,” said Dilini Lankachandra, in an interview for The Politic. Lankachandra is a staff attorney at A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization focused on achieving equity for working families, and she led a workshop on preemption laws with two other speakers on Saturday morning. “I think it’s really important and makes this a really welcome place for this discussion,” she said.

“One way that we’ve progressed…is thinking about equity and inclusion more,” said Shijuade Kadree in a Friday morning presentation. Kadree is Chief Advocacy Officer at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City, and her workshop with Almas Sayeed, Deputy Director of Programs at the California Immigrant Policy Center, was titled “Our Freedom is Bound Together: Immigrant and Queer Rights’ Movement-Building.”

“[W]e’re thinking about what we actually need to do that uplifts these communities—who has been left out of these conversations, who needs to be centered more, whose voices are not being heard,” said Kadree.

This inclusion was reflected both in the types of workshops offered at Creating Change and in the diversity of the participants who came. The weekend saw workshops on everything from regulatory policy to sex positivity, and there were sessions bearing titles such as “Hood Feminism,” “POC Joy as Radical Resistance,” and “How to Fail Like a White Man.” During the busy lunch period, people of every age and gender—sporting everything from blazers to blue hair—could be seen chatting and flipping through the weekend schedule.

According to Sarah Massey, the Communications Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, the conference is able to achieve its diverse range of workshops because of the wealth of proposals that it receives.

“What’s great about Creating Change is this is our thirty-first year…the folks who have been coming are really invested in it being successful, and they send us the workshop proposals,” she said. “So we had to winnow it down from like 600 to 340. And we at the Task Force have a very strong commitment to centering people of color, and trans and gender nonconforming [people] and other marginalized communities, multiple marginalized identities. So that’s how we pick.”

The National LGBTQ Task Force is the oldest LGBTQ advocacy group in America, having been founded in New York City in 1973. As the LGBTQ rights movement has evolved and become more diverse and inclusive, the Task Force’s own membership and goals have also diversified in turn.

Today, this commitment to centering especially marginalized communities is also a motivating factor in how the Task Force chooses the topics to focus on in its advocacy beyond the conference.

“We think about issue areas where we’re either going to have a really broad or a really deep impact on people living at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities,” said Meghan Maury, who serves as Policy Director of the Task Force. “So queer and trans people of color, people who are undocumented and also identify as queer…. We use this rubric of thinking about what skill sets we have, what other folks aren’t doing, and what is going to most deeply impact people at the intersections,” said Maury.  

At Creating Change, the emphasis on including other social movements arises not only because of their important roles in achieving justice for all communities. The conference’s organizers and presenters also realize that it would be inaccurate to characterize these movements as fighting parallel battles that will never intersect. According to these activists, other social movements are vital to LGBTQ rights, too; there are multitudes of people who hold more than one marginalized identity, and any issue that reaches someone in America will surely reach an LGBTQ person. Furthermore, several presenters pointed out that many forms of inequality disproportionately affect the LGBTQ community.

“Every issue that we care about is exacerbated by our democracy being out of balance and the assault on voting rights. And I think the assault on voting rights hurts and falls the most harshly on LGBTQ folks,” said Allie Boldt, in an interview for The Politic. Boldt is a counsel for Demos, a public policy organization focused on advancing political and economic equality, and she helped lead a Friday morning workshop about voting rights and the LGBTQ community.

She explained how many voter registration and photo ID requirements present obstacles to transgender voters who have difficulty altering their name and gender on IDs. Boldt also pointed out that since LGBTQ people are disproportionately low-income, they are less likely to have the same economic resources as the wealthy donors who have a greater amount of influence in American democracy.

Boldt’s workshop was just one of many at Creating Change that sought to elucidate the connections between LGBTQ rights and other issues that are often not immediately associated with the movement. In addition to voting rights, the conference also featured sessions on gun violence, Medicaid expansion, reproductive justice, and immigrants’ rights.

Lankachandra’s session on preemption made such a connection. Preemption is the strategy by which Congress and state legislatures pass laws preventing cities and localities from enacting their own policies regarding specific subject areas. Though it is by no means a new practice, in recent years preemption has been used to bar cities from passing LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances and local minimum wage increases.

“It affects the LGBTQ community in direct and indirect ways,” said Lankachandra. She noted that three states—North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee—prohibit cities from passing LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances. “But a ton of states also preempt economic justice work,” she said, thereby harming the LGBTQ community indirectly. “So I think it’s really important to think about preemption in an intersectional way, and create coalitions, and create the ability of LGBTQ advocates to work across social movements and oppose preemption and build local power, especially given the fact that cities are really the birthplace of innovative policies that have been beneficial to all sorts of social movements, including LGBTQ ones.”

In an interview for The Politic, Candace Gibson drew connections between the movements for reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights. Gibson’s own work as a staff attorney for the National Health Law Program focuses on reproductive health and Medicaid, and at Creating Change she was both an attendee at a Saturday session on Medicaid expansion and one of the presenters in a Sunday workshop on the nexus of reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights.* “They’re intrinsically linked and they have to be, especially when you think about how sexual health and reproductive health policies can harm communities that are the most marginalized,” she said.

Gibson pointed out the high rates of poverty and employment discrimination that LGBTQ people face, as well as the lack of federal anti-discrimination protections. “Because of these systemic barriers, Medicaid becomes a vital source of coverage for LGBTQ individuals,” she said.

But Gibson also saw inherent similarities between the movements for reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights. The commitment of each to bodily autonomy and sexual freedom represents underlying and shared values, she said. “Both of these movements are legally tied to each other, when we think about the right to privacy and abortion services under Roe,” Gibson added. “These movements have to be connected and aligned in order for people to get the resources that they need to create the lives that they want to.”  

Ultimately, Creating Change’s wide-reaching programming served to educate participants, who came to Detroit from a wide variety of backgrounds. At the workshop on Medicaid expansion that Gibson attended, another participant hailed from a small LGBT community center in Oklahoma. A pair of friends had come from a college in Minnesota. When the session broke into small groups for discussion, one circle of participants struck up their conversation in Spanish.

In an interview for The Politic, Huahao Zhou (Davenport ’21) shared how his experiences at the conference exposed him to several concepts that he hadn’t considered before. In particular, Zhou mentioned workshops where he learned about HIV criminalization and about the experiences of people raised by LGBTQ parents.

“I think there are many intersections between these issues,” he said of the range of topics covered by the conference. “And I think instead of saying [a particular issue] is just a purely LGBTQ-focused issue, I want to say it’s an issue to show how the grassroots movements in America could make progress and people [could] come together to fight for justice,” he said.

Both the broad focus of Creating Change and its emphasis on inclusivity are aspects of the conference that many participants found unique.

“This is really different from a lot of other conferences I’ve been to because a lot of them have been focused on diversity in relation to professionalism and business,” said Chandra Sahu, a senior at the University of Michigan who attended Meghan Maury’s Saturday afternoon workshop on regulatory policy. Sahu works for Out for Undergrad, an organization that holds conferences and seeks to elevate high-achieving LGBTQ undergraduates in engineering, marketing, business, and tech.

“I’ve been really impressed with the conference overall and the way that they have been able to incorporate so many different focuses,” she said. “It’s just something that I wouldn’t have really thought was even possible…everyone here is going to have a different conference experience and gain something different that’s really salient to them.”

Sahu was also impressed by Creating Change’s efforts to achieve inclusivity in many aspects of its planning. She highlighted the importance of providing accommodations for the deaf and hard of hearing, translators instead of just interpreters, and seating that can be comfortable for people of different sizes.

But this thorough planning doesn’t mean that the conference couldn’t be without surprises.

Participants who squeezed the Saturday plenary in after lunch were treated to an unannounced guest appearance when Rashida Tlaib, U.S. Representative from Michigan’s 13th District, took the podium.

After welcoming the crowd to her home city of Detroit, Tlaib drew on the themes of intersectionality and comprehensive social justice that permeated the conference.

“We know that those that advance hate, they are trying to deny it for all of us, they are trying to deny all of our existences,” she declared.

As a part of the wave of female and minority candidates that Rea Carey had applauded the day before, Tlaib is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, along with Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Though she had only served in Washington for three weeks by the time of the conference, she already appeared to be a household name for many of the plenary attendees who cheered her on.

“We have to rid this society of oppressive ideals,” Tlaib proclaimed to the crowd. “We have to fight against transphobia, homophobia, racism, anti-blackness, islamophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, sexism—you name it. Because we know that these things are intertwined, they are so connected.”

And she had one comment that drew especially loud cheers: “I’m so proud to be able to say that I’ve joined the Equality Caucus in Congress. Yeah, this Muslim Palestinian is going to keep it spicy.”

 

*Gibson co-led this workshop, “The Future of Medicaid: Why Attacks Against Medicaid are Reproductive Justice and LGBTQ Issues,” with Natasha Chabria from In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, Mariah Lindsay from National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and Nina Serrianne from National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.