Queer activists from all walks of life will converge on the Gay mecca of the Southeast when the 25th National Conference of LGBT Equality: Creating Change comes to Atlanta on January 23.
The conference, which is produced by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and touts itself as the only “premier annual organizing and skills-building event for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their allies,” will take over the Hilton Atlanta hotel with five days of workshops and training sessions, networking opportunities, an exhibits and merchant marketplace, and guest plenary speakers.
Political humorist Kate Clinton will serve as plenary emcee, while speakers will include Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change; Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; and Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American.
With more than 3,000 registered delegates expected this year from public, private, non-profit, and faith-based sectors, the face of Creating Change will truly be a diverse cross-section of American LGBT life, according to Rev. Gwen Thomas, one of four Creating Change host committee co-chairs and a licensed minister.
“It has always been and it continues to be the largest opportunity for advocates and activists to meet and do some really intentional discussion and training around LGBT social justice issues, including secular and faith-based issues,” said Thomas, who has been involved with the conference for seven years and this year will present several faith-based workshops.
“Out of those have come some sub-intents, and that is to give people opportunities to make connections that can lead to further activism, advocacy, and social justice work when they leave the conference,” Thomas added.
Michael Shutt, another conference co-chair and the director of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life at Emory University, agreed.
“It is the best of what queer organizing has to offer. It is intense and educational. It is mind-blowing and engaging. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow,” Shutt said. “At the same time, participants from around the world are there to also network and re-energize. This is a space to learn, laugh, and grow in ways you cannot imagine!”
The opportunities at Creating Change start with Daylong Institutes, which will provide attendees with instruction from carefully selected leaders in a wide array of topics including youth leadership and safe schools, racial and ethnic social justice, immigration, people of color, and all other aspects of LGBT equality.
The coming-together, listening, and sharing in the Institutes and other sessions is central to the success of each Creating Change conference, particularly where it concerns diverse people from far-flung locales who have a single goal of growing and empowering the LGBT movement.
“From the time you enter the space and you get your welcome packet and your name badge, you are now a part of Creating Change,” said host committee co-chair Everette R.H. Thompson, the former Regional Director of Amnesty International USA’s Southern Regional Office. “The big part of Creating Change is trying to figure out wherever we are on the journey of LGBT liberation, how do we make sure we all get there?”
Recognizing that attendees from different parts of the United States – and some expected international delegates – frequently deal with varying degrees of acceptance and intolerance in their respective hometowns, Thompson stressed that the annual conference’s open, welcoming components can help make that journey back home a more purposeful and hopeful one.
“There are different caucuses where different identity groups and people are able to talk and be united and figure out what the unification looks like, and then come back saying ‘Here’s where we see the LGBT movement going,’” he said. “And it might look different in Iowa than it would in Georgia or Massachusetts, but we’re all moving toward the same place, which is equal human rights for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersexed persons to get to the same place.”
In addition to the Daylong Institutes and plenary speakers, Creating Change will offer hospitality suites. Designed to be restful havens away from the hectic pace and packed schedule of the conference, each suite is tailored to the needs of a different marginalized LGBT affinity group. Some of the hospitality suites – where discussion, friendship, and food will be on tap – will welcome elders (seniors), transgendered guests, bisexuals, people of color, and youth.
Jesse Morgan, a host committee co-chair, is in charge of the Youth Hospitality Suite, which is open to queer youth age 24 and under.
“What we’ve been doing for the Youth Hospitality Suite is reaching out to youth organizations to let them know this is happening and there are going to be thousands of people like them from all across the country,” Morgan said. “Another thing we’re doing in the Youth Hospitality Suite is we are having drag queen and drag king performances, and we’re having queens and kings from the Georgia State Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Specifically, they’re all younger and under the age of 24, and just giving them that space to perform in.”
Morgan noted that the Youth Hospitality Suite will draw a large number of guests, owing in part to the success of his committee’s word-spreading efforts and the involvement of LGBT young people from middle schools, high schools, and college campuses across the country.
“I think that’s so important for us to recognize that youth are important in this cause, and that we do need to listen to youth – what they’re thinking, what their ideas are, and what they’re doing, and honestly what they’re doing in their schools,” he said.
To ensure that Creating Change won’t be all work and no play for LGBT youth, however, they will also be able to kick up their heels Saturday night at a youth dance – complete with DJ’s, drag queens, and drag kings – and a “15 and Up” dance, Morgan said.
As with many other social and political causes, the value of meeting of minds from all generations cannot be underestimated, according to Shutt, who noted that a growing number of youth and student groups attend the conference each year. He echoed the assertion that today’s LGBT youth are becoming more politically and socially engaged in the equality movement. He also believes their involvement will be instrumental in bridging the gap from where it has been to where it’s headed.
“As youth come into the movement, the horizon of liberation becomes more and more clear. We are a long way off and youth are identifying more ways of moving us forward,” Shutt said. “The National Conference on Equality: Creating Change creates a space that is as close to liberation as a queer person can get. This is why the conference is so important. While some think that marriage is the most important issue in the movement, participants at this conference will walk away knowing that liberation is the outcome we seek.”
In its 25-year history, Creating Change has been held – sometimes more than once – in regions and cities across the United States. In each of its host cities, an affirming rainbow glow is cast that aims to bring attention to and to hopefully change old preconceived prejudices about the various facets and demographics of LGBT life.
In that vein, the host committee co-chairs say Creating Change’s presence in Atlanta this year is a particularly meaningful one for LGBT people in the South, where the queer community has perhaps been more oppressed and ostracized than in less conservative parts of the country.
“In a city like Atlanta, Detroit, or Denver, it’s not just another gay thing or queer thing that happens. It is a very important gathering to be placed in those communities,” said Russell Roybal, Deputy Executive Director of External Relations at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
He added, “Sometimes in coastal or in larger cities, the organizing is actually more difficult because it is just another thing. But in a place like Atlanta where there is a vibrant, strong, and large LGBT community, it means more because things like this don’t happen all the time in Atlanta. We enjoy having it in cities where it is very meaningful to the local community because we want the local LGBT organizations to be in a better place because Creating Change has been in their city.”
“I think what happens is, no matter what the culture of the city is or even what’s happening in that city or state, this conference is so significant in the energy that it brings with people there who are like-minded and on the same page,” Thomas said. “We kind of queer up the city. In that moment, you just better get with the program or get out of our way, and it’s not in a negative way. It’s just ‘We’re here.’ And people have, I believe, noticed.”
“I do think that one of the main reasons that hosting a conference like Creating Change is really important in Atlanta is because if you look at Atlanta’s make-up, we have such a unique racial diversity here, unlike any other city,” said Morgan, who was born and raised in southeast Georgia and says that heritage continues to be part of his political identity. “Most cities don’t have what we have in terms of race politics. If you look back at civil rights, most of its beginnings happened here in Atlanta and that’s so important for our history and so important for us to recognize how we politically organize now.”
It’s that unique mix of queer political gumption and regional qualities that makes the Atlanta Creating Change such an inviting cocktail, according to Thompson.
“For me, it’s really beautiful that it’s in the South, and Southern queer people can come out in all our glory and all our resilience and be a part of this in a real way,” he said. “So I’m excited that it’ll be here and be supported by beautiful Southern hospitality and great committees.”
But beyond mere politically-oriented goals, bringing the conference back to Atlanta affords the city’s gay community a metaphorical stage on which to strut its stuff, which, as with all other Creating Change conferences, helps to balance the hardcore activist elements with a more lighthearted mindset.
“In Out magazine, Atlanta was named the gayest city, and if you read that article, part of the reason is that we have MondoHomo, which is a queer arts and music festival that I organize here,” Morgan said. “Southern good-looking hunky men was the first reason, and then the second reason they discussed in detail was MondoHomo for having such a radical queer presence here. And I think it’s important to recognize that we do have a lot of radical queer folks and lot of radical organizations doing some progressive stuff.”
The impetus for the founding of Creating Change in 1988 was simple, Russell said.
“[I]t was basically a response to the 1987 march on Washington. The message at the 1987 march was ‘Go home, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.’ Folks went home, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work, then discovered they needed some help. So they turned to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and started calling our office asking for support and resources and skills,” Roybal said. “There’s such a tremendous need for skills-building, people getting together, and strategizing, and the Task Force decided the best thing to do would be to hold a conference.”
That first conference was held in Washington, DC, in Fall 1988, and was attended by some 300 people. It included keynote speakers, plenary sessions, and workshops, but on a much smaller scale than would be found at later conferences.
Even with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s longtime reputation as a preeminent leader in the fight for LGBT equality, it still considers itself an avid grassroots organization that works on state and local levels to build the power of communities from the ground up, according to Roybal.
The ultimate and consistent goals of those community groups, he added, are consistently freedom, justice, and equality for LGBT people.
“The conference is our most outward expression of bringing those folks together and giving them skills-building, networking, and some fun too. This work is hard, so I think it’s important to have a good time while we’re doing it,” he said.