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Creating Change Conference Copes with Changes

BY AJ TRAGER

National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey at closing plenary, in tears as she tells conference attendees she is not sure how to lead them right now. BTL photo: AJ Trager

CHICAGO – Creating Change — the largest LGBT conference in the U.S., which is put on by the National LGBT Task Force — is known to often include controversy, disagreements, protests, offer a transformative experience that for many is life-changing and provide a chance for some to meet their first LGBT person. However, the 28th Creating Change conference ended up leaving 4,000 attendees from across the nation and the globe with a truly intersectional, very heavy experience.
The welcome letter published in the 2016 Creating Change program book, authored by National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey, included the following line: "That's why we are here this week: to tear down ALL the barriers we face between us and true liberation — and to support and lift-up one another in spirit, camaraderie and love." But many who attended this year's conference found neither a sense of camaraderie nor community.
The controversy started before the conference even began when the Task Force cancelled a panel that was to include representatives of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then cancelled a reception for the organization A Wider Bridge after receiving criticism from online activists claiming that the group is engaged in "pinkwashing," promoting a positive image of LGBT life in Israel in the hopes to distract from the treatment of Palestinians in Israel and Gaza. The reception was reinstated, a protest was held (with no arrests made) and the conference continued as normal into the scheduled workshops.
Every year the conference is different and brings to light new struggles and conflicts within and outside of the LGBT community. This year, as BTL engaged with people attending the conference, it was abundantly clear that many believed this year's majority of participants were the youngest Creating Change has ever seen. Queer, trans people of color reported that they felt unsafe and not welcomed by many of their LGBT cohorts. There were reports that the sexual liberation track was ripe with stigma and shame. And the HIV brunch plenary was poorly attended.
But, after a weekend that hosted over 350 workshops and caucuses, two day-long institutes, an HIV track, LGBT youth performances and hours of dancing, Creating Change felt less like an event that brought the community together and more like an event that pinned the community against one another. Carey addressed the tension to a full room at the closing banquet brunch, her voice and hands quivering.
"What you are witnessing and what we are all experiencing is messy. It's hard. And for many, we and I, have failed to live up to the ideals of our mission or our values for you.
"The progressive LGBT movement is mirroring the tensions of the larger society. Changes are happening in the world and Creating Change is reflecting some of those shifts as well. I don't have all the answers. Probably none of us do. I will be honest with you and tell you that I have struggled how to lead in this moment," Carey said. "But what I can say is that our work at the Task Force and together with others in the coming months will focus on how we continue to build a better conference, how we learn from this year while continuing to provide a place that so many have called their activist home. We will learn and build from this moment."
In a press release issued Jan. 25, the Task Force admitted that next year will have to include major changes related to inclusiveness and program content; upgraded safety and security; and a more open and accepting approach to conversation and peaceful protest.

The Michigan Experience

Equality Michigan held a Michigan mixer on the third day of the conference. The event was attended by well over 50 people from across the state, with representatives from LGBT community organizations like LGBT Detroit to academic institutions like the Equality Research Center at Eastern Michigan University.
Michael Tew is the director of the ERC at EMU. Tew and ERC Assistant Director Nicole Richards attended the conference and took turns running a booth at the Creating Change exhibit space alongside other organizations such as the Metropolitan Community Churches, SAGE, Secular Student Alliance, CenterLink, GLSEN, NGLCC, AARP, AIDS United, Intersex is Beautiful, Inc and many more.
At the Michigan Mixer, Tew told BTL that he was having a very positive experience at Creating Change and was completely blown away by the opening plenary "Black Feminism and the Movement for Black Lives," and a statement presented by one of the panelists who said, "post-revolutionary strategies do not work in a pre-revolutionary world."
"The discussion from a black feminist perspective, personally, was mind altering and transformative and it will change the way I teach and work. Many other aspects of the conference are just as empowering as that but what I really like about Creating Change is the positive approach to creating change; not dwelling on oppression but how to confront and overcome," Tew said.
Tew had one critique. As a first time exhibitor, but a return Creating Change attendee, Tew would have preferred the layout of former conferences for exhibitors, where attendees had to walk through the various exhibits to get from one conference room to another. This year the exhibits had their own ballroom and were separated from the rest of the conference, leaving less of a chance for people to filter through the exhibits and learn about new organizations or opportunities.
Cailynn Smith is the new LGBT Coordinator at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and attended Creating Change for the first time. They come to Michigan from Indiana and find Michigan's LGBT community to be extremely active and empowering.
"Even though Creating Change can be overwhelming, because it is a lot, it is awesome because there are many queer people all in one place at one time and we are networking, trying to exchange our ideas and learn from each other. And I think I've learned a lot of different insights from all kinds of people."
Smith attended workshops that will enhance their programming at UM-D, but also found a good sense of community in the genderqueer caucus.
"I think that was the first time I had been in a room with that many genderqueer, gender nonconforming and non-binary people at once. Being from the Midwest, sometimes if you're from the really rural areas, it's hard to find that community," Smith said.
Executive Director of Equality Michigan, Stephanie White, was one of the hosts of the Michigan Mixer. White, who was the center of many photos that night, was having a pleasant experience at Creating Change and was appreciative that the conference allows for the opportunity to work with allies and network with organizations from all across the world.
"There are so many people around the country who are doing great work. Equality California is going to share their transgender education project with us. Equality New Mexico is going to share board development with us. I can't think of all the great stuff," White explained.
This was her third Creating Change conference. She decided to bring the entire staff of Equality Michigan so that members like Steele Lindbloom, the new accounting coordinator, had a chance to experience the conference.
"The beautiful thing about Creating Change is that it is a radicalizing experience for people. Whenever you are first awakened, it is like a burst of energy. It can be chaotic and for some of us who have been around social justice for a long time, (we) might see it as disruptive, but I think the energy and passion and awake-ness and injustice and courage to take it on are beautiful."

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