The message was clear. The LGBTQ community is not all right. Change needs to happen, not only within the United States but also at Creating Change, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s flagship conference for activists and community and government leaders to learn and network.
Nearly 3,000 attendees gathered for the 35th Creating Change conference in San Francisco February 17-21. At the annual conference, activists and community leaders gathered for five days to discuss issues, learn, and strategize for today’s battles and for what’s to come.
Conference-goers attended more than 150 workshops and caucuses, including about 22 day-long institutes February 17 and 18, that addressed issues such as gun violence prevention, climate change, housing justice, economic justice, faith, race, intersectionality, education, families, digital strategy, nonprofit leadership, and more.
The onslaught of conservatives’ legislative and vigilante assaults, especially against the transgender community, weighed heavily on conference leaders and attendees.
The job needs to be finished. The LGBTQ community needs to fight back. Barbara Satin, former director of the Task Force’s faith work, echoed President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech February 7 at the Creating Change’s opening plenary February 18. Task Force executive director Kierra Johnson, who was appointed to lead the organization in 2021, agreed.
Transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGI) conference workers, volunteers, and attendees also made it clear that change was needed at Creating Change too.
Creating Change attendees were notified at the last minute by a push alert on the conference’s app that the closing plenary was starting a half hour early February 20.
TGI conference workers and volunteers staged an impromptu protest of the Task Force with “Pose” star and transgender activist Angelica Ross.
Ross served as the Creating Change 2023 Trans Action Collective spokesperson.
Ross, a Task Force Policy Institute fellow alumna and veteran Creating Change participant, was shocked by the complaints TGI workers and volunteers brought to her.
Ahead of a panel discussion with Johnson and fellow “Pose” star Dyllón Burnside to talk about the Task Force’s future, Ross invited an estimated 50 TGI conference workers and volunteers to join her on the stage.
“I heard that you know, we needed a demonstration and a protest because some shit wasn’t going down the way that it was supposed to go down,” Ross told the audience about the TGI workers and volunteers who banded together as the Creating Change 2023 Trans Action Collective February 19, which was the anniversary of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera’s death.
“When my brothers and sisters were telling me what was going on, I was like, ‘You got to be kidding me. This is still going on?’” Ross asked. “So, we’re not asking. These are demands.”
She reviewed each of the collective’s nine grievances for the audience in 30 minutes.
The collective’s grievances included alleged complaints of discrimination, harassment, and misgendering by some staff at the Hilton Union Square, the host hotel, and Parc 55, which is also owned by Hilton and served as the conference’s additional hotel. Their complaint also addressed issues like disproportionate room sizes for day-long institutes and workshops, among other logistical issues.
“It is clear that the organization is still being run through the historically exclusionary paradigm that centers cisgender and white LGBTQ people and their communities and concerns,” Ross said, noting the organization’s five historic decades of activism.
“This conference is not creating change — not yet, not quite yet,” she said.
Hilton, in a written statement, said, “The Hiltons of San Francisco Union Square have zero tolerance for racism and discrimination of any kind and is committed to providing quality accommodations and a welcoming environment for all who enter our doors…” Hilton further said, “We conducted training specifically around inclusion, diversity and how to remain pronoun friendly.”
The collective demanded a public apology from the conference and hotel, contracts with culturally competent companies, and a separate TGI conference at the next Creating Change hosted by Task Force, among other points.
Attendees also expressed their disappointment in the conference, citing similar concerns and logistical issues the protestors raised. They met with Task Force leaders at two separate conference debriefings hosted by the organization February 20 and 21.
The debrief session, a Task Force tradition, is usually held on the last day of the conference. This was the first time two debriefs were hosted: one the night before the last day of the conference and the second at its traditional time at the conference’s close.
A Spanish-speaking transgender woman described through her translator a bad hotel experience where she was forced to pay the market rate for two nights that she believed she already booked at the conference rate or else she would have nowhere to stay for two nights of the conference. She wasn’t allowed to rebook the rooms at the conference rate on the spot.
Task Force staff immediately started working on correcting her situation during the debriefing. A post-conference survey landed in Creating Change attendees email inboxes February 23. Cathy Renna, the Task Force’s communications director, said there will be other opportunities for conference attendees to express their concerns and what worked for them at the conference.
Ross didn’t blame Johnson for the conference’s problems, stating that the Task Force can’t “just slap her face on the top of this problem” simply because a Black bisexual woman heads the organization. “We have to take it to the whole system.”
Johnson apologized to TGI staff, contractors, volunteers, and attendees before diving into the conversation with Ross and Burnside about the Task Force’s future, which echoed her unscripted statement of the movement speech at the opening plenary February 18.
“I’m sorry that we had to get here,” she said. “There’s a responsibility. I stepped into this position fully knowing we have some work to do.”
Elisa Crespo, the executive director of the New York-based statewide organization New Pride Agenda, told Gay City News that her team was part of the collective that staged the thoughtful protest with Ross. The way Creating Change was organized, Crespo said, “was really a missed opportunity to really focus and center the conference on the anti-trans violence and legislation that is happening across this country.”
“We can’t do business as usual,” Crespo explained. “We cannot have conferences where people are siloed and talking about different issues that maybe shouldn’t be a priority right now.”
The collective wants more from national LGBTQ organizations in response to the assault on America’s transgender community, and Crespo stressed the need for financial support for smaller organizations.
“I believe the Task Force when they say that they’re going to do better,” Crespo said. “I believe that they’re going to figure out how to make that happen in advance of next year’s conference.”
Out queer Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas of Queens, who was in attendance at the conference, commended the demonstrators for making their voices heard.
“It was powerful to see that the trans community members spoke up and took the stage to articulate their concerns and their needs and demands,” she said.
González-Rojas also praised Johnson for listening and making commitments to improve in the future.
“I always find it to be a deeply transformative conference and every year it gets better about continuing to integrate support and resources for communities that have historically been marginalized,” she said, such as sign language interpreters.
State of the movement
On February 18, Johnson spoke to Creating Change attendees at the opening plenary after leading a panel discussion on gun violence targeted at LGBTQ people following the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado on November 19, 2022.
Tossing aside her pre-prepared speech, Johnson bluntly said the LGBTQ community, especially BIPOC TGI people, is not doing OK.
“How are you doing?” Johnson asked. “The answer is, ‘Not OK,’” speaking candidly about what is happening to LGBTQ people across the US from legislative attacks to gun violence for more than 20 minutes. “We don’t have to pretend to be OK.”
“We’ve made some real impact that we should all be proud of that our ancestors never thought possible,” she said. “We are living in a time of possibility that they never saw coming.”
At the same time, she pointed to hard-fought wins that the LGBTQ community now finds itself defending all over again.
“Winning legislative victories is never enough,” she said. “It wasn’t enough when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. It wasn’t enough when women got the vote. It wasn’t enough then and it’s not enough now.”
Johnson said there is legislative work and cultural work to be done, including inside the Task Force, acknowledging that harm has been done to some members of the community.
Gun violence and other attacks
Part of creating “a democracy that we all deserve” was talking honestly about curbing gun violence against the LGBTQ community in traditionally safe spaces that have faced deadly anti-LGBTQ attacks.
The emerging topic of gun violence in LGBTQ nightclubs — like Colorado Springs’ Club Q in November and the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando — is increasingly becoming a part of America’s shooting epidemic narrative.
Speaking with Parkland shooting survivor and gun violence prevention activist X Gonzalez, One Colorado executive director Nadine Bridges, and New York City Anti-Violence Project executive director Beverly Tillery, Johnson talked about the Club Q shooting, the steps being taken to protect LGBTQ safe spaces, and violence inflicted on queer communities. Tillery said anti-LGBTQ individuals are “trying to dehumanize us.”
“They’re trying to erase us,” Tillery said. “It’s not enough now to just target us individually. They’re targeting our infrastructure because they see our power.” Tillery said conservatives are doing it under the guise of protecting kids, which Gonzalez called “bullshit.”
“It’s exhausting. It’s hard,” said Bridges, who served Club Q survivors and the Colorado Springs’ queer community in the aftermath of the shooting.
Tillery said the NYC Anti-Violence Project is training queer organizations to protect themselves.
“Every community is different,” Tillery said. “Every attack is different.”
In December, the organization launched the LGBTQ Safe Spaces Protection Project survey to assess queer organizations’ safety needs across the country.
Creating Change honored its late co-founder Urvashi Vaid, who was executive director of the organization (1989-1992). Her gender non-conforming relative and transfeminine writer, performance artist, and activist, ALOK, and longtime activist friend, Scot Nakagawa, co-director of the 22nd Century Initiative, paid tribute and introduced a video honoring Vaid.
Vaid co-founded Creating Change with Sue Hyde, a longtime LGBTQ activist with the Task Force, in 1988 as a space to connect and develop queer leaders.
Creating Change in San Francisco was the first time attendees came together to learn, network, and socialize in person since 2020 when the pandemic started.
Emmy award-winning media maven Imara Jones, who is the executive producer and host of The Anti-Trans Hate Machine podcast, acknowledged the conference’s diversity.
“What’s amazing is that incredible cross-section of our community that’s here,” Jones said. “And the fact that there is a space where we can all come together at a time of the attacks on our community. It’s critical.”
Jones said she was busy throughout the conference attending different caucuses. Two highlights for her were transgender immigrant and activist Jennicet Gutiérrez receiving the Creating Change Immigration Award and the “show stopping moment” when Gutiérrez’s mother joined her on the stage.
Attendees enjoyed a queer trivia night with transgender Jeopardy champion Amy Schneider, a cruise on the San Francisco Bay, and a ball after a day of learning.
Speaking with Gay City News after the trivia game ended, Schneider, an Oakland resident, was humble and aware of the power of her newfound fame and platform. She was also a bit awed by the activists she met at Creating Change.
“The people in this room are the people that are out there really trying to create change,” she said. Schneider admitted that she wasn’t an activist before going on the game show, but is now joining LGBTQ organizations’ boards, such as Equality California, as a new queer activist.
Lesbian Mexican American comedian Sandra Valls kept the audience laughing, emceeing Creating Change 35’s plenaries.
The Task Force also awarded Master Taino the Leather Leadership Award.
Matt Tracy contributed reporting to this story.