Creating Change

By Kerry Lobel

For the first time, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force held its annual Creating Change conference in Pittsburgh. Creating Change is the largest annual political gathering of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) policy-makers, leaders, activists and organizers held in the United States. For almost a week, more than 2,000 people congregated in downtown Pittsburgh to discuss and debate some of the most pressing issues facing GLBT people.

This year's Creating Change is the most well-attended and successful conference since it began 11 years ago. Though it is commonly believed that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders live only on the East and West coasts, in cities like San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. the gathering in Pittsburgh showed otherwise. People came from small towns and rural areas throughout the country, from medium-size cities and, not surprisingly, from big cities. More GLBT people than ever before are staying put, building their lives and creating their families in the communities where they grew up. They are establishing religious, political and cultural institutions in their own hometowns, often with the help and support of their families of origin.

Young and old people came to Creating Change; people of color and white people came; and people brought their children (we provided childcare). There were music and comedy performances, a dance, and, of course, many workshops and presentations devoted to political issues as varied as fundraising and transgender issues in the workplace. Jews, Muslims, Catholics and other Christians held religious services and gatherings.

Sound a little like a week in a small town? In many ways, it was. Participants discussed their lives, their aspirations and hopes, analyzed their political work, and lived each day by eating, sleeping, caring for their children, friends and partners and attending cultural events.

But, of course, this was not a week in your average small town. Participants at Creating Change are, for the most part, different than our concept of small town residents. Almost all of us express our sexual and gender identities in ways that are different from what is considered the norm. This difference has brought America the vision and brilliance of people like Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Gertrude Stein, and James Baldwin. We know that difference is of value to America and makes all of us stronger.

What the GLBT movement is really about is creating a society where the unique contributions of all its citizens, including us, are recognized and appreciated. In fact, that is the mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: to create a world that respects and celebrates the diversity of human expression and identity, where all people may fully participate in society and where difference is not just tolerated, but embraced. The gap between that vision and today's reality is shrinking, but we all know we have much work to do.

Today, with the 1998 elections, we have once again learned that we have a long way to go to become fully integrated into American social institutions. Initiatives against same-sex marriage won in Hawaii and Alaska by large margins. Civil rights bills lost in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Ft. Collins, Colorado; and Ogunquit, Maine. Recently the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that Cincinnati could prohibit sexual orientation as a protected classification in its anti-discrimination law.

But we also see enormous change and positive developments for our community and this country. We have learned how important coalition efforts are across issues. In a number of states, anti-choice, English-only and anti-affirmative action campaigns targeted women and minorities in conjunction with attacks on our community. Activists in many areas worked together against these measures, and the coalition that developed as a result is a valuable legacy of the elections.

We recognize that as long as anyone faces discrimination and injustice, we have not realized the promise of America. To that end, at Creating Change, NGLTF and the Federation of Statewide LGBT Political Organizations launched "Equality Begins At Home," a national campaign to strengthen and unite the GLBT communities and promote equality at the state level. This first ever nationally coordinated series of actions in every state and territory will take place next year March 21-27.

The results of this midterm election support our renewed focus on statewide organizing, and also show that America is ready for openly GLBT election officials. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, is the first-ever openly gay or lesbian candidate to win a seat in Congress. This happened in the heart of the Midwest, not only the coasts, and it happened because Baldwin worked her way up in state and local politics. She had more than 3,000 volunteers enlisted in her campaign, many of whom were straight. Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass, and Jim Kolbe, R-Arizona, easily won re-election. And, in state legislatures, many openly GLB candidates were elected, many by overwhelming margins.

This is a new day, when candidates from our community can be taken seriously, and win, obviously with most of their support from the straight community. This past spring, the Policy Institute of NGLTF released "From Wrongs to Rights," a report that showed there has been a sea change in public opinion toward gays and lesbians. Even though it is still legal in most places to fire someone from their job simply because of their sexual orientation, most Americans now believe that is wrong. Our report shows that a majority of Americans support equality in areas such as employment, housing, and military service, a far different situation than when NGLTF was founded 25 years ago.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force understands that in order to create a society that values the diversity of gender and sexual expression, we have to create a society that gives each of us the ability to have a good life - a good education, good health care, decent housing and adequate employment. Like all Americans, we live our day-to-day lives by working, raising our children, contributing to our communities and finding happiness in our personal lives.

All of these parts of our lives are connected, and for each of us to be fully realized as human beings, they must all be addressed. We hope that all people seeking justice will join us in this effort.

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