Rethinking identity politics a theme at Creating Change
by Zak Szymanski
Rethinking isolated identity politics and abandoning apologetic messaging were some of the themes emphasized at this year's Creating Change conference in Denver, presented by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force January 28-February 1.
Workshops and plenaries at the 21st national conference discussed how to move forward a progressive LGBT movement at a critical time, against the backdrop of a newly elected African American, LGBT-friendly president and the sting of several same-sex marriage bans still fresh on the community's minds.
Many presenters said defeats like Proposition 8 and the country's economic climate mean more opportunities: for coalition building, and for rethinking the stale, defensive narratives that have defined LGBT political battles.
"Quit talking about homophobia," said the Reverend Deborah Johnson of Inner Light Ministries during an energetic January 29 plenary session, urging the community to instead challenge heterosexism and the gender binary. "Most heterosexuals only know how to deal with the prejudice part. They oftentimes do not see how they're in the systemic structural institutionalization of heterosexuality."
In campaigns against same-sex marriage, "nobody talks about us. It's always about this idea of what it is supposed to mean to be a man and a woman in this world," she said, adding that discrimination is not the goal, but rather, a means to uplifting heterosexual relationships. It's that privilege that allies need to understand.
Having worked in the black and feminist movements, Johnson said the LGBT movement is comparatively "mealy-mouthed about who we are." Asking for rights in order to be equal "is backwards. We've got to show up as equal."
But while Johnson is happily, legally married in the state of California, she nevertheless "did not join this movement to get heterosexual privileges. I joined this movement to change the entire discourse of how humanity is defined."
Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the Arcus Foundation (and former Task Force executive director), agreed.
"Seeking integration in the systems we grew up with ... does not transform the structural inequality," she said during the same plenary, entitled, "We Can Get There from Here."
Vaid also critiqued the defensive approach of some LGBT messages, including the familiar "born gay" arguments.
"People are always saying, 'Well I've got to be gay. I can't do anything about it,'" said Vaid, quoting her long-term girlfriend comedian Kate Clinton, who served as the conference mistress of ceremonies. "It's not that we've got to be gay. We get to be gay."
Progressive LGBT community members, said Vaid, should not to be afraid to embrace the nontraditional case for rights.
"I am not for traditional family values," she said, "because those values have produced incest and abuse and violence."
In a star-studded "State of the Movement" address on January 30, Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey specifically addressed the racist backlash that occurred in the wake of the election, when many people laid the blame for California's Proposition 8 on African Americans, who make up just 6 percent of the state's voters.
Scapegoating, she said, "ignores the complexity of the work we need to do." She asked LGBT people to remember that same-sex marriage bans are "part of the larger right-wing assault on the ever-expanding diversity of the U.S."
Throughout the weekend, rethinking LGBT movement priorities and strategies took center stage. A "Beyond Marriage" workshop offered models and strategies for protections that aren't limited to same-sex couples yet cover far more LGBT families.
An emotionally-charged HIV/AIDS panel addressed the intersections of racism and homophobia and the ways in which black, LGBT and public health movements assume that black gay leaders do not exist.
A daylong, sex-positive messaging workshop encouraged participants to respond to anti-gay attacks without denying gay sexuality.
For too long, said many activists, pleasure and conversations about sexual freedom have been missing from the LGBT movement.
"Let's be real about sex," said Vaid. "If not us, who?"