Hilton addresses SF Creating Change complaints

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday February 24, 2023
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Creating Change Conference director Danny Linden, right, listened to about 40 attendees' grievances and suggestions for change at a conference debriefing session Monday, February 20. Photo: Heather Cassell
Creating Change Conference director Danny Linden, right, listened to about 40 attendees' grievances and suggestions for change at a conference debriefing session Monday, February 20. Photo: Heather Cassell

The Hilton Hotels of San Francisco Union Square responded to Creating Change conference attendees' allegations that some staff allegedly discriminated against and harassed some attendees, workers, and volunteers in an email statement to the Bay Area Reporter February 23.

The National LGBTQ Task Force's flagship conference, Creating Change, closed its 35th annual event hosted at Hilton Union Square in San Francisco February 21.

Some conference attendees stayed at nearby Parc 55, also owned by Hilton, which served as an option for conference attendees after the host hotel was fully booked.

The email statement responded to the top compliant of a list of concerns made by the Creating Change 23 Trans Action Collective. The situation prompted a protest with "Pose" star Angelica Ross at the conference's closing plenary February 20, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

The collective's number one complaint was "gender-based harassment and lack of cultural competency of hotel staff at this year's gathering." Alleged incidents prompted the collective to demand the task force and hotel "take accountability" and apologize. In the future, the collective demanded that the task force ensure it works with culturally-competent partners or train management and staff "with regards to race, ability, culture, and gender."

The Hilton Hotel in Union Square hosted the National LGBTQ Task Force's Creating Change conference. Photo: Courtesy Hilton Union Square  

Terry Lewis, complex general manager representing the Hilton Hotels of San Francisco Union Square, stated in the email, "diversity and inclusion are core tenets of Hilton's values." The hotels "have zero tolerance for racism and discrimination of any kind," she stated.

"The Hiltons of San Francisco Union Square are proud partners of many LGBTQ+ organizations and continually invests in our relationships that support this community," Lewis added.

That's not how some Creating Change attendees experienced the hotel or conference. They aired their concerns at the protest and at two conference debriefings hosted by the task force February 20, which was earlier than the organization usually holds discussions on concluded conferences.

During Monday night's debriefing attendees described incidents of racism, microaggressions, and misgendering throughout the conference. The attendees did not clarify if the incidents were allegedly perpetrated by Hilton staff or not. The protesters claimed some incidents were allegedly by hotel staff members.

A Spanish-speaking transgender woman did not feel supported by Parc 55 staff when she checked in for her stay at the conference. Speaking with the assistance of a translator at the conference debriefing, the woman described her bad hotel experience. She explained she was forced to pay the market rate for two nights that she believed she already booked at the conference rate or be homeless for those nights of the conference. The staff member wouldn't allow her to rebook the rooms at the conference rate, she said.

Task force staff immediately started working with the woman to correct her situation during the debriefing.

The B.A.R. did not attend the noon debriefing February 21.

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Contrary to the collective's complaint that there was no way to report incidents, task force communications director Cathy Renna said the organization had systems in place from its Bee D'Change chatbot, which had a responsive team behind it, to conference and hotel staff who wore badges and that attendees, staff, and volunteers could report and address incidents in real-time.

"When incidents ... occur, it's important to report them," Renna said. "It's important to report them, record them, and then have a conversation with the management."

The collective and other conference attendees' complaints were not specific about the incidents, including names of people, what institution they were with, and other details.

"It's really important to have specifics," Renna said, "because if there is a specific complaint or a particular individual, we always look at the intent of that."

The challenge is how looks and statements from people "land on people can be hurtful, but I don't know that the intent is always there," Renna added.

Kierra Johnson, a bisexual Black woman who is executive director of the task force, apologized for the situation.

"I'm sorry that we had to get here," Johnson told attendees at the conference's closing plenary. "There's a responsibility. I stepped into this position fully knowing we have some work to do."

Speaking with the B.A.R. in a phone interview February 24, Renna said cultural sensitivity for the LGBTQ community and many other issues planning Creating Change is "standard practice and part of our planning and protocol." The task force works closely with management, especially at hotels, "on a large number of issues" including making bathrooms gender-neutral and pronoun usage with hotel staff.

"It's a really important part of the sensitivity training that we do with anyone whom we're working with, particularly when working with an entity like a hotel, or any other space," Renna said.

Responding to allegations that Hilton staff weren't culturally competent, Lewis wrote in the email that the hotel's management took the task force's lead in preparing for the event. Hotel management "actively listened at pre-conference meetings" and "took direction and collaborated with conference organizers on how to prepare our nearly 1,400 team members to best welcome and show our Hilton hospitality to this group," Lewis stated.

"We conducted training specifically around inclusion, diversity, and how to remain pronoun friendly," wrote Lewis. "We remain committed to build[ing] on our commitment to fill the world with the light and warmth of hospitality and better ourselves as allies to this community."

The Hilton hotels in Union Square are "committed to providing quality accommodations and a welcoming environment for all who enter our doors," wrote Lewis. She noted that hosting groups like the task force's conference "are important examples of our commitment to these values."

"It's unfortunate," Renna said about the complaints from the collective and feedback from Creating Change attendees during the conference debriefs. "We're not happy to hear that people were misgendered or that it hurt them. That's terrible. We'll do whatever we can to work on it," she said.

Renna added, "[Hilton] has a better track record than the vast majority around all of these issues."

Hilton has scored a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index for nine consecutive years since 2013.

Hilton has appeared on HRC's CEI under the corporate names Hilton Hotels and Hilton Worldwide since the first report in 2002. It incrementally improved its score through targeted LGBTQ initiatives to its breakthrough in 2012, leaping from 60 to 90 points. The following year, in 2013, Hilton received a perfect score of 100.

The task force is hosting Creating Change at Hilton again for the 2024 conference in New Orleans.

"Looking at the larger scope of the conference, I don't think that we can find a space that is more gender-inclusive than Creating Change," Renna said, pointing out that even in progressive San Francisco and smaller cities where the conference usually is hosted the rest of the world has not caught up to "out nonbinary" people.

"We have such a larger out nonbinary population," Renna said. "I think the larger culture is still grappling, working, trying to understand that we use more than 'he and she' as pronouns now. That's an important part of the conversation and sensitivity with the hotel management [and] that's going to take time for folks, particularly at the staff level, to understand."

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