Trans TV star leads protest at SF Creating Change confab

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday February 22, 2023
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"Pose" star and transgender activist Angelica Ross, left, led about 50 transgender conference staff and volunteers in a protest with multiple grievances against the National LGBTQ Task Force's management and planning of Creating Change 35 at the conference's closing plenary February 20. Photo: Heather Cassell
"Pose" star and transgender activist Angelica Ross, left, led about 50 transgender conference staff and volunteers in a protest with multiple grievances against the National LGBTQ Task Force's management and planning of Creating Change 35 at the conference's closing plenary February 20. Photo: Heather Cassell

"Pose" star and transgender activist Angelica Ross staged a protest against Creating Change at the conference's closing plenary in San Francisco February 20, unhappy with alleged anti-trans incidents at the host hotels and problems with the conference itself.

On Monday, attendees at the National LGBTQ Task Force's signature event suddenly received a push alert on the conference's app around 4:45 p.m. stating that the closing plenary was starting at 5; it was to have started at 5:30.

The nearly 3,000 Creating Change attendees were used to sudden schedule changes four days into the conference and headed to the Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Union Square for the plenary. What they got was transgender conference workers and attendees rising in protest. Ross was their spokesperson.

"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 said about the text messages she received from transgender activists working for and attending the conference.

Ross had walked out on stage and sat down withtask force Executive Director Kierra Johnson and fellow "Pose" star Dyllón Burnside to talk about the organization's future.

But then she stood up and invited an estimated 50 transgender, gender-nonconforming, and intersex conference staff, contractors, and volunteers on stage reading their list of nine grievances.

"I've been at Creating Change for years," said Ross, who is a task force policy institute fellow alumna. "So, 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?' So, we're not asking. These are not asks. These are demands.

"On the 50th anniversary of the National LGBTQ Task Force, 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. "This conference is not creating change — not yet, not quite yet.

"It wouldn't be Creating Change if it weren't a space where Black queer and trans folks couldn't make their voices heard," she added. "I am nothing without my community and we are nothing without our community."

More work is needed

The Creating Change 2023 Trans Action Collective was organized "in direct response to the ongoing exclusion and erasure of trans, nonbinary, and intersex people in this space," Ross read from the collective's statement, flanked by the transgender activists.

The collective of transgender and gender-nonconforming activists working at the Creating Change conference met February 19, the anniversary of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera's death. They gathered after long hours working behind the scenes at the conference to demand changes and immediate action by task force leaders to address their claims of wrongs that happened at this year's conference.

Among some of the concerns the collective expressed were incidents of harassment and lack of cultural competency by staff at the Hilton, the host hotel, and Parc 55, the overflow hotel contracted by the task force. There was no system in place for staff, volunteers, and attendees to report incidents, among other logistical and operational issues.

Although support for visually- and hearing-impaired, as well as non-English speaking attendees, was present and visible throughout the conference, it was made clear that more work was needed to increase accessibility and inclusivity.

An Asian gender-nonconforming American Sign Language interpreter working on the stage during the protest started crying while signing. Their team stepped in to allow them to participate in the demonstration.

"From coast to coast, there has been an onslaught of anti-trans legislation that has fueled a wave of anti-trans and anti-nonbinary violence and discrimination," Ross said. "Unfortunately, spaces that were created to hold us in times of crisis like this, such as Creating Change, are a microcosm of what we face in the larger society."

Representatives from the Hilton, which owns Parc 55, did not respond to requests for comment.

Equity and restitution

Ross laid out the collective's vision for what equity and restitution look like.

The collective demanded apologies from the hotels, financial reimbursements, future financial aid, fundraising and grant-writing training from funders, and awards recognizing the work of more communities and organizations.

Responding to the overcrowded daylong Trans Institute, the collective demanded a separate multi-day TGI conference at the next Creating Change conference funded by the task force, and alternate virtual and smaller conferences around the country.

They also demanded better representation of the local queer Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, and those from the southern U.S. in the conference's programming.

"Our beloved trans ancestor Sylvia Rivera said, 'You have to be visible. We have to show the world that we are in the world,'" Ross said. "The Trans Institute gathering overflowed with our abundance, and the rest of the conference has benefited from the inherent wisdom that we bring with our presence."

Johnson, a bisexual Black woman who has led the task force since 2021, apologized for the situation.

"I'm sorry that we had to get here," she said as Ross returned to her seat for the closing plenary. "There's a responsibility. I stepped into this position fully knowing we have some work to do."


Conference workers weren't the only ones unhappy about how Creating Change played out.

Attendees received a push alert announcing two separate debriefings at 8:15 p.m. February 20 and at noon February 21, the last day of the conference. The Bay Area Reporter attended Monday night's hour-and-15-minute debriefing that attracted about 40 conference attendees.

Creating Change Conference director Danny Linden, who took on the role in June 2021, along with the task force's Mayra Hidalgo Salazar, deputy executive director, and Sayre Reece, senior strategist, listened to attendees as they talked about problems they experienced throughout the gathering.

Many attendees had similar experiences as conference workers with misgendering, anti-Blackness, and anti-Muslim microaggressions from hotel staff, workshop leaders, and other attendees and no way to report the incidents. They echoed the protesters in wanting cultural sensitivity training for hotel staff.

Attendees expressed frustration with logistical issues, such as poor Wi-Fi, a lack of signage and readable maps in the conference app and booklet, small rooms for popular sessions and too large of rooms for other workshops, a lack of food breaks during daylong institutes, not enough time for sessions, and many canceled sessions. Some were unhappy with how the sessions were presented, describing a disconnectedness from the presenters and desiring more interactive workshops.

Others wanted more networking and self-care events in-between sessions, ways to make it easier using technology to share contacts, and to get out, connect with, and explore the city through the conference.

A Black disabled queer woman said she had to "navigate this space in pain because it wasn't set up for me," describing long trips to accessible bathrooms located far away from where she was at the conference, small rooms with no space for her to park her chair inside, and no access to power plugs to charge her electric wheelchair outside conference rooms. "I feel like, why am I even here? This is not for me," she said.

One man expressed he was excited to come to San Francisco. He anticipated the spiritual sessions would be "energetic" only to be "disappointed."

"One thing about LGBTQ+ people is that we are so drained spiritually that this could have been like a major opportunity to get that energy back," said the man, who was disappointed by the spirituality workshops, many of which combined faith and spirituality, lacking the uniqueness of each category.

He said he hopes Creating Change recognizes the difference between faith-based, spirituality, and wellness.

Three Muslim South Asian students expressed their disappointment in the lack of South Asians and Muslims and workshops beyond the one they presented at the conference.

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 had already booked at the conference rate or be homeless for two nights of the conference. She wasn't allowed to rebook the rooms at the conference rate.

Task force staff immediately started working on correcting her situation during the debriefing.

One of the two experienced conference organizers who attended the debrief suggested requiring a cutoff for canceling a workshop and tapping into backup experts onsite to fill in for cancellations.

An attendee said they liked some of the social events, such as the game space and ball.

Taking on the system

"Creating Change describes itself as the nation's foremost political leadership and skill-building conference for the LGBTQ movement and claims to be building a future where everyone is free to be themselves in every aspect of their lives," Ross said, "but they cannot possibly hope to do so if it continues to exclude its most marginalized community members."

Ross demanded that the task force "not scapegoat its Black and Brown transgender, nonconforming, and otherwise marginalized staff" simply because a Black bisexual woman now leads the organization. "We ... can't just let them slap her face on the top of this problem."

"We have to take it to the whole system," she continued. "We demand that the task force commits to supporting the leadership of these staff members and the labor in a coalition with their communities to shift this gathering to a space that builds towards our collective liberation."

Ross challenged attendees, "We all call upon the cis folks in this room. Do you love us enough to be angry with us?"

Creating Change attendees who did not attend the debriefs should look in their email for a post-conference survey, Cathy Renna, the task force's communications director said. She added there will also be other opportunities for attendees to express their concerns and what worked for them.

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