Creating Change Draws More Than 3,000 to Baltimore
More than 3,000 activists from across the country descended upon Baltimore this past weekend for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's 24th annual Creating Change conference.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Maryland First Lady Katie O'Malley officially opened Creating Change on Jan. 26 after more than 300 activists lobbied members of Congress on Capitol Hill to support the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other LGBT-specific measures. Task Force executive director Rea Carey delivered her annual State of the LGBT Movement address the following day, while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley closed the conference on Sunday.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan used Creating Change on Saturday as the backdrop for his announcement that his agency would codify its proposed ban on anti-LGBT discrimination in federal housing programs this week.
"I am proud to announce a new equal access to housing rule that says clearly and unequivocally that LGBT individuals and couples have the right to live where they choose," said Donovan to a sustained standing ovation. "This is an idea whose time has come."
The conference began only days after O'Malley introduced a bill that would allow same-sex couples to legally marry in Maryland. Unsurprisingly, marriage equality was the dominant issue among many presenters and activists who attended Creating Change.
Equality Maine organizers highlighted efforts to secure passage of a referendum in November that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the state. Conversely, activists from North Carolina and Minnesota discussed strategies that they hope to use to defeat proposed constitutional amendments that would bar nuptials for gays and lesbians in their respective states.
Gautam Raghavan of the White House Office of Public Engagement and other Obama administration officials discussed the repeal of the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers and other LGBT-specific advances that have taken place since the president took office in Jan. 2009. Gay Men's Health Crisis, the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America, Service and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) and Chicago's Center on Halsted presented a workshop on public policy and advocacy on behalf of older people with HIV/AIDS. Equality Forum executive director Malcolm Lazin and activists Lilli Vincenz and Bob Witeck screened the documentary "Gay Pioneers" on Saturday in tribute to Washington, D.C., activist Frank Kameny who passed away in October.
Gender Rights Maryland provided an overview of a bill that would add transgender-specific protections to the Free State's anti-discrimination laws. Sharon Brackett, who chairs the organization's Board of Directors, said a recently introduced measure in Baltimore County gives the statewide bill an added boost.
"This is good momentum," said Brackett.
The Task Force's Pedro Julio Serrano, University of Puerto Rico student Damián Cabrera and transgender activist Sophia Marrero spoke about the island's LGBT rights movement. Nearly 30 LGBT Puerto Ricans have been killed since authorities found gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado's decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body along a remote roadside in Nov. 2009. The Puerto Rico Senate sparked outrage in late November when it approved a proposed provision to the penal code that would remove sexual orientation and gender identity and expression from the island's hate crimes law.
"We have been passing through some hard times," said Marrero, who further expressed optimism that the situation for LGBT Puerto Ricans on the island would improve.
A Focus on International LGBT Rights Issues
A number of presenters used Creating Change to shine a spotlight upon the international LGBT rights movement.
Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, discussed why she thinks the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is an LGBT issue. Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, moderated a panel on Saturday that included Nisha Ayub of the Pink Triangle Foundation of Malaysia; Ugandan LGBT activist Val Kalende and Joel Simpson, founder and co-chair of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Guyana.
Mira Patel, special advisor on LGBT and women's rights at the State Department, noted that the panel coincided with the first anniversary of Ugandan gay activist David Kato's murder. She noted global rates of anti-LGBT violence continue to increase, and anti-sodomy laws remain on the books in nearly 80 countries. Patel cited the landmark speech on LGBT rights that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered in Geneva in December to commemorate International Human Rights Day as proof of the administration's ongoing commitment to advance this movement outside of the United States.
"As a gay woman of color, I am proud the State Department and the United States are taking the lead to confront the circumstances LGBT people face just going about their daily lives," she said, noting she was with Clinton when she delivered her speech. "The United States is finally on the right side of history."
Beyond Creating Change
Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, described Donovan's speech to EDGE as an "extraordinary indicator" of the progress that LGBT Americans have made since the first Creating Change took place in Bethesda, Md., in 1988. She said she will return from the conference with renewed vigor to fight against a likely ballot measure that would repeal a law that requires schools to include age-appropriate and factual LGBT-specific references into their curriculum.
"People here are so dedicated and so inspiring, that it feeds me to go back and do my work," said Jean.
Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, agreed.
"This is the one place when we can come together with thousands of other like-minded activists who we can share our lessons and our aspirations and our frustrations and re-energize and go back to our field," he said.