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Hundreds of LGBT Leaders to Gather in Houston

International conference of public officials, community leaders set for December
by Christina Gorczynski and Ryan Leach

The 27th International Gay & Lesbian Leadership Conference will take place December 1–4 at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston. The annual event, which is produced by the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute (GLLI), is expected to draw some 600 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender leaders in government and community organizations. Though most participants are U.S.-based, organizers also expect attendees from Argentina, Mexico, Nepal, Poland, South Africa, Serbia, Philippines, Uganda, and Nigeria.

Mayor Parker Welcomes Conference

“I’m thrilled to welcome the Leadership Conference back to my hometown, and I can guarantee you Houston is going to show us all a good time. I’ve learned so much from my friends and colleagues at this conference each and every year, and I look forward to seeing everyone again this December,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a message to attendees.

In 1984, barely two-dozen elected LGBT officials got together and guessed there were perhaps 50 out officials in the whole world. Today, there are nearly 1,000 out officials around the globe, and they’re on the front lines in the fight for equality. These officials, along with emerging leaders, have been gathering annually since 1984 for this conference.

The theme of the event, “Energize Our Future,” is a play on Houston’s status as an energy capital of the world. The goal of the conference is to energize careers by focusing on personal development, energize our community through policy discussions, and energize our movement by learning about the latest LGBT topics. The Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute works to achieve full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people by building, supporting, and advancing a diverse network of LGBT public leaders.

Participants will come together during the event and think creatively about critical issues that they deal with on a daily basis in their work. They will leave able to more effectively craft policies and build coalitions to bring those policies to fruition. They learn from the experts, but also from one another. Attendees will experience three days of training, skills building, networking, and discussion of key issues facing out leaders and their communities.

In addition to several days of panel presentations and professional development workshops, some 40 individuals will also participate in GLLI candidate and campaign training during the conference. Throughout the year, the GLLI conducts similar trainings in cities all over the country. The training has served as a launching pad for the careers of LGBT officeholders and campaign workers.

Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of GLLI, said Mayor Parker’s enthusiasm and leadership made Houston the easy choice for this year’s conference. “Mayor Parker is eager to show off her fantastic city, and we remembered a warm reception and a great time when the conference was held here in 2006. Local leaders have been especially welcoming and helpful as we planned this year’s conference, so I suspect it will be our best yet,” said Wolfe.

Out to Win

Indeed, the training and education provided by GLLI has yielded a high success rate nationwide for LGBT candidates, including Mayor Parker. However, running as an out LGBT person, even in 2011, still presents unique challenges to candidates. GLLI helps candidates navigate and address these challenges openly and honestly.

The election of Annise Parker as the mayor of Houston should have been the logical choice for Houstonians in 2009. A vetted candidate who had served three consecutive terms as an at-large councilmember (serving the entire city of Houston), Parker also served three more consecutive terms as the city controller. None of the other candidates had her résumé or experience. The election should have been a slam-dunk for someone who had grown up in Houston, attended Rice University, and was far and away the most qualified candidate.

Yet, there was one small hitch: Annise Parker is a lesbian. In 2009, opponents and community activists attempted, unsuccessfully, to use Parker’s sexual orientation to thwart her campaign. Houstonians did not respond to the attacks, though. Parker had long ago proven to the citizens of Houston that she was smart, determined, and loved the city she grew up in. After a hard-fought campaign, and despite the failed attacks, Parker was elected mayor.

Looking back, as she approaches her re-election in 2011, it’s hard to believe that 2009 was as controversial as it was. The 2011 campaign, which found Parker flush with cash (unlike her opponents), hardly made any news at all. The GLLI and the Victory Fund consider this lack of interest and headlines in the race to be progress.

Part of Parker’s success can be attributed to the Victory Fund and the GLLI. For 27 years, the GLLI and the Victory Fund have helped educate, support, and get LGBT candidates elected. Parker was one of their earliest endorsees. Through the help of the GLLI, Parker was equipped with the skills she would need to win election as an out candidate over a decade ago. Voters were neither surprised nor concerned with her sexual orientation in 2009, since she had always been open about her personal life. In the end, the attacks made on Parker did more of a disservice to her opponents than it did to the woman who would become mayor.

In 2011, despite a few attempts to stir the same gay-baiting pot, the only things that seem to have any resonance with Houston voters are the issues. The goal of GLLI and the candidates it educates and supports is to see the day when candidates are judged based on what they bring to the table as a leader, and not on whom they decide to love.

Making History All Over Again

GLLI and the Victory Fund have had the same impact in political races all over the country. Joel Burns, the city councilman from Fort Worth who captured the attention of millions with his heartfelt “It Gets Better” speech during a council meeting in October of 2010, is just one of the many Victory Fund endorsees and a former GLLI trainee. The support and training offered to Burns gave him a seat at the table and also gave him a platform to be a role model whose heartfelt words have helped countless LGBT youth around the world.

The Victory Fund and GLLI made national news in 1999 when Tammy Baldwin was elected to represent Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district as the first openly LGBT congressperson. Baldwin will attempt to make history again as she embarks on a run for the U.S. Senate in 2012, with the Victory Fund again by her side.

Energize Your Future

All three of these candidates, as well as hundreds of others from across the nation who have benefited from the help of the Victory Fund and the training they received from the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute, will be present for the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference in Houston. For Houstonians, GLLI will be offering a $99-day rate for either Friday or Saturday. Please note that the Saturday pass also includes the closing reception with attendees from all over the world—so if you like to celebrate, you might opt for Saturday.

Christina Gorscynski is the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters in Houston. Ryan Leach is a Houston attorney and a community leader. For more information and a schedule of conference events, visit www.glli.org/conference.


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