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Creating Change Goes Virtual in 2021

This year’s conference also marks a changing of the guard in National LGBTQ Task Force leadership.

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Outgoing executive director Rhea Carey (l) will step down at the end of January. She will be succeeded by Kierra Johnson, who will become the first Black woman to lead the National LGBTQ Task Force (courtesy photos).

For the first time in its venerable 33-year history, the Creating Change Conference will go virtual when the four-day online event kicks off on January 28.

The conference is sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force, and is billed as “the foremost political, leadership, and skills-building conference for the LGBTQ social-justice movement.” Each year, Creating Change draws thousands of activists, advocates, and leaders from across the nation. The theme of the 2021 conference is “The Power of You,” and it will include four plenary sessions, 16 day-long institutes, and 48 workshop and caucus sessions. Taking place one week after the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the event promises a rich dialogue about the new possibilities for the queer community under a more liberal White House administration.

The Conference will also benefit from a dollop of star power. The opening keynote address will be delivered by actress and activist Dominique Jackson, perhaps best known for her leading role as Elektra Abundance on the FX television series Pose. The closing keynote speaker is adrienne maree brown, an American women’s rights activist, Black feminist, doula, and author of the book Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Ample entertainment at the conference will be provided by Big Freedia, a New Orleans rapper hailed as “The Queen of Bounce,” and Latina comic Sandra Valls, best known for her performances in Showtime’s The Latin Divas of Comedy and PRIDE: LGBT Comedy Slam.

“The Air is Electric with Hope”

“I think the best thing about the conference is the assembly of the various rainbow segments of our community,” says Houston gay activist Bryan Hlavinka, who served as co-chair of the host committee when Houston hosted the Creating Change conference in 2014. “The air is electric with hope. We tend to work in silos in our community, so it’s great to see different segments of the community come together for the conference and celebrate who we are, without judgement.”

While the Task Force ventures into new territory with its first online conference, it promises to have financial benefits for attendees and extend the reach of the event. With no travel or hotel expenses this year, attendees will only need to pay to register for the conference, which begins at $50 for students and $150 for the general public.

A Leadership Transition

This conference will mark a changing of the guard at the oldest advocacy organization fighting for queer equality nationwide. Executive director Rhea Carey, who has led the Task Force during a tumultuous period for the last twelve years, will step down at the end of January. She is the longest-serving executive director in the group’s history, and  will be succeeded by Kierra Johnson, who has been the Task’s Force’s deputy director since 2018. Johnson will be the first Black woman to lead the organization in its 48-year history.

Carey and Johnson will share the stage together for the State of the Movement address, a signature conference event in which the leaders articulate the challenges and opportunities, as they perceive them, for the LGBTQ movement in the year ahead.

Achieving Greater Ethnic Diversity

During her tenure, Carey helped increase the Task Force’s financial sustainability and the diversity of its staff, among other achievements. “From the beginning, I wanted to move the organization into one that would not only be majority people of color staff, but led by a more diverse set of leaders, representing our LGBTQ+ community more completely,” Carey observed. “It hasn’t only been about who we hire. It has been about moving the Task Force more fully toward being a racial, economic, gender, and social-justice organization and having the diverse perspectives of our staff help to shape and fulfill that mission.”

Before joining the Task Force as deputy director, Johnson served on its board of directors and its National Action Council. Previously, she was the executive director of URGE, which mobilizes young leaders to advocate for reproductive and gender equity. She is recognized as a national expert on queer and reproductive-rights issues, and has testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives. She has also appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, Fox News, and National Public Radio.

In its announcement of Johnson as the organization’s new leader, the Task Force board noted that “her background in reproductive justice speaks to the breadth and intersectionality of the Task Force’s mission, and her experiences as a BIPOC will resonate with so many in our economically, racially, sexually, and otherwise diverse community.”

Spotlighting Veteran Movement Activists

As is its tradition, the Task Force will honor four veteran activists at this year’s conference:

Gloria Allen, who is widely known as “Mama Gloria,” is the 74-year-old transgender advocate, activist, and community leader who will be awarded the SAGE Advocacy Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues. Having grown up in Chicago and being immersed in the drag ball scene of the city’s South Side, Allen went on to found and run a charm school for homeless transgender youth at Chicago’s LGBTQ community center on Halsted Street. Now retired from a career as a licensed practical nurse, Allen continues to speak to youth and others about the transgender community. She is the subject of the recently released award-winning film Mama Gloria.

Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, a grassroots organizer and self-described “Puerto Rican butch dyke,” will be awarded The Susan J. Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement. Rivera is a 30-plus-year veteran of the LGBTQ and labor movements.

Javier Hernandez, an immigrant and queer leader fighting for immigrant rights in the Inland Empire, will receive the Award for Outstanding LGBT Leadership on behalf of Immigrant Rights, given by the Haas, Jr. Fund. Since 2015, Javier has been the director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (IC4U), a coalition of over 40 organizations, unions, legal service providers, and congregations that advocate for immigrant justice in the Southern California region.

Anthropologist, theorist, and writer Gayle Rubin will be honored with The Leather Leadership Award for her work and studies within the leather community.

For more information and to register, visit creatingchange.org.

This article appears in the January 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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