I went to my first Creating Change conference in Detroit last week - where the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force brought together nearly 2,000 GLBT activists from across the nation. While I was looking forward to catching up with friends, I was not sure what to expect. My past experience with left-leaning gatherings was that they often devolved into bitter hairsplitting arguments over maddening minutiae.
Often, these functions were retreats for the dysfunctional, which turned ordinary meetings into impromptu therapy sessions. The people were angry, frustrated and more interested in self-defeating arguments than defeating our right wing opponents.
The other major problem was a dearth of optimism. The left would repeat that until everyone was free no one was free - or several variations of this theme. While this goal is laudable, it is depressing. Essentially telling gay and lesbian people that they can't smile or laugh until every last baby has a bottle is a recipe for Prozac or burnout. The world will never be perfect and calling on activists to sacrifice their happiness until utopia occurs, is a way to shrink - not grow - a movement.
Granted, there were many reasons for people to be infuriated when I started my activism career in the late 80's. At the time, AIDS was taking a horrific toll while the government remained indifferent. The wounds from institutional sexism and racism were raw. Men still controlled much of the GLBT movement. Transgender Americans were expected to work hard, but know their place. So, while much of the unpleasantness was understandable, it was still unattractive.
The internal divisions were greatly exacerbated by the rise of the Religious Right, which was determined to roll back what little progress Americans had made on a number of social issues. So, there was a legitimate feeling of besiegement. Indeed, the right succeeded in turning "liberal" into a dirty word -- as politicians ran away from the "epithet" for nearly two decades.
So, I walked into Creating Change not knowing what to expect. I was delighted to find that the GLBT left had transformed into a much more optimistic movement. While many of the goals were the same, people had realized that it is okay to have fun on the journey to utopia. The event's host, comedian Kate Clinton, perhaps the most hilarious of all the acclaimed lesbian comedians, personified this sunny outlook.
At Creating Change, people were laughing and hopeful about the future. This helped account for a large turnout of youth activists who were attracted to the Task Force's uplifting vision for the future.
There was also a feeling of vindication on the gay left. The right wing juggernaut of the 90's has hit a wall. The seemingly unstoppable movement elected the most incompetent president in American history and its policies are sinking America on every level. Suddenly, conservative has become the dirty word and people are looking for a change.
The long-term struggle for justice has also brought us to the point where the first woman or African American will lead the Democratic presidential ticket. This historic event has empowered the left who can see tangible results and a more inclusive vision of American coming to fruition.
Within the movement, the anger over sexism was lessened by the enormously successful tenures of female leaders such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's Joan Garry, the Human Rights Campaign's Elizabeth Birch and the Task Force's Urvashi Vaid and Lori Jean.
Even the oft-combustible transgender activists were sedate. While they lost this year's battle over inclusion in a federal bill that would protect gay and lesbian people from getting fired, they did win the larger public relations war. And, the fact that major institutions, such as the Task Force, unabashedly fought for their inclusion showed that they had real political allies.
Outgoing Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman, who did an outstanding job framing the issues and improving the organization's infrastructure, also bolstered the gay left's prospects.
The confluence of these events and larger social trends made for a Detroit love-in. A lesson learned from Creating Change is that the GLBT left has a bright future. Instead of getting mired in past grievances and pet disputes, it focused on building a powerful movement. The people in attendance were clearly more interested in practical solutions than dogmatism. This bodes well for a movement that has often served as its greatest foe.
Leaving behind rancor and recriminations to fight for real progress and ending discrimination should be the continued focus of the GLBT left. As the right continues to implode, there is a real void to fill and a need to create lasting change including everything from gay rights to healthcare. Let's hope the left remains a force up to the important task of transforming America into a more fair and equitable nation.