Today at Creating Change Conference in Oakland

November 12, 2005

Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications

A conversation with two of the movement’s preeminent thinkers

‘We are up against a global system that reinforces inequality at all costs.’ — John D’Emilio

‘Neither protest nor politics will end the oppression of LGBT people. We must make a cultural shift, a shift that changes the moral values of our society.’ — Urvashi Vaid

A full house of LGBT rights activists had the rare experience of ‘eavesdropping’ on a dialogue between Urvashi Vaid and John D’Emilio, two of the LGBT rights movement’s preeminent thinkers. If there’s anybody who knows about creating change, it’s this duo, who co-presented today’s keynote address in what they described as an ongoing conversation in their 18-year friendship. The two took on big-picture issues related to the movement: its successes and failures, as well as how best to move forward.

D’Emilio, who teaches at the University of Illinois of Chicago, is a former Task Force board co-chair and the founding director of the Task Force Policy Institute, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. He has written or edited more than half a dozen books, including Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America; and Lost Prophet, an award-winning biography of African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. From 1986 to 2001, Vaid worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, first as media director and then as executive director, and finally as director of the Policy Institute. She has written dozens of articles and commentaries, as well as the book, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation. In September, Vaid became executive director of the Arcus Foundation.

In their keynote, D’Emilio and Vaid praised the work of national organizations to build political power, win legal rulings, and improve the health and well-being of the LGBT community. As D’Emilio said, “The visibility we have achieved is like the air and water people need to survive.”

Both he and Vaid, however, warned against the negatives of institutionalization and selective visibility. Vaid criticized the tendency of large institutions to lead from the top down rather than the grassroots up, saying, “A movement does not consist of organizations, it consists of people.” D’Emilio brought up that many of the most visible LGBT people are white, and that this misrepresents the wide diversity of the community.

“Until we shift the colors of our visibility,” D’Emilio said, “visibility will remain a double-edged sword.”

D’Emilio and Vaid also discussed the systemic and pervasive nature of the opposition to LGBT equality as well as the inequities found within the LGBT community. D’Emilio tied racial, gender, sexual and economic oppression to a larger system of inequality that builds power for the few rather than the many.

“We are up against a global system that reinforces inequality at all costs,” he said. Focusing on the tendency of gains in equality in the LGBT community to benefit the wealthy, white and well-educated, he said, “We are up against the unequal distribution of the gains of our movement.”

Vaid gave credit to the LGBT movement for allowing women to attain positions of power, an achievement she said was not as common in other progressive movements. She stressed, however, that the LGBT movement had not done enough to build power in people of color communities and with other social justice issues, including poverty.

“Our politics of recognition needs to be married to a politics of redistribution. The progressive movement for greater justice is the mainstream of the LGBT movement, not a fringe group that has co-opted the queer movement,” she said.

Most important, D’Emilio and Vaid encouraged LGBT people to see movement building as a long-term process.

D’Emilio brought up the positives and negatives of the same-sex marriage issue, saying that, “With same-sex marriage, we have found an issue that penetrates the homophobia of heterosexuals in our society.” He lamented, however, that, “marriage has allowed a small number of people to hijack the agenda for the whole community. Issues like AIDS prevention and the rights of youth to sexual and gender self-determination — real life and death issues — have had to take a back seat to same-sex marriage.”

D’Emilio encouraged the community to think beyond short-term gains in a single issue like marriage, or sinking resources into one or two elections.

“Nothing is more important for our future than big-picture, long-term planning,” he said.

He reminded attendees that conservatives suffered a stinging defeat 41 years ago with Barry Goldwater's loss in the presidential election, but the right wing built on its loss by making a long-term plan for the transformation of American politics, a plan which is just now coming to fruition. D’Emilio said that the LGBT movement needs to “start making its 40-year plan” for the cause of equality and justice.

Vaid also stressed that equality for LGBT people will take more than political action.

“Neither protest nor politics will end the oppression of LGBT people. We must make a cultural shift, a shift that changes the moral values of our society,” she said.

Creating Change in the News

Gays push to recast marriage on morals
The Washington Post
ABC News on the Web
Boston Globe
Herald News Daily

Gays plan election offensive
Los Angeles Times

Gay community got out the vote for the special election
KPIX – CBS News Channel 5

LGBT activists will gather to address social justice
The Oakland Tribune

At a glance
There are now more than 70 chapters in the Imperial Court System, founded by the visionary activist José Sarria in San Francisco four decades ago. Empress I José Sarria, the Widow Norton, is recognized around the world as one of the pioneers of the gay and transgender movements of modern times, and was honored today with a Creating Change Award. “A thinking queen is a dangerous queen,” Sarria told the crowd, later adding, “United we stand, or divided they will catch us, one by one...”

Among the day’s other highlights:

Time to Fight: Building a Strong LGBTST Immigrant Rights Movement explored concrete strategies for building LGBTST immigrant power and the role of allies in the immigrant rights movement. Participants focused on organizing strategies, ways to make LGBT programs immigrant friendly, how to “center” LGBTST immigrants within LGBT movements and immigrant rights movements.

Cross-Class Dialogue in the LGBT Movement used interactive exercises to create opportunities for dialogue about working-class issues such as access to health care, homeless youth, and the right to come out within the military.

Organizing LGBT Asian Pacific Americans for Social Change explored strategies and techniques used by various LGBT APA groups for social, political and economic justice and community building. This workshop offered ways to build organizational infrastructure by invigorating LGBT APA groups to engage in more political advocacy and grassroots organizing, sharing insights to merge social and political activities, along with education and peer-support, and overcoming challenges such as ethnic diversity and gender inclusion.

The Human Rights of LGBT Seniors — A Model for Action explored the human rights and social service needs of LGBT seniors. For many seniors, whose identities are often hidden, these needs remain unmet. This workshop provided information on existing tools and community programs designed to support seniors and specifically address their needs.

Transforming Schools: Creating Safety for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students taught participants how to pass groundbreaking gender identity non-discrimination laws, model policies in school districts, and youth organizing strategies to advocate for gender identity justice in schools.

WorldPride in Jerusalem: A World Without Borders WorldPride will take place in Jerusalem in 2006. A panel of queer Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. peace activists addressed how to use WorldPride as an opportunity to strengthen the struggle against homophobia and the Israeli occupation so that both Israeli and Palestinian LGBT people can live in peace and security without discrimination.


The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movementís premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.