Creating Change, The LGBTQ movement, and the long game

By , January 29, 2016 11:49 am

Creating Change, the largest LGBTQ conference in the country, was in Chicago recently. There were a few dramatic moments, to say the least. In short, there was about a protest a day: At the Latinx Institute, at the Panel on Trans-Attracted Men, and – most notably and most reported – at the reception hosted by A Wider Bridge, “the pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies.” A few articles on the conference for your reading pleasure (I don’t agree with everything these articles say, but I’ve gotten something from each of them): LGBTQ Jews: Let’s Stop Talking About IsraelIn Praise of Discomfort: Learning From Dr. King and Confronting PinkwashingWe Can All Learn from Creating Change 2016. And The Task Force’s Rea Carey on the Protest That Rocked Her Conference.

There’s one more article making the rounds titled “Special Snowflake Syndrome is ruining the progressive LGBTQ movement.” I’m not going to link to it because I think it’s, on the whole, condescending; feel free to Google it if you’re interested. For all that the article does poorly, I DO think there’s a kernel of value in it: Far too many LGBTQ activists are eager to call out rather than call in. There is an utter inability to assume good intent or to try and find a common ground. And there is little room for a plurality of opinions. Either you agree with me or you’re the enemy.

After The 2015 Trans 100, someone shared this quote with me: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.” (From Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since Creating Change, and as it applies to the broader LGBTQ movement. Over and over at Creating Change, I heard – either directly, through the grapevine, or via posts and articles shared on social media – how this person was an idiot for making some decision. That person was crazy for failing to foresee how Choice X would offend Group Y. The entire conference was a sham because it didn’t take into account Position Z. There was rarely, if ever, a consideration of why decisions were made the way they were, and how making different decisions might actually play out. And, of course, there was a stream of tweets saying anyone protesting the Wider Bridge reception was as bad as the Nazis, and anyone supporting the Wider Bridge reception was condoning Palestinian genocide. No middle ground. No room for honest disagreement. And, again and again, no consideration of the intent behind an action or a decision or a choice.

To be crystal clear: Good intentions do not outweigh bad behavior. A brief aside to make that point: My roommates have a six year old son. We occasionally rough house or play-wrestle, and sometimes he’ll accidentally hurt me. The refrain is immediate. “I didn’t mean to!” And I have to explain that I know he didn’t mean to, but whacking me in the eye still hurts and I would like an apology. So no, the best of intentions don’t counter a shitty outcome, but I do think we need to take intentions into account when figuring out how to respond to shitty outcomes. To go back to my aside, my response to being hit in the eye would be very different if I thought my roommates’ son intended to do it. It felt that many of the criticisms and frustrations at Creating Change – and within the larger LGBTQ movement – seem to assume everyone is out to get everyone else. Or, at the very least, anyone who disagrees with you is woefully incompetent and without forethought. I’m pretty confident neither of those things are true.

I’ve also been reflecting on how the ease and speed of doing things on social media connects to the impatience I see in many LGBTQ activists. Everything needs to change now. Right away. Why haven’t you fixed it yet? Get on it! NOW! I have huge amounts of sympathy for this feeling. I remember being in my late teens and early twenties and wondering how anyone had the patience to plan multi-year strategies. After all, I thought, those problems need to be fixed right away! Unfortunately, that’s rarely how change happens. (I do suspect there are activists twice my age now who view the lessons I’m learning with no small amusement, as they’ve been working the long game much longer than I’ve been alive.) 

Much has been written about the echo chamber of social media, where we only see ideas that we already support, and all dissent or disagreement is filtered out or pushed aside. Based on what I saw at Creating Change, that seems to be spilling into real-world activism, at least in the LGBTQ community. (I’d be surprised if it wasn’t also happening elsewhere.) Protests are organized in days or weeks. Strategies are thought of in periods of months, at best. I met with larger organizations attempting to figure out the long game – to figure out how strategy can and should play out over years – but they seemed disconnected from the passion and protest happening elsewhere in the conference. Now, with 4,000+ attendees, I’m sure there was lots going on I wasn’t privy to. But I don’t know how to bridge the gap between those who need to do something Right Now and those who have been playing this game since long before any of this young cadre of activists (myself included) was born.

Youth sees age as unacceptably slow. Age sees youth as unrealistically demanding. As someone who somewhat straddles those two categories, I sometimes feel I can talk with both but am unable to translate between the two. I look at the energy and passion of the protests and feel change is right around the corner. I look at the decades of work and movement-building and suspect change is further away than we’d like it to be.

I’ll end with an experience I had on Twitter. Due to the protests at the Wider Bridge reception, the #CC16 hashtag spilled into conversations about Israel and Palestine more broadly. I’ve continued some of those conversations since CC16 ended, and have been both incredibly frustrated and incredibly appreciative at the length some people are willing to go to disagree with total strangers on the Internet. At one point, I asked “But can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand why they might feel differently?” This was around whose claims to land in Israel was “legitimate,” an argument I’m totally going to sidestep in this post. One person responded saying, basically, “Yes. I disagree completely, but yes.” Another? “No, because I don’t care what terrorists ‘feel’.”

Those two contrasting tweets me realize that I don’t know that I can work with activists who can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Disagree, yes. Hell, disagree vocally and then go stage a protest. Argue. Debate. Passionately converse and shout and leave angry at each other. But be ready and willing to come back to the table with an interest in what someone else has to say – and why they are saying it – or I don’t think I can work with you. There were too many folks at Creating Change – and within the larger LGBTQ activism movement – who not only don’t seem to care why opponents of LGBTQ rights think the way they do, they don’t care why people who mostly-but-not-completely agree with them think the way they do!

The practical reality of this is that we are less effective as a community if we can’t find common ground, and less effective change-makers if we can’t imagine why our opponents think the way they do. The moral imperative is that when you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes you’re beginning down a slippery slope that ends in dehumanization or worse.

I’d like to be in this movement for the long game. I’m not interested in winning the battle but losing the war, or in emotionally satisfying protests at the expense of larger victories. I don’t claim to have enough distance to label the protests at Creating Change as falling into those categories, although I suspect some will read this piece that way. Rather, I want to take a step back from CC16, take a deep breath, and consider: What worked? What didn’t? What could the organizers have done differently? And, most importantly, what could we – as individuals – have done differently? What conversations should we have engaged in, long before protests began? Who should we have reached out to, perhaps weeks or months before arriving at the conference in Chicago? What responsibility do we each hold to view others in this movement with empathy, even when we disagree with them on real and important topics?

How do we come together for the long game?

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