LGBT activists from across the Midwest and elsewhere gathered March 12-14 to discuss the future of the grassroots LGBT community. The event, "Unite+Fight: Strategizing for LGBT equality: The Equality Across America Midwest Conference," brought together about 250 activists ranging in age and experience. It was held downtown at Columbia College Chicago.
The event began the evening of March 12 with spoken-word performances and live music. Workshops and registration took place all day March 13, with a special plenary and a film screening occurring March 14.
Workshops, which were based on submissions by activists across the Midwest, focused on a variety of concerns within the LGBT community. These included a session with the photographer of the well-known "No H8" campaign, Adam Bouska. He began the campaign in response to Proposition 8 in California.
Audience members asked him questions about the people he has photographed, what has been difficult about it and how he manages his photography business while doing "No H8" free of charge.
When Bouska started the photos, he said it took about 15 minutes to get the perfect shot. Now, however, he has gotten the process down to a mere 30 seconds per person.
Out of the many well-known figures Bouska has photographed, a more controversial one was Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain, creating a dialogue about their varying beliefs regarding marriage equality.
"I've never said no [ to anyone, ] " Bouska said. "We like to take it one step further and try and educated people. There are certain people that are part of the campaign, some board members, who are against having certain faces. I find it very hard to turn anyone away from it."
"It was a really open environment where everyone could ask questions and find out just what they could do to be politically active," Columbia College student and activist Russell Yost said. "Adam was amazing, too."
Another well-attended workshop featured Lt. Dan Choi, a gay man who faced discharge from the military upon coming out, discussing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" ( DADT ) . Choi came out a year ago on the Rachel Maddow Show, and has been advocating for reform for DADT nationally from that point on.
"If you are a military veteran... would you stand up? I want to applaud you," Choi said to the audience.
"If you are an anti-war demonstrator... I would like for you also to stand up. I applaud you and your service," he then said.
He then went on to talk about his experience in the military and DADT, among other things. "To me, it hurts the most because Don't Ask Don't Tell is the only law in our books that mandates the firing of federal employees because of their truth-telling," Choi said.
Choi then took questions from the audience. They asked about things varying from DADT to masculinity within the gay community.
"In the military I think our culture is more afraid of the bending of gender roles and gender identity and hetero-normative violations than [ sexual ] orientation," Choi said while answering a question about masculinity in the military.
During the last session of the day, Sherry Wolf presented a workshop chronicling the history of the LGBT movement in "Stonewall to Prop 8: The Fight for LGBTQ Liberation."
Wolf described her generation as "too young to remember Stonewall, to old to Tweet," before starting a lightning-fast run through of modern gay history.
She covered the progress and setbacks we have faced in the past 40 years. When talking about progress, Wolf noted that sodomy laws in the United States were not repealed since 2003.
"In most states, 38 states, gender identity is not covered," Wolf said. "It's perfectly legal to say 'she's too butch or he's a queen, and I don't want to work with them.'"
After a day of workshops, an evening plenary entitled "Why We Won't Wait: What Are the Next Steps Toward Full Federal Equality?" took place. It featured Lt. Dan Choi as well as representatives from Equality Across America, Equality Illinois and the Gay Liberation Network. [ Editor's note: Micki Leventhal discusses this plenary in more detail in a related article. ]
As the conference wound down March 14, activists gathered to discuss their individual positions in their home towns as well as what can be done to increase grassroots LGBT efforts.
In a group discussion, people discussed their opinions in the future of the LGBT movement and the best way to do so.
The final portion of the conference was a screening of the film Fish Out of Water, which chronicles one Christian lesbian's journey into the church and proving that homosexuality is not a sin.
Russell Yost, who attended the screening, found it inspiring.
"It dives right into the facts and the people running our churches," Yost said. "It's great to hear from the people that are pro-gay and the ones that could not be more against homosexuality. You get such a spectrum of what everyone has to say."
The conference is one of several to be held in different regions by Equality Across America, the group that put together the March on Washington in October. Local organizations take on the conference, with support from Equality Across America. In Chicago, Join the Impact was the main group behind the conference.
For more information about the conference and groups that organized it, visit Chicago's Join the Impact chapter at www.jointheimpactchicago.com or Equality Across America's Web site at www.equalityacrossamerica.org .
To read about the March 13 plenary with activist Sherry Wolf, attorney Jim Madigan, advocate Andy Thayer and Lt. Dan Choi, please visit www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com .