There are about 450 openly GLBT elected officials in the United States, says Denis Dison, vice president for external affairs at the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute (GLLI). And when you visit GLLI’s Web site (www.glli.org), you are greeted by a slide show featuring some of those leaders, including city council members, a mayor, state senators and a sheriff. It’s a rainbow of elected representation.
More than 340 of those GLBT leaders are expected to descend upon Washington this weekend for GLLI’s 2008 International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, Dec. 4 through 7, at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel near Dupont Circle.
”It is the largest gathering of openly LGBT elected, appointed and community leaders,” Dison says, adding that the conference, now in its 24th year, includes workshops and panel discussions, and has been convened in different locales across the country. Last year, for example, it was held in Las Vegas. Washington last saw the conference in 2001.
”There are a large number of openly LGBT elected officials around this area,” Dison says. ”We have 30 local co-hosts, including people like David Catania (I-At large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) on the [D.C.] City Council, state legislators in Virginia and Maryland, like [state Delegates] Adam Ebbin (D-Va.) and Heather Mizeur (D-Md.), and then even some openly gay [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] commissioners, which there are a number of in Washington.”
Other participants will include local community leaders such as H. Alexander Robinson, chief executive officer for the D.C.-based National Black Justice Coalition.
”The purpose of the conference is to bring together political and advocacy leadership from the LGBT movement, to share our thoughts and strategies about what lies ahead of us, what we’ve accomplished so far, and also provide motivational training for individuals who are interested in continuing to pursue political advocacy in seeking public office,” Robinson says.
”I will be there to add encouragement and provide some African-American perspective about where we are in our movement toward equality,” says Robinson. ”[I will] also press some of our allies from other parts of the LGBT movement about what they can do to assist us in making sure that we have a movement that’s as inclusive as possible, that takes advantage of all of the talent and skill that we have, in the variety of LGBT people both in this country and around the world.”
This year’s speakers include, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.); Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is not gay; Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.); and Michael Guest, former U.S. ambassador to Romania.
”We tend to try to find people who are going to be interesting to listen to,” Dison says. ”Barney Frank is going to be talking about the financial crisis… obviously one of the hottest topics right now in the country. To have him, as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, be able to speak to his colleagues who are also openly [GLBT], about the economy, about where he sees things going, about what it means for them locally, is a great opportunity.”
The Leadership Conference also features workshops, which according to Dison, ”get a little bit more policy-oriented,” focusing on benefits for GLBT couples and families, HIV/AIDS issues, using online tools to reach constituents, the future of the GLBT equal-rights movement, in addition to non-GLBT-specific topics such as energy issues.
”There’s a focus on LGBT issues, but it’s not exclusive to that,” Dison says. ”Because we are serving elected officials who are dealing with a lot more issues than LGBT stuff, so we try to give them some policy focus as well.”
Dison says it’s important to hold the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference annually because it helps GLBT officials stay connected.
”They see each other every year and they exchange ideas, talk about their successes, and they talk about their challenges serving as openly LGBT. It’s important for them to renew their ties and learn from each other, to make new friends, make new connections.”
This year’s conference will also offer a taste of Hollywood and history with a private screening of Milk, followed by a discussion with producer Bruce Cohen, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Cleve Jones, longtime activist and a friend of Harvey Milk’s, portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch.
With the obvious connection between conference attendees and Milk, himself elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 as an openly gay man, that this year marks the 30th anniversary of his assassination in office should provide particular poignancy.
”It’s important for them to carry on that legacy and that tradition,” Dison says of today’s openly gay officials. ”To have people who are LGBT and in power does a couple of things: It puts us there at the table when these votes are being made about things that affect our lives. It also inspires people who may be LGBT to think bigger about their lives and what they can accomplish.
”When a person is elected by his or her own community, it is a validation of that person and their whole lives. If your’re doing so openly and honestly about your sexual orientation or gender identity, then that shows progress.”
The 2008 International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference runs Dec. 4 to Dec. 7 at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, 1127 Connecticut Ave. NW. Admission is $295 for elected officials, or $350 for the general public. For a full schedule of events and more details, visit www.glli.org/conference2008.