LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference: Crossroads and Crosswinds Connecting Across Race and Space

When I first arrived at the Second Annual LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference, I was nearly knocked over by the embrace the conference’s coexecutive director, Adrienne Williams. We had only spoken on the phone a few times, yet the last time I can remember being so warmly received was during one of my infrequent trips home to see my mother. While I was sure that in that moment she had a long list of other things to do, she still made time to ensure that I was being treated well. Adrienne’s hug was not a singular experience, but more of an indication of the tone of the weekend: Warm. The conference was held over four days at various venues including the Painted Bride Art Center, American Friends’ Service Committee Building and the William Way LGBT Community Center of Philadelphia. Thursday night’s activities provided an opportunity to meet board members of the Elements Organization, the lead organizers of the conference, and to hear speeches from Philadelphia City Council Candidates, Sherry Cohen and Christopher Hayes. Ms. Cohen, while not herself a member of the LGBTQ Womyn of Color community, made it a point to attend workshops held on other days and to interact on a one-on-one basis with conference goers.

Friday afternoon was a festival of short films, including submissions from Jus Flowers of Brooklyn Boihood, Charmain Johnson, creator of The Lovers and Friends Show, and Barefeet & 24 Frames Per Day by Sonali Gulati, also the winner of the CLAGS-administered 2009 Robert Giard Fellowship. The screening also included a film by the Equality Forum entitled Gay Pioneers, which tells the history of the white gay rights movement in Philadelphia and its impact on the national climate leading up to the Stonewall Riot. While the film was extremely informative and heartfelt, it was well off-target for an audience comprised almost entirely of LGBTQ Womyn of Color. None of the stories being told were from people of color and it raised concern in the audience. When asked why this was the film chosen, the representative from the Equality Forum defended the film’s relevancy to the conference on the basis of local history, but this proved not to be a strong enough tie for the conference goers who remained incensed at the lack of recognition of the importance of identity at this point in LGBTQ history.

Friday Night was a concert filled with local talent including Pussies, Pens and Politics, and Devin Christie with a feature set by Dionne Farris. The room was packed and responsive, a field of womyn swaying like open hips under a long loose skirt.

On Saturday morning there was an intergenerational brunch with an address from Coya Artichoker, Co-Founder of 2- Spirit First Nations Collective and Gloria Casarez, Director of LGBT Affairs at The Philadelphia Mayor’s Office. Conference organizer, Elements Organization, did an excellent job reaching out to local organizations and political officials and the program also included a letter from the mayor. The rest of the day was filled with 21 workshops, ranging from Inter-Generational Body Love facilitated by Ixchell Allblood to I Wanna Be Safe OUTside the System!, facilitated by Chelsea Johnson-Long and Taina Crespo from the Audre Lorde Project. Indicative of the homegrown nature of this conference, there was no one host hotel or institution. I stayed along with a number of other conference presenters in the home of the other Co-Executive Director, Shayna SheNess Israel. We all stayed up long into the night talking around Shayna’s kitchen table, discussing spirituality, identity and the reason each individual chooses to organize in the first place. “Members of the Elements Org. are all friends that hung out on weekends”, Shayna said. They would go to the club or whatever else was going on en masse, where everyone would meet up and have a good time. After the party they would continue hanging out and talking just as we were, building and bonding with each other. This conference came out of a goal for a safe space, a place to address issues and build broader and deeper connections.

Sunday morning we gathered at the William Way LGBT Community Center for closing activity Sistah Circle and remarks by Marquita Thomas, founder of the Serafemme Music Festival. As we sat in a huge circle tossing a rainbow ball of yarn from one person to another, saying what we were grateful for and how we planed to carry the light forward, what struck me most was that I was going to walk away from this conference having grown in unexpected ways; not because the organizers got every little detail right or because programming was perfect and each event started on time—they didn’t— but I grew from the care, warmth and intentional creation of safe space. As CLAGS heads into our 20th year, the outreach portion of my job title as Events and Outreach Coordinater is an extremely important aspect to me. The importance of fostering community and putting myself physically in spaces with similar folks helps to create a deeper and more relevant conversation in the LGBTQ community. At the LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference, there was a crew of womyn dedicated to being the change they wanted to see in the world, but on a local level. To get the most accurate representation of the weekend, my photos demonstrate the sense of community more accurately than I ever could.