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First Person: Deaf Presence at the Creating Change Conference

By Connor Gillis

On January 23-27, Atlanta hosted the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change Conference. Creating Change is the largest gathering of leaders in the LGBT social justice movement. More than 3,000 people come from all around the country to attend this conference. A wide spectrum of people are represented: from CEOs of companies, to social workers in hospitals, to Executive Directors of non-profits, and grassroots movement leaders who organize their communities while holding down low or no-paying jobs, and more.

The conference occurred at the Hilton Atlanta hotel, in downtown Atlanta, GA. Creating Change organizers set up a “Disability and Access” table across from registration to address any issues around access, disability, and interpretation at the conference. Interpreters were offered to any Deaf/HH people who registered for the conference and scheduled them in advance. Many of us were disappointed when we discovered that the access table was not adequately staffed. When the table was being staffed, it was by the ASL interpreters, who could not answer questions about other access needs at Creating Change. At many times it was challenging to locate the interpreters, who often were not at the assigned table when they were not working. There were also issues with securing certified interpreters for our workshop session. We were able to give feedback on all of these points to the disability and interpreting point person, and hope that our concerns will be concretely addressed and incorporated into how the conference handles disability and language services next year.

At its peak, there were ten Deaf people at the conference of varying backgrounds. Eight identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. Seven identify as people of color. One person was from Gallaudet. One person was from Minnesota. Eight were from the Atlanta, GA, area.

One of the most exciting parts of the conference for myself was attending Alex Jackson Nelson and Stephanie “Butta” Johnson’s presentation on the Community Needs Assessment (CNA) for the D/HH/DB GLBT community in the D.C. Metro area. The research results are intended to inform and impact community engagement and focused action towards community improvement for the D/HH/DB GLBT Community in the D.C. Metro area. Research results may be beneficial in creating platforms for policy change and development in regards to access for the D/HH/DB GLBT community.

Alex and Butta presented their preliminary research results over brunch to a small room full of well-known LGBT movement leaders and researchers. The presentation went very well, and many individuals in the room indicated that they would be anxiously awaiting the final results of the CNA.

The research results will be shared with the broader community on March 1, 2013, at a celebratory event in the Peikoff Alumni House (Ole Jim) from 5:15-8:00pm on the Gallaudet University campus. The event is public, and all are welcome to attend.

In addition to the CNA presentation, the conference hosted a workshop examining the intersection of Deaf, trans, and disabled identities. Led by Eliza Greenwood and myself, the workshop was titled “Austin Unbound: Deaf, Trans, Disabled?”. We had over 50 people in attendance for our 2.5 hour long session. Four Deaf people from Atlanta showed up to our session, and participated in our panel.

The room was full for our workshop.

The room was full for our workshop.

We began the session with a small group discussion. We asked our participants to break up into groups and share what they knew about the Deaf, transgender, and disabled communities. We encouraged people to share their personal experiences.

Participants broke up into small groups to discuss the topics.

Participants broke up into small groups to discuss the topics.

We then showed the film “Austin Unbound” which was produced by Eliza Greenwood and is about Austin, a Deaf transgender man. Eliza answered questions about the film and shared about her experience making the film.

Eliza explaining her process of making the film "Austin Unbound".

Eliza explaining her process of making the film “Austin Unbound”.

In addition to showing  “Austin Unbound”, Eliza and I guided a discussion on the intersections of the disability justice movement and whether or not the transgender and Deaf communities fit within this movement.

Mia Mingus, a leader in the Disability Justice movement, writes, “Disability justice has the power to not only challenge our thinking about access but to fundamentally change the way we understand organizing and how we fight for social change. It has the power to bring our bodies back into our conversations. What do we do with bodies that have limitations, that are different (no matter how much we want to change them)? How do we acknowledge that all bodies are different, while also not ignoring the very real ways that certain bodies are labeled and treated as “disabled?”…Disability is not monolithic. Ableism plays out very differently for wheelchair users, deaf people or people who have mental, psychiatric and cognitive disabilities. None of these are mutually exclusive, and are all complicated by race, class, gender, immigration, sexuality, welfare status, incarceration, age and geographic location.”

We kicked off the second half of our session with a panel of people who identified as Deaf, trans, and/or disabled. Our panel was composed of Eliza, 1 Deaf genderqueer white person, 3 Deaf trans women of color, 1 Deaf trans-ally of color, and myself (a Deaf trans white man). Our panelist shared their thoughts on the disability justice movement and whether or not Deaf identities and trans identities fit within that movement.

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The panel sharing their stories and experiences.

Eliza states, “In terms of Deaf & trans identities intersecting with disability, my team is split on the issue. It is complicated to address. Some of us are excited about what the Deaf and trans communities might gain by aligning with the Disability Justice movement. Others of us prefer to focus on the community building opportunities the film presents along the Deaf/trans spectrum, and see Austin Unbound as more of a cultural piece.”

We ended our session by opening the floor to our audience for their thoughts, and received overwhelming positive feedback about our session from participants. Both Eliza and I are very excited to be making more connections within the Deaf/Trans community. I am also hoping to assist with organizing more workshops on Deaf identities for next year’s Creating Change Conference that will be held in Houston, TX.

 

Eliza and I standing in front of our brainstorming window! We utilized this window in the hotel room to organize our thoughts before our workshop.

Eliza and I standing in front of our brainstorming window! We utilized this window in the hotel room to organize our thoughts before our workshop.

 

  • seattleboi

    So now Eliza is all of the suddenly identifying as “genderqueer”? I cringed when I read that. You gotta be kidding me. An obvious attempt to gain credibility. Giving a workshop on the trans, deaf experience when you are a cisgender hearing woman is a big NO NO. Eliza needs to own her cisgender hearing privilege and needs to stop giving these type of workshops. She has absolutely no business giving workshops on this topic and people need to stop enabling her. It’s Austin that should be giving the workshops and speaking about the film. It’s about _his_ experience. But no, Eliza sees green dollar$ signs and has been peddling this film left and right. If it’s between her and Austin speaking, she makes sure it’s her. It’s clear to me that she wants the money. Despite already earning thousands from the film, it’s apparently not enough. And in an attempt to appear credible, she’s also asking other trans deaf people to sit on panels, often with little or no compensation. Austin has washed his hands of her and recently posted this on his Facebook page:

    “Austin: I want make to crystal clear that I don’t work for Eliza Who made film,” Austin Unbound”. We were equal but not anymore. Now we don’t work together anymore. Please don’t contact her about me. I would love to do questions & answer as speaker. But I can’t because I don’t own this film. When Eliza selling or whoever selling this DVDs. You can ask direct to me after DVD releasing. Not Eliza. I am sorry I can’t say anymore. Please no negative comments. Only I can say, that’s all. Thanks.”

    For people who are thinking of showing this film, make sure it is Austin himself that you pay to bring out to your venue. It’s Austin that should be leading workshops and discussions when this film is shown. If people have questions about the filmmaking aspects or want to hear from Eliza, she can join Austin via a Skype session. And it was actually someone else altogether that actually did most of the filming. It wasn’t Eliza. Don’t enable Eliza in this exploitation of Austin, the true star of this film, and stop allowing her to give workshops on issues she has no business doing. She does not represent the trans deaf community and this is exploitation.

    • ryan

      I can’t speak to the rest of your comment seattleboi since I don’t know Eliza or Austin personally, but I did want to point something out. Eliza is NOT listed as genderqueer in the article. The article reads:

      “Our panel was composed of Eliza, 1 Deaf genderqueer white person, 3 Deaf trans women of color, 1 Deaf trans-ally of color, and myself (a Deaf trans white man). ”

      If you do the math, you will see that means there were 7 people on the panel. Which there were (you can verify this by counting the number of people in the picture of the panel). Eliza, not being a Deaf or trans person, is not indicated as such and is listed just by her name. So relax.

      • Craig

        I think whether Eliza, the producer, is identifying as gender-queer or whatever, is moot. The bigger issue is should someone hearing and non-trans be leading these type of workshops? The answer is a resounding NO. Where does she get off thinking she has a right to speak for this community? She is neither deaf nor trans. She got an earful at a trans conference I was at and she still doesn’t seem to get it. What’s up with that? She’s definitely been overstepping her role. This is not ally behavior.

    • Seattleboi said: “Despite already earning thousands from the film,”

      Thousands? Really? How do you know? Is there a link to your source?

      Chances
      are next to zip that a distributor will pick up a short indie-doc film,
      and chances are even lower there will be up front cash. Lower still is
      the film earning back its production cost during the entire distribution
      deal.

      In fact, the only likely $$$ avenue for the filmmakers is
      to push DVDs and downloads, even then, earning back production costs is
      akin to trying for a grand slam without a baseball bat.

      As for “exploitation”, I say baloney.

      As
      for personal spats, it’s par for the course is nearly every film.
      “Austin Unbound” would have not been made without either Eliza or
      Austin.

      I’d say we give both Austin and Eliza a round of applause for the making of this film and move on.

  • Connor Gillis

    Thanks everyone for your comments thus far This is Connor writing (the person who wrote this article and is pictured in some of the pictures above). To be upfront and clear: I am a Deaf trans man.

    I’d like to address some of the concerns that have been aired in the previous comments.

    First, I want to clarify that Eliza did not identify herself as genderqueer to me or to anyone else. It seems like the confusion around that is stemming from my poorly phrased sentence where I was trying to describe each person who was participating in the discussion.

    The reason I did not list the names of the other panelists is because they specifically requested that I not list them. The panelists did provide me with consent to write about their identities, and to post images of them. As a Deaf trans man who lives in the South, I made a conscious effort to find other Deaf trans people who were locals to speak about their experiences on the panel discussion. I specifically wanted Deaf trans people from the South to be on the panel because I believe that voices of Southern people, particularly those who are at the intersections of multiple minority identities, are highly marginalized.

    The workshop was my idea, and I wrote and submitted the proposal to Creating Change. I had seen “Austin Unbound” previously, enjoyed the film, and had a positive experience with Eliza. I pitched the idea to her to see if she would like to help me by co-organizing the workshop. I led the writing of the proposal, and also took an active co-presenter role during the presentations.

    Eliza and I worked in a team to make this happen, and her role in the workshop was to show the film, speak a bit about her experiences with the film, and assist me with facilitating the panel discussion.

    My experience working with her on this workshop was very positive. I don’t think she over stepped her role as an ally in this space, and she did a good job of assisting me with co-presenting. It is my fault if the article was misleading and made it seem like she was the only presenter and organizer of this workshop. Also, any criticisms of the workshop should be directed at me.

    I hope I have addressed the concerns expressed above. If anyone has any further questions, concerns, or criticisms, I am happy to address them. You can reach me here in the comments or at my email address: connoreoingillis(at)gmail.com.

  • Trucker

    Okay brothers and sisters- I am generally quiet and keep things to myself. The fact that I am here saying something on here means that something BIG is going on, and I wish to speak out to something concerning the recent Creating Change Conference in Atlanta:

    There is something I do not understand: The film Austin Unbound is about Austin’s life- growing up as deaf and trans. Why are other deaf trans-folks being asked to represent the film, when CLEARLY it should be Austin up there. We can definitely support Austin as another deaf trans on a panel or speaker in addition to Austin just to show diversity… All in all, in my opinion, I feel that Austin and this film should go hand in hand. One should NOT be without the other.

    Also, the producer of the film is going out in the community to represent the film, as a HEARING CIS-WOMAN. She is put on the panel to discuss her experiences in producing the film- which is probably NOT the point of the panel anyway. She should be sitting in the audience, silently giving Austin support and giving him the floor as he may well deserves.

    I have been privileged to be on a panel with Austin, which was moderated by the producer of the film herself. The result: 75% of the time were spent on the producer talking about herself, how the film was made, about her own personal experiences in regarding to the making/producing of the film. 25% of the time were spent on the panelists themselves, answering questions from the audience. This is backwards.

    I give applause to the producer for creating the film, exposing and educating the general public to deaf trans issues. I am thankful that this film, the first of its kind, is out there. Clearly, we need more of these resources. However, if the producer is out there representing the film WITHOUT the main character, whom is Austin, this is just plain wrong.

    I am thankful and happy to hear that the experience at the conference with Eliza and Connor to be “a positive experience.” Again, this is just one conference out of many without Austin. To reiterate where I stand in regards to the Austin Unbound film: Austin and the film go together.

    No disrespect to the producer/filmmaker or any allies involved- it is my intention to communicate my major concern which is this: It is extremely important that a wide diversity of deaf trans are well represented at events like these. It is up to us who ARE deaf and trans to ensure that this happens.

    If you happen to be approached by this producer/filmmaker to sign an “Appearance Agreement” as a representative for this film (in place of Austin), I strongly advise you to READ EVERY LINE OF THIS CONTRACT! If you need help with understand specific items in the contract, find an attorney or a friend with legal background to assist.

    There are some things in the contract which I find very ambivalent and unclear. It mentions a “Contract Manual” which you must follow (a series of obligations you must abide) should you decide to sign the contract. I cannot help but feel uneasy after reading the terms of this contract. I have emailed and requested a copy of this said Contract Manual, and still to this day I have not yet received a copy. These obligations, feel to me, very controlling- and appears to be a list of unrealistic expectations of what you should do and what not to do.

    Be WELL-INFORMED!

    After understanding everything what goes on in this contract, and if you decide to sign the contract anyway: Then my advice to you is this:

    Change the terms of the contract so that you are paid an honorarium (if any) separately and directly to you. In other words, make sure the venue/host of the event writes you a check for your appearance SEPARATELY from the producer’s check. Act as your own entity.

    And lastly, to represent your fellow trans brothers/sisters, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make sure that we, deaf and trans, are well-represented as a whole. In other words, when participating on a panel, or some kind of FAQ event, be sure to devote MORE of the time in discussing the wide beautiful diversity that is the deaf and trans world, and LESS on the actual flim-making- (unless the event is actually related to film making itself).

    Again- to reiterate: Austin should be there along with the film. It just seems right to me.

    Just my own two cents… and then some. 🙂

  • greensoda

    Hello,

    Thank you very much for taking your time to express interest in our session at Creating Change. We at Greensoda Productions have dedicated over eight years to the production and release of Austin Unbound and we take the ally role very seriously. We value community building and strive to maintain a high quality of business. Our current focus is on securing ways to ensure the film will reach wide audiences around the world for years to come. If you attended our session at Creating Change and feel we may benefit from dialogue and feedback, please contact us via our website at http://www.austinunbound.org

    Thank you,
    The Austin Unbound Crew

  • Fabian Sandoval

    I haven’t gone to one of these in years. I’m glad to see there was a D/deaf presence this year.

  • rogermoungef

    This subject puts fear in people,its very interesting to me.I know some gay people,my mind stays open,i dont understand alot of lables society puts on us.Prejudice is not new to me,im heavily tattood,face to my ankles.People are