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.


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.