By Gwen Hill
When I first learned that my fellow Tzedek residents and I would be traveling to Chicago for the National LGBT Task Force’s Creating Change conference, I felt reluctant. While I’ve worked at organizations that do social justice work for over eight years, none of the organizations explicitly worked for or advocated on behalf of the LGBTQ community. My current job is no different. Additionally, I’m not personally a member of the LGBTQ community, and though I believe in full equality for LGBTQ folks, ascribing the term ‘ally’ to myself feels superfluous. What, I genuinely wondered aloud to several people as the conference approached—would I take away from a five-day conference devoted to advocacy issues that don’t directly align with my personal identity or professional work?
I realize now that while all of this questioning and rationalizing was rooted in truth, it wasn’t the underlying cause of my hesitancy. The real reason I was nervous about attending the conference was fear. Fear of being viewed as ‘other’. Fear of not fitting in or being accepted. Fear of not having a seat at the table. Fear of being unwelcome.
This was certainly not the first time in my life I’ve felt an experience of ‘otherness’. I can remember having this same feeling as a religiously unaffiliated third grader attending an evangelical sleepaway camp with a friend, and as a young white woman living in a predominately black neighborhood in New York City. It is the feeling of being an imposter, or worse yet, an intruder, a phony who could be exposed at any moment (as unlikely as that might be) by a ‘real’ member of the community. I remember clearly the first time I rode the subway deep into central Brooklyn, looking around as all of the other white people exited the train, stop by stop. It wasn’t fear that I felt in that moment, but an uncanny sense of standing out in a crowd—of not being able to blend in and disappear. It was unsettling. Yet I have come to realize that it’s a feeling white people in America don’t experience often enough.
That being said, in my recent memory I have not felt such otherness as acutely or for as long as I did at Creating Change. The realization that I was participating in a space and navigating a system that was not designed for me was disorienting, visceral and real. Several times I struggled to find a workshop to attend that was both relevant and open to me. I felt defeated by the lack of choices. Straight white people problems. The experience was overwhelming and exhausting.
But it was also enlightening.
The powerful feelings of exclusion I ultimately felt—whether real, imagined, or both—heightened my awareness of my own privilege.
Despite the fact that Creating Change openly celebrated inclusion and diversity, an underlying feeling of my own ‘otherness’ and what that meant permeated my entire experience of the conference. My mom would say, ‘feelings aren’t facts’. What is a fact however, is the exclusivity of the world marginalized people navigate every, single day. I can only begin to imagine how daunting, even terrifying, it must be for people from marginalized communities to constantly navigate a world that was at best, not designed for them, and is at worst openly hostile, threatening, and even lethal to them.
Having now had several weeks to process my experience at Creating Change, I’ve distilled some takeaways for myself. First, I now have a heightened awareness of how people, social mores, systems and spaces so often exclude others, both overtly and unconsciously. I’ve also been reminded of how impossible it is to advocate for, or even represent yourself and people like you when you’re not invited into the conversation—when you literally have no voice. I see more than ever how difficult it is to change the hearts and minds of others—to build the relationships that embolden us and help us break down walls—when differing voices are segregated, closeted, depreciated or silenced.
Ultimately, by forcing me to acknowledge and reckon with my own otherness and privilege in a community that was not my own, Creating Change reminded me of the reality of our shared humanity, the value of our diversity, and the power of inclusion.