National LGBT Community To Converge On Detroit

By Todd Heywood

Every year, since December of 2008, a group of LGBT leaders in media, activism and the internet - as well as from national organizations - have convened to discuss strategy, messaging and ideas to promote LGBT equality in the US and beyond.

That meeting - Netroots Connect LGBT Pre-Conference - will be in Detroit July 16 at the Renaissance Center. The meeting registration is still open and costs $45 for an individual. Participants must pre-register at Pre-registration allows the organizers to adequately prepare space and food for the event.

The event is the brain child of blogger and activist Michael Rogers. Rogers, best known for his decade old Blog Active work which included outing closeted politicians, says the idea was the result of an invitation to attend a similar event of state bloggers sponsored by the New Organizing Institute in DC.

"I almost didn't go," Rogers said in a phone interview. "I met great people... My big take away was: If we're doing this for state bloggers, we should be doing this for LGBT bloggers."

And the event was born. The first meeting was a stand-alone event held in Washington D.C. Beginning in 2009, the event was tied to Netroots Nation. Netroots is an annual gathering of progressive activists and bloggers. This year the three day event will be held in Detroit.

The meetings have brought different groups of people together in new ways, Rogers says.

"The most important thing that happens is that it brings all the people together who are doing all the right work. They learn from each other. They create with each other. They make important business and activist connections and develop new power to activism and media work," Rogers says.

He is particularly proud of two programs that grew out of Netroots Connect meetings. The meeting in 2011 in Providence, Rhode Island resulted in the creation of Scouts for Equality. That group went on to push the Boy Scouts of America to create a new policy allowing gay scouts to serve in the organization. It continues its advocacy to get the organization to allow openly gay scout masters and adult assistants.

In 2013, the meeting produced the #TestMe campaign encouraging HIV testing. The program was developed in San Jose, California and resulted in over 2.5 million Twitter mentions. It was endorsed by former Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. The project was also used by the Office of White House engagement.

Sommer Foster, director of political advocacy for Equality Michigan, attended the event in San Jose last year.

"As an ally, I found the pre-conference particularly enlightening because I was unfamiliar with a lot of the history in the LGBT movement and we talked about that last year," she said. "As the saying goes, you don't know where you are going till you know where you've been. I think if anyone has the opportunity to go, they would be wise to take the opportunity. The relationships that can be made are invaluable to all arenas of the progressive movement."

Heather Cronk, co-director at GetEqual, has been engaged in the Netroots Connect event from the very beginning. She also helps to facilitate the meetings each year.

"For me, Netroots Connect has been vitally important to addressing the intersectionality of our issues, though there's certainly more work to do in order to fully address the intersectionality of our lives," Cronk said in an email. "Netroots Connect was at the forefront of addressing the intersection between LGBTQ equality and immigration reform, and has been key in starting to look at the ways in which labor, climate justice and many other issues impact and intersect with LGBTQ lives. However, we have more work to do in order to to have real, honest conversations about the ways in which LGBTQ individuals are impacted by policies like stop-and-frisk and other attempts to criminalize people - and I look forward to pushing those conversations forward."

And Cronk encourages those who attend to come with an open mind.

"I think the most accurate expectation to have is to be a bit uncomfortable," she wrote. "No matter what your experience in the LGBTQ movement, there will undoubtedly be new information or new connections that surface - my advice would be to lean into those moments, and to seek out those who have more experience than you might. Netroots Connect is a wealth of knowledge and experience, so uncover as much of it as you can."

Rogers says he is excited that this year will see many newcomers to the Netroots Connect community, broadening the coalitions and conversations that have already begun as a result of the meetings. He said he looks forward to welcoming Michigan activists, regardless of their skill or experience level, to the table, the conversation and the full movement.

Reporter Todd Heywood has been an attendee at many of the Netroots Connect meetings over the years, often traveling on full scholarship provided by the organization. He will be attending the meeting this year as well.
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