The largest annual gathering of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists in the United States begins Wednesday in Minneapolis, as 2,500 to 3,000 people convene to talk about challenges for the coming year.
Fresh from a recent triumph -- the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- they will turn their attention to issues ranging from fighting transgender discrimination to making churches more welcoming to GLBT parishioners to assessing the potential for Minnesota and other states to impose same-sex marriage bans.
"We will be celebrating [our] successes, and we will also be looking at our challenges," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, sponsor of the event. "There is not one issue; there are many issues that affect our lives and our families."
The conference is expected to be the largest since the Task Force began holding annual meetings around the country 23 years ago. In 1990, the last time it was held in Minneapolis, it drew about 600.
The Twin Cities has long been a hub for GLBT people.
"One of the reasons we love Minneapolis is because it is such a vibrant community, and Minneapolis was the first in the country to pass a nondiscrimination law covering sexual orientation, in 1974," said Carey.
Brian Bond, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, is scheduled to speak, as are Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
Looming this year is a potential bill that would ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota, and state activists will discuss "the political landscape," said conference director Sue Hyde.
"The conference is a great opportunity for local organizers in and around Minnesota to start being prepared for an imminent threat of what we think may be a proposed constitutional amendment on marriage," said Russell Roybal, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said odds are "50-50" that he'll introduce a bill to put an amendment on the 2012 ballot that would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Limmer said it would "get our whole state community discussing who would be the participants in a marriage definition."
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who plans to meet with some of the conferees, said talk of the amendment is a "mean-spirited" distraction. "If it goes on the ballot, we will have a very vigorous campaign to engage Minnesotans and talk about what families mean," he said.
Religious leaders includedThe conference, called "Creating Change," will have a series of daylong institutes on subjects that include people of color and youth organizing.
"It's exciting," said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state's largest organization advocating for GLBT equality. "It's a catalyst for people to become active and more strategic in their advocacy for equality."
One focus is religion. About 225 people are registered for a conference within a conference discussing change within the religious community.
"It is very much multi-faith," said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She said conferees will include "at least one imam, several Jewish rabbis, Christian pastors, elders from the Native American community and a swami from the Hindu tradition."
One objective, she said, is to help local churches and national denominations be more welcoming to GLBT members.
Plans are for a study on transgender discrimination to be released at the conference.
"Transgender people have a pretty high profile in Creating Change," said Barbara Satin, a former local public relations executive and transgender person herself.
"The transgender movement is quite vibrant," she said. "A lot of the young trans people are doing really creative things. They are starting their own community space. They have a trans-youth support network. For the longest time the transgender community was pretty hidden."
Jean Tretter said he never could have conceived of such a conference when he got out of the Navy in 1972. He came home to enroll at the University of Minnesota and study modern social and cultural anthropology. "I wanted to specialize in gay and lesbian history," he said. "They told me that it didn't exist. There couldn't be such a thing. They said all homosexuals were a sexual anomaly, and we couldn't have a history of our own."
Tretter, 64, said that in 1972 gays routinely hid their sexual orientation from friends, family and co-workers for fear they'd be ostracized and fired.
"Gay culture has come 180 degrees," said Tretter, who today oversees a prestigious GLBT collection at the university's Elmer L. Andersen Library. It is one the 10 largest GLBT collections in the world, with some 40,000 books and items, and it features an exhibit on display this week for conference-goers.