Gay rights leaders are meeting in Atlanta this week to hone leadership skills

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 5:21am

ATLANTA (CNN) -- In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama embraced gay rights as part of America's agenda, saying that "our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."

Last year, he became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage, and polls showed that he was not out of sync with America. They logged a steep rise in public support for gay and lesbian marriages. Several states approved same-sex marriage ballot measures. Wisconsin voters elected Tammy Baldwin, as their first openly gay U.S. senator.

The progressive blog Truthout wrote that the trends mean that "conservatives will soon no longer be able to use homophobia as a 'wedge' issue in elections." But gay rights activists such as Michael Shutt say much work is left to be done, especially in more conservative Southern states that lack anti-discrimination policies and laws. Georgia, for instance, does not have a hate crimes law. Nor are there laws to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment or housing. That's why Shutt, director of Emory University's Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life, is glad the 25th National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change conference is taking place this week in Atlanta.

The five-day gathering began Wednesday. It's the largest annual gathering of LGBT rights activists -- about 3,500 people are expected to attend, said Shutt, who is on the host committee. They will come together to strategize and learn how to build political power back home, according to the conference website. Among the many issues on the agenda is immigration and the DREAM Act, which would create a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military or pursue higher education. Immigration is important to LGBT people, Shutt said. They are not always able to live with their partners in the United States because this country does not recognize their unions. Among the speakers on immigration is Pulitzer Prize-winning and openly gay journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

The gathering will be Shutt's eight conference. He hopes to bring Emory students with him. He said the conference is learning about American identity -- whether it's gender, race, immigration status or sexual orientation. It's also enlightening, empowering, he said. And liberating. It's one place where he doesn't have to do any explaining about the work that he does.

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