The Agenda

Then and Now: The International LGBTQ Leadership Conference

For 31 years, openly LGBTQ elected and appointed officials and other public leaders from around the world have gathered at the annual International LGBTQ Leadership Conference – the only one of its kind.
Called LGBTQ Leaders for short, the conference has grown from just over a dozen attendees to hundreds, becoming a must-attend event for LGBTQ leaders. Every year these leaders come together to build connections, exchange ideas and develop their leadership skills.
John Heilman (pictured), a city council member of West Hollywood, has gone to all 31 conferences. He was a co-chair of the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials and continues to be an active member of the community. John talked with Victory about the history of the conference and his vision for its future. This conference has seen remarkable growth since its inception in 1984. Then, about a dozen lawmakers gathered to discuss the unique challenges of serving as openly gay elected officials.
“In the early days it was more like a support group,” Heilman says.
Today more than 1,000 openly LGBTQ elected and appointed officials are serving in offices around the world. In 2004, the organization that once held the conference, the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials, merged with the Victory Institute, allowing the conference to grow to what it is today.
“The conference was always run by the hosting city and host committee, which changed every year,” Heilman says. “With Victory’s resources, the conference has grown. There have been new speakers and people from different disciplines. The evolution has been exciting.”
Since 1984, the conference and its attendees have seen incredible changes in the movement for LGBTQ rights. Heilman remembers when the conference was in Washington at the same time that the AIDS Memorial Quilt was featured on the National Mall in 1988, a somber moment for the attendees.
There have been happy moments throughout the conference’s history as well.
“The conference after Tammy Baldwin was elected to the Senate was a great memory; everyone was in celebration. At the beginning, we never could have imagined such a win.”
Heilman enjoys going to LGBTQ Leaders because it allows him to reflect on the successes of the LGBTQ movement, but also to keep looking forward.
“We need to appreciate and recognize the growth and expansion of our community, our openly elected officials and appointees. The growth has been dramatic. We should be thankful that we’ve come so far so fast and we should be inspired by that. Twenty years ago you wouldn’t imagine elected officials in some of the places they are now. We need to encourage people to be out, open and to share their stories and their leadership.”
Heilman is excited about this year’s conference, noting that it is the first conference after the historic marriage equality ruling on June 26, but recognizes the need to continue working toward equality.
“We need to fight for employment and housing equality. We also need to be mindful of what’s happening around the world,” he continues. “We need to share our experiences and listen to those who are not privileged to live in America. Only then can we have a truly global movement for equality.”
LGBTQ Leaders, which features speakers from around the world in government, LGBTQ activism and the private sector, offer workshops, trainings and discussions for attendees.
“What’s exciting is that the conferences gives you ideas. You get to see how others have dealt with challenges similar to what you are dealing with in your position. You learn what works and what doesn’t work. Sharing experiences with other LGBTQ elected officials inspires you and gives you motivation.”
But John Heilman’s favorite part of the conference? The community.
“I love getting to see Tammy Baldwin, who first attended the conference in 1986. As more and more LGBTQ officials are elected, you hear names and read news about them, but don’t get to meet them. The conference gives you a chance to connect with them on a personal level. Every year now you see the expansion of LGBTQ officials in cities you never could have imagined–Annise Parker in Houston and officials in states like Idaho, Wyoming, Missouri and Arkansas. We never would have expected these wins when the conference began.”
This year’s conference will be in Las Vegas November 19-22. For more information about the conference, visit