Reflections on the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, 2014

This past week I attended the first two days of the three-day Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference (PTHC). What an incredible experience.

PTHC is an annual, completely free conference for trans* folks, allies, and healthcare providers. There are tons of tables for various organizations and projects – some LGBTQ-focused organizations like HRC, a few sponsors (banks, etc.), folks who sell books written by and for trans* people, a variety of spiritual or religious organizations, human rights organizations, shops that sell trans*-specific products, and on and on. During the day there are five workshop slots, with something like 10-15 different workshops to choose from per time slot – all trans* focused. Some were intended for providers, some for specific groups of trans folks (POC only, transmen/transmasculine people only, etc.), many were for families with trans* youth.

In a world where trans* people are ignored, violated, seen as bizarre objects, denied dignity and healthcare because people with power over us believe that we’re freaks and/or don’t believe we are who we know ourselves to be, it was a really powerful experience to attend a conference where our dignity, humanity, and identities not up for debate. To be in an environment among thousands of people – thousands! – where no one assumed anyone was cisgender, where our nametags had space for pronouns, where we all were free to be in whatever shape we find ourselves in, happy or not, around people who get it… it was incredibly, deeply affirming for me.

That said, there is still work to be done even among our own trans* community. PTHC seems to be on the right track in some respects (as far as I can tell, though I am a non-disabled white person with a lot of education and financial stability, so my perspective is limited and inherently biased and, contrary to what dominant culture teaches us, it is by no means authoritative and objective. Feel free to correct me, please.). The conference is completely wheelchair accessible and entirely free, and connects folks to a local church that serves low-cost meals to attendees during the conference, which enables greater access to those who do not have as much financial security or ease of mobility. The three conference coordinators (or was it one coordinator and her committee?) were transwomen, including two transwomen of color. I believe they said that 60% of workshop presenters were people of color. Janet Mock was the opening key note speaker. So there was some solid representation of people who were not white, which is important.

Even so, this is not nearly enough. I was in a workshop for transmen focusing on discussing what masculinity and manhood mean for us. There were some readings from a book of non-fiction stories, and then questions and discussion. The questions and discussion that ensued were rooted in white culture. We were missing a lot. For example, transmen of color have to learn how to go from being either ignored or hypersexualized on the street to being seen as a constant threat in just about every context. White transmen have to struggle with newfound aspects of white male privilege. Both of these kinds of experiences are important to examine and discuss, but we cannot focus only or primarily on the white concerns while also presuming that they are universal experiences. Dominant culture teaches us that white is default and ‘normal’, and everyone else is an unimportant exception, just as it teaches us that cisgender is default and ‘normal’, and everyone else is a weirdo and a freak. We cannot continue to prioritize white narratives while our siblings of color are still being shit on in the streets, among other places (employment, housing, healthcare access, education, etc.), simply because they are not white.

About halfway through this particular workshop, a few transmen of color who had left out of frustration came back to speak up about how excluded they were from this particular conversation, and to speak out about experiences of racism elsewhere at the conference. I am grateful to them for coming back to call us out. Also, it shouldn’t be on them to have to do this every time. As a white person taking part in this workshop, I failed to notice the white narrative, and thus also failed to call it out. That was one thing I could have done as a white person acting in solidarity. To my trans* siblings of color, I am grateful to you, I apologize, and I will continue working to do better by you.

To my white trans* siblings, we’ve got to work on this. I know that it is easy for me to get caught up in my own narrative, my own struggles as a trans* person, but I cannot authentically fight for my own rights if I am not fighting for everyone’s rights. I cannot overcome my own experiences of being discriminated against while tacitly perpetuating discrimination against others.  None of us can. These ideas are not new. People of color have already been speaking up for a long time, and we are so very behind.

Final note: In this post, I have attempted to communicate experiences that were not my own, and I am very wary of doing this, but have tried here anyway because this message is important to spread. I invite trans* people of color to share their own experiences here themselves, if they are so willing and able. I also invite any corrections or call outs.

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6 Responses to Reflections on the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, 2014

  1. janitorqueer says:

    I was also at that workshop that you’re describing! I had a slightly different interpretation of events, but most definitely appreciate your take as well. You wrote at the very end of this post that you are wary of communicating experiences that are not your own, and I agree wholeheartedly with this.

    I tend to only want to speak from my own personal experience, which is a white experience, and to make space and be open to others’ perspectives as well. I was very glad that some POC came back and spoke up, but I didn’t necessarily see it as “us being called out.” or anyone having been insensitive up until that point. I only saw it as people adding a different perspective. As to the fact that some people might feel uncomfortable for any number of reasons and potentially walk out of a workshop (or any setting), I guess I feel there’s not a whole lot I can do, personally, unless I’m acting as a facilitator or mediator.

    Because I do not want to make assumptions and start speaking from a perspective that is not my own. Nor do I want to ask someone else to speak up, if they’re not ready or willing…

    I’d love to chat with you further about your experiences of the conference! I’ll be making a post about it in the near future!

    • I hear what you’re saying, janitorqueer.

      I want to be clear that I do not believe that anyone, under any circumstances, should get up and try to speak about someone else’s experiences as if they themselves were the authority on the issue, and that’s not what I intended to suggest should have happened in this particular workshop.

      I still feel that we were called out. Not because anyone had been explicitly or intentionally exclusive, but because we were unknowingly, implictly doing so. I heard real anger and frustration in the words of the people of color who spoke at the workshop – one of them mentioned his experience of outright racism *at* PTHC, of being ignored and not spoken to by others. I heard anger and frustration when speaking with them after the workshop.

      The best analogy I can come up with is this: If I went to a workshop about relationships at a conference that was supposed to be welcoming and safe for everyone no matter what, and the dialogue was entirely about heterosexual relationships between cisgender folks, AND these stories were presented as generalizable to everyone without anyone pointing out that they primarily applied to straight cisgender folks, I would feel unwelcome. I would still feel excluded if, when I spoke up, people heard it and weren’t mean to me, and even related to what I said, but then went right back into unacknowledged hetero-cis-normative narratives that saw me as an exception or ‘special interest’. Now imagine if 3 out of every 4 workshops I went to at this hypothetical conference did this same thing, regardless of the topic. Also imagine that enough folks at this conference would avoid eye contact with you such that you held the doubt in your mind that they were avoiding you because of your gender and/or sexual orientation. I would feel excluded and angry, too.

      Masculinity means different things in different cultures, and even for folks from different class backgrounds. I imagine there are some pressures that most masculine-presenting folks have to face, and some that most trasmasculine folks in particular have to face, but then there are a ton of different pressures depending on one’s background. To have a workshop on masculinity that does not acknowledge these differences is to have a workshop that focuses on and responds to more culturally dominant views of masculinity – or at least does so primarily. The issues most pressing to white trans* folks are not the same for those of color. It leaves the burden of acknowledging that these narratives are not universal on those who are already excluded from it. A solid article a friend of mine shared with me outlines some of these differences: http://colorlines.com/archives/2008/01/becoming_a_black_man.html

      Recognizing that I do not have an objective perspective on how inclusive that particular workshop was of nonwhite narratives as a white person, I must rely on the information that I have from people of color: anger, frustration, and a call out. This kind of exclusion is not obvious to those of us who do not feel it, that’s part of why it is so insidious and painful.

      Anyway, I hope that made sense! I would like to continue this dialogue, for sure.

      • janitorqueer says:

        That does make a lot of sense. I like everything you’re pointing out here, and your analogy really helps illustrate it.

        In keeping with writing from my own perspective/experience, here’s a bit more: Reading your comment felt like an opportunity to expand what I could do, but it also felt like heavy duty rhetoric, something for me to figure out the take-away messages (which isn’t a bad thing, of course, it’s just that I tend to want to think about, write about, and seek out personal stories over academic/political discourses about what needs to change.) I really believe in the value of connecting with others through their stories, and talking about concrete ways to move in new directions, and I don’t tend to want to go much beyond that, when possible (like, my eyes might start glazing over when the big words come out, haha.)

        So, one story goes like this: I saw a similar dynamic play out in other workshops as well, where someone who had previously felt excluded speaks up in an impassioned (maybe even angry) way, and it is the most powerful thing that occurred during the workshop – it was eye-opening and memorable. And I don’t think it’s uncommon or negative that the discussion got to the point that someone had to speak up in that way. It is powerful. And yeah, I still don’t quite see it as being called out, although in the past I definitely would have seen it that way. In the past, those moments would have made my heart race, I would have felt shame, guilt, and compassion for that person. Now? The shame and guilt have been stripped away. I am left feeling pure compassion for the person who speaks. And also anger at the larger systems that have led to these dynamics, but not anger at myself for not doing enough. That has been, for me, some serious personal growth.

        I have been someone who walks out of things, due to discomfort or feeling excluded, far too many times. I’m also someone who’s not yet sure whether I have it in me to speak up out of passion and/or anger, in the moment. I am someone who avoids eye contact and conversations with people I don’t yet know, but I’m trying to work on that. I’m someone who used to be under way too much pressure, constantly, and that pressure was all something that I made up, in my head. I’m someone who used to consistently take on way too much of other peoples’ pain when there’s really very little I can do. Or, what I can do, at an interpersonal level, is too difficult for me because I’m such an extreme introvert (like, the most extreme, while trying to work on it), and that’s one example of when the pressure kicks in.

        I aspire to be a moderator or facilitator in the future, in varying ways and contexts, and when I do get there, I know I will aim to implement ways to open up dialogues to be as inclusive as possible. I can certainly do this without being a facilitator, of course, but it is a challenge for me. In this position I imagine I will have much more opportunities to actively do it, and I will have the structure in place to help me feel socially comfortable with that role.

        I know this is all quite a bit tangential from the points you’re making (and I didn’t attempt to directly engage with your points), but I think it’s how I am relating to what you wrote, and I hope there’s something to be gleaned from it.

        Interpersonal dynamics are so incredibly complicated! And yes, it’s about race, and class, and everything else. But it’s also about individual personalities, and there are 7 billion (or however many) different ones. That can kind of have a tendency to boggle my mind.

        Next, I’m gonna go read the article you linked to! Look forward to continuing this dialogue, as well.

  2. (janitorqueer: For some reason I cannot reply directly in the original comment thread, so I’ve started a new one.)

    Thank you for sharing, I am really appreciating this exchange! I believe guilt and shame are both natural responses and also counterproductive to get stuck in. That said, I do frequently struggle with both when confronting my role in oppression.

    The way I have come to see things is that oppression will never end if those benefiting from it (willingly or not) do not do anything to confront it. So, as someone who is part of dominant culture in some ways (such as being white), it is partly my responsibility to stand up and try to change things. For example, going back to my analogy of being in environments where non-straight, non-cisgender identities are ignored, the only way those environments can become more LGBTQ-friendly is if those who *are* straight and/or cisgender stand up and help do the work of changing the culture to be more inclusive.

    I am trying to find ways to take responsibility for the unearned privileges that I do have, while also figuring out how to be realistic about it. Not everyone is going to be good at, or able to do, the same kind of work. I am caught up in a sense of urgency – people are *dying* from oppression that I benefit from. It is a lot to hold. How can I, as an individual, work to change systems of oppression? Where can I stand up and make my communities more inclusive? How can I lift some of the burden from those who constantly have to scream and flail to be truly seen?

    It was a risk for those people of color to stand up in the workshop and say ‘Hey – our experiences are not being represented here!’ What risks could I have taken, as someone with white privilege and perhaps less to lose in certain contexts, to stand in solidarity? I also recognize that standing up and saying something might be something that is easier for me to do as someone who is a bit more extroverted than some – what I can do is different than what other white folks can do.

    Anyway, this comment has not been my most articulate bit of writing, but I hope at least some of it made sense!

  3. Pingback: Winding down from the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference | janitorqueer

  4. Hi! Thanks for your post. I went to a workshop on femininity in trans-masculine genders, and a similar thing happened for a number of different intersectional identities. A few people of color brought up that the conversation had been focused on white femininity and masculinity. Another person talked about feelings of infantilization because of their visible disability, and how that affects gender expression. I was glad that the (seemingly white and able-bodied) facilitator validated these experiences, but I was disappointed that the facilitator didn’t bring them up in the first place, or take time to change the trajectory of the workshop to include these things.

    I also encountered ableism at other workshops–in a workshop on being trans in the workplace, someone was talking about how trans people just need to be “the best trans worker, because it’s probably the first time people have known or worked with a trans person.” I talked about how putting in extra hours isn’t always possible for someone like me with chronic illness and a variety of mental illnesses–I can do my job well, am lucky enough to be able to hold one down, but I can’t do the extra stuff that person was implying. Also, the wheelchair lane in the main hallway was hardly ever clear, and workshops would be too full for space in a wheelchair. When it takes longer to get places, as it did for me sometimes, and definitely for the person I’m dating, who was using a cane, and there are more people than workshops, and the lane is full, how will workshop access be maintained?

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