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.