A Reflection on the 2014 Philly Trans Health Conference

GLAAD's Faith Issues Intern, Jay Pulitano, attended this year's Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, which was held June 12-14. The following is a reflection of his experience.

I went to the annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference for the first time last year, so perhaps I should have been more mentally prepared for the enormous array of choices of workshops to attend. Last Saturday morning, however, when I first opened my 150 page program book, I was completely overwhelmed by not only the sheer quantity but the huge diversity of options. That morning alone there were workshops on cultivating positive body image, new options for transmasculine surgeries, ally training, Jewish rituals celebrating being trans, navigating employment, feminizing hormones, and so many more. The conference in general covered every topic imaginable, having workshops geared toward family members, people of color, writers, youth, health professionals, elders, addicts, Muslims, intersex people, disabled people, Christians – the list could go on and on.

Though it was a lot to take in, the space gave me a special type of comfort I rarely experience. Typically when I'm in a public place, I'm conscious of the fact that I'm the only gender non-conforming person in sight. Sometimes if I'm at a restaurant, for example, a waiter tells me I'm going into the wrong restroom. Once at a bar, a complete stranger belted out laughing, saying, "Wrong bathroom, man!" probably assuming I was much less sober than I was. Another time I walked into an empty restroom when a lady rushed in to uneasily tell me, "This is the women's room." As a transmasculine person, even though I don't identify as a woman, invalidating my identity and risking these frequent uncomfortable moments are better than the alternative of choosing the men's room, where my body becomes so anxious for my safety that I can't even pee. Using the men's room doesn't feel completely validating of my identity anyways; often I feel somewhere between a man and a woman, but the standard bathroom options always forces me to pick only one or the other. Being in public also usually means being referred to as "she" or my birth name, which as my legal name is still on my ID and still necessary to use on most documents and forms.

The Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, however, gave me freedom from these daily anxiety-inducing situations. On the registration form, the gender column didn't have the standard binary "male" or "female" options, but also included "transfemale," "transmale," "genderqueer," "agender," "questioning," and various other options, in addition to having an "other" option, with a line to describe your gender however you want. You were also instructed to check "as many as apply," allowing for even more flexibility. At no point were you required to put your legal name. After you finished the registration form, you filled out a name tag that you wore for the entirety of the conference. Relieving to me, on the name tag you put not only your name but also your preferred gender pronouns; to know how to refer to me, anyone just had to look at my name tag to know that I prefer to be called "he."

I doubt I was the only one comforted by the name tags. At the conference, there was an enormous diversity in gender expressions, people with all lengths of hair and style of clothing regardless of body type. If you looked at three people who had relatively similar gender expressions and body types, chances are they would all go by different pronouns. Some people I correctly assumed were transfeminine and went by "she," for example. But another person whom if I had met on the street I would assume was a relatively feminine "girl" went by "he." There were also people who preferred more gender neutral pronouns, such as "they, them, theirs" or "ze, hir, hirs" as well as other variations. This huge diversity in genders and gender expressions forced me to be more deeply aware of the extent we make assumptions about people.

Saturday morning as I was flipping through my program book (I had narrowed it down between "Interdepending Trans* Buddhist Activism and Experience" and "FTM Masculine Hormones 101" for the morning session), I was sitting on the carpet floor against a wall in the hallway between the conference's two restrooms. This was also a source of relief for me as both of the restrooms had paper "gender neutral" signs posted over the doors; for once I didn't have to worry about choosing one or the other or be anxious about an awkward or even unsafe situation arising.

I finally decided on the Buddhist workshop, figuring I had watched enough vlogs of transguys to be past a 101 level on masculine hormones (check out Aydin's, Wes', and Forrest's YouTube channels for some gems). The workshop, run by a group called Trans Buddhists who work to make Buddhist spaces more trans friendly, was among my favorites of the day (although admittedly most of the workshops I attended were "among my favorites"). It was really significant for me to be in a space where I could talk to people who found comfort and inspiration as well as tension with Buddhism for similar reasons I did. For the first time, I talked with a group of people who had to navigate the same spiritual conflict of striving to love yourself but also validating your dysphoria as real under a philosophy that says identity isn't real anyways. Like all the workshops, it was really special to be in a space where the majority of people were trans and could share experiences with one another through that lens openly and honestly.

Besides feeling like an empowering space, the conference also challenged me to be more aware of my privileges. In another workshop I attended on micro aggressions, people talked about feeling invisible as a person of color or being non-binary, for example, within the trans community itself. Before I wrote this reflection piece, I was hesitant to write it at all, having just read through a really powerful twitter campaign #notyourtrans101 by @DarkMatterRage to "discuss how trans can't be understood outside of race, class, gender, ability, etc.” Check out some examples of these poignant tweets:

Like at the conference itself, the voice of the trans community is often dominated by white, educated, able-bodied, transmasculine people. Does the world really need this voice – my voice – to take up more space in the little space that trans people already have? I’m not sure if I have the answer, but I can say that the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference is a space where these kinds of conversations are happening. It’s a space that’s working towards empowering all of these voices that are often hidden. For these reasons – the special, empowering space this conference already is and the even more empowering space it works towards being – I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that this conference exists. Not only does the conference exist, it’s free, greatly increasing its accessibility than if there were a registration cost. To support the Philadelphia Trans Conference and become a sponsor, or to find out more information on how to volunteer or attend yourself next June, visit http://www.trans-health.org/.