Thursday morning, Carolyn Cohen, 50, woke up to unshakable nerves. As she got ready to leave, she could not figure out what it was that had her so nervous. She was not unfamiliar with people who were in transition. She had met people who did not conform to the gender binary. She knew and respected the correct pronouns. But still, she could not help but feel nervous as she headed out to The Mazzoni Center in Center City for the 14th annual Trans Health Conference.
The conference is a three-day bonanza of more than 200 workshops and talks. The crowd of more than 4,500 includes members of the LGBTQ community from all over the world. The workshops have titles like “Intersex Gender Transition,” “Trans and Deaf,” “Beyond Asylum: Understanding Immigration and Immigration Options for Trans Identified Individuals,” and “DIY: Creative Masturbation Tool for Transmasculine Individuals.” Participants wander around the Mazzoni Center with name tags that display their name and preferred pronoun.
Cohen, who said she grew up in a sheltered “WASP-y family,” was on a mission to confront her nerves. She said that her children, who are 14 and 15, are already more accepting than she is.
“I feel like I am baring my soul and I don’t like to admit to this,” Cohen said outside the conference. “But I’m afraid of people who are too different, too loud, too poor, too other.”
“We gotta Kanye this moment”
Cohen was in the right place to confront her fears. The people who showed up on the first day were a diverse mix of LGBTQ, intersexuals (people whose organs do not fit neatly into either category), gender nonconforming folks, parents seeking to better understand their with trans kids, mental health professionals and counselors there for professional development, and allies (people who do not see themselves in any of these ways but try to be supportive.)
As Tiq Milan, Thursday’s keynote speaker and spokesperson for GLAAD, told the crowd, the community is nothing if not diverse. Celebrity transpeople, like Caitlyn Jenner, grab the spotlight — but they should not be seen as representative of the whole.
“We gotta ‘Kanye’ this moment,” Milan said. “Like, ‘Caitlyn, imma let you finish, but transpeople are still four times more likely to live in poverty.’ Or ‘Caitlyn, imma let you finish, but our children are still homeless.’”
The idea of the conference was to not only create a broader understanding of the issues facing everyday transpeople, but to also cultivate a safe space in the Mazzoni Center for transpeople and allies to network and connect with services, support groups and health care information. One couple said that their transgender daughter would not be attending any of the workshops because she was just spending the next three days meeting and chatting with people like her.
A weekend of nonconformity in Philly
The Trans Health Conference has created a new demographic makeup of Center City for the day, and will for the rest of the weekend. During the lunch break, the metal chairs outside of Reading Terminal Market were filled with 50-year-old transwomen sipping coffee in bright summer dresses and transgender punks sharing sandwiches. For this weekend, Center City is a bastion for the nonconforming.
In fact, in its regular form, Philadelphia is relatively friendly to the LGBTQ community. In 2013, Mayor Michael Nutter signed legislation requiring all new city operated buildings to include gender-neutral bathrooms. The city also gives businesses tax credits if they provide employees LGBT-inclusive health care plans.
However, these steps do not negate the reality that transpeople in Philadelphia, and nationally, have major hurdles to conquer — especially transpeople of color. At least eight transgender women across the country have been murdered so far in 2015. This includes London Chanel, a 21-year-old who was fatally stabbed in North Philadelphia on May 18th. The Human Rights Commission has called anti-transgender violence “a national crisis.”
It is in this context that members of the conference hoisted the transgender flag right outside of City Hall around noon Thursday. The flag, designed in 1999 by transsexual Navy vet Monica Helms, was created to “fly correctly no matter which way it is hung.”
Learning to embrace differences
Inside the conference, Cohen headed to her first workshop, “Unconscious Bias and a Healthier Environment for Trans’ People and Allies.” The scheduled presenter never showed up. But a brave soul, Linden Grazier, a self-described lesbian Jewish mother who has been involved in the gay rights movement for the past 40 years, stepped forward and led 150 people in a free form discussion of the biases that they harbor and/or are affected by.
Cohen looked melancholy, but stood up at one point, her voice shaking, to tell everyone that she is trying to confront her own biases. She said she is learning to accept people for who they are instead of what she sees as the typical form of “acceptance.”
“We’re fine with people of color as long as they act like us,” she said. “We’re fine with queer people as long as they act like us.”
For Lilith, a “Radical Faerie” (a group of queer community-oriented, anti-establishment sorta pagans), who sat directly in front of Cohen, this is what the entire conference is about, accepting and understanding difference, and admiring it for being different.
“There needs to be space for people who don’t fit into any categories,” she said. Lilith, named herself after the figure from Jewish mysticism who some consider the first woman, God created her out of the same piece of earth as Adam.
Cohen made her way through the day of discussions, lost in the crowd of women with full beards and people who had been totally remade after being “coercively assigned female (or male) at birth.” She was letting her nerves subside, or at least trying to understand them.
The uncategorized is scary because it challenges our notion of how the world should work. As a straight white woman from an upper-middle class background, Cohen is forcing herself through the Trans Health Conference to confront not only her fears, but the role they play in the systemic violence toward transpeople. Thursday afternoon, she was heading to the workshop “Turning Privilege Into Change.”