Keeping my back to the filling room, I raised my arm and started to write on the oversized pad, “C-O-U-R…” The letters seemed so small as they fell off to the right. Would people in the back be able to see? I was nervous, uncertain. I flipped to the next huge white sheet. Be legible, I told myself, not neurotic. Slowly and carefully, I got the full Mark Twain quote on the paper. It was about confronting fear, about courage. It seemed appropriate for a transgender conference, for a writing empowerment workshop, for setting the tone for telling our stories.
This seminar was my idea, my initial reason to attend the 21st annual Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta this past weekend. The rest — the book signing, the discussion moderation and the panel at the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Symposium that followed — came once I’d decided to attend. I had no idea what to expect from this trip.
I tried to mentally prepare for the possibility that only a few people would show up at my writing workshop–it was scheduled at 9am on Friday morning, set up against a couple of surgery seminars that are always big hits at these types of conferences. But there were people in my room, almost twenty. They introduced themselves; we had a group discussion about the power of writing; we talked about fears and obstacles, about the responsibilities of representing trans people, about tension and audience. During the prompted writing exercise, the sounds from the next room were distractingly loud–someone was talking about nipple placement in chest reconstruction while a baby cried. Dear god, I thought, I hope they can write through the noise. I hope someone is using this material.
I hadn’t intended for them to share their writing. I asked them only to share the experience of writing. But a latecomer raised her hand. She wore a pearl necklace and a crafty dress with a print of all the NFL teams. She sat up straight, flashed a huge smile, and began to read about searching the card catalog at the library. “Translate, no. Transvaal, no….” She finally came to the word she was looking for: transvestite. She smiled proudly, like a glorious 1950s housewife showing off a freshly baked apple pie.
Another person raised their hand to read. They had distinguished white hair, thick silver hoop earrings, a gender-neutral name, and presented as a man. They started with a flattering description of me, but the piece moved to the recent deaths of friends and ended with a James Joyce quote. After the seminar, they made me promise to “save a dance at the ball for a 280 lbs Canuck,” their words not mine. I nodded in agreement because this person was pretty awesome, and I wasn’t planning to attend the final gala — balls aren’t really my thing.
Two days later, I was milling around the hotel lobby before the big event, and a different workshop participant approached me to say how much they’d enjoyed my seminar, that it was the highlight of the conference. I was floored, both by the statement and by the fact that this person had a beautiful black headband holding back her hair. It took a moment to register, for my eyes to trail down and notice her evening gown. I had mistakenly assumed during the workshop that he was a trans man.
It had actually taken me the duration of the conference to realize that some of the participants were cross-dressers, here because this was a safe space to express and explore that side of themselves. It had also taken me a while to realize that for some of the transsexual women, this was the first safe space they could be in public as themselves, as women, and use their preferred name. I heard stories about how a few of the women had been scared to come out of their rooms as themselves when they’d first arrived and had to be coaxed out by supportive friends who’d encouraged them to attend through the internet. People had arrived from towns or small cities, from other locations in the South. The majority were significantly older than me. Many were white.
This segment of the population, of my community, of the transgender umbrella that I desire to hold up despite our fractured interests, was completely new to me. Due to developmental biology, social stigmas, cultural norms surrounding men and women, and varied desires, the transgender experience is hugely different on my side of the spectrum, the female-to-male side, than on the other side.
Although there were some trans guys in attendance, many more this year than in years past, that wasn’t really my scene either. I don’t relate to the “born in the wrong body” thing, don’t identify as man but as gender-fluid or genderqueer, and connect the most to people–trans or cis–who buck the binary, oppose the concept of normalization, and express themselves creatively. I found myself disappointed that in the only workshop for trans guys not tied to medical transition, we spent the entire time, a whole hour, talking about one guy’s phalloplasty. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated, intrigued, curious, and entertained, but there were surgery workshops to talk about this subject. I guess I wanted to talk about things that weren’t so cockcentric. We spend so much time asking the world not to talk about what’s between our legs, and this is what we’re going to go on-and-on-and-on about behind closed doors…?
This conference wasn’t for me as a trans person, someone with an enormous and diverse trans network in San Francisco. This was for people who may never have been in a room with a dozen people like themselves before. And the things I saw, the way people supported each other–gave away their phone numbers and said, “I’m here,” or followed up with anyone clearly struggling in a workshop, or hugged strangers who looked like they needed a hug–was unlike anything I’d seen before. Every look and word and smile seemed to say: “You are not alone.”
But this conference was for me as a person. Much like many others there, I had to leave my home, my comfort zone, my life, to try something new, to stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and lead my first writing workshop. It was only when my workshop participant approached me before the gala, startled me with her evening gown and told me that the workshop was the highlight of her conference, that I understood how important this trip was for me. I took a moment to acknowledge the fears I’d faced, the courage I had summoned, and felt myself at one with my community.