Monday, 8 June 2015

Philadelphia Trans Health Conference: My Safe Space

I hope it will be the first of many for me. I attended the conference to conduct a session on my research study: Transmasculine individuals’ experiences of pregnancy, birth and infant feeding (funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – Institute of Gender and Health). After two years of work, 22 participant interviews (about one hour each) and many, many hours spent transcribing, analyzing, coding and re-coding, Dr. Joy Noel-Weiss and I presented our findings!

We had a well-attended session and received many good questions from attendees. I had my nursing 7-month-old baby with me. She played on a blanket on the floor with some toys and snacks. An amazingly generous woman I’d never met before got down on the floor with my baby and entertained her, without getting too close or picking her up (she would have screamed!). She made it possible for me to speak! Once in a while when the baby got fussy I picked her up and nursed her, handing the microphone over to Joy to continue presenting. It all worked out beautifully.

Philly Trans Health refreshed my soul. Last year there were about 3500 attendees, and friends told me that this year seemed to be an even bigger gathering (we have to wait for the final tally). It is hard to describe what it feels like to have spent my life up until now as the only trans* person amongst cisgender people at all times, and then to be suddenly surrounded by THOUSANDS of trans* and gender non-conforming people. I felt so damn SAFE. I nursed the baby in the hallways, and didn’t avoid eye contact; I smiled at people who walked by, knowing that they would return the friendly gesture.

On the first day of the conference we went to City Hall where the transgender pride flag was raised for the first time. Children, and people with children were invited to participate in the ceremony, so my baby and I both held the flag and then a group of kids pulled the rope to lift it while the audience cheered.


There were so many trans* and non-binary people in town for the conference that I could see others like me everywhere I went – Reading Terminal Market, on the SEPTA train while commuting to my friends’ place in the suburbs, and around the historic district, too. I nursed my baby in all of those spaces, and felt safe everywhere.

It is only in experiencing this weekend of mass transness that I am realizing how I have been affected by being the only. This past winter was rough for my family to a point where I began to feel stressed and fragile. My partner needed gallbladder surgery when our baby was only two months old, and shortly after that, the baby developed bronchiolitis. With all of the anxiety surrounding their illnesses, I had trouble coping with parenting while trans in public. I became reluctant to go out on my own with my two kids. This went on for months. When it was time to travel to Toronto and Ottawa to speak at a regional conference, I desperately wanted to cancel. How could I cope with all that? I had lost my usual resilience.

We went, and I did it. Getting out there and just making it all happen helped me start to feel better, but arriving in Philadelphia let me be whole again. In Philly, I stayed with a trans* friend I knew only from the interwebs, and his partner and son. In their household, not only was my trans* identity utterly normal, but we also shared an attachment-minded style of parenting that includes nursing our kids beyond toddlerhood. My friends helped entertain my baby in the most understanding and patient of ways so that I could clean bottles and thaw milk, and pack. When I wanted to attempt a shower, this friend said, “Oh, let me start the shower for you so you don’t have to spend time figuring out how it works. Otherwise the baby would be crying by the time you get in.” Yes, yes, yes.

I felt completely accepted and valued, and I think I have brought at least some of this sense of well-being back home with me. I am so grateful and privileged to have been able to enjoy this nourishing experience. I know that many others cannot.

I also acknowledge that some had a very hard time with the conference. I found flyers left out on the vendors’ tables explaining that trans women seem to be getting significantly less programming that is specific to them. I’d like to know why that is happening, and what the organizers plan to do about it for next year. 

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