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SFU hosts unprecedented trans conference

'I think the energy in the trans scene right now is awesome': Stryker

CHOOSING GENDER. Beric Manywounds noted that First Nations ancestors allowed certain children to choose their own gender. 'I read about how it used to be and get consumed by rage,' says Manywounds.(TransSomatechnics conference) Credit: Darlene Sunderland photo

Academic stars of the transgender, transsexual and intersex world gathered at Simon Fraser University May 1-3 to share their knowledge at an unprecedented conference that drew more than 200 participants, many from across Canada and around the world.

The event, entitled TransSomatechnics: Theories and Practices of Transgender Embodiment, featured dozens of workshops, a handful of keynote presentations and even a musical performance and interview with musician Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons fame.)

The more than 100 papers presented touched on every trans and intersex topic imaginable, with titles ranging from “Binaryfuck” featuring films of gender-bending performance art, to “Transmen and lesbian social spaces” exploring the introduction of trans folk into lesbian baseball leagues and the concept of ‘butch flight’ (the reduction of butch dyke numbers as a result of many butches transitioning to men).

Additionally, a plenary on the last day entitled “Sex/Change/City: A Translocal Queer Gender History Project” showcased how local transfolk and trans allies — ranging from undergrad student Nikki Scott to trans community leaders like Jamie Lee Hamilton and Lukas Walthers — are hoping to contribute to a project that can capture local trans history for archival and community-based purposes.

According to conference organizer Susan Stryker, one central and important theme involved “creating commonalities between different communities of people.”

For graduate student Liz Airton, the gathering did just that.

“This conference is radical because it is uniting these different forms of ‘other-ing’ — and saying that we can’t just be happy trans people because ‘we get to have our drivers licenses with our sex, yay!’ This conference reminds me to proceed from an anti-oppression standpoint on all levels. This is a reaffirmation that I have to keep learning to do my work.”

The conference also featured a number of compelling panels on people’s personal stories, shifting the emphasis from theory to first-person experience.

The First Nations/Two Spirit plenary was held in the same theatre that — moments before — had just finished screening Gwen Haworth’s documentary She’s a Boy I Knew. The film deeply affected many in attendance, including members of the Two Spirit panel, many of whom were in tears for portions of their own talks.

Beric Manywounds spoke of a time when First Nations ancestors allowed certain children to choose their own gender. Citing a book by Walter L Williams entitled Sexual Diversity: the Spirit and the Flesh, Manywounds stated passionately and powerfully: “I read about how it used to be and get consumed by rage. Why is it not the way it is now?”

Professor Viviane Namaste of Montreal’s Concordia University delivered a keynote presentation entitled “Knowledge for Whom? Trans Women, HIV and the Field of ‘Trans Studies.”

Namaste revealed troubling statistics of HIV rates among trans women around the globe. Society stigmatizes trans women who have difficulty passing as women, she explained. As a result many of these women turn to the sex trade to make a living, which increases their risk of becoming HIV-positive.

According to Namaste, 14 percent of trans women in Chicago are now HIV-positive, compared to 54 percent in Montreal, 70 percent in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and a full 100 percent of trans women in Rome who have been in the sex trade for more than four years and are also IV drug users. “That means that entire generations of trans people are gone,” said Namaste. “History ergo is unattainable.”

Another panel entitled “Transablism” discussed the difficulties and traps involved for those forced to subscribe to the term ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’

A Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis in some cities grants some trans people access to medical treatments that would otherwise be unattainable. However, many trans people are concerned that being forced to accept that title means accepting the medical community’s labelling of transgenderism as a disorder, also categorized by some as a mental illness.

Stryker, who just completed her one-year tenure at Simon Fraser University and is now moving on to a teaching position at Harvard, hopes the conference was successful in its mission of uniting and strengthening the trans community.

“I think the energy in the trans scene right now is awesome. My own impetus is just to link people and hope that kind of linkage is engaging in a broader kind of progressive or radical politics that brings people together in opposition to the organization of daily life that makes life hard for many of us.”