Personal reflections on the conference Transgender: Intersectional/International (28-29 May)
Note: these reflections do not represent anyone else who contributed to Transgender: Intersectional/International
I got involved with Transgender: Intersectional/International in order to create an LGBT/queer space that accommodated discussions on racism, disability, and class: where themes and issues, neglected, or marginalized, or erased, in single-issue trans policy-making in white-dominated trans policy-making, could be given a platform.
Some conference strengths
Let me start with a handful of positives. Informal feedback, face to face and by email and twitter, let me know that attendees loved many of our speakers and found the conference a learning experience. The team that handled our social media were informative and professional in their archiving via twitter and their reading of developments. Our general support service appear to have been popular: our ushers were fantastic, the break spaces peopled by good people (Hannah, you are an angel), while our logistics person Valentina displayed the kind of people skills, technology-sense, organizational skills, sense of responsibility for the conference, and sheer confidence and energy, that made the complex and demanding logistical side appear to go effortlessly. On the other side, the formal side, our thirty speakers, covering a wide range of experience and expertise, as professionals, academics, artists and/or activists, were everything we had hoped for, while in turn several of them were generous in their appraisal of our efforts, and of the conference and its value to them.
Some structural weaknesses: UK immigration
The conference will be remembered for its problems too. Some structural issues arose in the weeks and even hours before the opening, concerning immigration, and these would adversely affect and compromise the conference. We had invested heavily in bringing over speakers from all over the world, but the UK immigration authorities repeatedly blocked both of our Ugandan speakers in spite of the responsive support of the University of Edinburgh's visa support office. Two other speakers were stopped at their respective European airports from flying out, one evidently due to a combination of racism and transphobia. Overall, the impact was to reduce the presence of people of colour in our conference, including at the opening panel where my own paper on racism and class was to dovetail with the focus on racism and capitalism by Joao Gabriell – one of the speakers blocked by airport authorities from coming. Our opening, tone-setting panel was therefore poised to focus on racism purely from a white perspective.
Some personal areas of development
What transpired within the auditorium, partly as a result, was sometimes heart-breaking to experience. People who should have found the space accessible instead were highly critical of the sometimes awkward handling of some of the discussions. Of myself, a white trans person speaking about the literature of trans people of colour, the issue of white authority was raised, one for which I should have had a more considered position. This was one of my learning moments as a researcher presenting their work. As an organizer, perhaps my biggest failing involved my chairing of a particular panel, absenting the responsibility I had to control interaction between audience and presenter, and where instead I showed too much leeway with a particular exchange before a too-late intervention. Some conference attendees later left, stating they didn't feel safe at the conference. Our makeshift attempts at providing a site of discussion and feedback, within a conference crammed with panels, made some feel our response was inadequate and unconvincing. Towards the end of the second and final day, we held a 50-minute session that felt constructive, though for the ones who had left already, this is hardly useful.
Support from the conference
Experienced and perceptive trans and non-binary voices emerged in the auditorium, critical but often supportive. Adam Kashmiry brought an articulate expression of love and solidarity to the people in the room throughout both days; B Camminga, Ruth Pearce, and Harry Josephine Giles all spoke to me with a gentle, constructive honesty that never felt like personal judgement, while Mijke van der Drift and Nat Raha all addressed the audience with a passionately observed, structural context to make sense of the limitations of what our conference could achieve. Cisgender voices such as one delegate called Katie, offering to mediate, showed a proactive desire to address rather than ignore the issue of racism that arose following the withdrawal of one of the speakers. Meanwhile, co-organizing committee members such as Dominique and Kumud also made valuable contributions to the developing discussion. The conference, discernibly, was operating on two levels of learning, generated both by the content of the speakers' presentations and more unpredictably by the power dynamics and interactions in the auditorium, including reactions to our note-taking service for delegates who were D/deaf and hard-of-hearing, where requests to speakers such as please speak more slowly and references to accent became read as micro-aggressions. It's possible to be too hard on ourselves when this situation developed - we made an attempt to make our conference more inclusive, but in doing so, created a new set of issues that we've had to learn from.
Moments of interconnectedness
Given that these reflections are my personal ones, I would like to add some additional positive memories of when I made personal connections in a conference that was, for different people at different times, emotionally exhausting. Some queer and non-binary figures bonded with me as the audience-organizer dialogue continued through the second day: wonderful Jo, James and Leslie. Anita of Lighthouse Books, thanks for checking on my wellbeing and getting me that smoothie. Also, I met some smart and beautiful trans women whose corridor conversations gave me shining jewels of memories: Talen and Victoria, we spoke for maybe minutes but I felt the uplift being with you.
A conversation with Nat and Mijke arose towards the end: for whom and for what did we do this (or indeed any) conference? What positive difference can it influence? How many people, and of what privileges, can it realistically reach? These are valid questions, and perhaps the answers I thought I possessed have already given way to newer, more substantial ones I'm only now beginning to understand.
Why in fact should anyone do another Transgender: Intersectional/International conference? Here is another makeshift answer that may make way over time to another answer. Issues of race/racism, class and capitalism, and disability, are too important to exclude from white-majority LGBT+ spaces, if we are going to have such spaces (and given the current climate of ignorance and misinformation regarding trans people, as well as the limits of trans policy-making, why shouldn't we have such spaces?). The conference showed trans identity as being complex, multi-faceted, and difficult to cater for within a single conception of a trans community. This exposure is both a weakness and a strength. We are no monolith, and adhere to no single set of rules, ideologies or dogmas. We are, as this conference showed, as in need of safe spaces as anyone, for we are as flawed as anyone, as vulnerable as anyone.
Note 1: questionnaires will gather reflections from conference participants, while the conference organizing committee + neutral observer(s), are planning on an accompanying reflection-and-feedback process of its own. Consensual participant feedback will then be published on the website of Transgender: Intersectional/International, along with the uploading of video recordings of conference speakers.
Note 2: this blog post makes almost no reference to the co-organizing committee. This is mainly because of the full-on, logistical nature of the conference experience, and not a reflection of anyone's contributions.
Image taken by our conference tweeter Vicki, of me and Valentina in the minutes before the conference started.