I like to write up my thoughts as I’m attending a conference or just after I walk away from it, while the plethora of conversations are still swirling around in my brain. It’s a little reminiscent of how I studied in primary school, by taking in as much of the school day as Icould and then writing up my notes later. Maybe I need to move my fingers around to set the thoughts in place, I’m not sure.
I just finished up my participation in the Writing Trans Genres conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There were at least four generations of trans authors and thinkers there, maybe 250 of us, roughly. At least it felt like a quarter of a thousand. I didn’t do a head count and I didn’t ask the organizers. I didn’t want to miss even a moment of it—unlike truly humongous conferences like the Popular Cultural Association Conference or the BookExpo, where there is no hope of going to every panel, this was more intimate and almost comprehensible in scope, until people started talking. At that point there were so many ideas all in one animated stream that it took a lot of energy on my part to keep up with the conversation and concepts. But maybe I’m just an exhausted parent of two kids under the age of three. This conference was marked by several laudable characteristics not commonly found at conferences:
- There was little drama (and there could have been more had a few actors not been as willing to forgive and move on from earlier slights).
- Many of the presenters and attendees were intellectually generous, pointing out their colleague’s work, being active listeners, conceptualizing how to support communal goals.
- Everyone there seemed genuinely grateful for the organizers’ hard work in bringing the conference together. One person said, “I’ve waited forty years for this conference to happen.”
- Execution of accessibility and accommodations for disabled participants was very well done.
Several times leading up to this conference I’ve expressed a wariness at going to trans events like this. My experience with multiple years of dysfunction at the Philadelphia Trans Health conference has left me skittish, as if the problems there (and at the now-defunct True-Spirit Conference in DC) would necessarily be replicated here. That was overly pessimistic of me, as it turns out. This wasn’t a conference of angry individuals being micro- and macroaggressive toward each other under the worn veils of academic discourse and workshop presentation, this was a great group of adults who are deeply invested in creating better circumstances for ourselves and the people who come after us. In that vein, the conference opened up what looked like a brand spanking new space to discuss fascinating ideas that have previously stymied us or that, to my knowledge, have never really been taken up in a broad conversation between us on the margins. These included:
- Language over our definitions continues to be a point of tension. Do umbrella categories like “trans” limit us, give us political agency, monolithize us, or speak to our diversity?
- Mainstream popular culture actively works against trans authorship, trans visibility, trans authenticity as having its own valued voice among others. Trans people need to work against these constraints and center themselves as the audience, as the target reader groups.
- Breaking apart expectations for gender identities is at once threatening to the status quo and liberating for people who don’t fit those limitations. So we should continue to break apart expectations for gender identities.
- Transsexualism, cross-dressing, transness all have a long history in many cultures, dating back thousands of years, often linked to spirituality, divineness, and service. And we need to herald this legacy to work through our overwhelming sense of shame.
- Current work in trans literatures and writing is predicated on previous work just as it is providing a basis for future work, and holding these temporal distinctions together gives us a power collectively that the individual texts cannot possess.
At one point, Rachel Pollack, who has written more than thirty-five books of fiction, non-fiction, and tarot, turned to Cat Fitzpatrick, who was just named as the poetry editor at Topside Press, and said, “You are the future I want.” And Cat said in return to Rachel, “You are the future I want.” It is this kind of political and artistic commitment to each other that I believe will revolutionize our participation in literature. Even as we struggle with longstanding questions about representation, readership, who is and is not producing writing, and who has access to trans literature (as well as, let’s face it, what the definition(s) of trans literature is), the Writing Trans Genres conference allowed for multiple touch points to found our work and keep our work in conversation with itself and criticism. Ryka Aoki said at one point, “This conference could only have happened in Canada,” meaning, among other things, that the constitutional commitment Canada has made to human rights allowed for a majority of the funding of this conference, and the dedication of the organizers to not use that funding to bring in one expensive speaker for $20,000 meant that they could use their funding to support the travel of 250 mostly unknown writers and thinkers. It highlighted some of the best possibilities for our trajectory, and it is my sincere wish that we go on and do great things, and come together again soon.