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Transgendered People of Color Take Center Stage (ALP Missive, winter 1998)

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Transgendered People of Color Take Center Stage
by Pauline Park
The Missive of the Audre Lorde Project (ALP)
winter 1998
(the following are excerpts from a longer article that appeared in LGNY’s November 19th issue)

The first conference specifically by and for transgendered people of color ever held in New York City, and to my knowledged, anywhere, was a historic moment in the life of the TG POC community. Sponsored by The Audre Lorde Project and the Gender Identity Project (GIP) of the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Transworld — the Fourth Annual Transgender/Transsexual Health Empowerment Conference — took place at ALP in Brooklyn on October 24. Only a week before, ALP’s Arms Akimbo, the first confeence for lesiban, bisexual, two-spirit and transgendered women of color, featured the first workshop specifically devoted to transgendered women of color, facilitated by Carmen Vazquez and me.

Transworld was the fourth in a series of conferences that are the biggest annual event of their kind on the transgender calendar in New York City. As in past years, the conference was well attended, with over 200 people from throughout the metropolitan area and beyond in attendance. Some came from upstate locales such as Ithaca, others from as far away as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

In addition to a focus on TG POCs, what made TransWorld distinct was the decentering of service provider as all-knowing authority figure — for the first time in the history of the annual TG/TS health empowerment conference, health professionals did not dominate the proceedings.

The all-day conference began with an opening plenary on transgender history and culture moderated by Javid Syed. I spoke on the role of the transgendered Korean shaman — the paksu mudang; Arlene Hoffman reviewed African American history; Christian O’Neill offered insights from the perspective of a transsexual black man; and Carmen Vazquez talked about her identity as a buth Puerto Rican lesbian of transgender identity. The early afternoon featured a series of workshops on transgenderphobic violence, facilitated by Victoria Cruz and Alex Gilliam; substance abuse, by Leona Williams and Caprice Carthans; transgendered youth, by Pagen and Reyana Quinones; government entitlements and immigration, by Isiris Isaac; and medical issues.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of the conference was the speak-out sensitively and expertly facilitated by Maura Bairley of Project Reach, who elicited personal experiences of discrimination and violence as well as suggestions for addressing the multiple oppressions that transgendered people of color face in this society…

Also noteworthy was the fact that medical issues of transsexual transition (especially access to hormones and SRS), the focus of one workshop, were not central to the conference, as is often the case at transgender conferences. It may be a mark of the growing maturity of the transgender community that these issues, while important, did not dominate the proceedings. Instead, the question of how to organizaed TG POC’s politically closed the conference’s formal discussion.

One would think that a conference whose aim — the health and empowerment of TG POCs — would win the embrace of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people. Remarkably, some white queers stayed away based on the misconception that the conference ‘excluded’ white people. (In fact, the conference was open to all and about a quarter of the attendees were white.) The conference even prompted one nationally prominent transgender activist to denounce it as ‘racist’ for having limited the roster of presenters to people of color, despite the fact that POC-only spaces have become increasingly commonplace in LGB communities. Perhaps it is a measure of the need of the transgender community to address issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship status more forthrightly that a conference featuring only people of color as presenters would create any controversy at all.

Pauline Park is coordinator of Iban/Queer Koreans of New York, policy coordinator of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy; she also served on the Transworld organizing committee.  The views expressed here are not necessarily those of these organizations.

This article originally appeared in the winter 1998 issue of The Missive (Vol. 2, Issue 4) of the Audre Lorde Project (ALP), and before that, in the 19 November 1998 issue of Lesbian & Gay New York (LGNY).

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