Transgender Conferences– A time for reflection

The Keystone Conference, held annually in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, recently celebrated its ninth year with a gathering of over 800 attendees. Most were transgender women and men, joined by healthcare providers, allies, significant others, and family. Together, participants reflected upon the joys, the pain, and the harsh realities of what it means to be transgender in our society today.

Although increasing numbers of transgender people are coming out in their communities, the conference provided opportunities for others to actually live and present as their true gender within a safe space. For a few short days, they could be out and about in a public place without fear of being outed, mocked, or disparaged. Being able to express one’s inner self can be truly exhilarating.

The majority of those in attendance were transwomen, assigned male at birth but presenting as female for the length of the conference. Of this group, most have been living dual lives – presenting as male in daily life to fulfill societal demands, and other times as female to express their own inner identities. Going back and forth can take an emotional toll and is not without risks. Does your spouse know? How about your children? Have you come out at work? Are you taking hormones? Did you travel to the conference dressed? These were the kinds of questions asked of one another as stories and experiences were shared.

Some of those living dual lives expressed plans to transition further from male to female – living their lives more fully as female with or without the hormones and surgeries. Whatever one’s goal, the hindrances can be daunting. Losing spouses, children and loved ones, friends, jobs – everything on the table is vulnerable when a person decides that their only option is to transition or die (it truly is that dire). Transitioning (from one sex to another) is a long and complicated journey – the conference afforded opportunities for those further along to share their experiences with those just beginning.

The conference also offered more formal venues for presentations and workshops. Topics included issues of health (the use of hormones, available surgical procedures, and mental health support), the changing laws regarding transgender rights and protections, successfully coming out at work and to family members, support for spouse and significant others, trans youth and issues in educational settings, trans and spirituality, and more.

On the last evening of the conference, a social gala was held with a banquet, speaker, and dance. Although many of our friends and neighbors may think of transwomen merely as drag queens because of the shows they see at festivals, the transwomen at the gala were the complete opposite – women tastefully dressed who could very well blend at any social event. The clothes were lovely as were the women who wore them. This final evening was one last chance for many to be who they truly feel they are.

With any conference, there is a bit of sadness on Sunday morning as everyone begins to disperse. The planning, the presentations, the anticipation of seeing friends, and making new connections is over. But for many who gathered for the Keystone Conference, there was an especially bitter pang of despair. With the closing of the conference comes the return to a life that requires them to suppress and deny their true identities.

In the hotel lobby checking out on Sunday morning were small groups of “men,” unrecognizable from the evening before; trans people who must go back to a life of secrecy, hiding who they truly are and wish to be. They are returning to the exhausting and difficult reality of being trans.

With memories of the past several days still fresh in their minds, and with personal hopes and dreams newly restored, it is a long drive home from the conference and an even longer wait until next year.

Laura Anderson is an educator, author, researcher, parent, and granddad. Her years teaching in public school classrooms as male provided the foundation for her more recent role educating future teachers. Living female for the past decade, she has come to appreciate the privileges she once held– both male and cisgender– privileges now replaced with the fulfillment of living as her true self.