Gender Odyssey 2015 was held at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle from 8/19 to 8/23/15. The first two days were the professional conference geared towards health care providers, social workers, teachers, psychologists etc. The main event photographer and I split up those days between us. She took Wednesday, the day focussing on adults, and I was there for Thursday, the youth focus day. I also was present at each of the main conference days, with the focus for my work on the key notes, the picnic and kid’s camp. I have to admit that I was worried that my presence at kids camp would be perceived as negative by the parents, however the opposite was the case as I learned on Friday when I started to obtain consent for the photo booth we planned to set up. Overall I spent a lot more time with the kids than I thought I would/could/. I took over 55GB worth of RAW images during the conference, or a total of 2100 pictures out of which I only had to delete a handful during the conference. As I am converting and editing those files I am also writing down my thoughts and experiences. Here are the first two days:
My first day, I reported to duty at around 10am, later than I intended due to a medical emergency of a friend the night before. I got my badge and two staff shirts, so I can change them on Saturday. The white lanyard shows that I have full access to every area of the conference, including the family camp. The folks wearing black lanyards can only attend regular conference events. Yeah me, full behind-the-scenes access in exchange for the labor of love.Throughout the day I practiced the art of taking pictures without revealing the identity of people, such as shots from behind, blurring out the audience, or framing the body of a person without the face, partial shots of note taking, etc.
Me in the official Gender Odyssey Staff t-shirt, I loved how the blue and green color scheme repeated itself throughout the event
I was getting the first consent forms out and signed, and off I go to document and participate in any way I feel comfortable. Next I had an interesting, sadly way too short conversation with Trystan Cotten. According to the blurb on the GO website he “is an associate professor of gender and African American studies at California State University, Stanislaus. His research and teaching focus of gender, sexuality, race, and nationalism in trans migrations and diasporas. He is also the managing editor of Transgress Press and principal architect of its focus as a social entrepreneurial publishing firm devoted to empowering trans* communities. His most recent books are Hung Jury: Testimonies of Genital Surgery by Transsexual Men (Transgress Press 2012) and Transgender Migrations: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition (Routledge 2011)” He was around the entire conference, promoting his books and also presenting on Getting The Grade Friday 1:20pm, which I missed. From other conversations I learned that he is around on conferences a lot, so I will have a chance to pick his brain another time. I definitely need to add Hung Jury to my reading list, certainly not just because I love the pun in the title. A quick search on a popular online retailer’s website reveals that both books downloadable and this poor graduate student got her samples right away.
I took pictures at the Parents of Trans Youth/Children Panel, Puberty Delay and Cross Hormones by Dr. Johanna Olson (very interesting, especially the connections between female hormones and growth; she mentioned that girls tend to stop growing after 2 years of puberty, boys tend to grow until their early 20s), and Schools and Public Accommodations (where I met a friend and we decided to have lunch together). Lunch was fun, we went downstairs to Taco del Mar and just chatted about life, the universe, and everything and of course about the conference. My friend told me that she appreciates that I do not use a flash while documenting the con, she is photosensitive and someone used flash yesterday.
In the afternoon I attended Understanding Non-Binary Identity with Micah. I would have loved to stay in there just to listen to them speak, but I felt as the only photographer around I should get a wide variety of workshops. Here I also crossed paths with Kristin. She gave me my event photographer add on for the badge, now I feel all official. Then I went to The Road to Expert and took some shots of the volunteer sign-up booth. Car Talk dealt with how to talk to your kids about uncomfortable things like sex and gender. Family Law, Foster Care and Juvenile Justice was another panel discussion I spent some time in.
After that the last event of the day was Outspoken! Trans Youth Panel and I was very careful to get consent from the panelists. One was not quite 18 and they took the consent form home promising to mail it to me after their parent signed it. I received it in the mail a couple of days later, quite relieved that I had gotten permission. The youth panelists comprised of a very diverse group, I actually knew one of them and was shocked to find out that they struggle to find permanent housing. The panel underlined the importance of listening to teens expressing themselves, that they want to be respected for their choices of names, pronouns and gender expression, and that there is a lot of discrimination of gender non conforming kids even here in the Seattle area. The Center School and Nova seem to be the only safe high schools for those kids, anywhere else they are bullied. If it is that bad in Seattle, how excruciatingly awful is life elsewhere I wonder?
Today was the first day for me to shlep the light equipment with me, I parked in the garage under the impression that it would cost me $16. I did not read the fine print, as I stayed for more than 11 hours I got slammed with $31. Gwyn will have to give me rides Saturday and Sunday as we are almost broke and my budget for the con is $100. Holy cannoli, parking in downtown Seattle is really expensive. There are reasons why I take the bus as much as possible, folks:-)
I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at 7:30am. Kristin had called me the evening before asking if I could take pics of kids camp before it is ‘destroyed’, i.e. right after set up was complete. As I had planned to be there by 8am anyways to document the registration of the crowds half an hour earlier did not make a lot of a difference to me. So there I was in this huge ball room full of fun stuff, wishing I could just stay and play dress up, cuddle with the large tiger in the reading corner or craft. This looks like so much fun! I noticed an empty corner next to the tweens and decide to claim it for the photo booth.Next year it should be about this height (6 feet) , but go all the way to the floor and more towards the corner. I need to visually hide the power cords (there is an outlet smack dab in the middle just below the frog). The location was fine, the team even cordoned it off and the kids did not mess with this corner. I will still not leave the light set up for safety and other reasons.By the way, did you know they make rainbow duct tape? I need some!
Kids camp: The photo booth backdrop created by and for the kids
Kids camp: Reading and quiet time corner with the comfiest tiger ever
Self-portrait near the dress up corner (now with official event photographer on the badge)
I discuss the plans for the photo booth with Kit, the kids camp coordinator, and go about my day, checking back later after lunch. When I come back the backdrop is not done, but I am starting to get consent from the parents. At the end of the day I have 23 children with permission from the parents to take their picture. I am totally stunned as I did not expect to get more than 10 kids. But then, most of the children are kids of con goers or siblings of gender non conforming kids, which I did not think about originally. I am counting this as a huge success as this is the first time official photography is taking place on the family side. If any of the pictures are used on the website or elsewhere by Gender Diversity names will not be used. I hear there are about 200 people under the age of 18 signed up and I have permission for 10% of them, not too shabby. One other reason might be that I promised the parents to email them the best shots, if they leave their email on the consent form. Let’s see how much additional work I have made myself with that and if that is necessarily a bad thing. Anyways, the photo booth did not get finished on Friday, so I started taking pictures there on Saturday and the rest on Sunday. Sadly I was unable to get all of the kids that signed up as some had already left by Sunday morning. Yet, this part was really great and I am looking forward to doing it again. My personal favorite was the kid wearing a dinosaur costume, so adorable!
Onward and forward to the morning sessions, or so I think. I marvel at the gender inclusive bathrooms, where everyone just goes to do their thing or strikes a conversation during the hand washing ritual. I take pictures at registration and then decide to pay a visit to “Welcome to Gender Odyssey” at 8:30am. Aidan Key is greeting those who were already awake enough to be checked in and provides us all with some information. He tells people that there are conference photographers and asks me up to the podium, as I was the only one already there. I hope I did not fumble too much, told folks that we are documenting the conference and that we are going to be respectful about people’s privacy. I mention the consent forms and encourage the audience to approach us. I get a warm round of applause and feel a bit more comfortable in my skin. Afterwards I begin to wander around into different rooms where the first sessions are held. I immediately leave those where the presenters had set up the chairs in a circular fashion as in such a setting I felt photography to be too intrusive. I am getting some shots at “Finding and Creating Local Support”, “ID Documents” and “Transgender Parents Panel”. I grab some resources for kids of Trans people for our 15 year old which he actually might have opened up that night to our surprise but don’t take pictures in there as it seemed too intimate for me to intrude. Then I go into “Trans-Sculpting the Human Form”, a fancy title for a presentation by a surgeon doing top surgery on FtM individuals and end the first session with taking pictures of the art displayed in the hallway.
Sign on the top left reads: “Gender Diversity Kids Play Group. These paintings were made by artists ages 4-9 from the Kids Play Group that runs in conjunction with a monthly Gender Diversity support group for Parents of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Children. The play group is a community of transgender and gender non-conoformind kids and their siblings an allies. Visit genderdiversity.org for more information about support groups and more resources
The second round of sessions starts at 10:40am, I go through the first door where the workshop “It is my transition, too” is held and never leave the room until lunch break. This workshop was geared specifically for the partners of trans* folks, the introduction by one of the coordinators made me realize that I had to sit down, put away the cameras, and be fully present in the circle. There were at least 30 partners present and a handful of trans* folks who were free to stay and introduce themselves, but the conversation was centered on the partners. This was really refreshing. I have to admit that I first thought I don’t have anything to contribute, but just being there and knowing there are of course other partners out there was great. There is even a regular meeting in Seattle which I vaguely was aware of, but I never thought I’d be interested in attending. One learns something new every day, not necessarily in school! I have to admit that it was difficult for me to listen to some of the older generation wives of trans* women, who had been married for decades before their spouse came out, especially as I met my spouse a month before she had GRS and never knew her former self. I could identify much more easy with the lesbian partners of trans* men because of my former girlfriend’s transition 15 years ago. Stories were shared, tears were shed, and those of us who wanted to keep the conversation going signed up for an email list.
I met for lunch with a local couple with whom I have been FaceBook friends for some time, but we never had the chance to get together in real life before. It was great to spend some time with them and chat and I can only hope we can fit some time into our ever so busy schedules to hang out together in the future. They are good people, as are many I meet at GO either for the first time or have met before.
For the first set of afternoon sessions I visit “Actually, I use a different pronoun” where one of my fellow grad students is one of the facilitators. The room is packed with people split up in three different circles, and I need to leave after taking some pictures of them with their permission, carefully avoiding anyone else. I meander towards “Male to Female Surgical Options”, take some pictures and then notice that I need a break. So I withdraw to a corner with comfy couches, read FaceBook, check my email and relax for a little while. Then I wander around for a bit, chat with some of the vendors, and take pictures of the art currently made in the family conference hall way.
For the second half of the afternoon I had a grand plan to make up as much ground as I can as I did not document a lot during the first half. And I got promptly stuck in “Intersections of Trans Identity and Aging”, where issues such as transition later in life or dealing with aging while trans were discussed, This was interesting to me as my spouse just turned 50, I am only three years behind, and we both had to struggle with major health issues. I mostly listened after introducing myself and I can only assume I was the youngest in the room.
Andrea Jenkins giving her key note speech “To be Young, Gifted, and Trans”
My final assignment for the day was taking pictures at the first keynote speech, eloquently delivered by the ever so gracious Andrea Jenkins entitled “To be Young, Gifted, and Trans”. She began with a poem which gave me goosebumps all over. I can’t wait for the recording to be online to listen to the entire speech again as I was sometimes just too busy with getting pictures. Her speech was powerful, thoughtful, and uplifting. When she read the names of the 18 trans* folks killed that we know of so far in 2015 the room wept. Her message that #BlackTransLivesMatter cannot be repeated often enough. Then I turned around and scanned the packed room. Where are they, the people of color? I scanned a sea of white faces interspersed with some yellow dots and the occasional brown or black speck (I do not mean to be disrespectful by using colors instead of other designations). How can a person of color afford to take time off from work in order to travel across the country and spend another fortune on hotel and food if they are the most likely to live in extreme poverty? We might give lip service that they matter, but what do we really do in terms of removal of barriers? I do not have the end all, be all answer to this question, but this is a conversation that needs to happen over and over again. She also talked about hopes for the future and that one day folks like her, Aidan Key and Kate Bornstein will be the “Transgender Dinosaurs” when the kids that are starting to grow up now, more supported than ever before, look back at how things used to be at the end of the twentieth century.
All in all this was a day full of meeting people, having conversations, listening, and learning and I went home tired and ready to come back the next day (but not at 7:30am mind you)