On Talking and Listening at the Philly Trans Health Conference

written by Sarah

Last week, Nate and I got to table at this year’s Philly Trans Health Conference. It was my first time at the Conference. Although several friends had encouraged me to go in years past, I had declined, both out of unavailability and hesitancy of the space I take up in such a place. Going to represent the Center and offer resources to attendees seemed like a perfect opportunity to at least get my feet wet.

Anyone who has tabled for a school club before knows how utterly monotonous the process can be; dehumanizing at worst, dull at best. As both a former Girl Scout and a signer for several student groups, I am sorely accustomed to keeping a smile plastered on and trying to be friendly as anxious passersby avoid eye contact, hurrying away from me as quickly as possible for fear of being convinced to either buy something or sign up for a list-serve. Point being, my expectations for tabling at generally pretty low; if nobody shoots me a look like I’m single-handedly responsible for this year’s presidential nominees, I consider it a successful day.

After somehow getting lost about 5 times on the way to the Convention Center (I get off at Jefferson - how is that even possible?) I finally met up with Nate and Eric, who had already set up the table. It was only 10 on the first day of the Conference, but the lobby was already bustling with vendors and businesses, offering an appealing variety of free pens, candy, and tee shirts. It was only a few minutes after I had settled in that people came over and started talking to us, asking questions about the Center and, of course, going for the wristbands we brought with us.

By an hour in, Nate and I both had our spiels down pretty well: “We’re the William Way Center, located right down the street on 13th and Spruce, we offer about 40 programs a month plus a huge library and archive...” etc, etc, etc. Every person who we talked to was actually kind and receptive, or at the very least, polite. (And, ok, I’ll admit it - chatting with families and kids undoubtedly brought that domesti-queer baby fever into my heart.) Even better, many of them had already heard of the Center, or attended programs there! People spoke sincerely of their appreciate for William Way in a way that I hadn’t expected. Here I was, an intern who hasn’t even been here a month, and people were talking about experiences they’d had here years and years ago.

One particular story that stuck with me was an older woman who told us that she’d seen TransWay in at least 8 or 9 different versions. She said that the first time the group had ever met, someone had convinced her to go with the promise of pizza, only for her to show up with no pizza there. They promised that the second time, there would definitely be pizza; validly suspicious, she had brought the pizza on her own instead. Finally, at the fourth meeting, “there was pizza, and there has been pizza at every meeting after since.”

In this way, tabling at the Trans Health Conference was beyond a good experience; it brought a warmth and depth to William Way that I had previously been unfamiliar. It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about queer history; it’s another to volunteer or intern at an LGBT Center, and it’s also another to actually listen to the stories within your community. Suddenly programming went from something typed up on a calendar to something talked about in the context of fond memories and excitement about the future. And in a larger sense, just being around such a generally engaging and sensitive crowd of people brought me some warm and fuzzy feelings in the mildly apathetic pit of my soul.

Going back to my domesti-queer comment, there’s something about seeing so many loving, non-heteronormative families in one place that makes me go “!!!” internally. Part of that comes from the way our society has boxed queerness and gender non-conformity into this strange roped-off area of “adult things,” things that are neither appropriate or accessible for children. Obviously, this is hurtful to me as a gay adult, but even more so, it’s hurtful and harmful to gay children, or trans children, or any children who will be under the LGBT+ umbrella at some point. Meeting kids who were writing their pronouns on their name tags, going to workshops, and essentially being encouraged to take the reigns over their own gender, presentation, and identity - the only way I can sum it up is with my previous “!!!”

I found that after a few hours, my memorized speech had gone from canned to thoroughly sincere, deviating from the script as appropriate. My takeaway from Thursday and Friday was an intensely positive one. For all the people I talked to, I know there are dozens more with their own anecdotes related to the Center. Packing up on Friday afternoon, part of me was wishing we could come back on Saturday and have the chance to talk to people again. Maybe at next year's conference, I'll be the one stopping by the William Way table to tell my story.