Making history: Moving Trans History Forward conference 2016


Last week I left for Victoria to attend Canada’s largest transgender conference, hosted by the world’s first and only chair in transgender studies, Aaron Devor. The event took place on campus at the University of Victoria — now home to the world’s largest transgender archives. I felt like I was part of making history just by attending. I was there with five co-researchers from our Photovoice project on safety, wellness, belonging and place.

We arrived just in time to attend the tail end of the opening ceremony at the Legacy Art Gallery downtown. Armed with a drink ticket and a plate of finger food, I had the opportunity to meet Aaron Devor himself, an almost surreal experience. He didn’t remember me but almost 13 years ago, I’d met him when I was finishing up my undergraduate studies at UVIC. At the time he was in the early days of his own transition, as was I. He was the dean of Graduate Studies, and I was unsure of where I wanted to go with my life. It was his article ‘How Many Sexes?’ that had finally given me the courage to own my own transgender identity.

A lot of time had passed and it was emotional and slightly unnerving to now revisit the halls I’d once roamed as a woman. UVIC’s health clinic is where I’d received my first hormone shot. UVIC was also the place where I’d suffered some of my deepest depressive episodes. I had not anticipated the strong emotions returning to campus would awaken in me. And to be here again, surrounded by so many talented transgender historians and allies, was profoundly moving.

The conference days were long and packed with presentations and events. On Day 2, we presented a few of the photos from our participatory research project; our panel was well received. The days were filled with exciting conversations with friends and new acquaintances. Presentations were on topics as diverse as the common media tropes of trans masculinity, to art as a means of activism, to the political pressures at the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archive and the challenges of acquiring and cataloguing trans-related content.

A particular highlight for me was a virtual keynote presentation by Martine Rothblatt, a futurist, entrepreneur and scientist. Looking to the future after days of discussing how we’d gotten to where we are, seemed fitting. The future she described sounded more like science fiction than fact, but her talk was thought-provoking and challenging in all the best ways.

On the last day we had an opportunity to hear from some transgender pioneers, our elders, who fought difficult battles to make room for the rest of us to rise up and claim our spot in the sun. Their stories were tinged with a recognition of the cost of their path. More than one spoke of times of burnout and poverty, and for the need for community. I was particularly moved when a member of the audience addressed the panel: the mother of a trans-identified child, she shakily declared herself an ally and called on the trans community to “use us [allies]” in the fight for equal rights.

There were art performances, films, poetry readings, and a tour of the archive itself, at the UVIC library basement–a chance to see some of the earliest publications ever on the topic.

I left the conference feeling both renewed and wrung out. Hearing our stories, and from those who came before us, was an act of acknowledging the very difficult path that it still is to live a transgender life. It was a recognition of the work that still lies ahead of us to create a record of our very human existences. But to shake hands with and talk with so many smart and talented artists, activists and academics also inspired me with hope. With every story we spoke, and captured, we were cementing our place in human history.

The next MTHF conference is slated for 2018. I hope I will have the chance to attend.