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.

Public Transit Unlocked My World

skytrain station at sunrise

Take a moment to imagine your teenage years: Imagine if every time you wanted to leave the house you needed your parents’ help to do so. If you wanted to go to a movie or hang out with friends at the mall, you needed your parents to drive you. If you ever wanted to march out of the house in a typical teenage hormone-infused, temperamental huff, you weren’t going anywhere without somebody’s help.

This is the life I led as a person with a disability.

My life changed when I graduated from high school and started my first semester of university.

As Translink only had a few routes with wheelchair accessible buses on them at that point, Simon Fraser University acknowledged the need for disabled students to be able to live on campus. I moved into SFU residences and it was my first delicious taste of true independence. Not only was I living on my own, but I could at last go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted—and it was truly addictive.

I went to pick up my groceries at Lougheed Mall. I went to movies at Metrotown with my new university friends. I rode the bus to downtown Vancouver to attend classes at the SFU Harbour Centre campus and, sometimes, just for the experience of heading into the city all on my own. Every so often I’d miss the accessible bus and I’d have to wait for the next one to come along, which in some cases could be a couple hours later. This didn’t deter me in the slightest. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free.

As of 2010, Greater Vancouver’s public transit system is entirely wheelchair accessible and my continued independence today is heavily tied to our transit system. Ever since my university days, I have lived within a stone’s throw of a transit hub. Every volunteer opportunity, internship, part-time contract and full-time job I’ve ever had I’ve commuted to via transit. Every social gathering, every doctor’s appointment, every time I need to go to the hardware store to buy that particular light bulb I can’t seem to find anywhere else, I get there by transit.

One of the reasons I love the neighbourhood I live in now is because it’s such a large transit hub; there are people in wheelchairs everywhere. We have become part of the visual landscape and almost unremarkable in our presence.

Access to public transit isn’t just about empowerment and independence for people with disabilities, it is also about how that access creates a shift in society.

In BC right now there is an outcry over the Government’s decision to increase disability benefits, but then effectively claw-back that increase for transit users by cancelling their annual bus pass program. A great deal has already been written about this decision with the media tossing around words like “mean-spirited” and “heartless”.

I would add that the decision is utterly backward.

It was somewhere in the early 1990s when I saw my first wheelchair accessible city bus. I was around fifteen at the time. I’d never seen the inside of a bus before. It was at a convention for people with disabilities in downtown Vancouver and there was all sorts of cutting-edge assistive technology on display. The BC Transit folk—they hadn’t changed their name to Translink yet—put me on the motorized lift that raised me up so that I could get inside the bus. There were seats in the front part of the bus that lifted up and a place where the wheelchair could be tied down by the driver.

They told me that in fifteen years the entire Greater Vancouver transit system would be wheelchair accessible. I shook my head in amazement. I could not comprehend such a thing.

What today’s government is really doing is punishing those who are striving for greater independence and opportunities by choosing to live in cities that have better public transit options. Given how far many people with disabilities have slipped below the poverty line and how rapidly cost of living is rising in places like Vancouver, the choice is now between food, rent and being able to get out into the world at all.

Once these changes take effect this fall, I suspect that there are going to be a lot more people choosing an increasingly shut-in existence in order to keep a roof over their head.

And society as a whole will suffer for it.

Want to take action?

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Photovoice 2016

Capturing the stories – the lived experiences – of trans* and gender non-conforming people is a powerful educational tool, for future generations and for family and community members who may never have had the opportunity to meet one of us up close and personal. Stories have the power to change how we think about things. I remember, for instance, the first time I met a trans person in the flesh. I was at university and they had just begun hormones to transition from female to male. Meeting them blew my mind. And they showed me how certain public spaces, places like bathrooms, change rooms and gyms, were danger zones when you didn’t fit neatly into the man/woman binary.

Before that encounter, my knowledge of trans* people was limited to movies like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘The Crying Game’. There was a lot of crying going on. But to meet someone in person, to be able to ask questions, to feel what they feel, see what they see, get some understanding of the way they think about their own selves, that was priceless. It gave me a vocabulary to start investigating truths about myself, to question why I was the way I was, and think about where I wanted to go with my life. It gave me permission to acknowledge the deep discomfort I’d felt for years with my own body, my own identity and my own lack of fitting in.

That was over a decade ago. Since then I’ve gone through my own transition, and become the man I never thought I’d be able to be. At first I kept my transition quiet, telling only my closest friends and family members, and those who absolutely, positively needed to know. But with time, I’ve come to see the value in being visible in my transness. For the sake of young people who need to be able to see that being trans is not a death sentence, and that opportunity still awaits. For the sake of families, who want the best for their children and want to know that others have walked this path and lived rich, healthy, loving lives.

In the summer of 2015, as I was browsing through my email, I spotted a request for participants in a Photovoice research project on Safety, Belonging, Wellbeing and Place with Trans* and Gender Nonconforming people. Thinking that it might be an interesting way to meet other trans folks, I sent in my application, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early on, we identified framing questions we would use to guide us as we went out into the world and took pictures documenting our lives. These questions were: 1)  What makes a place feel safe and that I belong? 2) What does wellbeing look like to me? 3) What needs to change to create more safety, belonging and wellbeing for trans*, Two-spirit and gender nonconforming people in our community?

It’s a year since the Photovoice project officially launched, and a group of 5 of us are planning to attend the upcoming Moving Trans History Forward conference in Victoria, BC, to tell our stories based on the photographs we took. It’s both exciting and anxiety-provoking to have reached this point. To publicly declare, to a room full of academics, activists, and community members, that this is who I am. This is the journey I’ve been on. This is what safety means to me, to us.

The entire Photovoice experience has been eye-opening and humbling. It has helped me to accept the struggle my journey has been, and has connected me with a range of people I would not have met otherwise, our one connection being our disruption of the gender binary. Throughout I have also become more conscious of the privilege I enjoy, as a “passable” white transman, employed, housed, able-bodied, and living in a developed country with relatively inclusive laws. Even with all these advantages my journey hasn’t been easy and I try not to take things for granted. I understand, probably better than most, that nothing is certain, and things can change at a whim, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better.

With my photos I tried to capture the range of emotions that being trans* in this world awakens in me. From the pain and anxiety to the humour that gets you through the day, to a necessary confidence…the confidence of facing a world that isn’t entirely convinced that you have any business existing in the first place.

Where this project goes next will depend on the success of our fundraising efforts. Some of our members will be presenting our stories and images at various public events where we will also be selling T-shirts. Eventually, we hope to do our own art exhibit – hopefully sometime in the coming year. I will keep you posted as the adventure continues.

No One Way to be Disabled

When Lego unveiled its first disabled mini-figure, I must’ve seen some version of the announcement in my Facebook feed at least a dozen times.

“Well that’s neat,” I thought. It’s so seldom that people with disabilities show up in mainstream culture at all and I know how important it is for children with disabilities in particular to be able to see representations of themselves. This little beanie-wearing fella seemed like a cool kid and one you can imagine all the other Lego figures wanting to hang out with him. Excellent!

But as other sites picked up the announcement and people began sharing it over and over and over again, I started to feel a bit irked by it. There was something about the tone in some of these articles that gave the impression that Lego had now suitably taken care of representing people with disabilities. All of them. Everywhere.

There is a tendency when we talk about representing people with disabilities to think of them as a single group who all have similar needs, similar obstacles and similar backstories. This could not be further from the truth.

Let’s take little Lego man here as an example. As a person in a wheelchair, do you really know his story?

  • Why is he in that wheelchair? Perhaps like me, he was born with his disability and life in a wheelchair is all he’s ever known. On the other hand, perhaps he was in a car accident a few years ago and now he’s just starting to get used to what it’s like to use a wheelchair after being able-bodied up until now. How does this change his outlook on his life and his situation?
  • Does he have barriers in communicating with others? Perhaps he has Cerebral Palsy or some other disability that can impact the clarity of his speech. How does this change how people perceive and interact with him?
  • How independent is he? Perhaps he lives in dorms at the local college and he wheels by himself to and from all his classes. After spending time at the park, he stops off at the grocery store to pick up supplies for tonight’s dinner, which he’ll be whipping up on his own. On the other hand, he could be attending college but also have a full-time aid to help him take care of all his personal needs like dressing, bathing, cooking, getting to the toilet and so on.
  • What does his future look like? Little Lego guy has decided to set his sights on working as a computer programmer in a video game company. Like his co-workers he works long hours late into the night, but fortunately his disability does not impact his physical stamina—or his ability to drink large amounts of coffee. On the other hand, perhaps after he finishes his education he finds he’s struggling with ongoing health issues. He has chronic pain and the medications he has to take make it difficult for him to work for more than a few hours at a stretch. He struggles with the aftermath of trauma and depression and, as much as he might want that steady 9-to-5 job, all the various pieces of his situation make holding down a job like that nearly impossible.

I could probably continue this list indefinitely, but you get the idea. While having a Lego figure that uses a wheelchair is a great step forward in representing diversity to kids, the sheer range of backstories that he is representing is enormous.

Even within our own community, I think people with disabilities sometimes forget how diverse their own experiences are. We try to think and move as if we are a unified group, but can get fouled up in some serious clashes of ideology.

  • My health concerns are consuming my world. I may live below the poverty line, but at least this government check keeps a roof over my head and gives me the personal care assistance I need.
  • I was able to get a job and push forward with my career. I don’t understand why other people with disabilities can’t all be working too.
  • I would give anything to be able to walk again. Getting myself up out of this wheelchair is the ultimate goal.
  • I love my wheelchair! It’s styling and speedy. It gets me where I want to go ten times faster than trying to work my way along on crutches every could.
  • Being disabled isn’t so bad. Stop throwing a pity party!
  • Being disabled makes me so miserable. Don’t tell me it’s all sunshine and roses!

So, let’s say right at the outset, Tilted Windmills isn’t trying to be the voice of “disability” as some kind of singular unit. I can write about my experiences as a person with a disability, but they can only ever be my experiences. I won’t even pretend that I can fully stand in as singularly representative of someone living with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, since OI itself manifests in each person completely differently.

I may also write about how certain things have helped me on my journey so far. I write them in the hope that they might help you—whether you consider yourself ablebodied or disabled—however if they don’t make sense to you or aren’t applicable to your situation, that’s perfectly okay too.

Just as humanity is infinitely diverse, so is disability and there is no one way—right or wrong—to be disabled.

That said, the fact that each of us has our own voice means that all of us have a unique perspective that we can contribute. We have so much that we can teach each other so long as we remain open to our own vast range of experiences.