Trans-formative encounters: Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference 2014

The allure of fashion’s Isis King , comedy’s Ian Harvie, beauty queen Jenna Talackova, and, increasingly, Netflix’s red-hot sensation Laverne Cox, now has the general public looking at transgender men and women in a new light.

Model and fashion designer Isis King

Model and fashion designer (and Art Institute of Philadelphia graduate) Isis King enthralls.

While not every transgender man or woman may have Vogue-ready looks, the essential desire for self-definition and self-determination is shared across the trans spectrum.

Jenna Talackova has shifted preconceptions of the "ideal" Miss Universe contestant.

Jenna Talackova has shifted preconceptions of the “ideal” Miss Universe contestant.

That fact underlies the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, just wrapping up its 13th year of offering information and support to trans people – along with those who love them – so they can better negotiate a world still struggling to come to terms with their existence.

The conference offers a cross-section of information for physical, mental, spiritual, economic and legal wellness – at home, on campus, at the workplace and any place in between. It was held this year at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and presented by the Mazzoni Center.

Age-specific workshops addressed concerns of questioning and transitioning teens and their parents through to seniors in need of services. Plus, vendor showcases and activities such as film screenings allowed for social opportunities as well.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau opened the three-day conference, bringing greetings on behalf of Mayor Michael A. Nutter. Deputy Director Reynelle Brown Staley served as a conference presenter, discussing employment discrimination law and remedies in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Robyn Gigl, a partner at Stein, McGuire, Pantages & Gigl, joined her, providing a New Jersey perspective. Brendan Corbalis, a Villanova Law intern at PCHR, moderated the discussion, designed to grant continuing legal education for professionals in the region.

Kortney Ryan Ziegler, filmmaker, activist, PhD., and trans man.

Kortney Ryan Ziegler, filmmaker, activist, PhD., and trans man.

One topic that generated a lot of discussion was the use of restrooms and the discomfort – if not at times outright hostility – others demonstrate due to sharing such intimate spaces with transgender men and women. Staley explained that under Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance, people are permitted to use the bathroom that matches with their gender identity. Likewise, there was also considerable discussion about perception of gender identity. Though trans people may identify themselves one way, others often still see them through standard prisms – binary categories of “male” and “female,” without much room for any gray.

Yet the shifting definition of gender identity continues to rise. Once derided and ridiculed outright, more credence and empathy are being offered to those who feel they were born into the wrong bodies.

Changing social norms has been slow, but progress is evident. Just last week, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a directive allowing transgender individuals to choose their preferred gender for their health records. The move has cleared the way for federal workers to access transition-related medical care, reversing long-standing policy.

And today, transgender people born in the state of New York will no longer have to prove that they had gender affirming surgery to change the sex marked on their birth certificates. Meanwhile, Boston City Council recently voted unanimously to guarantee trans specific medical services to their employees.

Philadelphia has been on the forefront of these issues. In 2002, gender identity was included as a protected class under the Fair Practices Ordinance, which protects people from discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing.

Former Hawaii State Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto blazed trails as a trans woman.

Former Hawaii State Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto blazed trails as a trans woman.

Still, in asserting one’s full rights, choosing how to identify oneself is central – and determining who gets to be the final arbiter on that decision is where the sparks tend to flare.  It’s a component of a political affirmation with echoes of the colored/Negro/black/African-American or the Hispanic/Chicano/Latino identity conversations. It’s as vivid in pronoun – like restroom – assignment debates.

For trans people, it’s a fight with many fronts – from the basics, such as preventing unprovoked assaults, to the more intricate, such as negotiating insurance policies for gender affirming surgery.

But the heart of the matter is not always physical. There are the personal definitions of dignity, the expectations of others in the wider world – tolerance, acceptance or assimilation. Trans people may simply wish to declare themselves. Yet expanding the notions of self remains a confusing concept for many. For some, life beyond the gender binary is a prospect fraught with fear and distress. Helping people to understand each other — and the law — in our changing world is usually when PCHR is called.

A female-to-male transgender male, Ian Harvie keeps audiences in stitches.

A female-to-male transgender male, Ian Harvie keeps audiences in stitches.

GLAAD offers a glossary to help the less-versed on how best to address transgender individuals, and avoid unintended insults. And PCHR offers trainings to assist those trying to build more inclusive spaces.

LGBTQ activist and star of "Orange Is the New Black" Laverne Cox.

LGBTQ activist and star of “Orange Is the New Black” Laverne Cox.

Education will lead the change many trans people and their allies crave. Whether it’s through episodes of Orange Is the New Black or comic book characters such Batgirl’s Alysia Yeoh, advocates say pop culture will continue to help pave the way for improved and respectful interactions.

And that can only be a good thing for everyone.

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