I am just back from the 2010 Southern Comfort Gender Conference in Atlanta. I’ve been going to this event for good few many years now, since I gave the keynote address in 2005. Every year is little different.
I went down there hoping to see a handful of old friends, as well as a couple new ones. In the latter category are a couple–Chelsea and Ruby from Vancouver–whom I was meeting for the first time. Sort of. In fact Chelsea, formerly Chip, was a member of my high school class. Given the fact that I went to a supposedly all-male school, and that there were only 68 members of my graduating class, the fact that there are two of us who have emerged as trans is more than a little interesting.
Chelsea and I met for the first time in 34 years and I think felt more or less immediately at home. I was reminded of that song from Simon and Garfunkel containing the line, “after changes upon changes we are more or less the same.” And Ruby was particularly delightful–soulful and compassionate–and, perhaps more pragmatically for anyone who hangs out with me for a very long, able to sing two-part harmony at the drop of a hat.
I will say that Ruby reported feeling more than a little alienated at times during the conference; she went to a Sexuality workshop that didn’t really talk at all about wives who stay with their MtF partners after transition, women who–like my own spouse–found themselves in a same sex marriage. This, combined with another couple of events where partners were given short shrift, really made Ruby feel left out. Another example: there was a survey that asked conference members how they identified–TS, CD, genderqueer, MtF, FtM, and so on. There was, in fact, no box for Ruby to check at all, leaving her feeling marginalized and grumpy. And I can say that this has been a complaint about SoCo for years; that it has not improved makes me sad.
At the same time I will quickly say that the people who put on Southern Comfort do an incredible job, and I hate even suggesting second-guessing them. It’s a wonder the thing happens at all, let alone staying going for 20 years now, and I know that for many trans people, it’s the most important event of the year.
Some other thoughts:
• I brought a pile of papers to grade from Ursinus this time, and both Friday and Saturday mornings at the conference were largely consumed with grading. I was glad to get the work done, but it also made me laugh. Who else would go to a transgender conference, and spend half her time in her hotel room grading English papers?my main event was a reading on Saturday, billed as a reading from FALCON QUINN. I did read a piece from FALCON, but I also read a piece from my new novel in progress and I am happy to say it sounded really good out loud. I had people gasping and weeping, quite literally. So that felt like a good day’s work, not to mention being a nice vote of confidence in the work in progress.
• After the Saturday event I decided to do something I generally don’t do, which is to go in search of people who seemed troubled or alone. These trans-conferences can really have a kind of intolerable pecking order, and I’m sorry to say that as a published author and a woman who is more or less passable, I live near the top of the pyramid. So I walked around for a couple hours talking to people, listening to stories, hearing of people’s joys and sorrows. I was telling myself I was being saintlike, and it is true that I was trying to give of myself. But here is the twist: at a certain point I ran into a woman in a wheelchair with scabrous growths all over her legs. I prepared myself to take in her tale of woe. Instead, I was amazed to hear her story., which instantly transformed her into the saint, and me into the unexpected recipient of grace. Angel suffers from a rare form of diabetes that has given her this skin disease and left her mostly unable to walk. And yet she is surely the most positive, joyful, delightful person I have met. What she said to me sounds so much like a cliché, the stuff of greeting cards and crappy e-mail chains. But she said that she could die any day. And thus that every day is a gift. I held her hand and looked into her face and all I can say is that it was like staring into a very very bright light. Of all the people I have met at various events over the years, I have never met anyone like this. And check out her name: ANGEL SPARKS. How perfect is that?
• I left my conversation with Angel and walked around the hotel in a mysterious and hopeful fog. Outside, the rain began to come down. And as everyone else rushed back inside, I went out there and opened my arms up like Jon Locke on LOST, and felt the rain hammer down on me. And I felt alive.
• More or less drenched, I went upstairs and ran into several of my friends, and sang for them an old Beatles song, “Rain.” When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead. When the rain comes. I can show you, that when it rains and shines, it’s just a state of mind. I can show you. I can show you.
• I had two delightful dinners “off-campus” away from the convention–one with my old friend Donna Rose, one with Mara Kiesling and Dr. Marci Bowers. In the midst of the second one of these, again the skies opened up and Mara and Marci and I watched the rain come down and drank a bottle of red wine. And I sang to them, every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.
• I will admit that I also felt, on occasion, the tremendous melancholy that hovers in our community. They are so many people who suffer and carry a burden they cannot understand, who are scorned by others. Sometimes I feel that very strongly. And it makes it hard for me to be at the center of things. I know I should just shut up and relax and join the party, but frequently it all just sweeps me away. And I feel as if there is nothing I can do, nothing I can write, that will help heal all of these wounded souls. I know that that is not my job, but I feel it and it hurts.
• In the midst of this blueness one night, the funniest woman that I know–Mara Kiesling–started talking to me and made me laugh so hard that I could not speak, could only sit in my chair with tears rolling out of my eyes. I don’t think I can explain the joke, which had something to do with a “kidney swap” and winding up with swan kidneys two years in a row. (“The first year, it was funny, but two years in a row!” ) I can tell you it is a good thing to have a friend who can make you laugh. I can show you. I can show you.
On the last day, in the morning, I met Ruby and Chelsea and Donna Rose for breakfast. The sun was coming up and another day was beginning. We sang swing low Sweet chariot together, and Ruby did the harmony. And I headed for the airport, where a big Delta jet was waiting. Coming for carry me home.