Friday, June 10, 2011

Midnight Lesbians... in the Center of the World... and beyond!

I had the most awesome experience of attending the 10th annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference last week.  This was my first time attending the conference (it won't be my last)  - and it was amazing!  There was SO MUCH for me in this experience, I'm going to try to capture some of it here.  Conference attendees that I met asked me what led me to come to the conference. I do not identify as trans, I identify as lesbian and am an ally.  I have an open and affirming spirit, having a very eclectic and diverse circle of friends lifts me up and I like to think that I try to value all people. Am I perfect - no... not even close, but I am deliberate about confronting my ignorance and prejudice when I encounter those things within myself.   I helped to create a safe zone program on the college campus where I work, and I KNOW we need to be doing more regarding trans populations, but I didn't even know where to begin that work.  So when my friend M asked if I wanted to go along on this little road trip, I said YES! 

For starters just the road trip experience was fun and enlightening.  Through conversations ranging from the intensely serious to the ridiculous, each got to know their friend on a deeper level.  We enjoyed some very fun small towns (Beaver Falls - LOL) and roadside stops.  Who KNEW that Turkey Hill (makers of wonderful tea) had their own convenience stores? I joyously walked out of one with a cup of ice and a half gallon of the blackberry tea I love - SCORE!  We enjoyed hours and hours of fabulous music, wonderfully varied scenery,  and moments of outright hilarity and only minimal road rage - I was so impressed with M's navigational prowess (crazy drivers, crumbly looking tunnels)!  "Susan" the GPS was mean spirited at times.  I mean seriously, when we could have made a right turn, and been to our destination, she made us go over the bridge into New Jersey, turn around and come back, only to turn left where we could have turned right - did I mention the $4.00 toll each way?  So yeah... Susan DID get rather uppity and she was given several time outs for her attitude.

When we got to Philly we checked into our accommodations at the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ.  The people were extremely welcoming, and the digs were a fun sort of "slumber party" atmosphere we spread our air mattresses on the floor in what appeared to be a Sunday school room.  It was HOT in Philly, but the AC was on in our building, we had shower facilities, and access to the kitchen... it was great!

Once we were settled we attended some pre-conference activities including the PTHC spirituality leadership luncheon.  I met lots of new folks and I SWEAR one new friend was a re-meeting of an old friend... although we could not identify where our circles could have crossed. Perhaps in another existence.  The leadership of this conference was very responsive in attending to the dietary needs of my traveling companion and myself, which was very nice (thanks C - you ROCK!)!  Our dietary needs are different from each other's as well as different than most folks in general, so dining can be challenging, but we've each learned to be creative and to travel prepared for such things... but having responsive hosts is wonderful!

The luncheon was attended by about two dozen folks with a  W I D E  array of spiritual / religious beliefs and affiliations and experiences.  I was unprepared for and blown away by the number of trans people who are either ordained clergy, or in seminary... not that I thought it was or would be a negative thing, but I simply had no idea!!! It was amazing and humbling to hear people talking about their spiritual journeys and manners in which they walk their spiritual paths. The group was SO diverse... pastors and rabbis and seminarians and Buddhists enjoying fellowship and common purpose.  It was outstanding!

We attempted to go out and grab a quick meal, but between the parking safari and the crazy jacked up prices at the places downtown we popped into, we ended up going back and eating luncheon leftovers, and scooting off to the evening's panel on Gender Diversity and Indigenous Peoples featuring  Nana Akomfohene Korantema Ayeboafo of the Akan culture of Ghana and Chief Bob Mexhalaniyat (Red Hawk) Ruth, Chief of the Lenape Nation. There was great discussion about gender and its role in indigenous societies as well as traditional teachings from these cultures.  Intercultural exchange is a critical component in discovering and drawing strength from common experiences and standing alongside each other as we face oppression.  The fundamental value of Nana's message of "do not feed energy into divisiveness and negativity" cannot be overstated!  

For me, as an indigenous person, this panel was amazing and set the tone for the entire week. The fact that Chief Bob brought the greetings of his nation to our community is a manifestation of the native teachings of love, generosity and wisdom.  Its an example of a People walking their talk.  Talking to Chief Bob after the panel and having him embrace me and call me Sister... made my heart dance! Hearing people, outside of my native circle, talk of the rock people and the trees and the four-leggeds as our kindred connected me to the ancient rhythms of the indigenous peoples in a very real way... and emphasized the interconnectedness of our communities. 

At the conference itself, I attended sessions that were eye-opening and informative.  It was so great that there were several sessions related to indiginiety and gender.  I met people from Lenape, Lakota, Dakota, Cherokee, Blackfoot, Seminole and other tribal traditions.  To hear people talk of the People, and of respect and of intention in the same manner in which I speak of them was so connecting!  For ME the greatest value was in the interactions with people across the vast continuum of trans experience.  I've been trying to process and identify where I was in regard to my knowledge and attitudes related to the trans experience before this conference. That is really, really hard to nail down precisely, but here is what I know for sure... I knew a few individuals who identified as trans, who expressed their identities VERY differently from one another.  I tried to wrap my head around trans issues but I just didn't know enough.  Hell's Bells, I didn't even know... what I didn't KNOW!  However, I did know that the fact that a person identifies as trans, does not require an intervention.   If I couldn't be knowledgeable, I at least tried to be compassionate.  But this is more a manifestation of who I am as a being in relation to other beings... than anything trans-specific. I pretty much lead with my heart in all things, and my head eventually catches up.  By having conversations with folks, by sharing a walk around Philly, by talking in sessions and in hallways, by sharing a meal and a laugh and by stepping boldly out of my comfort zone I have gained a much deeper understanding about the experiences of people who identify somewhere on the continuum of trans experience. What I come away with is that people are just people... how they have arrived at their present expression is not nearly as important as the fact that the have indeed arrived.  I do not know, and can never know what it is like to feel that disconnect between physical body and the essence that we are... our "is-ness" as my friend M puts it, that those who identify as trans experience.  But what I know now is, I don't have to experience it,  to be a friend and ally. I just need to to walk my talk, and continue to examine and confront ignorance and prejudice when I encounter it, and continue to learn.

Nearing the end of this very LONG post, you may be wondering what the hell that title is all about.  On our road trip home, at the end of one long-ass day.  We stopped at a little town of Newton Falls Ohio. Interestingly, we discovered that it is the Center of the World (again... WHO  KNEW ?) ! There was a sign proclaiming such (see above) !!!  We picked what appeared to be the "mid-range" of the 3 lodging choices in town.   The desk clerk seemed a little tired, but amiable enough considering it was 11:58 pm.  She informed us that her night would get markedly better in about 2 minutes. She asked us if we wanted one bed or two (huh... at least she was open to the idea that we might be sharing a bed), we said "two" in unison... she was still cool... then she asked "smoking, or non-smoking?"  When we replied - again in unison "non-smoking" her whole demeanor changed.. she went from tired to downright grumpy!  She gave us a room on the very back row, even though there were many closer units with no vehicles in front of them... but whatever.  We were like WOW "y'all can BE lesbians if you want... but you smoke... RIGHT?!?!?"  Due to extreme fatigue at this point damned near everything was hysterical - so we dubbed ourselves "Midnight Lesbians in the Center of the World" - even though that rolls on some assumptions people make...   I wrote it down... and decided that would be the title of the post I created about my experience.

I was... and continue to be... inspired and lifted up by the amazing people I met.  I learned so much from these folks who walk their path with great integrity... Chii Migwetch (thank you very much) to M, E, E, B, C, J, L, C, A, S, T, and especially to my dear friend M for welcoming me into the sacred space you have created in the world.  This experience has been transformational! I look forward to my continued association with some of these great people as I have volunteered to do some webpage stuff and some grant writing as we move forward.

It is like I've been looking at the world through a straw, and someone, gently, took the straw away - WOW!   

Aho! *

* Aho is a word in the language of my People, the Lakota.  It is difficult to adequately translate due to Anglo language limitations, but the word encompasses "I understand, I affirm what you have said, Amen, Thank You and I am full and could not possibly hold any more..."