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Meet Our New Conference Director: Michael Woodward

MichaelWoodwardMichael Woodward is arriving in Seattle this month to step into the position of Gender Odyssey Conference Director. I interviewed Michael to learn about what led him to Gender Odyssey and what he hopes to bring to Seattle.

Carolyn: Michael, you’re bringing a lot of energy, experience, and enthusiasm to your new position as Gender Odyssey’s Conference Director. Would you talk about the work you’ve been doing previously and how your experience makes you such a good fit for this role?

Michael: I think the best way to sum it up is that I’m a conference junkie. I started going to conferences when I was 19 years old and I went to my first Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and then living in Indy I got involved in the National Women’s Music Festival, which is similar but didn’t involve the camping and the nudity (chuckle). I got really involved in that organization and served on the staff and board for about 14 years. Then I retired from the board, and the next year I started transitioning. I was rejected by many lesbian feminist friends and the community in general. After transition, I started going to the True Spirit conference in Washington, DC, and then Gender Odyssey a couple of times in the early days. I’ve been involved in the FTM Fitness Conference in Atlanta and the 2007 IFGE (International Foundation for Gender Education) Conference, and I attend every trans and LGBT conference I can afford to. I just think that conferences are amazing opportunities to make connections and learn information, where you’re hearing people’s stories, sharing experiences, and asking questions of people that you don’t normally have access to. I know that they’ve changed my life and made my life so much better by being able to learn from my peers and get the sense of community. You make life-long connections. You just can’t duplicate that anywhere else.

When I was in Tucson we brought in the IFGE Conference—the first time it it had been held anywhere other than the East Coast. It was a huge success. I was one of the co-chairs for that. Other experience separate from conferences (which was all volunteer) is my professional work as a trans advocate and an LGBT advocate. I had one of the first paid trans advocacy positions in the country in 2003 as the first executive director of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance. And then I worked at Wingspan LGBT Community Center in Tucson, which at one point had 22 full-time staff, one quarter of whom were trans. I eventually took the position of Health and Wellness Programs Manager. That’s when I started doing the broader health work. I really feel like health is one of the most fundamental things about life. Learning all the egregious statistics about our community spurred me to go back to grad school and get a Masters in Public Health Policy and Management. I’d been doing so much Trans 101 preaching to the choir. Where the changes really needed to be happening was in the board rooms and in the back offices of the state house where policy decisions were made. I felt a degree in policy work would really add to my credentials but would also give me more access to those situations and audiences. I’ve been working as an LGBT-inclusion consultant. My biggest client so far has been El Rio Community Health Centers, Tucson’s FQHC (Federally Qualified Health Center—the low income service provider for all of southern Arizona), with 1000 employees. With my help they became the first organization in southern Arizona other than the VA to qualify for the Health Care Quality Index, and are now providing care for trans people, both adults and kids.

C: What led you to become so involved with the LGBTQ community?
M: Growing up in Indiana, I’m 52 so I came of age before the internet and cable TV. Typical story – I knew something was “wrong with me,” if you will, from the time I was a little kid but I couldn’t put any words to it. I spent my teenage years awkward and shy and made fun of, like many of us go through as teenagers. I came out as lesbian at 16 after reading about Anita Bryant in Time magazine. I didn’t know anything about transgender surgery or hormones or anything until I was about 35 years old and I met someone who was very much like me— was masculine and female-bodied—and we became friends. She pulled me aside one day and said, “I want you to know that I’m going to start taking testosterone and I’m changing my name, and my voice is going to drop and I’ll grow facial hair and then I’m going to have my breasts removed and then start living as a man.” And I said, “You can actually do that?” It was literally an epiphany right on the spot, and I think I started my transition at that moment.

That’s a lot of it. The reason I wanted to be in community is because of the invisibility that I felt and the lack of knowledge and how one little piece of information could totally change my life like that. I also know about being from the Midwest and how awful it can be there sometimes for anybody who’s not white and straight and middle class or higher. I grew up as a cul-de-sac kid. I had everything I needed and wanted, so I didn’t really get what oppression was about, even into adulthood. Other than being a butch dyke, I didn’t get it yet.

I knew that I was passionate about equal rights and equality and LGBT work, and I wanted be a “professional lesbian.” I didn’t know exactly what that looked like—my role model was Mary Byrne, the woman who was the executive director and producer of the National Womyn’s Music Festival. I wanted to be like Mary. This job has now brought me full circle because I’m now Mary—I’m coordinating this fabulous conference. It’s exactly what I had in mind! Being more aware of how bad it can be for LGBT folks was my calling to leave the corporate and publishing worlds to start doing advocacy work. This keeps me happy and going and passionate and caring—all those things that a corporate job would not do for me.

C: What excites you about moving to the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular?
M: Seattle is amazing! We were there for the conference last year and got to see past the convention center. I’ve never lived in a huge city. It’s going to be a big adventure for my partner Carolyn and me. I was really well known in Tucson—I have the respect of my community, people come to me for advice. I know there are many people like that in Seattle, at Ingersoll and Gender Justice League and Gender Odyssey, who have been doing amazing work for years. I’m hoping to not get lost in the shuffle, but I realize that GO is hugely important to the community and I might even be more visible because this is an international conference. I see it as new opportunities to meet all kinds of people and do a lot that I’ve never done before. I’m also looking forward to getting out of the Tucson summer heat. And I’m really looking forward to living in a blue state for the first time in my life.

C: Who’s coming with you?
M: My partner of six years, Carolyn, and three cats. Carolyn and I are so compatible and supportive of each other. She consistently makes me want to be a better partner, which was a new feeling. She walked in, grabbed hold of my heart, and hasn’t let go!

C: What does Gender Odyssey mean to you personally and what are your hopes for the Gender Odyssey conferences as we head into the future?
M: I could talk about this for hours. GO started as an FTM conference and that is dear to my heart because it was one of the only ones at that time. I’m really thrilled it has grown up and out beyond FTM. It’s about community building and self-education . . . being able to hear three different surgeons talk. Aidan and I had only met twice before I talked to him about this position. It’s personal as well as professional. As far as the future— I would really like to see more opportunities at the conference for the evening entertainment, playing up the fine arts. Seeing how people express themselves and their gender through art is really incredible. I appreciate the family aspect and that it’s such a huge and important part of our community. I appreciate the work that Aidan has done in that area. I certainly remember what it was like not fitting in as a kid and having something like Kids Camp would have been so helpful. And if my parents had had someone to talk to, they might have felt better about things too.

One of my missions is to make the conference more accessible to more people, making sure that we’re addressing all of the issues in our community, not just the ones that appeal to middle-class white folks.

The more we can reach out to the broader community, the more it will benefit the conference as well. I’d love to see us have more programming tracks as we find more space and grow registration.

C: You’re clearly a person with many talents and interests. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not busy changing the world?
M: Two things, singing and writing. I’m walking away from two bands in Tucson. One is Too Much Information—a classic rock band and I’m the lead singer. We have mostly trans players. I formed a second band with some of the same members—Black Magic, a Santana tribute band. I’ve also been involved in community theater, most recently an improv group that does Broadway musicals and cabaret.

I’m also a writer—I actually tend to bill myself as a writer first and everything else second. Before transitioning I wrote several books about computer software. More recently, I contributed the title essay to the Transgress Press anthology Manning Up. Carolyn and I both have essays in the new book, Below the Belt, which should be out soon. And hopefully I’ll have time to finish my own book sometime in the next ten years!

I’m also very into fitness and working out. When I transitioned I made a new commitment to taking care of myself, and that has sort of morphed into an interest in bodybuilding. I get great inspiration from the guys in the FTM World Bodybuilding Competitions in Atlanta. I’m actually looking for a workout buddy in Seattle, so if anyone is interested, let me know!

C: You’re certainly busy!
M: I’m one of the busiest people I know. I’m actually hoping that prying myself away from the Tucson community will give me the opportunity to slow down a little and choose my next steps with a bit more intention. Walking into an existing community rather than having to build one around you as you go will hopefully make all the difference. I know the conference itself will take a lot of my attention and that is my first priority, so I’ll mostly be observing and learning about what’s happening in Washington.

Contact Michael at michael@genderodyssey.org.

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