Gender Odyssey 2007—It’s midnight at the convention center and Day 1 of the conference is winding down. I’d shown up around 6:00 that morning and had been running ever since. Exhausted, I was hoping to get a few hours of sleep before the next marathon conference day. If I could just get out the door without running into anyone, I could zip out to my car and be home in twenty minutes. Just one floor and one hallway lay between me and my car.
I headed toward the escalator, made a beeline across the lobby and stepped onto the top stair. With a deep sigh of relief, I leaned on the rail and began the descent. Near the bottom I could see someone standing alone in the dimly lit landing. He was looking out the window. Maybe at most we’d exchange a quick nod and that would be that.
Halfway down the escalator though, he turned away from the window and walked toward the escalator. We met me at the landing and he paused, “Can I ask you a question?” My weary mind thought, no…but, my mouth said, “Of course.”
“Can you tell me why I should stay at this conference?”
Surprised as I was, I didn’t give him reasons to stay. Instead, I asked him why he wanted to leave. He said he felt like he didn’t belong. He spoke about the attendees he’d already encountered. “I’m 40 and don’t have anything in common with these young people. My gender is simple,” he said, “and everyone else’s is so complex.”
Gender Odyssey 2008—Fast forward a year, same time, same place. This time I’d made it home only to find a voice message from the manager of our host hotel, The Silver Cloud. She’d promised an attendee that she’d get in touch with me. I dialed the hotel, anxious about whatever situation may have occurred that would necessitate the call.
The manager told me that she’d had a conversation with an attendee who was looking for a place to go for the evening where she might find people like herself, specifically, other trans women. She was attending Gender Odyssey for the first time, on her own, and had certain expectations of whom she might encounter and those expectations weren’t panning out. What I thought was an emergency call was simply a request for socializing recommendations.
When I was able to reach her by phone later that evening, I learned that she’d come to Gender Odyssey seeking people like herself—ones with shared backgrounds and experiences. But, after one day, she described herself as “a pair of brown shoes wearing a black tuxedo.” After coming halfway across the country, she was ready to head home.
These two folks are not unique. Ten years have passed since Gender Odyssey began and I can tell you that MANY of the attendees initially feel like they don’t belong; that this conference is designed for someone else—not them. Many of us live in a society that doesn’t have a place for us or even acknowledge we exist—how hopeful it is to find a conference like Gender Odyssey! How disappointing to get there only to discover that, even at this conference, we feel that, once again, we are the odd duck out.
I’d had a very similar sense of alienation at my first trans conference. In ’98, I went to California’s Forward Motion conference expecting to find dozens of people who shared my experiences and views on gender. I’d hoped for a sort of joyous “coming home.” Instead I found so many different ways to define and express gender—some voiced quite strongly—that I left questioning whether 1) I had anything in common with these folks, and 2) was I really “trans” at all? My own feelings of alienation are still easy to recall.
Despite my initial resistance born out of fatigue, I’m so grateful that these two people asked for my help. Did I have any solutions for them? Only these suggestions:
Go to workshops and tell people how you feel. Put your apprehension and feelings of disconnection on the table. Tell people who you are and how you frame your identity. Your comments might just lay there flopping like a fish while everyone says nothing or, your honesty could inspire others to open up and share their own sense of disconnect. An attendee will likely approach you afterwards and tell you that they feel exactly the same way.
If you see someone sitting alone, strike up a conversation. Sure it’s awkward but only for a second. I think it is safe to assume that most people feel the same apprehension that you do. Gender Odyssey attendees come from very different walks of life. We can look very different from one another but our commonalities are only a sentence or two away.
Whatever happened to those two attendees? Ultimately, each of them made a decision to put their brave shoes on and plug in. I saw both of them at conference events, talking intently with others, mingling, and simply sharing a good laugh with someone they’d met. While each stopped me to express their gratitude for my encouragement, they were the ones that did the hard work. They gave voice to their experience—in workshops and to individuals—and found that it was well worth the risk.
I sure hope those of you reading this will come to Seattle in August and help me celebrate Gender Odyssey’s tenth year. And, if you end up feeling like the odd duck out on that first day, welcome. You’re exactly where you belong!