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Kicking Off the 11th Annual Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference

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The day is nearly here, the day that all the organizers of the 11th annual Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference (PTHC) have been waiting nearly 12 months for: the first day of the conference. Planning a conference for 2,500 people that runs for three days and involves over 350 presenters, 2,000-plus workshops, and nearly 40 other gatherings, activities, shows, and parties takes a veritable army to pull off. But when I step back and consider where we've come from, and where we are today, it is nothing short of remarkable. What began in 2002 as a one-day gathering of transgender activists, allies, and service providers at a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia's historic district has grown into the largest transgender-specific conference in the world. Last year's Trans-Health Conference drew an incredibly diverse group of more than 2,000 attendees from around the nation and the world to talk about all aspects of transgender health and well-being, including safety, education, employment, housing, and social support.

From its inception the Trans-Health Conference and its presenting organization, Mazzoni Center, have taken a holistic approach to the definition of health and well-being, recognizing that accessible and quality health care is an integral part of self-determination when it comes to presenting one's body and identity in the larger world.

This year our 22 advisory boards developed programming in new areas, welcomed workshops in response to community needs, and maintained popular seminars that we've had since we started. As much as possible, PTHC strives to ensure that the conference addresses the diverse needs of all transgender communities: transgender men, transgender women, genderqueer and gender-variant youth and adults, and their partners, families, and allies. It's not an easy balancing act, but our goal is to provide a meaningful and educational experience both for veteran attendees of the conference and for individuals who may be joining us for the first time. That means covering everything from "Trans 101" to aging issues, spirituality to nutrition, and much more.

From the morning of Thursday, May 31 through the evening of Saturday, June 2, nearly 200 volunteers will cover almost 2,000 volunteer shifts to pull this off. But aside from the endless logistics, people, and processes involved, what I sit here thinking about after a sleepless night is the tears that will inevitably spring to my eyes on Friday afternoon. An 11-year-old transgender girl who has attended our conference since she was 6 will welcome this year's youth keynote speakers to the stage. I've never met anyone in my life prouder to be transgender than this child. Many young people in attendance in past years have described the conference as "better than Christmas," saying, "This is the one time of the year that I get to see all my real friends and be around lots of people who look like me."

Nothing makes all the hours of work on this conference more worthwhile than knowing that people can come to a space where, for three days, no one gawks, asks rude questions about their body, or suggests "what you could do to help me get your pronouns right." This is a space where trans* folks call the shots, teach medical providers the way that their bodies should be talked about, gather to pray together in a non-judgmental space, find ways to be safer when they walk home from the bus at night, and help loved ones understand why this is "not an choice, it's just who I am."

For the first time ever we are able to fund travel expenses for 10 brave individuals from around the globe to present on the work that they're doing in their home countries, which include Argentina, Ecuador, India, Nepal, Serbia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Some people are working on human rights issues. Others are working on social issues within the transgender community. It's exciting to feel this conference evolving into something that matters not just in the U.S. and Canada but to people from countries where it is, in fact, punishable by law to be LGBT. It helps me put into perspective all the little things that have caused me frustration and stress throughout the long year of planning for the event. The U.S. certainly still has a long way to go when it comes to transgender rights and social acceptance, but realizing that so many people wake up every day with the fear that their government will charge them with a crime and send them to prison just because of who they are is a sobering reminder that the fight is far from over.

This Friday night the conference will be hosting a production of Tara's Crossing, an original play by Emmy-nominated writer Jeffrey Solomon, based on the true story of a transgender woman from Guyana who sought asylum in the U.S. and was placed in a detention center, where she had to prove that she experienced discrimination in Guyana as a result of her gender identity. Having this production and discussion at the conference will help so many transgender people and their allies understand how dire the situation is in many places, and how important it is for us to keep working toward both legal rights and broader social education, to ensure more day-to-day safety for trans* and gender-nonconforming people in the U.S. and around the globe.

Those of us who work at Mazzoni Center year round are well aware of the integral connection between a person's civil and legal rights and their overall health and well-being. We know the impact that things like anti-discrimination legislation can have on individual lives. We understand that providing health care with dignity matters.

As this year's conference kicks off, I am, frankly, exhausted! But I am also encouraged and deeply inspired by the many people I have collaborated with over the past 12 months, and by others I will finally have the chance to meet in person over the next several days. I salute those whose determination and commitment to justice has made our city and other places all around the world a better place for all of us to live healthy and secure lives. I am proud to continue that work, throughout this week's conference and into the future.