“T” Time: TRANS*STUDIES meets itself in Tucson

Attending the first TRANS*STUDIES conference, which was hosted last week by the University of Arizona’s Institute for LGBT Studies, was a relief to me.  It was not only a safe space, but it was also a gathering of scholars, writers and activists with incandescent passion for their projects and a genuine desire to connect across disciplines, borders, and barriers to access.  To that end, several of the attendees I spoke with referred to the conference as “ground-breaking”: TRANS*STUDIES is the first conference on gender, embodiment, and sexuality to be both international and interdisciplinary. 

Trish Salah and Micha Cárdenas

Co-sponsored by more than twenty organizations, including the University of Arizona Poetry Center, the conference was held on campus and included keynotes from both Sandy Stone and Mauro Cabral, more than 100 presentations, several plenary sessions, and a sensational trans and genderqueer poetry reading at Fluxx Studios.  Though TRANS*STUDIES was an academic conference concerned with making space for an academic discipline, honing in on the “T” of the oft-cited LGBT studies, conference attendees and organizers alike discussed the importance of recognizing all forms of knowledge, including knowledge that is embodied and that exists outside academia.

Ching-in Chen and Ely Shipley

In my first hour at the conference, I learned that eight layers of used tires can stop a nine millimeter bullet, which, Micha Cárdenas reminded us, is the size of the bullet that killed Trayvon Martin.  Anyone as interested as I was in the fashioning of bullet-proof garments, including photo-shoot worthy dresses, by reclaimed materials, may check out Cárdenas’ “Unstoppable” Project.

In the next session I attended, I learned that Taye Diggs said, of his role as Hedwig in the 2014 Broadway revival of Headwig and the Angry Inch, “I have a flaming homosexual inside me and I’m raring to let that out,” but Erik Hollis’ presentation encompassed much more than Diggs’ performance or the so-called “transgender tipping point” (in the U.S.) hailed by Time magazine during the show’s run.  Regarding his work, Hollis stated, “There seems to be an accepted division between what makes someone cis versus trans, and I’m trying to understand how that division isn’t necessarily race neutral.”  He went on to discuss blackness’ history of being ungendered and/or hypergendered, and how that means that it does not settle neatly into the category of “cis” or “trans.” Hollis’ writing stood out to me because it made academically rigorous arguments so enjoyably accessible to the listener.  I look forward to what he has to say next.

Cameron Awkward-Rich reading at Fluxx Studios

In the final breakout session I attended, I learned about Márcia Maia Mendonça who was cited by presenter José Machado as “one of the five most important painters in the world.”  Though one of her paintings hangs in the central church of  Limoeiro do Norte in Brazil, Márcia Mendonça is not credited with the work; rather, it is credited to Márcio Mendonça.  In fact, after her death, Márcia’s family wrote a memoir, translated from Portuguese as The Art Between Two Worlds, in which the artist’s existence as Márcia is not acknowledged.  Machado illuminated the ways in which the gender identities of both Márcio and Márcia were constructed, and facilitated the process of bearing witness to Márcia, who is/was subject to the violence of erasure though selective cultural memory.

Speaking of selective cultural memory, I have been asking myself what it means about my attention and the cultural attention of the United States that I cannot forget the name of a certain U.S. swimmer whose irresponsible behavior in Rio de Janeiro this summer has been broadcast by multiple media outlets for weeks, but I did not know, until this conference, a single name of one of the 48 (minimum) trans women murdered in Brazil in January of 2016; nor did I know that Brazil has the world’s highest rate of trans-phobic murders, which disproportionately affect black trans women.[i] 

One thing I did not learn until after the conference is that the Institute for LGBT Studies granted more than thirty international travelers stipends to attend TRANS*STUDIES, and that 90 percent of those attendees were people of color.  Per staff organizer for the conference Kristen Nelson, “The steering committee and Institute staff members for this conference had accessibility and inclusivity of people of color at the forefront of our efforts from our very first meeting.” Nelson elaborated, “The reason we made all these efforts to be as accessible and inclusive as possible, especially to trans people of color, is that we are fully aware of systemic racism in the academy.”

Regarding what happened behind the scenes to make TRANS*STUDIES accessible and inclusive, Kristen Nelson began with the specific efforts of the organizers of the conference, including 15 volunteers and 5 staff members at the LGBT Institute, who were “diverse in terms of racial and gender identity.”  These organizers spent weeks researching and gathering information on academics and activists who identify as trans, and they reached out accordingly.  TRANS*STUDIES also advertised its requests for proposals in ten different languages, including Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. Nelson explained, “We were very consciously trying to make this conference a mix of academic, activist, and artist.”  According to Nelson, TRANS*STUDIES also awarded $20,000 in scholarships to people with economic barriers to attending the conference, and provided free registration to “every single person who asked for it.”  Conference organizers also planned, from the beginning, to have captioning provided, and when they saw how many Spanish-speaking attendees were registering as the conference drew nearer, they made arrangements for simultaneous translation services in Spanish as well.

The efforts of the conference organizers to address barriers to access, especially those related to systemic racism, seem extensive not only relative to other conferences I’ve attended, including a U.S. Social Forum, but also considering that TRANS*STUDIES was a first-time conference.  In light of the efforts of the conference organizers, the deep roots of institutionalized racism were rendered more visible to me.  Dora Santana, who volunteer translated Portuguese to English throughout the conference, addressed this issue in one of the plenary sessions. Santana, a black Brazilian trans woman who is a PhD Candidate in AADS at UT Austin, spoke of the absence of blackness in the space of the conference.  In conversation with me, she also suggested that the conference could work to involve more people of color who are not in academia, especially black trans women who are “elders and leaders in the movement.” 

T.C. Tolbert at Fluxx Studios

It seemed to me, especially in the plenary sessions and the final planning meeting, that attendees and organizers share a vision for the space they wish to cultivate, that barriers to access are prolific even in the face of major efforts to remove them, and that any real mitigation or dismantling of the barriers to access related to racism and transphobia will require comprehensive and creative efforts over time by TRANS*STUDIES.  In a real sense, too, TRANS*STUDIES is, as of this past weekend, in the purview of everyone in attendance.  The conference organizers brought TRANS*STUDIES into being, and it is, I believe, the collective responsibility of everyone who wants to attend another TRANS*STUDIES conference to build the space we want to inhabit on the strong foundation offered by everyone who worked so hard to make such a space conceivable at all.

I have to say I’m optimistic about TRANS*STUDIES moving forward.  One reason is that, impressively, every person I spoke with regarding TRANS*STUDIES had something positive to say.  The fact that even the attendees with critiques and suggestions to offer readily noted aspects of the conference they appreciated or that were working well seems, to me, an indication that the attendees, collectively, are strongly oriented toward cultivating the shared vision of TRANS*STUDIES as transcendent.

And speaking of that vision, in an unexpected quiet moment— after sitting outside with local poet and educator T.C. Tolbert, who was recording interviews with attendees throughout the conference— I found myself at the registration tables with Kristen Nelson and conference organizer, editor of TSQ, and University of Arizona GWS faculty member Susan Stryker.  When I asked them each for a quick highlight of the conference, Nelson responded, “That the intention of this conference was to get 200 people and we registered 450.”  As I turned to Susan Stryker, she said, “Seeing 250 people that I know.”

Conference Staff Organizer Kristen Nelson of the Institute for LGBT Studiies

In fact, many people I spoke with said that the conference felt like a “homecoming.”  Several attendees I spoke with were happy to be in a space with an unprecedented concentration of trans people and opportunities for the exchange of knowledge.  A number also noted the pleasure of reuniting with friends and colleagues, or meeting, in person, people previously only known through online venues.  Abe Weil, a GWS graduate student who lives here in Tucson, offered the following sentiment: "More than anything, it was an incredible experience. Conferences are often a place to expand critical thinking, but, the TRANS* STUDIES conference had an added element of connecting with trans*scholars from all around the world that may have not had another occasion to work together.  The unique opportunity to network with new colleagues and friends cannot be underestimated and I'm already looking forward to the next opportunity to do so.”



[i] To be clear, there is a high level of anti-LGBTQ violence in the U.S. that also disproportionately affects black trans women, and this violence is also under-reported in the media.


This feature was written by Riley Beck. All photographs are by Samuel Ace.