This conference was small (less than 400 people total) but it was AMAZING. Maybe part of the reason it was amazing was that it was small and I felt a real sense of community, but let me cover some of the other reasons I loved it. I'm just gonna run through the day's agenda and praise in chronological order:
It was super accessible. Most conferences like this cost money, and are only open to professionals or students in certain fields. Yet this conference seemed to be open to anyone who wanted to attend, it was free, AND the dress code was very relaxed. I was worried about wearing overly casual business casual, but some people there were in denim and I wasn't the only one with blue or green hair, or gauged ears. I felt like I belonged as soon as I walked in the door...and yet still found myself sitting only a seat away from famous author Kate Bornstein as we watched a presentation together. And the presenters were diverse too; undergrads just starting to define their research interests, PhDs who did international development work, drag performers and other artists, people who ran social service programs, traveling scholars, etc.
The audience was equally diverse; at lunch I sat with people I randomly introduced myself to (always a great idea in spaces like this) and I got to talk to an international student from Portugal who was studying mechanical technology of some sort, it was completely unrelated to the conference. He was just interested in gender as a personal interest. He was wearing a kilt and it was awesome. About 25-50% of the attendees seemed to be local students, not all studying issues related to the conference. Many of the other attendees seemed to be professionals who worked or volunteered in fields relating to public safety, healthcare, social justice, etc. Some attendees were visibly or vocally LGBTQ and it was one of the few environments where I've seen many other androgynous-looking people, and one of the ONLY environments where I've seen non-binary business attire. And let me tell you, I definitely picked up some fashion ideas I will be using in the future.
The content was super useful and like nothing I've ever seen before. I was sad I couldn't go to more sessions but they ran concurrently so you had to choose. My first discussion session was on "Non-binary Individuals and Their Search for Inclusion"...it covered the lack of official terminology to describe non-binary identities, and how this has motivated us to create our own terms and spaces on social media that understand. I am including the official description below for you to see:
"This presentation will examine the emergence of new ways of discussing and naming gender identities that arose out of discourse generated by non-binary individuals on the social microblogging website, Tumblr. Non-binary individuals - people whose gender falls outside the binary of male vs. female - experience a structural erasure of their identity due to the lack of existing, widespread terminology to describe their identity. They are then vulnerable due to a lack of structural support, whether it be judicial, legislative, or social - if society is not aware of who or what they are, society cannot protect them against discrimination. To address this problem, as well as to challenge the role that gender plays in one’s identity, non-binary individuals are creating new terminology to describe their gender identity while changing how gender is discussed. This ultimately has the effect of destabilizing the notion of gender as fixed, inherent, and unambiguous. In addition to an explanation of this process, the presentation will also involve a review of the theoretical frameworks used to frame the analysis of the Tumblr posts, which draw on Judith Butler’s concept of legible versus illegible bodies, as well as an in-depth review of the analysis and categorization of non-binary ways of speaking on Tumblr. The presentation is structured to be accessible to attendees of all backgrounds, and will be followed by a question-answer session."In contrast, the next session I went to was on international development work, and how it struggles to promote gender diversity rather than reinforce gender norms and stereotypes. The presenter had a master's in Literary and Cultural Studies, and she worked with the United Nations. From her, I learned that Pittsburgh is actually an official resettlement community for international refugees! (So are Harrisburg and Erie). Pittsburgh is actually one of the most popular resettlement communities for refugees from Bhutan, so popular that Bhutanese refugees placed as far away as Massachusetts have later moved here because they hear good things about it! But, I digress. Our presenter mentioned that international development professionals need to include more perspectives of the people they work with, so that we empower people with agency instead of just telling them what to do. She gave me hope for the future of social work, especially how interested she seemed in getting feedback from the audience on how she could do better. She had about 30 people in her audience, and sadly she said that usually only 7-8 people attend her sessions at much larger, more professional conferences. So gender equity in international work still has a long way to go, but at least some professionals are fighting for a very progressive angle on it. You can read the full transcript of her session here in the official schedule.
Kate Bornstein was the keynote speaker and she also mentioned how gender issues contribute to global welfare. (Kate is a 60-something year old author who focuses on trans and non-binary gender issues.) Kate went over her basic way to fight suicide, which is "do whatever you have to do to make your life more worth living, with one rule: don't be mean." Then she went on to explain how identity, desire and power relate to our mental health, and how kyriarchy (existing power systems based on race, gender, religion, wealth, etc) fuck with our identity, desire and power because they give us prescribed messages on who to be. She went so far as to propose a world order based on desire, rather than one based on power or identity. The world order we have now she described as power dynamics masquerading as identity-based democracy, which was kind of mind-blowing to me. A world order based on power means those who have more control others; and it's the easiest to set up, and the most painful for obvious reasons. A world order based on identity is one where everyone has a voice, but these voices group together around shared ideas and principles, (like countries, religion, workers unions etc) and in these groups, every person has a small control over the larger group. She mentioned how we used to feel this way in the USA with one person, one vote, but that system is falling apart now because the average voter controls very little of actual politics. In contrast. a world order based on desire, could be motivated to push compassion for others as the primary politic and controlling force. It is the hardest to set up, and has never been done before, but it would be something that rejects all forms of kyriarchy and tries to give people the freedom to be individuals free from prescribed behavior, except for the concept "don't be mean." Even if we can't do this on a global level, we can do it now at an individual level by giving ourselves the freedom to break prescribed rules and norms, and respecting and making space for others who do the same.
Kate also made some jokes about Doctor Who and Star Wars that made my geek heart do somersaults. This woman was already a hero of sorts to me before I saw her speak, and seeing her tied into all the other content at this conference, was like a 4 hour brain orgasm.