When I landed and got off the plane I was sweaty. It was late that night, the flight had been ass to elbows. I had barely slept and my cocktail of Redbull and espresso was wearing thin. As I rode in a taxi down the streets of Philly, a sigh of relief washed over me. “I’m finally here,” I told myself. This was my first ever Philly Trans Health Conference. For the past 15 years, the conference has partnered with the Mazzoni Center to create a safe space for trans, gender-nonconforming people and their families. It’s one of the biggest and most well known conferences for trans people in the world. Little did I know what was lying ahead.
My first night came and went quickly. I woke up pacing around in my hotel, fuming that I had forgotten my straightener. Today I had the pleasure of looking forward to meeting dozens of faces that I had only seen online. Activists, organizers, protesters, revolutionaries. The first priority of my day was hunt down my good friend, sister and teacher Lady Dane Edidi. I had written about her for HuffPost before, but beyond that I was a fan of her work. Of course naturally, while looking for her I ran into Lourdes Ashley Hunter, National Director of The Trans Women of Color Collective. Mid conversation, she was explaining to a patron the best ways to navigate the conference. I tap her on the shoulder, and of course, naturally, we immediately take selfies together, mindful of the careful photography rules in place at the conference.
So what exactly is TWOCC? The Trans Women of Color collective was founded in 2013 by Hunter in response to the death of a black trans woman named Islan Nettles. According to their website, their primary goal is “To uplift the narratives, leadership &lived experiences of trans people of color while building towards the collective liberation of all oppressed people.” Now with a board of dynamic black trans leaders, TWOCC currently thrives as a national non-profit organization that opens dialogues up around the country about the systematic and social violence waged against trans and gender-non conforming people, specifically those of color. My relationship with TWOCC began last year after I wrote a song in which the proceeds went to their organization, called “Not One More.” I was tired of seeing my community suffer. I was tired of seeing the media gloss over their narratives. It turns out they were tired too.
Thanks to TWOCC, I was invited to perform at the conference this year, because they were hosting and sponsoring a concert called Ascension in the Park. Like the white man in those old Verizon commercials, I wandered the Mazzoni Center looking for author, TWOCC board member and the organizer of the concert, Lady Dane Edidi. When I finally spotted her, she was glowing in all red, leaning up against a pillar. Here was a woman I had fiercely admired from a distance for years, standing there, statuesque and gorgeous. “Dane!” I shrieked, running towards her with open arms. Of course naturally, we selfied together as well.
Later that day, they both spoke at the Plenary. It was being held in a large conference room. Hundreds gathered as five women I deeply respected took the stage. The plenary was opened by Samantha Jo Dato, TWOCC leader and conference coordinator. On the plenary speaking that day was Lady Dane Edidi, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, Lexi Adsit and Caprice Carathans. They all told stories. They spoke of the love and respect they had for each other. They spoke for the love and respect that the room was filled with for them. One of my favorite quotes came from Caprice, a black trans elder. “In your twenties. Learn something. In your thirties, do something. In your forties, make something. In your fifties, give something back,” she said with a warm wisdom.
While Caprice spoke I looked around the room. It hit me. In my small town, my daily life as a trans woman of color is commodified. I am forced to assimilate to survive where I live. For the first time in three years, I did not care if I was passing. I did not care if people noticed me. For the first time ever, I was in a space completely honed and crafted by trans people. That was probably one of the most moving and earth shattering moments of the event for me.
That first day I really began to see the effects of PTHC. The streets of Philadelphia had been overtaken by beautiful trans and gender non-conforming folks. They were everywhere. Especially at Ascension, the free concert TWOCC hosted and sponsored the next day. Naturally I was pumped, having played very few out of state shows since my transition. This concert was special for a number of reasons, and not just for me. Ascension wound up being the first black trans event, curated and sponsored for and by trans people of color in the history of the festival. As we each got up on that stage, we fluttered. We laid our souls bear through song, poem and community. Masses gathered as the names of our fallen sisters were spoken. The names of fallen black trans women rang through the streets of Philly like bells of liberation. Locals walked up off the sidewalk, with their arms crossed just to listen. It was a profound moment for us all, to witness trans people of color carving out space in an area usually dominated by cisgender people to observe our prowess. I had never been more proud to be a trans woman of color in my life until that day.
On the stage that day I was also joined by Lucas Charlie Rose, Marco Monroe, Kavi Ade, Venus Selenite, Jordan Hope Miller and more. The sun beat down as the crowd grew thicker. TWOCC took the stage to thank everybody for the event. Eyes in the crowd welled up as the four leaders wrapped their arms around each other, a thunderous applause meeting them. Every single person in the audience and behind the stage was grateful for them for all the work they did to create space for this event. Not just for this weekend or the conference, but for trans and gender non-conforming people of color everywhere. The weekend was ours.
(Video courtesy of Elizabeth Marie Rivera, Facebook)
After the weekend, the realness of the weekend past had begun to set in. To reflect on the experiences and the events, I decided to call Lourdes Ashley Hunter and Dane Edidi on Skype to ask them what they took away from the weekend too and how they felt it went over.
Sidney Chase: So to get started, how did the relationship between TWOCC and Philly Trans Health form?
Lourdes Hunter: I’ve been involved with PTHC for about 2 years as a working group lead. I would lead the working group for advocacy and activism, which basically means I would oversee the selection of submissions with my working group team. This particular year, Samantha Jo Dato asked me to step up in a larger capacity as co-chair. Samantha Jo is also part of the leadership team of TWOCC, so it just made sense to support her leadership, as well as to bring cultural activities and events to the conference. The theme was honoring our roots, and PTHC was started by a black trans woman, Charlene Arcila. So it was befitting for TWOCC to step in not only to honor the leadership of goddess sister Charlene, as well as the leadership of Samantha Jo Dato.
Sidney Chase: This is the first concert curated by black trans women for PTHC. This is history. Can we talk about that for a minute?
Dane Edidi: It’s creation came from the fact that TWOCC is always doing this, right? We’d done a smaller version of this through my curation of La-Ti-Do’s Annual Celebration of Trans Artists, in which we had artists come from across the country. This one though, it was awesome. So, It started with me being like “Let’s do a concert,” and Samantha was like, “Let’s do a concert,” and that was it! I think Lucas (Charlie Rose) was trying to plan something as well, and through a mutual friend we connected. We were supposed to be headliners, but I realized that through our work that it’s particularly about making space for other artists. I actually greatly diminished my time so that if we were running over, I could cut things from my time. Then it became that Lucas was the headliner, and we had all these amazing artists from around the world at the show.
Lourdes Hunter: Usually what happens at PTHC is that they have a poetry slam or a poetry reading that always happens at the same time as the opening ceremonies. It’s sponsored by the Leeway Foundation, who had reached out to Dane to curate the particular artist showcase, but they wanted to have it at the same time as the opening ceremony. So, it being that Samantha Jo is the coordinator and i’m a co-chair, and we’re all apart of TWOCC, we’re not going to have competing events, and Leeway Foundation was like “Of course not”, So they gave us financial backing and told us, “You guys lead this event. It’s a trans event. We are not a trans lead organization, so we wanna support the work that you all are doing and make sure it’s a success.” It was just an amazing collaboration between Leeway Foundation, Ford foundation, the LGBT Office, the Philadelphia Office of LGBT affairs who gifted us the stage and sound equipment. Birthing Dane’s vision out of TWOCC of creating spaces where black trans people could be affirmed in how they see themselves and be celebrated. We also had to make sure the conference has free events, cultural events that were lead by black trans people.
Dane Edidi: This was the first time in the entire country that there was a concert that was specifically designed to celebrate black trans artists, curated by black trans women, it may have been the first.
Lourdes Hunter: At a conference lead by black trans women! and everybody was paid! Nobody worked for free.
Sidney Chase: Yes, and particularly for this conference, which is one of the biggest ones in the world, it’s a very big step. What do you think about this year and how it will impact the future conferences to come?
Dane Edidi: I think it’s a bar that’s been set. Not just for PTHC, but it’s a bar that’s been set for every conference that has black trans anything apart of it. Because this is what TWOCC does, we set the bar and we ask others to join us there.
Lourdes Hunter I think for me, not even just for conferences but for spaces. Spaces are created with intentionality. They are also created centering the narratives of those who are most disproportionately impacted by structural oppression, centering the voices of those that we have not heard, people leveraging access to resources to create opportunities. I think that all spaces should be created with that foundation in mind, and I don’t think there will ever be another PTHC like the one we just had. From the amazing Plenaries, that featured black trans voices from all over the country, black trans elders blessing the crowd and talking about our legacy. There was so much intentionality in this conference, especially those on the Plenary, who were also paid double. Also we showed Miss Major, the new documentary which could only be seen at the Toronto Film Festival. It was an amazing blessing to bring all that black history and legacy to the space, and that it was done by us. Not by white, cis, het, gay people, but for us and by us.