Across the rainbow's spectrum, thousands of transgender people crowded the Pennsylvania Convention Center last August for the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference. Giant flags of light blue, pink, and white were hung high outside. The excited voices of many from around the world were heard throughout the large main hall.
Exhibitors set up tables throughout the halls of the convention center. One table was a vendor selling packers — prosthetic penises made of silicone that are made to look and feel like the real thing, as well as STPs that allow transmen to stand while they pee (those come in all shapes, sizes, and colors). Fans weaved a line around the tables to meet Chase Ross and Aaron Ansuini, YouTubers and hosts of the popular You're So Brave podcast.
Photo by Sean Laughlin
"Honestly, it was a dream," said Ross, who traveled from Montreal to present his workshop Packed With Knowledge: All You Need to Know About Today's Packers, STPs, Masturbators, and Sex Toys for People on the Trans Masc Spectrum. "It was probably one of the best days of my life when I was presenting. I have pictures of myself, and I thought I was a little bit nervous, but when I looked back, I'm looking like I'm on the top of the world."
For some, the conference offered a space to present as themselves in public for the first time; for others, it was a space to be free from judgement and violence; for many, it was a space to understand that they weren't alone.
The conference featured over 300 workshops across three days, all talking about transgender health care and wellness. Talks ranged from body positivity to navigating through health care systems. Divided into two parts, the conference provided a general track and a more specialized professional track aimed at heath care professionals. Guests were given lanyards with their name and preferred pronouns, and all bathrooms were marked as gender neutral.
"One of the things it tells me, is how necessary it is," said Ron Powers, COO of the Mazzoni Center and one of the original organizers of the conference. "Looking at our registration, people have come from 34 countries, and all [U.S.] states were represented."
Photo by Sean Laughlin
Powers said that Charlene Arcila created the idea for organizing a conference back in 2002. Arcila, an LBGT and HIV activist who died in 2015 at the age of 52, sought funding through TPAC (The Philadelphia Aids Consortium). The first program was initially awarded $4,802 for its budget.
That first year, the conference was a one-day program attended by 70 people and five speakers. The next year attendance grew to 200, and doubled the year after that. "We're still counting our registration numbers, but this year between the general and professional track, we had over 10,000 people," Powers said.
Being transgender is a medicalized identity, making access to health care for many people difficult. Until last June, the World Health Organization still categorized trans identity as a mental illness. Known as gatekeeping, states often have strict laws in place preventing transgender patients from accessing basic medical care; in some cases, doctors refuse to treat them outright. In states like Florida, Massachusetts, and Arizona it is explicitly stated that a person has to have sex reassignment surgery (most likely not covered by insurance) before they can even change their gender marker.
"The area of just providing trans-care at all is the bar," said N. Dietz, who traveled to the conference from New Orleans with fellow public health worker Alison Gaye to present the professional track workshop, Prioritizing Trans Feminine and Gender Non-Conforming Voices in Public Health. "It's like, if you do it, people are ready to congratulate themselves, but there aren't usually motions to evaluate the quality of those services. I'm happy to say that the good work that is starting to be done is starting to shift that reality, but even most of my community will wait until they are the most ill and ardently in the need of medical assistance. That discomfort is not as bad as the anticipation of how badly they will be treated if they were to go and seek healthcare."
"I feel like there has been some advancement in the past seven or eight years regarding trans-care in the South and nationwide," said Alison Gaye. "But we haven't seen as much we would hope. Because of some of the cultural advances we've had towards acceptance of trans-identities, it has become less acceptable for people to outright say, 'I don't provide care to trans people.' Whereas it was a useful resource, weeding out people where you don't want to get care from. So, some of the small advancements have muddied the waters for the community."
Because of this fact, online forums and social media — particularly YouTube — have become an important way for many transgender and gender non-conforming people to access information about health care and information about themselves when there is simply no other option. A quick search and you can find videos of people giving their advice on the effects of hormones, how to date or build a new wardrobe, and documenting their transition through months and years of photos where you see their buried self emerge.
"I didn't know if I was going to go to it, because I was only a few weeks post-op [from top surgery]," YouTuber Ash Hardell said of their visit to the conference. "So I decided to play it by ear and see how I felt, and I felt good, and it was super amazing. I never, ever, ever, ever have been surrounded by so many trans people and gender non-conforming people. It was fantastic and exciting, and there was so much information there because I'm like an input nerd!"
Hardell, who is also the author of The ABC's of LGBT+, has over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube. They first started making videos in 2011 as a freshman at the University of Minnesota during finals week using nothing but the camera on their MacBook. "It all started with light superficial things like funny skits or news clips of my friends, and slowly, I became more vulnerable online," Hardell said. "I talked about my identity, and I started talking about things I was passionate about and that mattered to me."
Photo by Bri Flesch
They said that they felt the turning point in their channel's content came when they posted a video in 2013 called RE: Why I'm Not a Girl. "I was trying to talk about how I didn't like traditionally girly things," they said. "I didn't like a lot of makeup, and I really felt like a failure as a woman in that way, because so many of my friends were really proficient and interested in makeup, and I just didn't get it, and made me feel bad. But, I was afraid I was going to misspeak and say something offensive or ignorant. I think a lot of people, when they let their opinion [be heard] on the Internet, are afraid of that. I was really, really, really nervous, but a lot of what I said resonated with people, and it helped me trust my own gut and opinions more."
Their channel now focuses on topics across the LGBT+ spectrum. In one video, they came out to their mom as trans; it has been viewed over eight million times, and a video revealing their top surgery results has over one million views.
"It's much easier in the moment because you are alone. A lot of people think I'm extroverted, outgoing, or confident because I put myself in front of so many people. But the reality is when I film these YouTube videos— it's my day off I've chosen to spend alone," they said, laughing over the phone. "It's just a camera in my bedroom. We're really just alone in our bedrooms filming our diaries."
"I think that YouTube serves as the safest space that you could ask for in terms of being trans."
"I think that YouTube serves as the safest space that you could ask for in terms of being trans," said Ross, who started creating content back in 2006, just a year after the site launched. "There's a lot of people out there who have amazing parents who are there for them and want to help them, but even if you have the amazing support of your family, I feel like having the support of other trans people is just another level. Being able to go on YouTube saves lives. I don't think I would still be here if it wasn't for YouTube, and what YouTube has done or me. I was one of the first trans YouTubers, so it was a little bit lonely at first, but there were a couple, and it's amazing to see just from twelve years ago to see how much it's grown."
Ross's workshop was crowded with many people standing in the back and sitting in the aisles. Twelve years earlier, he was 15. sitting alone in his room at the front of his computer making his first videos, some of which are now permanently deleted because of his fear that they would be found.
"I would go through these periods of up and down saying yes I'm trans, no it's disgusting, it's such a hard life, there's no point. I'm not going to do this. I'm just not going to be trans. Oh man, if only it was that easy," he said. "Unfortunately the feelings came back, and I had to deal with them. When they did go away, it was because I was repressing them like crazy. What I ended up doing with those videos was delete them. I think about this everyday — I recorded all these videos where I really talk about how I feel and what's going on with me, and why I feel the way I feel, and I just thought, 'I can't have these videos because I don't want any proof that I thought that I was like this.' So I deleted it, and I knew the second that I pressed permanently delete that I was going to regret that for the rest of my life."
Chase Ross Presenting at the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference
Photo by Sean Laughlin
Ross said he first felt valid as trans when he participated in one of the first trans masculine YouTube groups called MyTmen in 2008, that had 14 members. He then opened up his account Chaseraw73, where he said the videos were about "little things like, I had my first appointment with a gender therapist, or I'm saving up money in this box and maybe some Q and A's, but it was never anything in depth." He would open his current account, UppercaseChase1 two years later.
"I opened that channel in April of 2010 and I started T in June of 2010. I knew I was about to start hormones soon, so I wanted to see my journey from the beginning of taking testosterone," he said at the conference to a rapt audience. "Documenting it for me is still to this day extremely therapeutic. I did not have access to therapy before, and I have therapy now, but when I make videos about the whole thing that's happening in the United States about them maybe changing the definition of gender, I made a video because I needed to talk about this. I talked about it with my friends, but it wasn't enough. I wanted to talk about it online, not because people would listen or the video would be really popular, I haven't even looked how many views that video had, I don't care. What I do care about was I was able to unload all of this stress and anger that I had, and I helped educate people who weren't aware that all of this was happening, and maybe help people come together and be a community."
The sound of the audience's applause spilled out into the hallway.
"I would not believe it for one second," he said, thinking about where his life is now. "I would kind of recognize myself and think that kind of looks like me, but I would never come to the point of understanding of that is literally me. I don't know why that is. I think I just have some internalized stuff I need to deal with."
He continued: "I tried so hard just to imagine — I was 15 sitting at that desk being confused as hell not knowing what was going on. I just wished the older me would have come up to myself and say that everything is going to be okay. That's all I needed honestly. But if I was 15 looking at my older self now that's doing all of this, I would be so fucking excited for the journey from 15 to 27, just knowing that I'm still alive and I'm having a great life."
The halls quieted by the late afternoon of the last day of the conference. A protest against the Trans Wellness Conference broke out at the main entrance of the convention center, and alerts were sent out to attendees. Three volunteers of the conference were assaulted — a testament to a world less welcoming as inside the conference's walls.
Splash photo by Sean Laughlin