Monday, March 4, 2013

My Leadership Conference

Recently I was selected by my Unitarian Universalist church to attend a week-long leadership conference. "Leadership?" I thought. "What does that have to do with me?" But I was, of course, flattered and I decided to go and see what it was like.

They sent us an online questionnaire to fill out: what church I belong to, am I a vegetarian, etc. They also asked me my gender. This was a bit of a problem. I suspected that they would be assigning people roommates of the same gender. And the thing is: I identify as a trans man. If I put "male" as my gender they would expect me to share a room with some guy I've never met, and that made me nervous. If I put "female" . . . well, that wasn't happening.

Fortunately, the conference organizers had set up a blank field where I could fill in my gender. I wasn't being forced to choose "male" or "female." So I wrote in "transgender." And I thought to myself, "that might cause some confusion."

A week later I got a call from one of the conference organizers. I understood her to say that no one else who had ever attended this conference had ever specified a gender that was something other than "male" or "female." She was not sure where to put me. She was very polite and kept repeating that they just wanted to do whatever it would take to make me feel comfortable. But the sad truth is that she was making me feel very uncomfortable.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't blame her. It's not her fault that she had never had to deal with this issue before. It's not her fault that there was no policy in place. It's not her fault, because none of us really know what gender non-conformity means or how to handle it. I blame society. Nonetheless, it was an unpleasant experience for me. To use the terminology we were taught at this leadership conference: she was feeling anxiety because of a disruption in homeostasis, and her anxiety infected me.

She was very polite and I was polite too. I said "I want to thank you and the other conference organizers for setting up the questionnaire so that people could fill in their own gender." I am sincerely grateful for that, because if I'd been forced to select "male" or "female" things would have been even worse. She told me they had set it up that way on purpose because they wanted to be mindful and considerate of non-gender-conforming people. However,  it did occur to me after I'd gotten off the phone with her that, although they had set the form up that way, they obviously hadn't made any plan for what to do if someone actually took advantage of the opportunity they'd been given to list a non-standard gender. They had decided it was a good idea in theory. But in practice . . . they hadn't really come to terms with it.

She and I discussed the various options. In the interests of brevity I won't list them all - you can probably figure out what they were. We ended the conversation with her promising to find a solution. I closed my phone and then started freaking out. She had said that she didn't know where to put me. She had sounded kind of unsure about the whole situation. I had no idea what was going to happen.

The days went by and the time for the conference approached. I didn't hear back from her and I was scared to call her. In the most fearful part of my mind I fully expected to show up at the conference and be told, "Sorry, we don't have accommodations for you, you can't stay here. And I don't know how you're going to get back to the airport." You may think that sounds crazy. But discrimination and prejudice against trans people are still rampant in our society, even in Unitarian Universalist churches. And it wouldn't even take outright prejudice. Discomfort and fear of change cause many well-intentioned people to fail in their attempts to be inclusive. (Of course, my own insecurities about whether I was "qualified" to attend this Leadership Conference also came into play.)

The conference started on Sunday. On Saturday the thought occurred to me: "If they assign two men or two women to a room, then that assumes they have an even number of men and women. But sometimes they must have a person left over." That made me feel better. I was the person left over. I felt like I had a right to bring my transgender self to the conference after all. Although I didn't know if the person assigning bedrooms had thought of this.