How a transmasculine conference changed my perspective—and how I hope it changes yours, too
“There are two ways to light the world: To be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.” – Edith Wharton
As we enter a new season of reflection and introspection, I am taking the time and opportunity to reflect on an experience I had last June at the Philly Trans Health Conference. It was a poignant, disquieting moment that provoked some important questions—and continues to light the path in my work today.
It was the first workshop of the morning, and the turnout at Trans MSM and HIV pleasantly surprised me. There were the usual faces—those of us who eat, sleep, and breathe transmasculine HIV prevention. I’m used to working with them as fiercely devoted counterbalances to a healthcare system that still pretends we don’t exist. There were also many guys I didn’t know.
The workshop was closed to transmasculine people only. When the room monitor made this announcement, our collective breath of relief was discernible as a few cisgender men politely collected their belongings, leaving behind about 40 of us altogether.
(As a quick aside—we appreciate their interest in our health, yes. But we are always expected to appreciate cis men’s interest in us, often to the exclusion of our own interests. This one time, for this one hour, we would not stop to consider how cisgender men might feel about the ideas, strategies, and experiences we freely shared among ourselves.)
We used the time during the workshop to confront the challenges that we’ve battled the past thirty-plus years:
How can we convince researchers that we exist—and include us in critical HIV prevention studies? How do we make state departments stop recording our gender as “female” when we seroconvert, since we’re clearly MSM? How do we prove to researchers that seroconversions are happening among transmasculine people, when state and county health departments refuse to collect our data correctly? And how do we afford healthcare—not to mention food and housing—while we do this all-consuming, exhausting work?
The moderator kept a handful of voices from dominating the conversation, but most of us came back to the same struggles, consistently, for the first forty minutes. I think we’d hoped this discussion would reveal new ways we could be recognized in the dismissive, capitalist healthcare system that in so many ways denies our existence. Instead, we kept hitting our heads against the same brick wall of challenges, rubbing the bumps and bruises it was leaving behind.
Across the room a man raised his hand. He was large with piercings and a mighty beard, and he hadn’t said a single word. A cloud of anger hung protectively around him. We fell silent as he stood slowly to speak.
“Hi. It sounds like a lot of you know one another and are doing important work. I’m not sure this is the right place for me to be. I don’t know any other trans guys, but I guess I thought this workshop was going to be something different—that it would be about trans men and HIV. So far I’m hearing talk about HIV prevention and politics, but not about HIV,” he expressed nervously.
“I’m 29 years old. I’ve been living with HIV for five years; I’ve known it for nearly two. I thought this workshop was for people like me, but I don’t feel like it is. You’re all afraid of becoming positive, but I already am. I’ve been living stealth for a decade, since I was a teen, and I am alone. I can’t live like this anymore. That’s why I came here, to find people like me, but obviously I’m still in the wrong place,” he said looking around the room, his voice cracking with his plea.
“All I’m looking for is a reason not to die. Is there a workshop where I can find that?”
My stomach sank as he turned to look across the room. Recognizing the biohazard symbol inked on his neck, I thought about the researcher who calls me his “Compass,” when he looks to me for direction when his ethics and his funding sources don’t line up.
How was it possible, in a room full of advocates who eat, sleep, and breathe community health, that we had failed to notice this person who so obviously and deeply needed us to validate his existence and reality? Why had we not been more welcoming? While our suicidal brother sat silently suffering among us, what else had seemed so important?
Five months later, these questions still weigh on me and inform my community organizing.
I still strive to do my part convincing medical professionals and researchers that trans people deserve respect, dignity, and humanity. I still jump through hoops as an advocate, working every day to break down barriers and make the systems that serve trans people inclusive of every body.
Yet at the same time, I am mindful about tending to the people my work aims to protect. I challenge myself to connect—on a daily basis—with my trans siblings, to listen to their stories, and to support their lives.
Whoever you are, whatever position you hold in the world, it is essential to realize we are all part of a global community comprised of people whose voices we may never hear — but whose lives nevertheless are in our hands. The question I ask you today, as we look into our respective mirrors, is this:
How are you making room for the real conversations that need to be had?
Brandyn Gallagher, Executive Director of Outshine NW, is an activist and community servant whose life is devoted to redistributing happiness by raising awareness about HIV, stigma, social justice, and the struggles of queer and trans people in pursuit of equitable healthcare access.