Right-wing figurehead launches misleading attacks on Trans Wellness Conference

The Trans Philadelphia Wellness Conference, hosted by Mazzoni Center, was recently the target of attacks by a conservative activist who misrepresented the details of the conference. In a series of tweets and an article, Christopher Rufo condemned the conference, honing in on the idea that Philadelphia School District teachers were invited to an event that includes (but is not limited to) panels on sex and sexual prosthetics, kink, gender transition and gender affirmation surgery. The Trans Wellness Conference, which is celebrating its 20th year, is the oldest and largest trans-centric conference that is organized and run by trans folks. It offers over 135 panels, workshops, lectures and meetups on a diverse range of topics including medical approaches to trans health, behavioral and sexual health, the legal landscape for trans people in schools, aging, sex positivity, spirituality, and how to be an ally to trans youth.

“It’s disheartening that there is a proactive tactic to shame trans folks and weaponize our identity,” said Naiymah Sanchez, trans rights organizer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who has participated in the conference. “You have no words to describe, especially as a trans person, your thoughts on this when you continuously experience this type of attack coming from legislators and misinformation coming through the media.” 

Sanchez pointed out that Rufo’s attack misrepresents a very multifaceted conference that has two distinct tracks: one for professionals in healthcare and educational fields, and one for people of trans experience who want to learn about navigating their lives as trans people. 

“I’ve been a part of workshops that were just for trans women and the title of workshops, especially trans women who underwent vaginoplasty, reflected the language that we use in community and not language that would be shared in a medical or educational environment,” Sanchez said. “I’ve also been a part of workshops geared to training more medical professionals and building competence with mental health professionals on the experience of trans folks.” 

She added that people like Rufo “weaponize the title of the workshop that was geared toward trans folks as a way to say the Philadelphia School District is mandating that teachers undergo specific courses like ‘big dick energy.’ I thought that workshop was for trans men who underwent bottom surgery.” 

For teachers and educators, the Trans Wellness Conference contains panels that help inform them about trans students’ experiences, including pronoun use, being a trans ally, creating inclusive curricula and being aware of the disproportionately high rates of suicidal thoughts that trans kids experience. 

Some of the conference’s teacher-centered panels include “Whiplash, or: The Rapidly Changing Legal Landscape of Trans Student Rights in US Schools;” “Being a Super Trans Ally! Innovative activities to empower YOUth at home, school & beyond;” “Queer Youth Homeless and Activist Skills” and “Parents and Teachers as Allies: A Candid Conversation About TGNB Students and Schools!”

Sultan Shakir, Mazzoni Center president and executive officer, said that the attacks continue the dangerous misinformation being perpetuated about the trans community.

“I think this really highlights the need to support and uplift the trans community,” Shakir said. “These attacks are just another example of the way in which the trans community gets demonized, in which care and support for the trans community gets spun into something that’s harmful, when what it really is is educational and supportive. It’s also an example of how misleading people are willing to be about the lives of individuals of the LGBTQ community, specifically the trans community.”

“A lot of the conference really is about how to support the community whether you are a teacher or medical professional or just anyone who’s interested in interacting with the full diversity of our community,” Shakir added. He also clarified that the conference has specific tracks for youth, and that “youth would not be in a workshop that is for adults.”

Rufo is known for his activism around dismantling LGBTQ+ education in schools and combating the teaching of critical race theory. In his Twitter attack of the conference, Rufo’s initial tweet reads: “Last year, the School District of Philadelphia encouraged teachers to attend a transgender conference on ‘kink,’ ‘BDSM,’ ‘trans sex,’ ‘bigger dick energy’ and ‘banging beyond binaries.’ I’ve obtained exclusive videos from the conference that will shock you.” 

In an interview on Fox News, Rufo called the aforementioned conference panels “strange and deranged, truly shocking and frankly disgusting to be directing this toward minors.” He also wrote a piece on the subject in the publication City Journal, where he’s a contributing editor. 

“I’m trying to understand the reasoning behind any of these attacks, especially on the younger population,” Sanchez said. “We want to ultimately raise younger folks into adults who are able to thrive in their authenticity and who they are, no matter if it is the traditional or more diverse life.” 

Mazzoni Center has not received any threats as a result of Rufo’s attack, but Shakir said that people have sent some bizarre and insulting emails to the center. 

One such message reads as follows: “I’m Gay quit trying to indoctrinate children. The predators and groomers at your center need to be removed and stay out of the teaching of children. Children, something most of you don’t have. This is coming from a gay parent. STOP the (Sick) predatory behavior.”

Despite the absence of a verified threat, the center’s leadership is exploring methods of ensuring people’s safety. Although this year’s Trans Wellness Conference is taking place virtually, “there’s still the need to ensure that presenters are safe and attendees are safe,” Shakir said, “and then anyone who might be considering anything violent, that appropriate law enforcement is prepared for that.”

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