Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference celebrates 20 years

Illustration by Ash Cheshire.

The 20th Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference (PTWC) will return in virtual format from July 21-23, 2022. Organized by Mazzoni Center staffers and community members with a variety of professional backgrounds and experiences, the free conference offers a diverse selection of panels, discussions and workshops for professionals and the general public. 

Subject matter includes HIV and AIDS prevention, sex work, parenting as a trans or nonbinary person, queer dating, experiences of trans people who are incarcerated, addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness, methods for practicing mindfulness, barriers to healthcare for trans people and much more.   

Charlene Arcila, a trans woman of color who passed away in 2015, founded the conference in 2000 as the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. It’s now the largest trans-specific conference in the world. “I really want to honor Charlene’s legacy,” said Sinéad Kinney, logistics coordinator for the PTWC. “She created something that has saved so many trans lives over the years.” 

Since last year’s conference, Kinney and the organizational team made a point to expand selection committees to include more people with lived experience, and to include more presenters who are trans and gender diverse, and people of color.

“We really tried to do our best to target our content gaps this year and to really push to get new speakers and new topics,” Kinney said.

Racial and queer rights activist Cecily Thomas is leading two conference presentations this year: “Unhoused Queer and Trans Youth: The Crisis” and “DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) for QTPOC: Making Your Org More Inclusive.” The former encompasses a history of discrimination in the area of queer and trans youth homelessness, its impact and subsequent crisis, as well as ways of being an active ally and advocate for queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness. 

“I hope that people will take away the urgency of the issue,” Thomas said. “As we move forward in a capitalist society that has been built on years of white supremacy, racism, homophobia and transphobia, queer and trans people of color, especially LGBTQ+ unhoused youth, are at the center of the housing crisis of receiving reduced, denied access to stable housing.”

Thomas explained that that does not boil down to queer and trans youth simply being refused entry in shelters. “It’s the quality of the shelters, their ability to get housing in the first place and their ability to feel safe in that housing,” they said. 

Sy Smith will speak on two panels at the conference: “Barriers to Accessing Affirming Healthcare: The Black and Trans Male Experience” and “Fighting the Good Fight: Careers in Trans Advocacy.”

“I think it’s so important that we talk about the broad healthcare issues and gender affirming care issues as it relates to the trans community,” Smith said. “It’s also important that we talk about those nuanced issues of different overlapping communities. My section is open to all, so I’m hoping folks that are non-Black, non-trans men come in and attend and learn something new about the nuanced experience of Black trans men and what we face as it relates to healthcare.”

Smith said that while transmasculine people of color have seen some progress in terms of accessing healthcare, advancements are moving slowly and sometimes get lost in the multitude of attacks against trans communities.

“Especially now with Roe v. Wade and the threat to reproductive health and the right to do what we want to do with our bodies, [that’s] going to affect all of us,” Smith said. 

Charlotte Stasio, director of operations for the hazard management consulting firm Griffin, will present on a topic that is new to the PTWC: “Trans Humanity: Body Autonomy and Homeland Security.” Stasio’s presentation will focus on the discrimination and gender-exclusive practices that trans and gender diverse people frequently face when going through TSA screenings at airports and other spaces with security checkpoints. Stasio also plans to offer solutions for how to educate security officials to make their practices more inclusive and respectful of trans people.  

“We want to get people to understand the differences between what might be considered suspicious activity, or what’s actually something to do with a person being in the middle of transition or having issues with their documentation or things going on with their physical anatomy,” Stasio said. “We want to get them a sense of what the guidance from the Department of Homeland Security says and some of the challenges and pitfalls there.”

Ashley Adamson, youtuber, author and speaker, will lead “TransFu – Practicing Mindfulness and Energetic Systems to Alleviate Stress.” Her workshop will focus on meditation techniques and practices from Tai Chi, Chi Gong and other martial arts with a goal of improving mental health. 

“I’m going to help people figure out how to work with their mindset and their approach to thinking and the rest of the world so they can unlock the best version of themselves and find a place where they are thriving as an individual,” Adamson said. “I don’t even mean as a trans person, I just mean as an individual. This has nothing to do with identity, it’s just being a human, doing your best and living your best life. Let’s get there.”

Adamson said she believes that mental health is the most important issue facing trans people. The struggle that many trans people have with mental health has to do with societal rejection and the otherizing of trans people, she said. 

“If they are not accepted by their parents, that’s one thing,” Adamson said. “But if they’ve been exiled from their entire community and they have no one to count on or talk to, that’s a whole other thing. Depending on the degree, there’s a lot of burden on the individual to work through that and to make it by to survive. I find it incredibly stupid that trans people just can’t hang out and be a person and be treated like that. If they could, then there would be so much less mental health issues; the suicide rate would be so much lower.” 

Billie Swiggard, staff physician at Mazzoni Center and infectious disease specialist, will lead the presentation “Third Person Cured of HIV: Back-story and Future Promise.” But she will get to that topic by way of discussing “the outsized impact of the HIV pandemic on the trans community,” she said. Swiggard plans to use existing scientific studies to show that disproportionately high numbers of trans people in the U.S. and similar countries are living with HIV. Higher percentages of Black and Latinx trans people are living with HIV than their white counterparts. 

At the heart of Swiggard’s presentation is the need to expand the availability and uptake of PrEP as an HIV prevention method. “It has been estimated 15-20% of the people that are eligible for PrEP are actually taking it,” Swiggard said. “The situation is far worse in the Black and Latinx communities, where the take rate is more like 9%.”

Multiple conference panelists commented on the versatility of the PTWC. 

“There’s really quality presentations where people are talking about phallo, people are talking about surgeries, people are talking about legislation, people are talking about mental health,” said Thomas, who will educate conference-goers about unhoused queer and trans youth. “Especially when you think about how impactful this conference can be virtually, with the people who are now able to get some of this information that they wouldn’t have otherwise known.”

Smith, who will speak about barriers to healthcare and trans advocacy, conveyed the significance of the PTWC providing a space to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, “especially those of us who are Black or BIPOC,” he said. “The opportunity to lead and use our voices as well I think is really important to the community right now.” 

Kinney would like the workshops in this year’s conference to stand as a counter to the barrage of attacks against trans rights and trans bodies, they said. Pennsylvania is one of many U.S. states that still does not have a law banning discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation; lawmakers in some states have banned gender affirming care for trans youth, blocked trans students from participating in school sports, criminalized the teaching of queer and trans subject matter in schools, and perpeuated anti-trans rhetoric at every turn. Queer and trans youth continue to experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade is destined to introduce even more healthcare inequities for trans and gender diverse people than there exist already.

“It’s about not conceding to the narratives that are being pushed about trans people,” Kinney said. “Fighting misinformation with education – fighting fear with love and empathy for our community members and for our allies.”

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