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Philadelphia hosts world's largest trans wellness conference, attempts to flip the narrative on trans mental health

Philadelphia Inquirer - 7/22/2022

Jul. 23—This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call or text 988.

The Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference, billed as the world's largest such free event, held its 20th annual meeting this week, gathering virtually at a time when many in the transgender community feel targeted.

Over the last year, legislatures across the nation have introduced dozens of trans-related restrictions. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers passed — and this month, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed — a ban on trans athletes that experts called discriminatory.

Wolf vetoes bills on poll watchers, transgender athletes

These political efforts are taking a toll on the mental health of trans youth.

More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have "seriously considered" attempting suicide in the last year, according to data presented in a Friday afternoon conference session by the Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ youth suicide prevention nonprofit that surveyed nearly 34,000 LGBTQ people youth ages 13-24.

The rates at which LGBTQ youth are considering suicide and experiencing anxiety have increased since 2020, said Jonah DeChants, a research scientist with the project.

The survey also found that 85% of trans youth felt that debates over trans-related restrictions have negatively impacted their mental health, and that 93% of trans youth were worried that they won't be able to access the care they need to support their transition due to new laws.

The conference itself has experienced negative attention by those who are attempting to put the trans community at the heart of the so-called "culture wars."

Conservative media got ahold of videos from a 2021 Philly trans conference. Harassment followed.

In May, conservative news outlets, including Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight, sparked controversy by sharing video clips from last year's conference. They circulated information from conference sessions that were sexual in nature, claiming they were intended for an audience of minors — a claim that organizers called inaccurate. Following the segments, featured conference speakers were subjected to harassment.

It is within this environment that conference organizers tried to create a space for a community to come together, learn information, and feel safe. They hoped to flip the script.

"There is an overall narrative here about resilience and resistance to the attacks our community is facing," said Sinéad Murano, the conference's logistics coordinator. "How do we thrive, while we fight to survive?"

A safe space

The event drew about 2,000 people and featured about 110 sessions over three days, according to organizers from the Mazzoni Center, the city's largest LGBTQ health agency. Sessions covered topics from resume writing to navigating health insurance and discussions about transitioning in older age to supporting trans teens. There were also workshops about sex limited to attendees over the age of 18.

Before the pandemic, the conference brought thousands of attendees to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The event has been virtual for several years.

A recurring theme of this year's conference was the ability to mitigate mental health harm.

In a Thursday session about the importance of peer counseling, AJ Schaerer, the founder of California-based Trans Advocacy and Care Team nonprofit, said that the idea that suffering is inherent to being trans is a "myth" that needs to be dispelled.

"Being trans, nonbinary, or gender diverse is not the root cause of any of the challenges that trans folks are facing," they said.

That's a finding that DeChants highlighted from the Trevor Project's survey. "We also see that having positive sources of support in your life has a positive impact on your mental health," he said.

Voice therapy can help trans people sound like themselves and feel safer

Conference organizers said they've taken extra safety precautions this year. Still, many panelists chose to not use their full name or disclose their location.

But even without being able to convene in person, and gathering under some level of anonymity, attendees describe the event as a safe haven. Session chats became supportive communities.

In an emotional session, parents of trans children shared their child's journey. One father described how unprepared the school was to support his child and how emotional distress was interpreted by adults as acting out, leading to disciplinary actions.

The comments in the chat filled with love.

"Being a trans guy in this session surrounded by parents who accept their kids is a feeling I can't describe," one attendee wrote.


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