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The bathrooms proudly declared liberation from gender conformity, a simple yet profound message at Portland’s AlterConf that set the tone of the entire event: safety, comfort, and respect. This was an event for the marginalized members of the tech and gaming community, a place where diversity was promoted for people of color, women, and those who identified as something in between or nothing at all. In this space, inclusion didn’t require identity or its credentials.
A schedule of speakers were organized from a variety of backgrounds, and each carried a list of trigger warnings that let the audience know when sensitive subjects like racism, sexism or transphobia were going to be discussed. It was made clear well before any speeches were given: there was a strict code of conduct here–microaggressions and hate of any kind would not be tolerated; if you felt uncomfortable at any point due to the actions of another, there was a team standing by to ensure compassion and respect was maintained, even if that meant removing people from the conference.
The importance of this may be lost on some; even after a decade of battling against the indoctrination of my rural Ohio upbringing by studying every bit of humanistic, free-thinking content I could get my hands on, I know I still gained a new appreciation for why this “safe-space” mentality was so important when I sat down and talked with several of the presenters and attendees.
“I know people who were killed for making the female to male transition that I’m currently going through,” I was told.
More than the sadness this instilled within me, there was an ironic realization that followed which disheartened me further: that continuing to identify as a woman doesn’t provide a much greater sense of security in our society, not with a prevalent rape culture that will allow the men perpetrating the crime to go unpunished. . . so long as the young men have “a promising future”; ie: are white and wealthy.
Is this the horrendous choice we leave for half our species: stay oppressed as a woman, or be threatened by death if you attempt to join the masculine ranks because your true self happens to be represented by society’s labels for that particular gender instead?
In 2015, there were a recorded 21 transgendered people who were murdered–19 of them were people of color.
Thus the importance of safe-spaces becomes even more evident.
Racism still runs rampant in this country, often perpetrated by the very people meant to protect us. And if we think we offer equal opportunities to people of color beyond gender conformity, take a quick look at the racial wealth gap in America:
Beyond fearing retribution for your gender choice, this systemic race issue instills the same kind of fear upon people of color that the gender non-conforming must deal with: the fear of survival.
As I listened to the presentations and those who I spoke intimately with, my cis-gender white male privledge of security fractured, my empathy happily yearning through the cracks as I attempted to understand (while knowing I couldn’t) the struggles of those whose path of individualization and honesty to self deviates just a little too far for comfort from the mainstream, christian, white, patriarchal path.
But I don’t mean to paint a negative picture; more than anything I was inspired by the atmosphere of optimism and encouragement that permeated AlterConf; sure, there were a few “smash the patriarchy” sentiments tossed in there–and for good reason–but for the most part, one message stood above the rest: love for self, and love for others different than yourself.
One speaker told me after his presentation: “Be kind to people, accept that everyone has a different and unique experience and all of them are valid…Don’t be frightened by that or think it’s a challenge to your belief system… We are all just human.”
Such words shouldn’t be sequestered to conferences for marginalized communities, not when they represent the kind of humanistic morality and compassion that people of all backgrounds and identities need to cultivate—at least if we’re ever to stop hurting each other out of our own insecurities and inflated sense of ego; if we’re ever going to escape the war, hatred, and greed that are destroying our planet and the lives of millions.
All it takes to love one another, to love one’s self, is to realize that no one’s identity is a threat to anyone else, so long as we don’t try to inflict our ideological norms upon others. We should stand united as a people of all forms to focus on actual problems like climate change, famine, hunger, healthcare, etc, rather than let ourselves be divided by arbitrary boxes created largely by men who were afraid of the unknown and therefore needed to make sure everything was defined and orderly. Men who wanted power and thus subsequently used those labels to stupefy and divide us, rather than let us be the free-thinking, free-loving species we all know we’re capable of.
We could celebrate rather than hate, and all it takes is a simple choice to acknowledge that your way isn’t the only valid one. Just take a look at a map and read up on your history: you are only one pair of eyes amongst 8 billion in a galaxy containing a myriad of cultures and experiences that have been unfolding for millennia.
Please check out the interviews from AlterConf below to better understand the nuances of experiences that I could only ever speculate upon. And a big thank you to all those who were willing to sit down with Curious Ape’s Media to share so much vulnerability in spite of the worldly challenges.