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Monday, October 30, 2006

Corporate sponsors flock to transgender conferences

Here's an interesting story from the Southern Voice, a gay magazine published in Atlanta: "Trans conference lures corporate sponsor: Military supplier says event matches its company values "

This story is particularly interesting because it highlights the way in which the disparate elements of the transgender community have started to become a community. There has been a rift between the "crossdresser" community and the "transsexual" community since the 1970s, when transsexuals began to gain a measure of political identity and acceptance, as evidenced by statutes permitting them to change their sex on drivers licences and birth certificates. Many transsexuals considered crossdressers to be sexual fetishists, and not deserving of the same rights as transsexuals. This was fostered by the psychiatric community, which created a mental disorder called "Transvestic Fetishism" which appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM III). Transsexuals learned that they had to disavow such activities if they wanted to be considered "real" and obtain the psychiatric permission they needed to obtain medical intervention. There was no term referring to all gender-variant identities until well into the 1990s. Even today, many people think incorrectly that crossdressers are not "transgender," equating the latter term with a transition from one gender to another. That is incorrect, as I have previously discussed.

It was against this background that the "Southern Comfort" Conference began in 1990 as a way for male crossdressers to crossdress in an accepting environment. It was about dresses and make-up. No self-respecting transsexual would go there. So I was repeatedly told when I first began seriously exploring my gender issues in the early 90s. The idea that any corporation would give money to be a sponsor of such an event was then considered ludicrous.

Fast forward to 2006, and, as noted in the article linked here, corporate sponsors are now lining up for the chance to sponsor the event. I went to the conference website, which listed the seminars and events at the conference, and I was pleasantly surprised. The conference has moved well beyond servicing the heterosexual male crossdressers that forms the conference's base. The conference schedule included primarily workshops on civil rights topics and community involvement. It also included events for female-to-male attendees, discussions about transsexual transition, and political seminars that bespoke a more inclusive "transgender" community consciousness, all subjects that were previously anathema for crossdressers. While there were some workshops on how to apply makeup properly and "act like a lady," offending my feminist sensibilities, there were fewer of these. (I have nothing against makeup, and I use it myself, but I try not to go along with the pressure from TV ads and peers to define myself by its use.) This conference schedule compares very favorably, in my opinion, with the programs of other long-standing crossdresser conferences.

This trend towards a distinctly "transgender" community consciousness is also boosted by companies that recognize in their transgender policies those who live in another gender part-time, or who have changed from one gender to another but without surgical intervention, such as Citigroup, JPMorganChase and IBM. This was unthinkable five years ago. As a result, the barrier between different elements of the transgender community are breaking down, and some corporations are realizing that "transgender" identity is more complex. I believe this trend will continue. At the same time, however, for those workplaces just now grappling with transgender issues, it may be some time before they understand that "transgender" is a community, rather than a medical category.

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