What Happens When You Can’t Find What You Need
This past April I attended my first Black Trans Advocacy Conference, or BTAC, for short. Put simply, the conference is a gathering of trans men and women from across the country for a week of education, empowerment, and community building. While conference attendees are overwhelmingly black trans men and women, anyone is invited and there were numerous people of other races.
In the year leading up to the conference I had been told by a couple of my friends that this would be my paradise. I would find my people and this week would be the best time of my life. I suppose before I go any further, I should explain why these statements are important.
I am a black trans guy in my late 20s who lives in Kansas. The first time I said “I am trans” was in the Spring of 2013 in a casual conversation with one of my best friends. At the time I had no idea what exactly that meant for my future, I just knew I finally had a term to describe myself.
Fast forward to the Fall of 2016. I decided I wanted to start the process of transitioning, which, for me, meant officially getting diagnosed with gender dysphoria, as well as telling my friends and family.
I was lucky and easily found community by being introduced to a white group of lesbians and trans guys who got together to watch college basketball games. I also joined a black trans group, which is how I learned about the conference. Everything was just peachy.
Actually that’s not true at all. Although I love my white friends, there are various parts of our experiences which don’t overlap. For instance, I have never really been afraid to be an out trans person. I am highly terrified of being a black man in America. We can talk about that, but they can’t really give me what I need in those conversations.
That’s why I was so excited to find the Black Trans group. However, I immediately discovered that I was an outlier there, too. Many of the guys had been rejected by their friends and family, and were struggling to survive.
I was afraid of not being seen as an ally, while they weren’t sure if they were going to eat the following week. I had a lot of anxiety about being a black man. That hadn’t crossed their minds. They were worried about never having access to hormones, so the reality of being accepted as a man felt like a reach.
I so desperately wanted to build community with them but our needs were so different. They wanted a place to be themselves. I wanted a community to grow with.
Sensing my frustration, the leader of the group began hyping me up for BTAC. He assured me that if I just went to the conference, I would have the experience I had been so desperately craving. BTAC is where I would “find people on [my] level.”
I arrived at BTAC ready for the time of my life. Within the first hour of the conference I was disappointed. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am an anomaly. I have an atypical coming out story where essentially no one cared. My friends, family, and work community all embraced me. I feel loved and validated for who I am all of the time.
In contrast, in this group and throughout the conference traumas of abandonment, mistreatment, and feeling unloved and alone kept coming up. At one point I went to the director of the conference and asked if I was in the right place.
To be clear, I am happy that this community exists and provides all of these things for conference attendees who don’t receive them in their day to day life. But what happens when you do have those things? Where is your community?
Although I had a great time at the conference, most of it was spent wondering why I was there. I didn’t feel like it was a place for me.
That all changed during one of the last sessions. We were having a memorial for our brothers and sisters who have thus far been killed this year for being trans. We said their names out loud and then we were allowed to share whatever was in our hearts. Once again people began sharing their struggles. Their fears of leaving because they were going back to a world where love, validation, and safety were absent. Two people shared that they were simply done and didn’t want to live any more.
As someone who struggles with suicidal ideation (ironically it has nothing to do with being trans), I was particularly struck by the fact that the group’s response was simply to hug these people and tell them they were loved as we literally and figuratively held them up.
I was thinking, “We need professional help for them! What happens when we leave? You don’t just magically stop wanting to commit suicide because someone told you that they love you!”
Wanting more for those around me, I decided to do something about it. Immediately after the session, I reached out to some friends I met at the conference and we began working on a plan which we call The Wellness Curriculum. We can’t make people feel loved and validated. But we can give them tools to love themselves and begin addressing all of the things they have been holding onto.
We’ve been working on a proposal for a five year plan where we phase in workshops on selfcare, counseling, and massage therapy, as well as eventually having providers with walk-in hours throughout the conference.
Initially all I wanted was a community to grow with. Now I’m creating the community I wanted.
Jay Bohanon is an equity and inclusion advocate who recently graduated with an MA in Religious Studies. He is a proud Kansan and Jayhawk. When not talking about the great state of Kansas, he enjoys cooking, going to cultural museums, and learning new tie knots.