Much like the membership, big changes are under way at TransWay, the weekly meetup for trans folk held at the William Way LGBT Community Center at 1315 Spruce St. After running steady since 2008, the founding leadership stepped down last month under allegations of discrimination within the group. Now, TransWay is rebuilding from the ground up, including looking for a new facilitator who will steer the group into the future.
So what happened? Turns out, even the most marginalized groups are not immune to prejudice within the ranks. Members allege the discrimination manifested along the lines of “passing privilege.”
“Basically what happened was we had a clique of trans women who became very classist, very size-ist, very discriminatory of what they think trans people are and aren’t,” says 25-year-old Ahuviya Harel, who has been a part of the group since last year. Identifying as gender-queer male-to-female, Harel, donning camo pants when we met, says she felt discriminated against for not presenting herself as feminine enough. “It’s very insulting to be insulted in a place where you had reasonable expectation of safety and community [because] you can’t get that elsewhere for most transgendered people,” says Harel. “To be put down … because of your gender presentation … We have enough people outside the trans community that do that to us.”
Twenty-six-year-old blogger-activist Jordan Gwendolyn Davis has been attending TransWay since moving to Philly this winter. She tossed all her “boy clothes” in the garbage and began taking hormones that suppress testosterone within the last year. Today her features are much softer than the photo on her most recent driver’s license.
“If I could make this 5 o’clock shadow disappear, I would,” she says during a recent chat in the homey lobby of William Way. A light stubble pierces through her smooth skin. “Trust me,” she sighs, running her hand across her cheek. “It’s a lot worse in the morning.”
Davis says everyone transitions at their own pace, and it’s not cool to go around dishing out unsolicited advice to trans people—especially advice regarding what to do with their genitals, which Davis calls sexual harassment. “People started telling me to tuck,” says Davis.
“I was a witness to a trans woman who came in who was pre-op and was given such a hard time about it,” echoes Pamela Flanigan, 63. “They said, ‘You don’t look like a trans woman, you don’t belong here. Go!’”
Formal complaints were filed regarding some incidents.
“I’ve been aware for a number of months that there were issues both with things being said on Facebook and various folks not feeling as welcome as others within the group,” says Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way. While the Center discussed how to handle the situation, some members began planning what they refer to as a hostile takeover or coup.
Then last month, admist the drama, leadership voluntarily stepped down.
Though it’s easy to play the blame game with specific personalities—as indeed, friendships have shattered and who-said-what rumors continue to spiral—Barlett points out that the clashes within the group are symptomatic of larger questions and sea-change shifts in the trans community and ultimately, the gay and lesbian community at large.
“This is not an uncommon occurrence,” says Bartlett. “One of the things being done within the community is we’re having conversations [about] who is included in the community and who is not.”
Some of the friction has to be attributed to the fact that when TransWay was founded in 2008, it was originally intended as a group for trans women only. But the trans community includes people who identify as genderqueer but are not interested in altering their appearance or passing as another gender. Some trans people identify as both male and female, or neither, or as a third gender.
Bartlett sees the trans community redefining its borders as a “new frontier” for figuring out what is essentially a paradox: how to have a positive and safe community center tailored to the specific needs of GLBTQ folks that also welcomes everyone who walks through the door.
On a recent Thursday evening, William Way Director of Center Services Candice Thompson, who is filling in as temporary facilitator of TransWay, leads a brainstorming session. Tons of ideas are generated: hosting legal workshops, movie nights, arts salons, political town-hall-style meetings. The group touches on the ways the needs of the trans community are unique and diverge from the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer communities.
The group also discusses the challenges of bringing outreach into neighborhoods and reducing transphobia by going into the public space. Someone suggests borrowing a technique from gay activists called “queering the space,” where a group travels to a particular spot to hang out and have a good time, inadvertently showing off how regular they are.
They talked about neighborhoods they can go to that would make a good political impact, and which ones they might “wind up dead in,” a somber reminder that the strength of the trans community, despite differences, is in supporting one another.
But the main point that everyone keeps returning to is that in order to evolve, the group must open the doors wider than in the past.
“I hope that TransWay will be accepting of the full spectrum of gender identities, regardless of presentation, regardless of anything,” says Harel. “And that’s pretty much what’s happening.”