Queer and Trans Conference Explores Meaning of Work

The annual Queer and Trans Conference (QTC) brought together activists, scholars, and performers this past weekend to address the theme of work as it applies to the lives of queer and trans people.

Each year, QTC chooses a theme around which speakers and events are focused, ultimately seeking to highlight the work and voices of queer and trans people whose identities are marginalized by the mainstream gay rights movement. Camille Robertson ’13, a member of the QTC planning committee, explained that the goal of this year’s conference was to create a program of events centered around class justice, as well as to think through the meaning of work and to expand its definition beyond paid work.

Highlights of the conference included a lecture and a workshop facilitated by Eli Clare, an influential genderqueer and trans scholar, activist, and educator, who addresses issues of disability, gender, race, class and sexuality in his work. His visit was well-received by students, many of whom have read Clare’s work in the classroom.

“I’ve adored his work since I first read it, so getting to hear him talk about it and watching the way that he does lectures and makes them accessible was amazing,” Robertson said. Clare’s lecture explored the connection between the history of circus tent freak shows and bodily differences, resistance, and exploitation.

In addition to the lecture, Clare also held an open lunch discussion and workshop around the theme of stealing and reclaiming bodies, which fit into his larger work exploring the meanings of oppression and bodily differences. The workshop made use of storytelling, visual content, and journal writing to explore questions of bodily oppression, thievery, and resistance, across a variety of identities and communities.

Addressing the theme of work more directly, the conference also brought speakers from the Philadelphia chapter of the Sex Worker’s Outreach Project (SWOP) to campus, which Laina Chin ’16 saw as a highlight. SWOP is an anti-violence campaign and national social justice network, dedicated to securing and protecting fundamental human rights for sex workers. The project attempts to end violence towards and stigma against sex workers through education and advocacy.

The SWOP speakers discussed sex work as a real, legitimate occupation, explained Chin, a member of the QTC planning committee who worked with other members to bring SWOP to campus.

“A lot of times, representations of sex work in different medias and in life make it seem really dirty and disgusting,” Chin explained. The SWOP members sought to counteract this notion, asking attendants to write down their immediate associations with sex work and then helping the audience to deconstruct these notions.

Chin also found the presentation interesting because the two SWOP members had both done sex work, and one was a current sex worker. “I would not have assumed that either of them were sex workers,” Chin said. The presentation helped Chin and other attendants examine and interrogate their own stereotypes around sex work.

Acclaimed writer Dorothy Allison also lectured over the weekend. Allison’s writing includes themes of class struggle, sexual abuse, child abuse, feminism, and lesbianism, and her lecture at the conference focused on mythic queer culture. “She talked about myth in our lives and how we survive by mythologizing, but how myths surrounding certain people are still an issue,” Nora Kerrich ’16 explained. Allison also explained that the myth of the normalized queer and the idea that queerness can be removed from its radical roots and meanings was dangerous, which Kerrich found particularly interesting.

In connection to the theme of work, Allison contrasted two different work experiences, setting the story of how she survived as a scholarship student in college by working eight hours a day with chemicals which burned the skin off her hands against her work as a writer and a columnist, for which she receives higher pay and greater respect than for her cleaning job. “She encouraged more discussion about why people are paid what they are paid for the work they do,” Kerrich explained.

For Robertson, a large group of returning alumni was another highlight of the weekend. “It felt really different that other Swarthmore events, because more often than not, current students were less than half of the people in the room,” she explained. “Having that intergenerational dialogue and the many perspectives really brings a lot of energy and a different tone.”

Robertson also saw dialogue between presenters as a major success of the conference. “Eli Clare and Naomi Finkelstein had a great conversation, because they’ve done disability work about queer disabled people in other conferences together,” Robertson recounted.

This type of dialogue-creation and coalition-building is one of QTC’s main goals, Roberston explained. “Within the group, queer/trans are huge umbrella terms and identities, and because we take a very multi-issue approach we are able to create some unity,” she said. Rather than a vertical hierarchy with officer positions, all 13 members of QTC work within a horizontal structure, take turns planning agendas and facilitating meetings, and join together in ongoing working groups called pods.

This multi-issue approach, along with QTC’s horizontal organization, help to build a coalition and make for a productive conference each year.

“Within the planning community we work as a group, and it does feel like a coalitional space,” Robertson said. “We want to put our voices together and we want to listen together, and that’s one of the most exciting things about the conference, bringing in presenters who get to have conversations and be in dialogue, with the conference serving as creating space for that.”

In addition to Clare, SWOP, and Allison, the conference featured lectures on sex work and on the queer homeless transition into the queer workforce; workshops on reproductive justice and disability ally work; re-screenings of lectures and a screening of a documentary about black transmen; and performances by Roots & River Philly Collective, a branch of a larger organization for queer artists of color, along with a performance by Cirque Manikk, which brings together circus arts, music, dance and culture to create a modern circus of the human body.

Robertson and other organizers felt that the conference went over well. “We got a lot of positive feedback from a lot of presenters, and from attendees also, which was really great. Overall it felt like a really big success,” she said.



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