This week is Gender Odyssey, the country’s largest transgender conference, and it’s right here in Seattle. Founder Aidan Key started the conference in 2001.
“To help me personally find and connect with people who are going through gender transition because I was just starting my transition from female to male,” Key explained.
That first year there were 300 attendees, and this year Key expects about 1,700. One of the most important additions has been including programming for teens, children, and their families.
“The most important aspect of it is the opportunity for any person attending to find somebody that has shared experience,” Key said. “For many of them, they might be the only family with a transgender kid in their town. To have three days a year where people get you and understand you and it’s not an issue — you can actually dig in and talk about things more in depth, share challenges, share celebrations, laugh, and play.”
Laughing can be a rare commodity for some of the attendees.
“One parent, at the end of the conference, pointed her teenager out, who was goofing around with another teen –they were giving each other piggyback rides in the main lobby of the Washington Convention Center laughing and having a great time — she said really quietly, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen my child smile in years.’ It’s pretty moving and, in some respects, heartbreaking to think it took that child that long to find some connection. But also amazing to see this child she had feared had disappeared a joyful, playful child.”
On Wednesday and Thursday the conference is geared toward educating medical professionals, therapists, social workers and educators so they are equipped to work with transgender people. Friday through the weekend the conference shifts over to the community.
Seattle’s Nikki Neuen plans to attend Gender Odyssey with her 17-year-old child.
“I was starting to get these odd phone calls from the counselors at school,” said Neuen. “Distressing phone calls where the counselor would get me on the phone and say, ‘Hi, I’ve got your kid here and they’re here because they’ve been talking about suicide. Which is a shock to me. I had no idea. It was months later that he said to me, ‘Look, I’m a boy.'”
That was two and a half years ago. This year will be the third year Neuen and her child will attend the conference, but once they arrive they’ll rarely see each other.
“Part of the time, he’s just hanging out with other teens,” Neuen said. “Just being with peers, no explanation, we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. We’re just all hanging out. They also can attend the community conference. So my kid hasn’t been interested in surgery or anything like that. But I know that some of his peers like to attend the surgeon’s workshops and I think he’s also attended some dating workshops. So he’s off doing his thing and I’m listening to family therapist or I’m listening to a pediatrician talk, joining in a round-table discussion with other parents.”
There are 180 workshops available throughout the week, discussing everything from the Neuroscience of Gender to special sessions just for dads of transgender kids, to Gender and the Bible.
“These are not a bunch of hippy, liberal, Seattleite, socialist whack jobs,” Key said. “These are families. They represent every cross-section of our society. These are parents who do not want their kid to be transgender, who are in varying stages of understanding themselves. What I share with any of them is that there is no agenda at our conference. We don’t care where a child ends up on their agenda journey. That’s for the child and their family to do together. The support for that exploration and the support for that journey is what’s primary and paramount.”