Moving Trans History Forward Conference brings together trans and gender-diverse scholars from across the globe

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ADevor_close_Credit-Blake-Little
(Aaron Devor | photo by Blake Little)

Fourth biennial conference covered wide range of topics from facial recognition to Two-Spirit education

From March 11 to 14, the UVic Chair in Transgender Studies hosted the fourth Moving Trans History Forward Conference. The biennial conference was first held in 2014 and offers an important forum for research conducted by trans and gender-diverse scholars from around the globe. 

This year’s conference was held online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Talks by more than 100 scholars from 23 countries featured a variety of topics such as facial recognition and Two-Spirit education.

The conference was originally supposed to be held last spring but was postponed due to the pandemic. Organizers faced a variety of logistical and technical challenges in adapting the conference to an online format. However, the Chair in Transgender Studies Aaron Devor told the Martlet that he was quite happy with the final result.

“We were very challenged, to figure out how to present this conference online in a way that would provide people with the experience that is very important to our constituency,” he said.  “In the end, I feel like we did quite well with that.”

In terms of the research presented at the conference, scholars gave talks on topics as widely varied as heavy metal and human rights law. With almost 100 presentations, attendees had no shortage of options. 

 “There’s such a range and variety of research going on in history,” said Janak. “And I think the Moving Trans History Forward Conference really showcases that.”

For returning presenters, the draw time after time is to be able to share a space with a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds. Additionally, the conference provides a space for trans and gender-diverse people to collaborate with others who hold similar experiences in a way that they wouldn’t be able to in most academic settings.

“This particular conference is really lovely for the way that it is as much about community as it is about scholarship, and maybe even more about community than it is about scholarship,” Mary Ann Saunders told the Martlet. 

Saunders, a lecturer on transgender studies at UBC, was part of a panel along with fellow researchers Katja Thieme and Laila Ferreira that examined the misgendering prevalent in facial recognition software and the research culture that underpins it. Saunders said that she has attended every conference since its inception and also presented in 2016 and 2018.

Thieme, an associate professor with a focus on discourse analysis of research writing at UBC, says that it is a unique conference because it gives her, as a cisgender woman, a chance to be a visitor in the trans community, an opportunity she wouldn’t get many other places. She says that it not only brings together members of the trans and gender-diverse community but also many other community members including visitors like herself.

“People who work in healthcare, people who are parents of trans children, people who are partners of trans people come to the conference because of being partners, people who are researchers, researchers from like social work, history, classics, literature, psychology, all kinds of different fields,” said Thieme. “[It’s] incredible.”

For others such as Two-Spirit social worker and education consultant Kyle Shaughnessy, the connections and friendships are the highlight of the conference. 

“Being part of trans communities for going on almost 20 years now, there’s a lot of people that I’ve had contact with over time, there’s a lot of old friends I have, there’s people I get excited to see again,” he said. “And this has been one of the venues to be able to do that.”

The conference was originally supposed to be held last spring but was postponed due to the pandemic. Organizers faced a variety of logistical and technical challenges in adapting the conference to an online format. However, the Chair in Transgender Studies Aaron Devor told the Martlet that he was quite happy with the final result.

“We were very challenged, to figure out how to present this conference online in a way that would provide people with the experience that is very important to our constituency,” he said.  “In the end, I feel like we did quite well with that.”

In order to provide attendees with the social experience they would find at an in-person conference, Devor and his team set up virtual networking tables where participants could chat with each other in forums similar to break-out rooms. Devor said that while there is no substitute for being able to connect with one another in-person, the networking tables provided some semblance of normalcy.

One of the main benefits of an online format was being able to invite scholars from around the globe who might not be able to travel to Victoria for an in-person conference. For example, the opening day keynote was given by Blas Radi, the Independent Chair of Trans Studies at the University of Buenos Aires, the only other such chair in the world outside of UVic. Speakers from as far away as Iran and Turkey were also able to participate in the daily concurrent sessions.

University of Texas at Austin grad student Jaden Janak said that having the conference online made it possible for them to attend, as travel and financial restrictions would have prevented them otherwise.

“We don’t exactly have a lot of funding to make large trips from Texas to Canada frequently, so yeah, having it be online really allowed people like me to participate,” Janak, who presented on the trans activist CeCe McDonald, told the Martlet.

The conference had record attendance levels since people could join from all over the world: 376 people registered, far surpassing the previous record of 300. However, worldwide attendance posed challenges as well, like accommodating different time zones. In response, the organizers moved sessions from the afternoon to early morning — meaning that self-professed late risers like Devor needed to be awake and ready to start the day in the wee hours of the morning.

“We started at 8 a.m. local time,” said Devor. “Let me tell you, I’m not a morning person, and to be on and ready to start at 8 a.m., and I had to get up very early in the morning. We did that so that we could reach as many time zones with a reasonable timeframe as possible.”

Although the next conference isn’t for another two years, planning will begin soon. Devor says that, based on conversations he has had with attendees and pending the results of an upcoming poll, the plan is for the 2023 conference to have both online and in-person components.

“The sentiment was very strongly in favour of a hybrid model for next time. And I expect when we do a more extensive survey, we’re going to get a similar reaction,” said Devor. 

For now, Devor can congratulate himself and his team on a job well done before getting ready to work on a whole new set of logistical challenges for 2023.

“That’s still another challenge for us, because we don’t know how to [put on a hybrid conference],” he said. “I’m hoping that by the time we have to plan that in earnest, there will be somebody who has experience with putting on a hybrid conference.”