What it’s like to attend an anti-trans conference as a trans researcher

A pair of hands reaching out for each other. On the right, a light-skinned person is reaching out to hand a cutout black paper heart to another outstretched light-skinned hand on the left.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Content notes: discussion of conversion therapy/practices, murder/transphobic hate crimes, suicide, parental transphobia, and insensitivity regarding detransition. Some links include misgendering of trans youth or references to incest and childhood sexual abuse.

Being a trans researcher of anti-trans mobilization is a trippy experience. It’s one thing to get glimpses of a person’s or group’s views through random tweets, but going to their events for a deep dive is a whole other level. You’re immersed in a sea of disdain for people like you, or your future generations, only for you get slammed with premonitions as they drop hints about (or even outright announce) their plans for our social eradication. It’s even worse when you know what’s going to come next, even if they’re not quite forthcoming about it, only to be proven right just days later. It’s emotionally and physically draining work, with a degree of impact that I feel like all of us trying to understand anti-trans organizing should approach with both respect and gentleness.

Let me give you an example using my experience at Genspect’s ROGD conference last November. Unlike my other work this won’t be a thorough analysis of the event itself or what threats it poses. I’m building up to that, learning from the aforementioned lesson of being gentle with myself. But right now, I need to work through the emotional impact it has, and hopefully this will help others work through their own to appreciate that it’s okay to care for ourselves too. And, crucially, as TGNC people doing or consuming this kind of work, we must normalize collective care to keep all of us going in this horror show. Because by G-d, some of us need to be in this for the long haul, so we’d better get ready together because shit ain’t gonna stop anytime soon.

The Big Day Where I Scramble My Brain

The afternoon of November 20th, 2021, Genspect held their first virtual conference on “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”, or ROGD. For those unfamiliar, Genspect is a “parent advocacy organization” with a particular obsession with trans youth and young adults and considerable overlap with conversion therapy groups that focus on both queer and trans people. It’s also a group led or advised by people — licensed professionals, mind — that have personally fucked with my boundaries over the years as part of building up their careers. Stella O’Malley, the organizer of the event and leader of Genspect, had actually taken one of the resources I made for trans and detrans people to understand their dysphoria triggers for her support groups’ resources without my consent. Attempts to ask her about it were met with silence, and eventually I had to take it offline so it wouldn’t be used to harm trans youth. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, unfortunately. It’s a pretty gross thing, when transphobic clinicians latch onto and misuse the writings or resources developed by trans and detrans people and use them for their own professional advancement. It really flies in the face of their claims about the importance of compassionate care for questioning youth and detransitioners. This conference was just a concentrated version of that experience, which originally stretched over years, crammed into a 3-hour speed run. In some ways, I’m glad the event was on a Saturday because man, can you imagine immersing yourself in that after work? Eesh.

The fact that the conference fell on Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) did not escape me. This is a day when trans people honor our lost, trans people who have been murdered and whom are by far predominantly trans women and transfeminine people of color. Nor did this day seem to escape the organizers. Angus Fox, the facilitator, made sure to open the conference with a message about TDoR, perhaps in some bizarre attempt to appear sensitive to the heaviness of that day. That supposed “sensitivity” was quickly betrayed when the message was followed up with him lamenting about the “kids who are lost and lonely” thanks to getting ~swept up~ by ROGD, some of whom “go on to take their own lives as well.”

No evidence was offered to support this claim. This is often the case and doesn’t match what I’ve seen. Having been inside various detransitioned circles for years, watching the transition from the “Old Guard” with their focus on radical feminism to the “New Guard” taking up the narrative of ROGD, I can’t say I’ve seen a spike in completed suicides. I have seen, and experienced first-hand, a spike in suicidal ideation but at least some of this is due to constant toxic exposure, pressure from “gender critical” activists and parents wanting you to save their kids, anti-trans clinicians who have more respect for their careers than for other people’s boundaries, and the inherent trauma of peer- and self-imposed conversion practices. There have been a handful of reports of completed suicides in detransitioned spaces over the years, and it’s always painful when that’s the case. It makes it clear that there is still some profound suffering happening where people are not getting what they need. Which is why Fox’s approach to such a delicate and impactful experience is so insensitive, one seemingly without evidentiary support but rather designed to spark emotional outrage in the conference’s primary audience: anti-trans parents.

Yeah, I had to leave the room to gather myself after that bit.

It took me over 45 minutes to ground before going back for more. By then, “Jude” was speaking. She spoke in length about her trans kid’s mental health and honestly, the whole thing unnerved me. It’s not clear that they consented to having their mental health struggles put on display for an audience of over 300 people, many of whom were practically salivating in the chat as they hung on “Jude”’s every word. How is this compassionate or ethical? No, seriously Stella — how on earth did you give the green light for this?

Then came David Bell, self-proclaimed Tavistock whistleblower. Bell is a bit of a weirdo. For one, he seems to be under the impression that False Memory Syndrome was a recognized disorder in the DSM that just “disappeared” instead of, I dunno, being a false phenomenon brought to fame by (CN: link contains references to incest, sexual abuse, murder) two parents and a bunch of snake-oil experts to undermine CSA survivors. Wow, that sounds familiar!

Secondly, he has some uh… theories as to what makes people trans. In the course of his presentation, Bell decided to share a rather bizarre chart that’s supposed to explain these theories. It’s… something, alright.

David Bell’s “theory” on how people come to identify as trans. Tag yourself; I’m “Body as machine”. Link to full image description.

After Bell’s rather nonsensical rants on how we’re all Transing The World, Genspect moved on to their big selling point: Lisa Littman. She was presenting on her 2018 ROGD paper, her most recent 2021 paper on detransition, and her upcoming paper (also on detransition). At least some of you are already familiar with what I think about said detransition paper, and others have covered the ROGD paper with far more skill than I, so I won’t bore you with rehashing that again.

What is interesting to me, though, is how she frames the criticisms towards her when in the comfort of a safe space. Basically, with a lot of scientific martyrdom. Also making no attempt to address the criticisms we’ve posed at Health Liberation Now! despite her being aware of them and her keynote here showing up a month later.

Lisa Littman opens up her presentation with, quite frankly, unprofessional dismissals as to why her work is criticized by other researchers and organizations. Hate to rain on your parade but you are not Oscar Wilde. Link to full image description.

After Littman’s presentation was the Q&A, which included all speakers. Questions were raised in the chat, some throughout the conference, others in the moment. The ones that stuck out to me the most was people asking what they could do. Some parents wanted to replicate what they’ve seen of Transgender Trend in the UK, much to the detriment of gender diverse youth. Other attendees were wondering about how clinicians can have an “off ramp” to “roll back” their opinions on trans health care, moving from a trans-affirming approach to one with more restrictions and gatekeeping. Presenters answered with two points. On one end, Stella O’Malley instructed attendees to join Genspect (of course she’d say that, she runs it!). David Bell, in response to how clinicians can “roll back”, insisted on targeting the schools instead. All of the presenters seemed in agreement that schools were a source of “indoctrination”. In their eyes, the only solution was to erase as much reference to trans people from the schools as possible, from positive representations of trans life to our very presence. Among their targets are the various GSAs and other clubs formed to support LGBTQ+ kids in attempts to remedy decades of isolation.

As soon as Bell said the words “those schools that have been captured […] that’s where most of the damage […] is being done”, my brain went into OH FUCK mode. I abandoned my desk, burst into the neighboring bedroom as I proclaimed to my husband something along the lines of “they’re going after school boards,” and grabbed a hefty bag of potato chips before heading back into the office. I knew something was going to go down soon and there was no way I was getting through it without some snacks.

Unfortunately, I was soon proven right. Two days later, a new lawsuit dropped in Waukeska county, Wisconsin. Headed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), the suit (CN: link contains misgendering) sought an injunction against Kettle Moraine school district on behalf of two parents after their kid changed his name and pronouns at school. Genspect later announced that they had met with lawyers from WILL about the case and provided “extensive affidavits from expert and Genspect advisor Dr. Steven Levine.” Yes, you read that right: Genspect is directly collaborating on ADF cases to cut off trans kids at school from supports. I only expect it to get worse from here.

This Shit Sucks. So Now What?

I’ll be real with you: I don’t remember much about the state I was in after the conference or the Sunday after. Which is probably a big clue as to what impact it had on me. Inability to remember in response to stress is a hallmark of dissociation, a common neurological coping mechanism that many trans people are accustomed to even if they may not call it that. What I do remember is feeling drained mentally and physically for days, months even, hence a formal report on the event not being up yet. I wish this wasn’t the case, especially given the bombshell that Genspect ended up dropping. I wish I had been able to sound the alarm, send a tip over to someone, mobilize against the effort, something other than just gathering all of this quietly.

What I have to remind myself though is that I couldn’t keep pushing myself beyond my limits. I needed time to digest what had just happened, chance to vent with peers about the experience, and self-care (which meant, you guessed it, a lot of potato chips. We buy them in bulk). Most importantly, I needed patience from myself and others about what I can realistically do after each experience. After all, this work is a volunteer project I do on top of everything else already going on. Throughout each week I have: a full-time job needed to keep our rent paid; caring for my numerous physical disabilities with doctors’ appointments galore and need for rest; trying to survive a pandemic as a disabled person; trying to survive white supremacy as a Jew in a country with escalating antisemitism; and trying to be a supportive spouse. That’s a lot on its own and requires its own recuperation. Yet oftentimes, instead of resting, I do this. Most of the trans researchers I know are in similar boats. A bunch of us do this for free in our spare time, on top of everything else, and if we receive any donations they go straight back into project expenses.

Researching anti-trans organizing is hard work. It’s no wonder there’s so few doing it, and many of us need months of healing to be ready for the next big day or report. Which is why we need people to work together to build resources of care between researchers or groups that are delving into this work. Not just amongst ourselves, either in our own individual groups or when networking with and supporting each other. We also need them in our communities. I’m not entirely sure what that would look like, other than some of the usual suggestions that go out: peer support, access to therapy, help with meeting our material needs like food or rent, ways to take a load off. Mallory Moore from Trans Safety Network hit on the idea of a Psychic Harms Protection Team to do psychological triage for when anti-trans hate goes viral after Lily Cade’s eliminationalist manifesto hit Twitter. If you haven’t seen her thread on it yet, or the replies, I really do recommend checking it out. There’s so much potential!

I can’t speak for others, but I know that I also need compassion from people learning from my reports who may otherwise not know how researchers are feeling behind the scenes. Please don’t pressure to produce, since that production comes at a huge emotional cost and involves us intentionally subjecting ourselves to traumatic experiences. Approach our DMs or inboxes with care; don’t just dump the latest transphobic news on people, as they may already be aware of it or carrying a lot given that said transphobic news never seems to end. There are exceptions to this, namely with things that may be of particular interest or potential for massive impact that otherwise could get lost in the shuffle, but just consider volume and respect boundaries. But also try to give support to each other in other ways when possible. That could be a listening ear, a care package or time to chill with each other (funny movie watching sessions! Online games! Many options!), or financial support so we can fulfill our material and emotional needs. Crucially, if you’re working at an organization or a publication and thus are in a position to do so, hire trans researchers who are otherwise doing the work for free and compensate us fairly for the labor. I know there’s investigative journalists that are trying to get in on the anti-trans coverage action, but there’s also plenty of trans writers who have both the skill and personal experience to cover things well.

And if you’re a peer that is also digging into things? It’s okay to need time. It’s okay to need space or to care for yourself. It’s okay to focus on things that make you genuinely happy instead of saturating yourself with hate all the time. And it’s okay to log off of Twitter, no longer engaging in the latest hate-read or quote-dunk. Sometimes doing this work is really just a form of self-harm and collective re-traumatization. You can’t heal the world without first healing yourself. And in a world that seems endless in its efforts to destroy us, sometimes the strongest act of resistance is surviving and being happy anyway.

Fuck what those assholes think of us. Relish in trans joy as we try to figure out this shit storm. Go be happy!

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That weirdo Lee. Jewish, trans androgynos cripple w/ vision loss. Former (de)trans organizer. Now just trying to survive in this world. S/he, him/her, his/hers.

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Lee Leveille

Lee Leveille

That weirdo Lee. Jewish, trans androgynos cripple w/ vision loss. Former (de)trans organizer. Now just trying to survive in this world. S/he, him/her, his/hers.

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