Philadelphia is the proud host of the Trans Wellness Conference. Started in 2000 by Charlene Arcila, the event has rapidly grown to become the largest free trans-specific conference in the world featuring workshops and events, keynote speakers, film screenings, community building, networking opportunities and more.
A three-day effort, it takes a lot of people and power to pull off an event of this size. We spoke this week to one of the many volunteers that make it happen — chief sponsor Mazzoni Center’s Community Engagement Coordinator Tatyana Woodard.
PGN: Give me the 4-1-1 on who you are.
TW: I’m a Philadelphia native. I’m from a small family — well my immediate family is small, a half brother and a half sister, but I have a lot of extended family on my mother’s side. I don’t really speak with my father’s side of the family. On my mother’s side, I’m one of 31 grandchildren.
PGN: Wow, I thought I had a lot of cousins at 22! Where in the city did you grow up?
TW: I grew up in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia, and then, when I was around 12, we moved to the Northeast section of the city. It was a very urban environment.
PGN: Any artistic endeavors?
TW: I was into dance, and I did some theater.
PGN: What was the first role you ever played?
TW: Oh, I think my first role was in the 5th grade. It was a play based off of a book, and I played The Professor. I think it was about some kind of crazy zoo with talking animals.
PGN: What’s a favorite holiday memory?
TW: I guess Christmas at our house. My mom always made it a big deal, [laughing] which is funny now, because she doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore.
PGN: For religious reasons?
TW: Yes, when I was in my teens, she became a Hebrew Israelite, which is kind of like a Seventh Day Adventist. The church we grew up with started to switch over their practices, and she followed. It was probably around my late teens and early 20s.
PGN: From the little I know about the Hebrew Israelites, they don’t seem particularly LGBT friendly.
TW: No, and our relationship was already pretty rocky. I left home at the age of 15. I spent some time with my grandmom, and then, when I was 16, I rented out a room with a girlfriend. So, yeah, it was rough in the beginning. I don’t think my mother understood what I was going through, especially in regard to transitioning. I think in most families unless there’s someone who has previously transitioned in the family, there are not a lot of resources for the families to pull from. That’s why I think the conference is so great. There are programs specifically for families of trans people throughout the weekend.
PGN: What was your coming out experience like?
TW: I came out as gay first, but shortly after I started to transition. I used to go to this underground club called, The Breakfast Club, which was part of the ballroom community. At our home, I would get dressed in the basement and sneak out the back door, and when I came home I would put my girl clothes in this trashcan that was out back. My mom would always find them and throw them out. It was probably difficult for her because right after I came out to her…well, I actually came out to my aunt first. My aunt never shared it with her until after I opened up to my mother. She told my mother, “They told me that they were this way, but it was between us.” You asked about a childhood memory — that was a big one, knowing that my aunt kept my secret. That it never left her meant a lot to me.
PGN: You had someone you could trust. Are you still in touch with her?
TW: Yes! And she’s very religious, but she never judged me or treated me differently.
PGN: What were some challenges you faced as a teenager on your own that might influence what you do now?
TW: I was just talking to someone about this not long ago. Being out on your own, young and trans, the first thing you’re taught is to go out and do sex work. It’s always been a means of survival for our community. So at the age of 16, that’s what I was doing to survive. I remember being so scared my first time. Going out on the stroll is what we call it. It had to be one of the most terrifying things that I ever had to do.
PGN: I’d imagine so.
TW: I remember thinking: If I can just get through this first one, I’ll be OK. I used to say to some of the girls, “How do y’all do this?” And they’d say, “Just get through your first time and you’ll be all right.”
PGN: That has to be terrifying, not just the work, but the fear of getting into someone’s car or going somewhere with a stranger and the danger of that.
TW: Yeah, it was very dangerous back then, and it’s extremely dangerous now.
PGN: Do you think it’s worse now or are we just a little more aware?
TW: In my opinion, I think it’s worse now from the stories I’m told by people who participate in some of my support groups. Even things like the fact that they’re getting paid so much less than when I was doing it makes it harder. I think it’s always been dangerous, but the rate of trans women being murdered seems bigger now. We’ve just seen too many tragedies in recent years. But who knows, it may be just that it’s reported more now or that in the past when someone was killed they were misgendered in the police reports. That might be a factor too. It’s a hard question to answer.
PGN: What put you on the path you’re on now?
TW: I’m 31 now, and as you get older you start to realize you want better for yourself. I went and got my GED when I was 22. I remember the turning point. I was still doing sex work, and I was in the middle of the act, and I completely broke down in tears. I said, I don’t want to do this anymore and made the decision to start doing things to get my life in a position so I wouldn’t have to do sex work anymore. I started to work in retail, which was great but also horrible. Am I all together now? No. Are there times when I think I may have to go back and do survival sex work? Yes. Even though I’m happy to be in a place now to help trans women get jobs and do well.
PGN: What was horrible about retail?
TW: When I started out, no one knew my gender identity, but after a while people caught on. One person asks and you feel you can trust them, and after a while everyone knows. I worked in the Airport at the Sunglass Hut, and outside of the coworker issues, I loved that job. I’m a very fashionable person, and it was fun. I was confident at what I did until someone asked me “Are you a guy?” After that, I noticed a shift in the way everyone treated me. We all had to go through security and TSA would crack jokes and my coworkers would whisper. It got to the point that I had enough and one day I just threw the keys down in front of the manager and walked out. I’d been doing some volunteering at Mazzoni, and I then got a position as an outreach worker. From there I did the training to become an HIV tester, and now I’m the Community Engagement Coordinator here, and I run the OurWay program. Our program is unique in that we get two interns from the community each year and train them in nonprofit work and professional development. We teach people how to lead groups.
PGN: Tell me a little more about the program.
TW: It’s a trans wellness project. Our job is to engage the community so that they will come in to use the many services Mazzoni has to offer. We host a weekly drop-in, and we’ll be doing one at the conference too. We have a clothing closet with gender-affirming clothes, which we’ll also be taking to the convention and different programs. There’s often food here. We do art therapy. Today we’re working on transferable skills. We’ll talk about current events and what’s going on in social media. Last week, we watched an episode of “Pose” and had a discussion afterward; we do check-ins to see how everyone’s doing. Recently we had a Healthy Relationships workshop. There’s a lot going on.
PGN: Though it’s part of Mazzoni, I understand the program is very grassroots.
TW: Yes, at the conference last year, we started our first survey to see what services people wanted. I felt it was important to get community feedback because too many programs are built around what others think the community needs instead of what the community actually wants. To do that, we went out into the streets, out on the stroll, to talk to the people most impacted by what we were doing. It’s a safe space for everyone. I wish I’d had it when I was younger. A place to find other people like you, where you can talk without judgment.
PGN: I understand that tomorrow you’re running a program called PrEP Talk.
TW: Yes! I’ll be participating in a program being run by Philadelphia Fight, and it’s going to be a casual barbecue where you can learn all about PrEP. We wanted to create and environment where you can enjoy yourself and learn at the same time.
PGN: What’s your role in the Trans Wellness Conference?
TW: I am part of the Interdisciplinary Review Committee, and we were charged with the task of going through hundreds of workshop proposals to pick which ones we were going to invite. I’ve been involved for quite a while; one year I even threw a ball. It was tough making the choices, there are going to be three days of amazing programing with workshops on everything from bullying to surgery, health care, mental health care, support for partners, legal issues, yoga, meditation, there’s an opportunity to create a mural, religion will be a topic, disability, workshops specifically for people of color, a workshop on having kids, and so much more. There are keynote speakers and a dance party at Tabu. I’m going to be presenting a workshop too, and I understand that you are going to be presenting a short-film program from The Women’s Film Festival.
PGN: I am, I’m excited to be a part of it. What are you most looking forward to?
TW: I’m excited about the workshops for parents because there wasn’t a lot of support for my mother. I also love seeing the young trans kids running around. They’re so cute! And so brave! It’s like a family reunion; you get to see your sisters and brothers in the struggle. You can just feel the love; the atmosphere is beautiful and empowering.
PGN: Did your mom ever come around?
TW: Yes, my mom is my best friend. It was a difficult journey, but I thank God for it. She’s now one of my biggest supporters. She’s become everybody’s mom at the balls. She calls all my house kids her grandchildren.
PGN: What turned her around?
TW: She was talking to another one of my aunts and was crying and distraught about me and my aunt said, “If you’re this upset about everything, imagine what your child is going through. And she’s doing it alone without her mother.” And that got through to her. I was about 20 at the time. I remember before that, when I was in my teens, I was arrested for prostitution and my mother came to the hearing. She’d never seen me in women’s clothing, as Tatyana, and the look of disgust and hurt on her face pierced right through me. But after the conversation with my aunt, the next time I saw her she embraced me and said, “Oh my God, you’re beautiful. You look just like me!” It was a complete 360, and we’ve been good ever since. It was all I needed; the world was mine after that. I could do anything because I had the support of my mother.
PGN: And you were elected to be a grand marshal of this year’s Pride Parade!
TW: It was an awesome experience. Amber Hikes nominated me. I was so honored that someone so wonderful nominated me. Riding on a float, absorbing all the energy — at one point I looked out and saw a baby in pride colors and it was just…oh, it was something I’ll cherish for a lifetime.
PGN: Give me a tip for the community?
TW: If you’re traveling and have to go through security, you can call TSAcares three days in advance and they will escort you through. Often, people have difficulty with these sorts of things, especially if our gender marker doesn’t match our legal name on the ID. This can help ease some of that anxiety.
PGN: What are some other things that we might not think of that are concerns for the community?
TW: Sometimes it’s things that may seem little to others such as access to gender-affirming clothing, accessories and wigs, access to hygiene. Those are some of the things that help me feel like my best self. There are days when I feel anxious because I don’t look or feel as feminine as I would like; those are days when I might not want to get out of bed. It can be a struggle for me and many of the other girls too I’m sure.
PGN: OK. Random question: What celeb would you want to be for a day?
TW: Rihanna! I love her; she plays by her own rules, and she wears the best outfits.
PGN: Any hobbies?
TW: I’m involved in ballroom. I’m the East Coast mother of the House of Escada, and I walk “Best Dressed” in the competitions. It gives me an excuse to wear beautiful gowns.
PGN: Your name is Tatyana, give me a word to describe you that starts with the letter T.