Mazzoni Center’s annual Trans Wellness Conference broke its attendance record with more than 9,500 guests in its 17th year, making it the largest transgender-focused conference in the country.
“This was my first time being a part of the conference and seeing what we’re able to provide to the community,” said Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino, Mazzoni Center’s executive director.
Sciarrino, dressed in a light blue, pink and white shirt she said she wore because of its resemblance to the transgender-Pride flag, greeted guests as she stood in the middle of the conference Aug. 3 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“So many people are walking up to us, thanking us for providing a space where they can feel seen, especially with an administration that’s doing all it can to tear down the community,” she said.
The three-day conference hosted close to 250 workshops in all of the Convention Center’s 82 meeting rooms. Vendors, community groups, churches, universities and ally organizations set up tables that wrapped around two-thirds of the center’s Grand Hall. Attendees stopped to pose for photos in front of the trans-Pride flag backdrop.
K’Omari Lamar drove more than 13 hours from Birmingham, Ala., with his friend to attend the conference for the first time. It was also his first experience being around so many fellow transgender people.
“In Alabama, there’s nothing like this going on. I only know one other trans man,” Lamar said. “It’s eye-opening and overwhelming to be around so many people who look like me and understand my experiences. Nothing compares to this moment.”
Zayne Silva, one of the conference’s presenters, led his first workshop, “Trans Love and Spirituality,” with Rosalynne Montoya, a friend he’s known online for years but never met face to face until this year’s conference.
“I was nervous to lead my first workshop at the conference. I thought that only five people would show up and to my surprise, so many people came and participated,” Silva said.
More than 100 people filled the room where Silva and Montoya spoke about their experiences with religion and their trans identities. Participants eagerly chimed in with their experiences while sharing tips on how they practice self-love and acceptance.
“I came out as a trans guy who would never physically transition because of God,” Silva said. “I felt like it showed that I hated my body that was made in God’s image. Two years ago, I came to grips with physically transitioning as an act of love. I went from being very suicidal to very grateful,” he said. “This conference is a reminder that we are here for each other. This allows us to be in a space where we would’ve never met but we can share our deepest, most intimate fears and feelings.”
Silva created TransAlike, an online spiritual-counseling service for trans youth. He also hosts speaking events at schools and churches where he educates spiritual leaders on how to treat LGBT church members — specifically trans members.
Larry Benjamin, Mazzoni Center’s communications director, said he was reminded of the importance of the conference while he spoke with many of the first-time attendees.
“I talked to many people who were at the conference for the first time, and they spoke of what it meant to be in a place with people who looked like them and who understood them,” he said.
“People want to be visible,” Benjamin added. “They want to be able to share their stories and, for us, it opens up people’s hearts and minds who aren’t a part of the community.”
LORELEI ERISIS, "ASK A TRANS WOMAN" COLUMNIST FOR RAINBOW TIMES. Photo: Scott A. Drake