Penn event cancelled amid community concerns

Penn event cancelled amid community concerns

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The opening event for an online archive about the local transgender community has been postponed after trans women and allies expressed concerns about the community's participation in the project.

Slought Foundation and Penn Social Policy & Practice planned to officially open "An Anthology of Existences" with a reception and discussion April 28 at Slought, but cancelled the program the night before after a flurry of backlash on the event's Facebook page, with critics questioning the level of direct involvement of transgender women of color, the focus of the program.

"Anthology" was created by Penn graduate students in the "LGBTQ Communities and Social Policy" course, with the support of professors Allan Irving and Aaron Levy. The online archive, funded by Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, centers on Nizah Morris, Stacey Blahnik and Keisha Jenkins — three local transgender women of color who lost their lives to violence. According to the project description, the archive "seeks to disseminate information about their lives and the profound vulnerability of their experiences, and to call attention more generally to social violence directed at the intersection of race, class and gender."

A Facebook event description for the opening stated that speakers would include Penn's Heather Love and director of the city's Office of LGBT Affairs Nellie Fitzpatrick, whom commenters noted are white cisgender women. PGN reporter Timothy Cwiek was scheduled to speak about his 14-year coverage of Morris' homicide. PGN also donated legal materials relating to the case, which are public record, to archive organizers.

Fitzpatrick told PGN Thursday that she did not give organizers permission to use her name in promotional materials and was under the impression she was attending to provide information about the Office of LGBT Affairs.

"I didn’t give them permission, didn't approve anything, didn't agree to engage in conversation or a panel," Fitzpatrick said. "Had this been presented to me that there was going to be some sort of discussion on trans women and the barriers trans women face I would have said, 'Whoa, time out. Here's all the people you should be having at this conversation' and working hard to make those connections."

In a Facebook posting, organizers noted that the participating students incorporated interviews from family and friends of the victims into the project. Those individuals were invited to the event, they added.

Deja Lynn Alvarez, director of Divine Light LGBTQ Wellness Center, said she was informed of the event but not asked to speak.

"I was asked to participate in it to the level that I knew Nizah and we were sisters, and Stacey being my niece," she said, noting she decided not to attend. 

Fitzpatrick commented on social media that she believed organizers were well-intentioned but that community members should have been more actively engaged in the project and planning for the opening event.

"At a minimum, trans folks have for so long been denied control over their own narratives, and although I am confident after speaking with them that this was in no way the organizers' intent, it's clear and undeniable that was the effect," she wrote. "This is unacceptable."

A cancellation message on the project's website posted late Wednesday night read in part: "We are sensitive to how trans voices, particularly those of color, are often erased, ignored and appropriated. While we thought we had made a respectable effort to engage and include trans voices, we recognize that considerable efforts must be taken to do better and apologize for any pain this may have caused."

"Nobody else should be telling our story," Alvarez said. "If you want to give us the space to do that and the resource to do that, invite us to actually do it."

Alvarez added that she believes the situation could be a teachable moment, as project organizers have been open to addressing the issues involved.

"It's easy to get angry at things if you don’t take the time to talk to the people planning it," she said. "Sometimes we get caught up as activists and can get very angry at things very quickly. Their heart was in the right place." 


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