Typically, right in the height of summer, Philadelphia becomes home to the largest, free trans-specific conference in the world. Known as the Trans Wellness Conference, the three-day event is a program from the Mazzoni Center—a local organization dedicated to providing quality comprehensive health and wellness services to individuals who need it in an LGBTQ-focused environment—but unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this year has had to be postponed.
The Trans Wellness Conference was started two decades ago in 2000 by Charlene Arcila, when she decided that resources and support were scarce “for people who were most marginalized in the communities.” According to the website, to meet that need, she established the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, which began as a one-day event providing professionals training on how to become competent health care providers for transgender patients. Arcila then remained involved with the conference for many years after it became a program of the Mazzoni Center in 2006 by serving as Planning Committee Co-Chair and People of Color Working Group Lead.
Fast-forward to present-day, and the conference is still beloved, but has now also become a landmark event for many in the community, and something that people plan around just to attend. Being the largest conference in the world for transgender, gender-nonconforming, non-binary and intersex people with free general admission, it’s easy to see why people are so passionate about attending, and it’s also easy to see just how hard that decision was to postpone.
“It was really difficult,” says Larry Benjamin, Director of Communications/Interim Director of Development & Marketing for the Mazzoni Center. “This conference, there is nothing to this scale like it in the world. People save up every year and plan on it. When the conference is coming up, you see people on social media talking back and forth and making plans to meet up and things like that. So it’s not just about the information we give, it’s about building that community and creating a space that’s safe.”
That safe space has served as a beacon of hope for many who attended the conference. Benjamin knows first-hand just how impactful that sentiment is.
“The other year we had someone come in who was Trans and they came to the desk after they registered and asked if they could change clothes to the gender they were comfortable with,” adds Benjamin. “We said absolutely, there are bathrooms everywhere and you can go and change. They said it was the first time that they had been in a public space dressed as their gender. Something like that where somebody can’t go out and dress in the way they’re comfortable their entire life and they’re there for three days out of the year—that’s really powerful.”
The people from the Trans community and those interested in learning more are always at the forefront of the Mazzoni Center’s mind. Providing a safe space for trans people, allies, families and providers is a passion project for the organization, and plenty of hard work goes into planning each year. In fact, it typically takes about 12 months to plan with 30,000 hours of work going into it from volunteers and staff.
“There are hundreds of people involved in the conference,” explains Benjamin. “There are hundreds of presenters, review committees that review the workshops and approve them, there’s our scheduling committee, the logistic team, our sponsors who make the conference possible because they’re giving us money to put it on. It’s just a lot, the conference takes a year, literally, to plan. Usually, the conference is at the end of July, we do a debrief in August, and in September we hit the ground running and start planning for the next year. So we were already fairly down the road when COVID hit, we realized it was too big of a risk to the community, our sponsors and all the volunteers.”
The Mazzoni Center however is still planning on doing a one-day virtual event in August, that event date is still to be determined. The organization wanted a way for people to celebrate the typical three-day conference.
“Support from the community has been wonderful, people have written and said ‘Im really disappointed, but we understand and rest assured we think you made the right decision.’ So that just made it easier in a way,” says Benjamin.
The Mazzoni Center does typically call for volunteers, but this year to keep everyone safe, that is not going to be the case (although there is still next year and the virtual event.) However, if Philadelphians want to get involved and help support the conference financially, they can do so by heading to Mazzonicenter.org, and clicking on the Trans Wellness conference. That will give them outlying information and updated ways they can help.
In the meantime, the Mazzoni Center is still doing everything they can when it comes to helping to provide health and wellness services to the Trans community and beyond. Recently, they started a new program to deliver HIV testing to those who need it.
According to a release, the program “MTU by Mazzoni Center” was created in response to the continuing closure of the Washington West Project which remains closed during the pandemic in accordance with Philadelphia Health Department regulations. With the suspension of in-person testing at facilities such as Mazzoni Center’s Washington West Project, the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office (ACCO), which is a part of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, started a program that delivers free at-home HIV test kits in Philadelphia.
“We know that there’s a need for this testing particularly with at-risk populations, so by being able to go out and give them the testing kits, we’re really grateful to ACCO for creating that at-home test and giving it to us for free so we can give it to the community for free,” says Benjamin.
With the recent street closure and curfews, the Mazzoni Center had to halt the mobile testing, but they do plan on keeping the testing going once it’s doable again and in-person testing is allowed after social distancing regulations ease.
To learn more information about the Mazzoni Center and the Trans Wellness Conference, visit mazzonicenter.org