Training to be a TLC Counselor for the True Colors Conference this year introduced me to two things: this year’s theme and my new self.
I thought organizing a queer youth conference around the word “allies,” which generally referred to like-minded straight folks, couldn’t possibly be good for the self esteems of people who took this one day out of the year to really be themselves. However, I had nothing but admiration for the TLC concept; “tender loving care” counselors who were generally only a few years older than most attendees would wander the conference and ensure that people feeling overwhelmed or not included were brought back to the flock unharmed, or brought to help if the situation was serious.
The biggest queer youth conference in the nation can be pretty overwhelming, especially to a first-time attendee; the TLC program ensured that people who needed it got attention, but that licensed staff members were free to attend to the conference unless their expertise was required. We can’t discover every sad moment, but we can improve a ton of conference experiences.
I haven’t volunteered in this way for a couple years because I’d been what many might refer to as a hot mess. Counseling youth who might trigger my own issues seemed a bit hypocritical and self-sabotaging to me, not to mention unhelpful to them, so I stuck with things like registration and unloading trucks. This year, I was ready for it, and like other TLC’s I participated in a role-play of scenarios we were most afraid of so we wouldn’t panic if we came across the situation in real life. The list we’d compiled ranged from breakups and family issues to sexual abuse and self-injury, and I wondered how many people were role-playing counseling former versions of themselves. For me, TLC-ing meant that I’d come a long way from who I was when I first attended the conference, or even who I was as a volunteer a year or two ago. It meant that, although what I’ve been through helped to shape my identity, who I am and who I can become are more important than who I was.
As usual, the conference attendees were mindblowingly creative in their self expression. Several people wore animal ears and tails, character costumes, or outfits they made themselves; one shirt covered in marker read “sign me if you support gays” across the back. The “free hugs” signs were still popular, but many had been replaced by T-Shirts with the same slogan. No two hairstyles were the same; heads were covered by myriad haphazard ponytails, or mohawks, or styled shapes that required more hairspray or gel than I’ve used in two summers working an outdoor job. Naturally, many hairstyles had been converted into rainbows. In fact, rainbows covered everything that would hold color—sunglasses, shoes, gloves, bags, belts, beads, faces. The overall effect was breathtakingly beautiful and affirming.
Friday’s opening session hosted some big Connecticut names. State Comptroller Kevin Lembo was back, this year joined by Department of Public Health Deputy Commissioner Leonard Lee and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. Being on “bus duty,” I didn’t see him talk myself—it seems I always miss these things—but I was told by my friend backstage he spoke out against domestic violence, bullying, and the Defense of Marriage Act and celebrated the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Evidently he encouraged attendees to keep fighting the good fight, although not necessarily in those words, and assured them—and therefore the rest of us—that we would be able to keep changing things together. These speakers embraced the ‘ally’ theme gladly.
I DID see Saturday’s opening; Dale Guy Madison’s cheery video about the Supremes didn’t prepare us for his roller coaster performance exploring his own life experiences, but his dynamic retelling certainly kept us all engaged. After Madison told about his inpatient experiences, he emphatically urged us not to “ever let anybody call you crazy for being who you are because you are perfect. Perfect.” At that moment, I, with all my flaws and emotions and uncertainties, really did feel like the most perfect version of myself that I could be on that day. This didn’t change the state of the world or even my personal life one bit, but when the floor was opened to questions and the first comment was a shouted “I love you,” I realized that at the very least this was a space we could be safe in long enough to truly consider what a perfect world, a perfect self, would be. I realized then that being an ally had nothing to do with your orientation and everything to do with empowering others—one of the few things I HAD remained sure about during my own roller coaster ride of a life thus far.
The ally theme carried me throughout the day. During the first workshop session, I learned about a new initiative taken on by the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center; the GUPPE (genetics, urology, psychology, psychiatry, and endocrinology) group at the Center, dedicated to helping intersex patients with a variety of things, has revamped its mission statement to include providing holistic care to transgender youth following the newly updated Standards of Care for transgender patients. This is a fantastic project, making transitioning in all its forms much easier and more accessible for Connecticut youth; knowing we had allies like this, and hearing the professionals in the room say things like “oh that’s fascinating” or “oh now it makes sense” as the presenters explained levels of transitioning, made me proud to be a part of the community all over again.
Lunch was all about reconnecting with folks I hadn’t seen in too long—this IS the biggest queer gathering around, after all—and session two was my official volunteer shift, although I also ran a few errands (my favorite being fetching makeup for a drag workshop with a slightly baffled drag king) and even TLC’ed an attendee or two. I got to run “the games room” during session two, which meant providing some structure to some fifty youth who didn’t want to attend a workshop or had arrived to find theirs cancelled or full.
The official True Colors itinerary was a rousing hour of a calm game called “Would You Rather,” which lasted about fifteen minutes before we got bored and moved on to more active pursuits. We settled on a variation of “Never Have I Ever” that involved running to a new space in the circle every time a statement was made that applied to you. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little nervous about this, given the shocking information I’d learned in past renditions of the game, but the youth showed more restraint than my friends and maintained a PG-13 rating.
Our queerness was evident without sexual content, as most statements focused on things like hair dye and high heels. I was proud of these people I had just met; they were incredibly inclusive in their game play, helping strangers think of questions or offering to trade spots so the shyest among us weren’t caught in the awkward center role. They were accepting of every statement made, even the “weird” ones, and it wasn’t long before nearly everyone in the room had made a friend they didn’t know when they showed up. \
I spent the last session observing the drag makeover workshop, amused at how at home I felt in a hectic space full of flying fabric and transforming faces. I heard “find someone whose opinions you respect who would be a good mentor” and knew that the groundwork was being laid for a future performer and probable member of the Imperial Sovereign Court of All CT, where many of the performers volunteer their time and effort to raise money for charities including True Colors. I watched my friends slip further into fake accents as their drag personas come to life under their makeup brushes; I particularly enjoyed watching the resident drag king show someone to tie a tie and remembering a time (long ago by gay standards) before he wore ties. I noticed that the presenters ranged from people who had mentored me to people that I have mentored for. It’s funny how your methods of being an ally can change so dramatically while the people who ARE your allies might not change at all.
‘Ally’ was the theme of the workshop. Compliments flew through the room as people tried drag for the first time. Someone jokingly flirted with a just-created drag king before announcing “hey, I’m heteroFLEXIBLE,” which was met with laughs and supportive cheers. Another person told a made-over couple, “you look like a rapper with his model girlfriend,” which initiated a mildly hilarious promenade about the room. The attitude was affirming and encouraging, and the makeovers seemed to be all about expressing who you are rather than changing your body or fitting into a certain style. One queen-to-be got caught in a zipper and a nearby youth said, “I’m going to go help him with his dress—wait what pronouns do you want to use?” The fact that a person could respectfully and nonchalantly ask that question of a boy (he said male) in a dress gave me at least as much hope as my first workshop had.
The workshop, conference, and allies theme all came together in the annual drag show, this year featuring almost thirty (THIRTY!) amateur acts. Perhaps unknowingly, these youth gave us something back for our effort and makeup; a great show, to be sure, but also a dose of affirmation and encouragement of our efforts deeper than I would have thought possible. I couldn’t help but see beauty in every first-time performer I saw. It’s them, more than the volunteers and presenters and performers, more even than the wonderful people of True Colors who make up the backbone of this conference every year, that are the hope of our future. After watching them interact all weekend, I couldn’t help but think we might be in good hands.
When these amateur performers embraced drag, many for the first time, they embraced a new side of themselves, a new strength, and a new aspect of their own identities. They reminded me yet again that we are not married to who we were, or who we thought we wanted to be; our only commitment is to the future selves we can become, and the possible change those selves can craft. Being a real ally means first being one’s own best ally, and accepting flaws while working towards improvement. I realized that reaching back to someone who was in shoes I used to be in was about helping us BOTH move forward from where we were. Even as strangers, we were stronger together than apart.
And that’s what being an ally is really all about.