Since its formation in 1999, Write Around Portland - a volunteer-facilitated series of writing workshops for Portland, Oregonâ€™s underprivileged - has become an institution, publishing 25 anthologies, facilitating 300 workshops and serving more than 1,700 individuals. But, until this year, the organization had never held a workshop specifically for transgender participants. Usually, Write Around Portland (writearound.org) partners with community organizations or educational institutions, which fund workshops dedicated to serving their clients.
Trans guy Jay Elbrecht got involved with the program through his job at Portlandâ€™s HIV Day Center, where he connected clients with Write Around Portland workshops. This year, he helped launch the transgender group. Although no sponsoring organization was involved, Write Around Portland found a fiscal supporter and offered the program to the trans community at large.
Kimberley McNelis lives most of her life in a male persona, but attends workshops â€śin drag, for lack of a better term.â€ť Like most participants, she came hoping to reconnect with her creativity and interact with other trans folk.
Jamila Kisses arrived at the first meeting unprepared, only to discover Write Around Portland provided all of the supplies. â€śI didnâ€™t [even] have a pen to write with. And it was all here. I didnâ€™t have to do anything, except show up! â€ť Initially, her writing focused on her trans identity, Kisses says, but eventually, â€śthe whole trans thing just kind of fell away.â€ť
Trans woman Julie Anderton appreciated listening to the other writers â€śand seeing what I could not see with their eyes,â€ť while Elbrecht says, â€śItâ€™s just been really nice to be in a room full of sisters again.â€ť After he transitioned, Elbrecht, contends, â€śI lost my community. I was a lesbian activist for 25 years. I did some pretty powerful stuff in those days.â€ť
His activism began in the mid-1980s with ACT UP and led to facilitating AIDS support groups, organizing LGBT student associations and marching on Washington DC for HIV/AIDS funding. Today heâ€™s on the staff of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregonâ€™s HIV Day Center, where he was recently awarded a National Association of Social Workers â€śPaul Starr Memorial Awardâ€ť for special contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Elbrechtâ€™s experience has made him a cynic; â€śI donâ€™t think that the T should be with the G and L. Weâ€™re the ugly stepchildren. We donâ€™t belong with the gay guys, we donâ€™t belong with the lesbians.â€ť
â€śThereâ€™s no community amongst trans people,â€ť contends Anderton. â€śItâ€™s really a misnomer, a misappropriation of the word community. I have trans friends, and we do share a lot, butâ€¦thereâ€™s no [common] goal, thereâ€™s no unifying thing.â€ť
McNelis agrees, suggesting, â€śPart of the issue with the trans community, especially in the crossdresser community, is that a lot of people go stealth.â€ť
Sharing common experiences through the writing workshops, sparked personal insight and inspired the writers to employ their new skills in new arenas.
â€śI think that sexual identity and gender are often assumed to be the same thing,â€ť Kisses says, arguing trans people, â€śknow better because weâ€™ve experienced it. And that allows us to unsnap things or see how things can relate in different ways.â€ť
Being outside of the box - when it comes to gender - McNelis suggests, â€śforces our perspective outside of our literal world. I donâ€™t know if my storyâ€™s unique, but I think that the outside world could do a little more to learn about gender. Maybe somedayâ€¦Iâ€™ll end up [writing a book].â€ť
Elbrecht says his experience with the workshop inspired him to establish a new political action group, TransAction, returning to his activist roots.
Pleased with the success of the transgender workshop, Write Around Portlandâ€™s organizers are recruiting participants for a second, which starts June 11th - and theyâ€™re seeking underwriters to offset associated costs.
Tune in to Portlandâ€™s KBOO radio (listen online at kboo.fm) May 27 at 6 pm, when the trans writers will be special guests, reading their pieces from the Write Around Portland anthology, A Rare and Necessary Time.
For more information contact Write Around Portland at 503.796.9224. Trans author Jacob Anderson-Minshall co-hosts Portlandâ€™s queer reading series, QLiterati!, which premiers June11th at the Q Center. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.