On Being Seen
Earlier this month I attended Woodhull's Sexual Freedom Summit. It was an opportunity for me to gain skills for my clients and expand my knowledge of the sexual health field. Being relatively new to the field, I had only attended one other sexuality conference two years ago, CatalystCon West. I was able to attend Woodhull this year because I received a scholarship from Smitten Kitten, a progressive sex toy store in Minneapolis that covered my registration, hotel and transportation. As a solopreneur, I don't have a budget for progressional development, so I am overjoyed that their support allowed me to have one of the most amazing conference experiences thus far in my life.
This year, Woodhull had a strategic partnership with an organization called Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WoCSHN). From the first day of the Summit, WoCSHN set the tone that we were gonna talk about race. Not only that but we were gonna address race and how it intersects with gender, sexuality and the profession. It was mind-blowing. WoCSHN's keynote address on day two in which Trina, one of the founders of WoCSHN and two members discussed the importance of starting the organization and the work they've done thus far, was incredible. At the end of the address, all women of color in the audience were asked to stand and were applauded. I have received many accolades in my life, I feel that I am a very accomplished person, but I have never felt more proud or moved by this very simple but powerful gesture.
It has taken me a couple weeks to process all that I experienced at Woodhull and the meaning behind what I felt. A couple things came to mind though. For undergrad, I went to San Francisco State University and studied health education. The majority of my classmates were people of color like myself and yet, when I am in conference spaces, particularly those that are progressive and working to change the dialogue of sexual health, my people aren't there. I work for myself now, but I can tell you that there is often a racial hierarchy within sexual health organizations. The people at the top in administrative roles are mostly White and those on the ground and in the streets doing very hard work are people of color. When you work for a grant-funded nonprofit, professional development is hard to come by and opportunities to attende conferences like Woodhull do not usually trickle down to the folks at the bottom. So while I would recommend Woodhull to anyone in the field for its focus on inclusion, I know that for some there are many barriers to getting there. It is remarkable that because Woodhull chose this partnership with WoCSHN, the focus of scholarship recipients from the summit's sponsors like Smitten Kitten was on people of color and underrepresented groups. WoCSHN's mission is to create space for women of color in places where there was no space and I can say that they made space for us at Woodhull and it felt GREAT.
There's more! Members WoCSHN weren't the only ones putting race front and center. Workshops during the conference included Decolonizing Sex Positivity, The Adult Industry for People of Color and Different Shades of Kink. This experience was unlike any I have had in a professional setting. Not just because the topics included sex work and kink, but because there was a clear choice on behalf of the organizers to highlight the lives of people of color. The Summit was still predominantly White, but this meant that White people were attending workshops about the lives of people other than themselves (!). I heard shit got real a few times, and that there was a lot that folks had to reckon with. I think that's a fantastic place to start.
Each shared mealtime was peppered with conversations about White privilege and how to best support each other and our work. The sexual health field is not one that will thrive when it is divided. We are already marginalized enough as a group. It was thrilling to be able to talk about my experience as a woman of color in this field, to be seen, and to let people know that the reason I was there sitting at their table was because some folks in Minnesota believed I was a great person to support. It got people thinking.
I am currently listening to Truth Be Told, which is a radio show about race and the difficulties of navigating racially charged discussions. I am trying to carry on the momentum I received from the conference by inviting more of this dialogue in my life, by talking to friends about how moving it was for me to be acknowledged as a woman of color and by planning for my work to be more inclusive. I have reached out to WoCSHN about membership and hope to stay connected to the work they are doing to help us all shine.