Published: March 26, 2024

Presenter at TRANSforming Gender Conference“We are the beacons of queer joy,” sang attendees as they walked, danced and clapped around the Koelbel building at CU Boulder in a powerful display of unity and resilience.  

These words, led by Dr. Amber Johnson of St. Louis University, encapsulated the spirit of this year’s TRANSforming Gender Conference. For nearly 20 years, the conference has served as a space for fostering community, amplifying voices and advancing the conversations around trans rights.  

The conference, hosted by CU Boulder’s Center for Inclusion and Social Change from March 16-17, offered various opportunities for students, faculty, staff and Boulder community members to explore gender identity, expression and activism. With the theme of breaking chains and forging community, participants gained the tools and inspiration needed to make positive change in their own communities. 

Connecting through personal stories 

Throughout the two-day conference, attendees had the opportunity to hear from a range of speakers and advocates who shared their personal stories. This included keynote speaker Teddy Syrette, or Yellow Star Woman, who is a public speaker, event organizer, community developer, artist and drag queen. 

Teddy spoke about growing up on the Rankin Reserve of Bat-che-wana First Nation of the Anishnabek, and how they got involved in LGBTQIA+ activism in Toronto, Canada. Teddy told the group about their family’s history, from their aunt who has not been seen since she was taken to a residential school to Teddy’s experience volunteering at residential school gatherings—where survivors of those schools return to connect, heal through cultural practices and share their stories. 

Some of those stories included the impact of colonization on TwoSpirit people, which forced many of those individuals to hide who they were. TwoSpirit is a term that some Indigenous people use to identify as a person having both a masculine and a feminine spirit.  

“We have men's elders, and we have women's elders,” said Teddy. “How come we can't find many TwoSpirit elders? A lot of times it's because they're not here. Sometimes they didn't make it past residential school. Sometimes they didn't make it past the HIV crisis. Sometimes they didn't make it past gender-based violence. Sometimes they're still in the closet and they can't come out because it's unsafe for them to do so." 

Teddy explained that sharing the stories of TwoSpirit people and what they have gone through is critical for people today to understand their experiences and work towards change. Teddy emphasized that each person in the room listening to their presentation also had a meaningful story to tell. 

“Your story is important,” said Teddy. “Your voice is important, and we all have a purpose whether you know what that purpose is or not.” 

Additional keynote speakers were Representative Zooey Zephyr, who is the first trans woman to hold public office in the state of Montana, and Hayden Kristal, a Colorado-based Deaf queer activist and stand-up comedian. 

Sharing experiences and learning together 

From panel discussions on healthcare access and legal rights to interactive workshops for self-care and empowerment, participants could address the challenges transgender people face and celebrate their diverse identities during the conference.  

One session titled “Intersex Variations: Understanding the Biology of Gender” focused on process of gender development and the fluidity of biological sex. Led by Fawn O’Breitzman, a human sexuality and psychology professor, the open discussion helped attendees better understand human biology and how to engage in thoughtful conversations around gender diversity. 

In another session, “Developing Colorado’s First K-12 Educational Equity Policy with Clear Gender Guidelines,” education activist Dawn Kirk guided attendees through the development of the first educational equity policy in Colorado. The policy works to ensure safety, healthy development and a supportive work environment for when a student or staff member transitions. 

By providing a platform for education, empowerment and advocacy, the TRANSforming Gender Conference continued to advance the ongoing work for equality and acceptance for all gender identities. Spaces like this conference help create an environment and culture where people in the community, including fellow Buffs, can live authentically and thrive in their identities.