PrideIndex spoke with Joe LeBlanc about the BUTCH Voices Conference 2011
PRIDEINDEX: In two sentences describe the BUTCH Voices Conference to a newcomer. What should they expect to see?
JOE: An attendee should expect to see a broad range of people from a variety of identities that fall under this masculine of center (MOC) umbrella focused on building community, discussing ways that we can be better advocates for ourselves and others in mental and physical health, and how we can work together to combat social and economic justice issues. Newcomers will have the opportunity to share space and have conversations about issues that we face as a sub community of the greater LGBTQ communities.
PRIDEINDEX: Why do you believe it’s important to have an event for the “well-being of all women, female-bodied, and trans-identified individuals who are masculine of center?”
JOE: BUTCH Voices conferences are designed for an underrepresented demographic within the larger LGBTQ community. Our audience includes folks who identify as masculine of center and our allies. As masculine of center individuals, we experience commonalities in our day-to-day lives. Being able to connect with others who are like us, while at the same time are different than us in other ways, allows us to support each other and continue to learn from one another. We need to share our stories with each other, and realize that we don’t have to go through any of this alone.
PRIDEINDEX: I understand that your organization hosts regional conferences in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Portland. What was your total number of conference attendees last year? How do these events differ by location?
JOE: Over the course of our four regional conferences we were fortunate to have close to a thousand people come out and support our events. Each regional conference covered the three initiatives that are at the core of BUTCH Voices as an organization: community building, mental/physical health, and social /economic justice. The regional conferences differed by having their own flavor made up of the folks who participated in the workshops and performances, as well as the attendees. Some of the identities and issues were specific to the surrounding region, where as some issues translate across the country and world-wide.
PRIDEINDEX: Why do you have events in multiple cities across the country rather than a single mega convention?
JOE: We alternate our events each year to enable more people to have access to the conference space. Many folks are unable to travel cross country for financial and other reasons. We believe that our events should be as accessible as possible to everyone. As an organization, BUTCH Voices is bringing together people who are often left out of the larger conversations – working class folks, people of color, individuals from rural places – and connecting them to the national movement. By alternating our events each year, this is one way that we can try to do what we can to allow folks to be able to attend these spaces.
Last year we held four regional conferences, and this year we are heading back to Oakland, CA for our second national conference this August 18-22. By having regional events one year, and our national in the next we’re hoping to continue to increase our outreach and connect with folks who are wanting to get involved either on a national level, or something a little closer to home.
PRIDEINDEX: What should your veteran attendees expect to see at the conference this year?
JOE: Our veteran attendees should expect to see folks who they connected with at our other events, and be prepared for the next level. And each person has to be prepared for what that next level is within themselves. Is it mentoring someone? Is it connecting with folks who are interested in combating oppressions, or discussing best practices for survival? While the conference is about bringing folks together to build community – it’s also the time to do something collectively with the power we bring to BUTCH Voices. They should expect to be part of a larger movement. They should expect to be challenged, and be willing to be a little vulnerable with each other. People have often said that the time spent at BUTCH Voices conferences has changed their life.
PRIDEINDEX: Tell us a little about yourself, and your professional background.
JOE: I’m a community organizer and social justice activist involved with a few LGBTQ non-profit organizations in Portland, Oregon where I live. On top of my work as Resource Development Chair and Conference Organizer for BUTCH Voices, I am currently a volunteer with Basic Rights Oregon in their Trans Justice Working Group. I’m also the Co-Director of Hollaback PDX, and the Coordinator for Q Patrol PDX, both organizations increasing safety awareness and educating about hate violence. My background in LGBTQ activism has evolved over the years from on-line community forums to being a member of Speakers Bureau panels educating folks on LGBTQ issues and coming out, to being fortunate to continue this work on a national level with BUTCH Voices.
PRIDEINDEX: How do you identify yourself as butch or a stud?
JOE: I identify as a genderqueer butch. I also identify as transgender and as a dyke. My sex is female, and I prefer male pronouns. I live life in the grey middle of the black and white binary.
PRIDEINDEX: What were some of the circumstances that influenced your decision to start the BUTCH Voices Conference?
JOE: As a butch I didn’t have solid relationships with other butches or studs. I often felt that I was going through whatever I was experiencing all on my own, and that butches were not supposed to talk about our issues with each other. I didn’t have other masculine of center folks to connect with where I was living. And so often when talking about my identity, the stereotypes that people had about butches left me feeling as I could not identify as I did without buying into them. I had gone to other gender based and LGBTQ conferences, and experienced and even greater disconnect over race and age – as most of those conferences were attended by white people of only a limited age range. With creating BUTCH Voices, I wanted to build an organization of others who were from a variety of backgrounds and identities and find our common ground, while at the same time celebrate our diversity.
PRIDEINDEX: How does the BUTCH Voices Conference differ from a female oriented gay pride or a circuit party?
JOE: BUTCH Voices differs in that we are specifically focused on masculine of center individuals and our allies. We do have social events and networking events built into our conferences, but we are primarily about community building, resource connection and education. Whether it’s educating ourselves or others on issues we face everyday just for existing and embodying masculinity in a world that does not always celebrate masculinity outside of being male.
PRIDEINDEX: What advice would you offer to a young girl considering coming out to her parents or the world for that matter?
JOE: I think that this young girl should consider if coming out is something that she can do safely, be it to her parents or to the world at large. There are still many places in the US, as well as worldwide, where being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer is still not accepted, and a reason why people are bullied and experience violence. I would advise anyone considering coming out to seek support from wherever possible – PFLAG, a gay-straight alliance, or even in an on-line setting. While we have progressed in some ways as a community, we still have a lot of work to do to change the culture in which we live.
PRIDEINDEX: Would you consider bringing your conference or something similar to Chicago or the Midwest?
JOE: We are definitely considering the Midwest for a regional conference in 2012. We have yet to establish a solid street team or connect with organizers in this area who are wanting to bring BUTCH Voices to the Midwest. We would love to hear from folks who are interested and can do the work to make this happen.
PRIDEINDEX: Describe your plans for expansion or growth?
JOE: As a young organization, in a short period of time we have managed to expand each year. We started out as a handful of activists who had not met in person in 2008 to hosting our first national conference in 2009. Last year we expanded outward to host four regional conferences in cities across the US. This year we are focused on increasing our growth in attendance, and specifically growing our base with youth, people of color, differently-abled folks, and rural individuals. In 2011, on top of hosting our second national conference, we are also working on our first area of programming outside of conferences. In the future we are looking to continue to build a sustainable movement with individuals and other organizations dedicated to addressing issues that the masculine of center community faces – such as health care, social/economic justice, and gender/racial justice.
PRIDEINDEX: Do you have a message for your returning conference goers?
JOE: Visit the BUTCH Voices website (www.butchvoices.com) to get the latest information about the conference and events leading up to the big event in August. Those who have experienced BUTCH Voices in the past will not want to miss out on where we are going as a movement next. Find us on facebook, twitter, jumo, and flickr.
We are SO excited to see all of you back in Oakland this coming August 18-22!