I recently attended THAT conference. This is the second time I attended and the first time I attended a large event since beginning my transition. The conference is tech focused with multiple sponsors that showcase their tech or try to recruit over the course of three days. The talks are usually tech focused but not necessarily by a sponsor. Each day after talks are done there are fun activities hosted by the conference or you can go find something outside the venue because the city is filled with tourist attractions.
The activities after all the sessions for a day were: game night (day 1) and water park party (day 2). I attended neither the first year I attended. My goal was to attend both this time. It was actually much easier to do because I am much more comfortable in myself now. Not that it's the only factor but the anxiety of meeting people has been a hurdle that has been reduced significantly in most cases. I say easier but as you will read below it was not easy for me.
I knew only two people at the conference previously. Every person I met on Day 1 used masculine pronouns. Nobody said anything or did anything disrespectful. They just used the incorrect pronouns.
I felt like I didn't belong, to any demographic. I just felt like an outsider. Shortly before dinner on the second day I stood in the hallway watching people pass and form little groups to talk. I felt isolated. I felt claustrophobic and was having early feelings of panic. I was close to just retreating and finding somewhere to cry, maybe even just going back to my hotel room and skipping dinner.
During game night one of the people I knew as an old colleague was playing at the same table. They addressed me with my pronouns and afterwards everyone else at the table (7 of us total) also used the correct pronouns. Since this person knew me and had enough knowledge (from social media) to have seen that I was transitioning I don't consider this the same as someone using my pronouns unprompted. Since the remaining people at the table were primed by this person and had been addressing me previously with the incorrect pronouns, I don't count them as picking up on it themselves. It was something that stood out though, that they switched immediately and didn't slip up again. Just because one person was there and set a precedent. I had thanked my acquaintance later in private and they say they didn't even realize that it happened. I did though and it affected me and got me thinking.
Then there was the water park party. Despite the media making it such a big deal nobody batted at eye when I went to the bathroom. Nobody said anything when I went to the women's locker room either. In the locker room I was uncomfortable and used a toilet stall to change into my swimming outfit. Also it was the first time I have been to a pool (and in the water) in at least 13 years. After the confidence boost of not being confronted by using the bathrooms and changing room I had no issue with going out in my swimsuit. Nobody ran away screaming and a couple even interacted with me and didn't run away screaming.
As I said on day 2 (before dinner and the water park) I was close to just breaking down. Instead I took as many deep breaths with my eyes closed as I could to try to calm down a little. I am sure I looked as ridiculous as I thought. I got calm enough to make a small effort and join a group, try to be social, and hopefully distract myself a bit. It just so happened that someone who had given a session that I enjoyed walked by and joined a group close to me. Their entry had left the circle slightly open and I filled the slot. I didn't really interact much but it was enough. Shortly before walking into the dinner hall I had met her again in a smaller group and she was still friendly and said something like "see you inside" before going to get in a line for food. I took that as an invitation and by that time had calmed down a bit. I still felt distressed but I was calmer. It just so happened that there was a space at her table and I filled it.
Her name is Hilary Stohs-Krause (twitter) by the way. She was also giving a presentation in the morning about women in tech. Sadly I missed most of it as I had to deal with the hotel and packing. There will be a video and based on what people had said I am very keen to watch it.
Why do I bring this story up and why is it under it's own section? At this dinner someone joined the table and asked what we do, who we are, general conversation that everyone was having the last couple days. Hilary took charge and introduced everyone, starting with me. She had an uncanny ability to remember everyone's details: name, work, location, whatever they had said. Each person in detail. The reason this was such a big deal was that when talking about me the words used. "SHE works here, HER name is...". For the first time [remember my conditions about the game night] someone had used my pronouns to address me. She did so very emphatically and confidently, I don't think anybody would have challenged her but they surely wouldn't have after that.. I experienced a lot of emotions from that and very strongly, I didn't cry there but I did when I got back to the hotel. Even now writing this brings back the feelings enough that I am fighting to hold back the tears.
Just having someone recognize me changed my entire experience from that point onward. Being accepted by as a woman from a woman was reassuring and something that I had feared nobody would do at all. There was a talk on impostor syndrome but I didn't go to it, that is what I felt though. I had a lot of respect for her already before this and it somehow grew. After that it was solidified that she wasn't just saying she was supportive but actually acted it. She practiced what she preached and it left me in admiration of her resolve.
There were a lot of unique experiences for me in those three days. One of the biggest takeaways for me was not tech related. It is that I want to learn why I felt like I didn't belong. Why did I feel like I couldn't related to anybody? Everyone was courteous yet I felt like it was just a front for most. Is that on me? Is that something that all women feel (especially in a field that is male dominated)? Is there anything I can do to help?
I feel like this sounds like whining but I don't mean it to be. I chose to pursue happiness and I knew it would be a tough journey. I didn't blame anybody because it was nobody's fault that I felt this way. At least I can't think of a single thing that anybody said or did that was untoward intentionally (or unintentionally). The constant dysphoria was particularly eye-opening. Dysphoria is usually in waves, when it's always present it is much worse and really was getting to me.
I intend to spend this year ruminating on these questions and issues. I don't know if I will go through with it but I am considering the possibility of getting enough experience and data that I can present and start a conversation. I can't say that I will have that kind of confidence but I definitely feel like I want to do something instead of be passive. It sounds flimsy because the idea is still in the early stages. I definitely want to keep myself open to it though.
 I reached out to make sure it was ok to name her.