B.C. on Gender: Alison Laing
The following article originally appeared in The Monarch: Canada's Transgender Reader Spring 1997 Issue # 45. The Monarch is the quarterly publication for the southern-Ontario transgender group, Xpressions.
At the Pillar and Post weekend this past April, I had the opportunity to meet Alison Laing, Executive Director of the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE). I was immediately drawn in by her charming, personable nature, and her enthusiasm for working with Xpressions on the upcoming IFGE convention (March 24th-29th, 1998). So when (former Xpressions chairlady) Pamela suggested that I try to arrange an interview with Alison, I jumped at the chance.
The IFGE, Alison informs me, is primarily a national, "desperately trying to be international," non-profit educational organization. Unlike Xpressions, they're not a support group or a social contact group; their primary function is education and advocacy.
"We publish Transgender Tapestry Magazine," Alison says, "operate a traveling, mail order and walk in book store, produce an annual convention, and participate as a cooperating organization in conjunction with other national and international organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and The Nation Youth Advocacy Coalition. We answer many phone calls a day providing referrals to the world wide network of support organizations and health care professional which we publish as part of our magazine. We have a professional liaison staff dealing with medical, therapeutic, legal and religious issues. We provide distribution of brochures of special events of the TG community and sponsor the Winslow Street Fund which gives out grants to support special community projects.
The IFGE team includes six full time employees: the executive director (Alison), a business manager, a book store manager, an administrator, a magazine editor and a layout person. In addition, there's numerous volunteers who handle tasks such as mail forwarding, packing orders, and the like.
"I had my first superficial contact with some TG clients at the Philadelphia Gender Identity Clinic in 1986," Alison tells me. "However, my first real meeting of TG folks occurred in October 1986 when I met Sheila Kirk at the Fantasia Fair 'registration' office in Provincetown, MA. The next nine days were the happiest days in my life. For the first time I was able to be me in a real life situation with others like me.
"First I tried to volunteer with The Outreach Institute and the then newly formed IFGE but to no avail. I heard about and then attended several meetings of the now defunct Chi chapter support group in New Jersey. I decided that there ought to be something better and closer to where I lived. So I decided I to try to do something on my on. I met JoAnn Roberts a few months later in January or February 1987 and we proceeded to organize Rennaisance.
"After helping to get Renaissance off the ground, I did find ways of working with Fantasia Fair and IFGE . Eventually I was asked to be on the Board of the Outreach Institute in 1991 and was later the Chair and then Director of Fantasia Fair (1994 & 1995.) I left the OIGS board this year.
"In 1988, I helped create the Congress of Representatives (to IFGE) which later became the Congress of Transgender Organization and was Chair of that from 1992 to 1993. In 1993 I had the pleasure of being coordinator of Renaissance's' hosting of the 1993 IFGE convention in Philadelphia. I became a member of the board of AEGIS in 1994 and have been asked to stay on for two more years.
"Of course my biggest undertaking in this community began when I accepted the role of Executive Director of IFGE in March 1995. This has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It has been an almost traumatic experience with major upheavals in my personal life and an almost overwhelming amount of work to be done with IFGE . The task has required major restructuring of IFGE from the ground up and the launching of a major public relations effort."
I'm curious about the IFGE restructuring; past issues of The Monarch have alluded to this, and when I ask for more details, Alison picks her words very carefully. She doesn't want to give the impression that she's critical of her predecessors.
"IFGE is 10 years old," she says. "It was started by people who had wonderful visions... people who saw the need for a group of its kind" But these were people who were not necessarily experienced in running large businesses -- and with a budget around $400,000 (US) a year, the IFGE needed to be managed with strong business acumen. "We had some serious financial problems," she states, matter-of-factly. "We had to get more people who were professional analysts."
Also, she feels that there was some perception (real, or otherwise) that IFGE was difficult to work with. "There was a need for IFGE to be more gentle with the community... more of a sister than a brother."
Just prior to the Pillar and Post weekend, Alison stopped off in Toronto to find a site for the IFGE convention. "Crossing Borders", the 12th annual convention will be held at the Toronto Colony Hotel, and it'll be "as much as possible a joint Xpressions-IFGE program."
How did that come about? Says Alison: "I, personally, have wanted the IFGE to operate on an international basis and I was actively looking how to do this. I had also been infatuated and thrilled by the presentation of Canadians at Fantasia Fair over the past few years." Through Fantasia Fair, Alison got to know our former chairlady Pamela, as well as Miqqi, Mellissa, and Kayla. Alison suggested having Xpressions host the convention, and Pamela started preparing a presentation immediately.
"She brought it to the board last spring. We had some other opportunities. New York was interested in hosting it, but the board really wanted to go to Toronto. It has a wonderful reputation for being TG positive."
Planning for this event is already well-underway. The three days of seminars and workshops will cover the full gamut of topics of interest to the TG community. Past conventions usually involve four to six parallel sessions -- offerings to CDs, TGs, TSs,and TG S.O.'s as well as a track for the F2 M community. Evenings will be dedicated to entertainment.
"It's an arduous task," Alison admits. "It's basically talking 300-400 hours from my point of view alone." And then there's all the volunteers. Alison estimates that there will be 25-30 heavily involved volunteers. "More than half will come from Xpresssions," she says. There's a wide range of duties that need to be done: everything from arranging copying or organizing evening entertainment or a fund-raiser, to liaising with the IFGE public relations to ensure good press coverage.
Alison also foresees the convention tapping into a lot of Toronto resources: people who can discuss legal issues of transitioning, problems of dealing with families, and that sort of thing.
And what of the average Torontonian? "Oh, the average person probably won't know we're there," Alison says. "A number of people will be very surprised; you'll overhear people saying, 'you won't believe what I saw in the hotel today.' I mean, 300 TGs in a hotel. We're there and we'll be noticed. But our community... 90% of the TG community will know what's going on. Some people who come out will be first timers, and we'll need Xpressions to follow up with these people because IFGE can't do that."
Copyright © 1997 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated July 31st, 1997.
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