Keynote Speech
Southern Comfort 1995

Callan Williams


Do you believe in magic?

Do you really believe that magic is possible?

Do you believe that magical transformations happen everyday?

Do you believe that love really can change everything?

I believe in magic because I have to. Transgendered people must believe in magic, in transformation, in the ability to change form radically, to change form while our spirit grows and lives, still connected.

Transformation is our birthright.

Look at how children grow, transforming themselves day to day. Watching as a parent, the process may seem slow, but to an outsider it is miraculous that a gangly 12 year old becomes a smooth 13 year old, well, at least to other 13 year olds.

The process of growth, of change that we see in children is pure transformation, blending all sorts of inputs -- internal, parental, peer, education, schooling and so on -- to create a full and a complete person. Children experiment, they try on, pretend, practice, look everywhere for people who can help them grow. They immerse themselves in the world and learn, bit-by-bit how to be effective in it, transforming themselves on an almost daily basis.

We also transform our world. Humans have transformed the land, have transformed learning, ideas, the economy and more. One great masculine power is transforming the world around us, about taking control of the natural and transforming it to our will.

On the other hand, transforming ourselves to be in harmony with the world is another great power, one sometimes overlooked. As the pendulum swings, it is time for each of us to look at our own personal transformation.

Transforming America

I have a proposition. We all know that we need some changes in America, some changes in our world. We need to accept diversity, to be more cooperative rather than combatative, to acknowledge and celebrate our interdependence, to embrace the change in the economy away from industry and into information, to learn to invest and to have a long term view rather than a short-term "me-me-me" focus.

I submit that the only way to change America is to change Americans.

Americans need to change the way they do things, to change the way that they see things. We each individually need to be transformed, so that our country, our world, can continue to be transformed as it has been throughout history.

We must have a commitment to transformation. As transgendered people we must understand this, for transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

What's wrong with drag?

A clip from New York Magazine:

What's Wrong With Drag?, Kim France,
New York July 17, 1995

If it weren't so politically correct to be in favor of drag -- and if the question of drag weren't so closely tied into the broader issues of gay rights -- drag would long ago have been dismissed as hopelessly politically incorrect. When men dress up and act like grossly unpleasant versions of women, we women have a right to heave our surgically un-enhanced breasts in a fit of pique. Drag queens will insist that they don't really want to be women, they just want to honor us, darling. Which was exactly how Al Jolson felt about his [blackface] minstrel shows.

The kinds of performers who are doing the best things with drag are those who are striving for pure transformation as opposed to base caricature.

Striving for pure transformation as opposed to base caricature. Pure Transformation.

Ms. France is right. Changing only on the surface is not enough, and, in fact, can be offensive. Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

We Must Believe in Transformation

As transgendered people we must believe in reinvention, renewal and rebirth. We must believe that we are born again each morning with new possibilities, new life. We must believe in pure transformation.

We must believe in the hero quest, our ability to be reborn, still the same person but also irrevocably changed, be both who we were and who we have become.

We must believe in our ability to grow and to transcend our past, believe in our ability to transcend the expectations others, like our parents, hold about us.

We must believe in our ability to break cultural barriers, like gender roles, when they limit us, our ability to transform what appear to be solid walls that entrap us into wide open spaces that lead us to freedom.

We must believe that it is not form, not the shape of the world that connects all things and all people, but spirit, and that as we change form we are still connected to everyone and to everything.

We must trust that transformation will allow us to find the goodness, the god-ness inside of us and learn not to be afraid of dark places inside of us we have not yet explored.

We must have a commitment to support transformation, both in ourselves and in others, to be midwives assisting in the rebirth of our world.

We must believe this because transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.


My fellow chameleons, shape-shifters, metamorphs, and shamans: I am not two-spirited, rather my spirit spans a wide arc of the spectrum, like a radio receiver that can tune across what many see as separate and discrete bands. I connect with a wide range of life and of emotion, and I express that connection every day of my life.

In fact, as I grew up, this broadband connection, this having lots of different people inside of me, my "Jonathan Winters" energy, was much scarier than my gender transgression, which only became a concern as a number of people (including psychologists my parents sent me to) taught me it was wrong.

The thought that we are only binary, only masculine or feminine, and not broadly connected, limits all of us in our quest for pure transformation. I am not talking about transforming into one thing or another, but transformation as the natural and dynamic process of our lives.

Kate Bornstein has noted that "It is our fluidity that binds transgendered people together." We are bound not by our current form, but by our ability to shape shift, to metamorph, to transform.

Some have noted that the term transgender seems to be about movement, not about conclusions. I would ask them if they think life is about the journey or the destination, about the process or about the product, about living or about having lived.

Life itself is about transformation, about transforming our idea of who we are, our identity, as we grow and as we learn. Shakti Gawain, in her book The Path Of Transformation, ventures that this life is about "two-ness," about shaping ourselves by using the reflection of others. In this way, we learn and we grow.

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

Transformation Fascination

The ability to transform touches and fascinates the child in each one of us.

Children love superheroes that can transform into a being with magical powers, children play with toys called transformers, children can pretend in an instant, becoming anything they want to be in their own world of pure imagination.

The adult world is not a world that is comfortable with shape shifters, but it is a world that is fascinated by them, people like Madonna, Rosanne and Michael Jackson. Think of a crossdressing story without a magical transformation, through cosmetics, pills, prosthetics or even spells.

We are taught to give up this world of imagaination as we get older, but this world can never be locked away forever. In an interview in TransSisters, Sandy Stone talks of how transgendered people are leaders in the development of virtual reality. VR creates a computer world where imagination is made tangible, made real.

Making dreams tangible and real is not a new role for transgendered people. As shamans, we used storytelling, ritual, and many other ways to make dreams tangible and real.

This is true drag queen magic, not mere imitation, but crystalline revelation, a magic moment of moving past the confines of this world, creating a bubble in space and time where pure transformation takes place, a bubble that allows transformation of the audience and of our world in the process. While some may speak of illusion, pure transformation lets us touch dreams, lets us see the reality that is not yet manifest, and lets us start to believe it. As a psychologist titled one of his books, You'll See It When You Believe It.

This is one facet of our art. Transgender cannot be separated from art, separated from the attempt to express something that comes up directly from our soul, something that is pure and is utterly transforming.

Gary Graffman, pianist: To be completely convincing is, in effect, what makes an artist.

Bram van Velde, painter: The ordinary logic of the real world is pushing us to catastrophe. What the artist is trying to do is to get free of that doom.

You too have this power, this power to not only transform yourself, but also to transform your world by opening the space for others to transform. To transform America, Americans must be transformed.

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

Transforming Hierarchy

Transformation is a power that is honored by the feminine, and one that is often feared by the masculine.

In a hierarchical world, where power is piled up like vast pyramids, presidents standing on vice presidents, vice presidents on directors and so on, and so on, the thought of transformation can engender absolute terror. If people below you can magically transform themselves, then the whole pyramid can topple, all the power structures can crumble. People who want to build these pyramids of power must limit transformation, must make things clear and categorizable, pigeon-holed, sorted-out, binary, either-or.

Scholars have noted, for example, that the Gnostic Gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Phillip, which were edited from the Bible in the first century or two of Christianity, speak of the ability to be reborn on Earth, to be transformed in this world. They suspect that these tracts were suppressed because they threatened the power of the growing patriarchal church of Rome. They were not the only thing suppressed. For example, during the 10th century, many, many women were killed as witches when they threatened the power of the church by saying that we all had a connection to the universe inside of us right here and right now.

Our social system, including society and your family, wants to hold you in place, for otherwise you are beyond the reach of their control. Our increasingly computerized world seems to hold us tighter and tighter in place with numbers and records, making us feel like we have no control of our own destiny.

In a world of connection, on the other hand, it is our ability to transform to meet unique circumstances that gives us our unique power. Think of women who can be boss, friend, mom, vixen and more, all in the space of a few hours. Women understand this power of transformation, of changing to meet the world and to be effective. Why do you think women love makeovers? Men also love this power -- and they also fear it.

Women are better at handing ambiguity, and while we have spent many years trying to mechanize the world, to take the ambiguity out of it, the pendulum is swinging back. In a time of paradigm shift, everything is ambiguous. We need, as a culture, to relearn respect for transformation, to learn how to use our own powers of transformation to meet and to lead a rapidly transforming world.

Even in business we know this. The only way to get the product right is to get the process right. We must have a committment to the means being good and effective, not an obsession with the ends.

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

Transforming Ourselves

We transform our world by transforming ourselves. We transform ourselves by transforming how we see our world.

Starhawk defines magic as "ways to change consciousness at will." Physicists who study shamans talk about how they create changes through trickery, through drugs, through ritual, through stress, through depravation, through overload, and through many other techniques. Shamans break down the barriers and the patterns we have built in our minds, and let us see things a new way. That new insight lets us transform our thinking -- and lets us transform our lives.

When Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, did he actually make more food, or did his unselfish act of sharing encourage others to share, bringing forth the true abundance they had held back? Does it really matter which happened? No. The result was the same, if it was physical magic, or the magic of changing the way people thought about sharing. There became food for all, there became abundance.

Arlene Istar told me: So, in high school, I realized that the difference between the cool kids and the uncool kids is that the cool kids thought they were cool. So I changed my mind and became cool. The same outfits that were uncool last week were cool now.

Think about this power. If we can become empowered just by changing our mind then we are out of the reach of social control. The divisions and the separations others use to try and control us fall away.

Is transforming your life as simple as transforming the way that you think? Yes. But transforming the way you think is not easy. Buddah reminds us: Like a snake sheds it skin to grow, we must shed our past over and over again.

The world is bred into us. Removing it is painful. Leaving it in is worse. We transform our thoughts and ourselves, for transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

The Elements of Transformation

Transformation is not about reclaiming our past. It is about claiming our future. It is about reinventing ourselves, becoming the protagonist in our own life. There is no script to follow, no simple path, only the lessons we take from others and the knowledge we hold inside.

Transformation takes place on four planes: Physical, Emotional, Intellectual, and Spiritual. While transformation may start on any one of those planes, it can only be pure when it touches all four. This is the definition of pure transformation, the pure dropping of the barriers. Symbols may start the process, but they do not end it -- transformation must reach beyond the physical to emotion, thought and spirit.

This takes immersion into a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, a new way of feeling and a new way of being. E.W. Sinott: "Inspiration, it is well recognized, rarely comes unless an individual has immersed himself in a subject. [S]he must have a rich background of knowledge and experience in it."

Immersion is the only way to truly explore anything, from sex to history. It is the only way to explore yourself, who you are behind the behaviors that you were taught as a child.

Ah, but immersion leads to fear: the trepidation of loss, of separation. If I immerse myself in the new, what about what I had? Will I lose control, power, credibility, happiness, money, love, connection?

The only things you can lose are the things you never had.

Terry Murphy notes: We were never the king. The loss is illusory: we mourn for what we wanted, not for what we had, not contemplating the enormous price we would have had to pay to get it.

F Scott Fitzgerald: We run faster and faster to catch up with an idealized past which we have irretrievably lost.

We mourn not for losing what we have, but for losing what we wanted to have. For example, if our relationship ends, it was flawed. It needed to be transformed, we needed to be transformed. The relationships we all admire, like the 50 year ones for example, are relationships that support the continuous transformations of life, tranformations like aging and parenting. They are relationships that are about a connection of spirit, not simply a connection of form.

We don't mourn the reality of losing a weak relationship. We mourn losing the dreams that we had for that relationship, mourn for what it could have been, no matter how much we know that it was never thus, and to make it so would have cost way too much of our soul. We know our best option is to move on, to find something new, to trust in the magic of transformation, but we mourn the loss of the time -- and of the dreams -- that we have invested.

Acknowledging that you have the responsibility and the capacity to define your own life means acknowledging that you always had the responsibility and that your unhappiness is, at least in part, your own doing. This is very hard for many of us to swallow.

On the other hand you can never lose the things that you have, like your connection to the universe. For me, the only way transformation works is if you believe in something larger than the world of form, whatever you call it. You have to believe that even when the shape and circumstances of your life change, you are still connected. Any loss is illusory. What really matters continues right through, and in fact gets stronger as you reveal it even more. You lose nothing.

Billie Jean Jones reminds us that energy can never be created or destroyed, but only can change form. Form is mutable without loss. Form is going to change anyway, so learn to live with it. To focus on loss is to focus on death, not on rebirth, and it limits all of us.

We must learn to release our attachment to form and attach to spirit, to submit to the magic of transformation, to believe in our essential goodness, our essential god-ness.

We must believe that transformation, which appears to change everything, really changes nothing, only releasing our potential energy to a state where it can shine and bring happiness and light. We are not humans living a spiritual life, but we are spirit living a human life.

In this way transformation reaffirms our continuous common humanity, reaffirms the fact that no matter what form we take, we are all bound together by our essential spirit, by a deep and abiding connection. There is only one human nature and we all share it. This is the only thing that can help us get up in the morning and face a banal and possibly painful day, this knowledge that we exist in the context of something larger, exist in the context of spirit.

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

The Path of Transformation

You know if you are called to this path of transformation. Some of you may not be called, may be happy simply dressing up, but those of you who are called feel the urge for transformation in deep your bones.

In this world, a world that does not honor the magic of personal transformation, that does not easily honor the ecstasy of discovery, preferring instead the pain of separation that can be used for control, it can be very hard to embrace the call to transformation. This is true not just for the transgendered, but for all artists and shamans who are called.

Erik Bruhn, dancer: I became frightened of my capacities, and frightened of the responsibility of the talent I was apparently born with.

Many try to reject the call to rebirth, to transformation, but that only leads to pain.

One essential element in accepting the responsibility is accepting the willingness to be surprised, the willingness to surrender to the rhythms of the universe. We must embrace ambiguity and contradiction.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We avoid suffering by renouncing expectations that limit our bliss. It's tough to learn not to be a pushy bottom, tough to learn to take the world the way it comes and only take responsibility for your reactions and responses.

Great chefs are successes because they are immersed in the rhythms of the food, shaping it in natural ways, not fighting the current. Shaping your life is the same, starting with an understanding and acceptance of the universe, and working with it, not against it.

When you are in synchronization with those rhythms of the universe, you feel a magic moment when your barriers drop and you are transformed, connected. You achieve total intimacy because you are natural, unfiltered, absolutely authentic, emotionally naked.

Ah, but, when you are naked of all the defenses your ego has built over the years, with a fabulous feeling of freedom, the question comes: How long can you stay naked?

Our ego does one thing well -- avoid discomfort, through avoiding anything that has caused us discomfort in the past, or that we think might cause us discomfort. We learn to anticipate pain and to avoid it, but in the process we often end up avoiding the joy that lies directly behind the pain. We learn to edit ourselves before trying anything, afraid of being too corny, too dramatic, too intellectual, too silly, too exposed, too vulnerable, too hurt.

We built those barriers for a reason: to protect us from the pain, stigma, humiliation and separation that we have suffered. They are sheets of emotional armor plate that started as defense but ended up as constraint, trapping us behind layers of fear and limiting our growth.

To break those barriers means confronting the pain that led to you building them. Pain then joy. Death then rebirth. Crucifixion then resurrection. Generate the emotion to release the grief, walk through the fire, burn away the barriers that limit you and keep growing. As Holly Boswell reminds us, the phoenix rises from the ashes renewed and reborn.

Metamorphosis is a messy business, for us and for the people around us. Watching rehearsals can be painful. The biggest fear and pain that any of us have in accepting our transgender is seeing others express the pain and the mess of their transgender and deciding that if it is going to look like that, hurt like that, why bother?

How do we take a long term view, focus on the results of transformation and not on the pain of the process? How do we stop focusing on those who resist transformation and become twisted and unpleasant?

Conviction and dedication, even in the face of negative reaction, is the only way to become authentic and true to yourself. This learning not to be consumed with self-doubt, but rather to trust your inner voice is often the hardest part. Doris Lessing, writer: Learn to trust your own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort good from bad -- including your own bad.

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

Supporting the transformation of others

A therapist is one who sees something in us we do not yet see in ourselves. They support the transformation of others.

We are all teachers, we are all students. We are all someone's therapist and someone's patient. Gurus offer safe space for others to transform, and that is our role, to hold open safe space for the transformation of our world. We must hold open the space of possibilities, the possibility that life can be better, happiness be more complete. We teach what we need to learn. We get what we give. The Beatles: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Any shapeshifter will tell you that shifting takes energy, and there are times when you need to take one form and stay there for a while, for whatever reason -- to make money, take care of kids, focus on other things, get some rest. We all have that option, to stop shapeshifting, stop performing when we want, to settle down and live simply for a while. For example, we may gendershift and then choose to blend in for a time, choose to immerse ourselves, and that too may be a blessing.

However, that doesn't mean that we still don't have the seeds of transformation in us, and that we don't have the obligation to support others as they transform. We are the child or we are the parent, or usually we are both.

For me, one of the most difficult parts is believing in the power of transformation, believing that people will see the new me that I put out. I am held back by the beliefs of my history, by the thought that the role I have played in the past limits the role I can play today. That big clumsy oaf, the scapegoat and the fool, who grew up in my somewhat dysfunctional family is hard to get rid of, a skin that limits me greatly, yet is comfortable in an odd way.

I read an article in Allure about a woman transformed by plastic surgery on her palate. She talked about how, for months afterwards, she felt the need to tell people that she wasn't really like this, this wasn't really her, that she was born with a deformity. Her physical reality had changed, but it took time to trust that change and then to change her other realities.

I think about how I -- and others -- feel the need to show our history with cheezy wigs, bad voices and other "tells." Maybe we are playing small by staying flawed because we think others won't like us if we show too much perfection, too much happiness in this world that values pain and victimization. Or maybe we simply don't trust in transformation, we trust in flesh and not in spirit.

Trusting in transformation means trusting that your inner life can become manifest, that you can transcend your past and transcend the limits of form. It means taking risks, coming out of your chrysalis still only partly formed, transcending the past, trusting the future, and trusting that we will continue to grow and become more pure and more authentic everyday.

This is hard. If I don't believe in my own capacity to transform, how will I ever be able to believe in the capacity of others to be transformed? How will I be able to support the transformation of my world?

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

Celebrate Transformation.

It is impossible to look at anyone's life and not to see the elements of transformation: age, immigration, role, handicap, maturity, loss, renewal. The human experience is one of continuous transformation. Biology is not destiny -- and neither is history. We are always new.

You can even look back in your life and see the points where you were transformed -- and remember how you fought it at the time. Transformation is like the moving of the plates of the earth -- the strain increases, and then the world shifts for a moment with an earthquake. For some of us it is many small shifts that add up to a big distance, and for others, who resist change, it can be one wrenching breakthrough -- or breakdown -- that opens new vistas. I call these the US and the USSR approaches, respectively.

We transform at the rate and in the way that we can. You are the only one who can heal yourself, the only one who can transform you. You will do it in your own time and in your own way. It will frustrate you that others don't change when you want them to, or as you want them to, but you cannot change them. You can only hold open safe space for them, and work on your own transformation.

In myth, in movies, and in life, we tell each other the stories of transformation, of growth, of becoming new. Art tells the story of transformation, and when it is pure, art can transform those who experience it, one moment at a time.

Ingrid Bergman, actress: Be yourself. The world worships an original.

Linda Ellerbee: Change is one form of hope: to risk change is to believe in tomorrow.

Cynthia Ozick, writer: If we had to define what writing [what life] is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.

Louise Nevelson, sculptor: Greatness breaks laws.

André Breton, poet: Nothing but the astonishing is beautiful.

Transgender is either about pure transformation, or it is about nothing at all.

Transgender & Transformation

Let me finish by again reminding you of how we, as transgendered people, must be completely committed to transformation -- transformation of ourselves and transformation of our world.

We must be committed to pure transformation, not just on the physical level of dress or surgery, but also on the intellectual level of new thoughts, the emotional level of caring, and the spiritual level of moving past an attachment to form to a connection with spirit. The best way to cope with change is to take the lead in creating it.

As transgendered people we must believe in reinvention, renewal and rebirth. We must believe that we are born again each morning with new possibilities and with new life.

We must believe in the hero quest, the ability to be reborn now, still the same person but also irrevocably changed, be both who we were and who we have become.

We must believe in our ability to grow and to transcend our past, believe in our ability to transcend the expectations that others hold about us.

We must believe in our ability to break cultural barriers, like gender roles, when they limit us, believe in our ability to transform what appear to be solid walls that trap us into wide open spaces that lead us to freedom.

We must believe that it is not form, not the shape of the world that connects all things and all people, but spirit, and that as we change form we are still connected to everyone and to everything.

We must believe that when people have a safe space to become who they are in their hearts that the goodness, the god-ness will win out. We must trust that transformation will allow us to find our own goodness, learn not to be afraid of the dark places inside of us we have not yet explored.

We must have a commitment to support transformation, in ourselves and in others, to be midwives assisting in the rebirth of our world.

We must believe that we have the ability and the requirement to transform ourselves and to transform our world.

Magic Happens

Remember those questions I started with about your believing in magic? I'll tell you the truth. Those were only rhetorical.

I know that somewhere in your heart, you do believe in magic, do believe that magical transformations happen everyday. I know you believe that love really can change everything. I know this because there is only one human nature, and we all share it. You are a human being, and you believe in tomorrow. In your heart, you have hope, you have a deep and abiding connection to the universe.

We are all human and we each believe, even if our belief is blocked by barriers of fear, that the magic of love can transform everything. Transformation is our birthright.

We all know that transgender -- and that life itself -- are either about pure transformation, or are about nothing at all.

Thank you.