Trans Rights Up For Discussion at South by Southwest 2022
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South by Southwest, abbreviated as SXSW, has long been viewed as the union of technology, art, music, and various other media forms. From its start in the late ‘80s, the annual music festival-turned-convention has attracted people from around the globe to its headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Though the music element of SXSW has long dominated the scene, the festival is now known to be where tech startups are introduced to consumers. The 2007 SXSW Interactive convention hosted social media platform Twitter, and 2017 saw brands like Nintendo, Mazda, and Panasonic take the stage.
In recent years, politicians have harnessed the immense audience SXSW garners and have been featured as keynote speakers. President Barack Obama gave a speech in 2016, in which he encouraged the technology industry to solve many of America’s problems, such as outdated networks, the imbalance between security and privacy, and the FBI-Apple encryption dispute. Guest speakers in 2017 included U.S. Senator Cory Booker and President Joe Biden.
With an average of half a million attendees, SXSW is the most profitable event in Austin, outside of any University of Texas athletic events. SXSW had an estimated economic impact of $325 million on the city of Austin in 2016, with demand for hotel rates increasing costs by nearly 60 percent. For reference, Superbowl LI generated a $347 million impact for the Houston economy.
With the development of Texas governor Greg Abbott’s attempts to restrict gender-affirming care for transgender youth, many companies have stated that they would no longer participate in SXSW in an attempt to reduce the revenue the state of Texas makes from the convention. For example, representatives from the app “Clubhouse” stated that they would not be attending this year’s SXSW because “they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking LGBTQ+ voices from the Clubhouse community to come to Texas.” The app isn’t specifically an app for queer people, but “Clubhouse” still stands in solidarity with its LGBTQ+ users and employees.
However, some notable attendees, despite denouncing SXSW on social media, are still attending the event. At a keynote speaker event on March 13, Texas native Lizzo explained that she was “proud to rep Houston… but not proud to rep Texas politics right now.” Nevertheless, she is still attending SXSW to promote her new movie “Watch Out for the Big Grrls.”
Similarly, The Trevor Project, the world’s largest mental health organization for LGBTQ+ youth, rallied voices like USA Olympic Skater Adam Rippon, “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness, and “Freaks and Geeks” alum Busy Phillips, for panels condemning Greg Abbott and voicing their support for trans youth. “Transgender and nonbinary young people deserve to live their lives without fear,” said Van Ness.
SXSW itself has taken measures to denounce Abbott’s remarks, issuing an official statement that said, “SXSW stands against discriminatory legislation and supports the LGBTQ+ community […] the governor’s latest directive puts trans children in harm’s way once again, and we unequivocally condemn this action.” A panel on March 11 titled “Addressing Our Transgender Health Crisis” is just one of the ways SXSW’s support for the LGBTQ+ community has manifested. They have invited both local and national humanitarian groups to speak on the topics.
As of now, SXSW’s organizers have no intention to leave Austin. “We are often asked to leave the state when issues arise, but Texas is our home,” a spokesperson shared. “It is a state where the major population centers are Democratic, and Austin has always stood for progressive values. Moving SXSW out of Texas would damage Austin more than it would the state.”
In a way, the location of a convention like SXSW is beneficial to the residents of Texas, as well as out-of-state visitors. By vocally supporting the LGBTQ+ community and offering panels where attendees can educate themselves on pressing matters in Texas, SXSW offers opportunities to spread awareness on one of the most restrictive and damaging issues affecting trans youth today. Arguably, by being situated in a Republican state, these ideas can diffuse out and rally more support for the LQBTQ+ community as the convention continues. On the other hand, SXSW is not necessarily catering to those affected by the crisis in Texas. The average cost for a ticket is $1,000; this exclusivity is both an allure and a problem. The main group of attendees will be primarily interested in the technology and business aspects, perhaps choosing to visit those demonstrations at the festival rather than current events discussions. Moreover, the root of the problem is the festival organizers themselves, making the transgender rights discussion a side panel as opposed to taking a more active approach: there is no record of SXSW donating to LGBTQ+ organizations despite the massive revenue they enjoy. All in all, festivals like SXSW should be influenced to use their platform to share pressing matters, especially if the problems are in a place that they want to be proud of. Hosting a plethora of global celebrities, including politicians, SXSW should be using that to their advantage and their supporters’ advantage.