CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the general admission was $250. Tickets to Achieving Joy did not exceed $125. We regret the error.
By L.G. Parker
Photos By Shaan Michael Wade
Without missing a beat, Joy Petway, a licensed clinical social worker, credits her friends’ brief relationships as the inspiration behind “Undressed,” a queer intimacy conference that took place in Washington, DC, last week.
“My friends use me as [their] therapist,” she continued. “Listening to everyone’s story [made me see that this was necessary]. I’ve been collecting stories since 2001, in terms of just relationships.”
Petway realized that people were consistently entering relationships and then falling out—unaware of how they were healing or harming themselves. After combining years of stories with her expertise, she teamed up with Emily Rizzo, a licensed clinical professional counselor, to establish a blueprint. The duo created Achieving Joy, the LGBTQ counseling and wellness boutique that brought DC-area residents the two-day conference “Undressed.”
On January 16 – 17, over 50 people came together to discuss wellness and queer intimacy. Attendees were dressed business casual, ranging from loose cardigans and jeans to skirts and Doc Martens. Aptly located in the Impact Hub DC, a social change-centered coworking and events space, the atmosphere was warm and inviting, lending itself to the flow of ideas, testimonies, and collective healing.
The conference featured four hour-long concurrent sessions facilitated by sex educators and gender scholars: Michelé Prince, Jayne Kelly, Asha Gray, Pamgrace Gachenge, LaShay Harvey Jones, Tiffany Thompson, and Tracy Gannt (read their full bios here). One session took place in a comfortable meeting room, while the others occurred in an open space. Topics ranged from effectively communicating through the traumas that each person brings into a partnership, talking about and during BDSM, and communication within ethical non-monogamous relationships.
Counselor Asha Gray’s session about ethical non-monogamous relationships explored why someone might choose to have a “modern relationship,” as Gray and her partner refer to non-monogamous relationships, what the different constructs look like, and what some drawbacks are.
“[This session] opened up my mind a little bit more to the idea of engaging in other relationships, rather than being so closed-minded and closed off and missing some of the great opportunities to really engage with someone who is more ‘modern’ in their relationship-thinking,” shared attendee Starr Seymone.
Co-founder Joy Petway’s workshop, “Her Shit vs. My Shit,” was a transformative interchange in which we jotted down what some of our triggers are and how they show up as seemingly petty and random fights in relationships. Having recently left a toxic “situationship,” the session was very useful as I let go and become more mindful of what was even mine to carry in the first place.
“You have to understand,” Petway said towards the end of the session, “that sometimes a person’s best isn’t even enough for you.” We all audibly reacted to that, and had to joke among ourselves to release the heaviness of that session.
Trina Elliott, a new resident in the D.C. area, seemed to be very engrossed in everything Petway was saying. Afterwards she shared:
“I only have been out for maybe three years, and so I just realized that there aren’t a lot of things that I really understand or know. I feel like I’m in the dark fumbling around, so I went to Joy’s counseling website and saw that they offer counseling services and workshops so then I knew that it wasn’t just going to be ‘this is how you find a date’ but really looking at human sexuality and behavior in this particular niche. I realized it was work that I needed to do, and to stumble upon it in that way was almost fate because I’ve been dealing with these feelings for a long time now.”
These enlightening conversations occurred amongst all attendees throughout the day. The cost to be in such a transformative space, however, is a glaring concern. Early bird tickets were sold for $125. And there were various promos like 50 percent off the early bird rate and their one-day sale for $75 that allowed attendees to register at a reduced rate. Many queer and trans Black women, who were the majority of the attendees, are not economically well off. One might wonder what good was such brilliance if so many in our community couldn’t afford it.
“We tried to make it affordable – we did the 50 percent off early bird special,” Rizzo shared. “People that asked if they could volunteer, we gave them that opportunity to come for free. Our market is a queer women of color…but I think if it’s something that you want to do, you’ll figure out a way to do it. We really want people to be here, but we also have to sustain ourselves if we are going to be a business.”
“My belief is that our community can take care of themselves, that we’re going to grow, and we’re going to be wealthy,” Petway added. “I’m not going to put a price point that doesn’t say you’re wealthy.”
As for the future, Petway and Rizzo hope to extend “Undressed,” possibly even having an overnight portion, and host the conference in multiple cities.
“Achieving Joy’s goal is to really start from this [cis] woman perspective,” Petway concluded, “and then work our way out. There are a lot of trans women who are also lesbians. How do we create room for [them] – in a place where we’ve isolated a lot of bisexuals? It’s a lot of getting away from these labels, and really going directly into who you are, who you love, and what type of lifestyle you want to have.”
“I definitely believe everybody can achieve joy – in this lifetime,” she added. “And my goal is to help each and every one who wants to be helped in that way to get there.”
L.G. Parker is a student and writer living in Northern Virginia. Connect with her on Twitter at @posttragic.