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Audrey Conrad: Outside The Box

Those In The Transgender Community Find A Warm Embrace At Real Art Ways

By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

January 10, 2008

The doors have been open for barely half an hour, but a strong crowd has already gathered at Real Art Ways. They stand inside the gallery space of the Arbor Street arts center and cinema with arms crossed, cocktails dangling and noses reaching toward the wall all the better to inspect the intricacies of the exhibited photographs.

It's the third Thursday evening of the month, which means it's Creative Cocktail Hour, a regular event that melds art, music and mingling and for the past five years has given people good reason to venture out on a "school night."

"The interesting thing about it is it isn't the same group of people every month," says Audrey Conrad, among the minglers this December evening. She wears a knit mini and black knee-high boots.

"There are some hard-core Creative Cocktail Hour addicts who you'll see every month. But depending on what [art or music] is being featured, you get a whole different contingent of people," she says.

Conrad is one of the event's "hard-core addicts" self-proclaimed and such an advocate of Real Art Ways that the folks there had the good sense to ask her to join its board of directors about a year and a half ago.

If you've gone to a cocktail hour, fundraising event or art happening there, you've likely seen her. That's her in the short blond bob, chatting up old faces and welcoming new ones.

Dressed as she is this evening in her "girl persona," Conrad is also one of a dozen or so cocktail-hour regulars from the transgender community, all at various stages in their search for gender identity. For some, that's meant surgery; for some, that's meant cross-dressing, and for still others, something else entirely.

They come here, says Conrad, to find community in the accepting environment that Real Art Ways and its patrons have helped to cultivate.

But that search for community and identity isn't unique to them, or any one group, says Conrad. Really, it's everyone's story here this night. Even that of the very city that hosts them.

"The concept isn't peculiar to the transgender community," she says. "There are all sorts of people who come here who wouldn't typically interact with each other but who find a commonality here they wouldn't find elsewhere in Hartford a commonality in music, in art or in just the fact that people are getting together and talking.

"It has far less to do with people's backgrounds or sexual orientation and gender," she says, "than with an interest in finding something to do which has meaning."

Meaning is what first drew Conrad, a Midwestern native who moved to Connecticut in the late 1980s. She immersed herself in work for the first few years, which didn't leave much room for socializing. At the same time, she was still wrestling with her gender identity.

"For a long time, I really fought internally with myself," she says. "Society is always trying to put you in a box ... and as hard as I tried to fit into that "boy box," there was a part of me that just was not comfortable at all."

Yet, she wasn't entirely comfortable in the "girl box" either.

"I consider myself transgender, and I bounce back and forth," she says. That might mean her "girl persona" for going out on the town and her "boy persona" at her job in the tourism industry.

In the late 1990s, with that internal wrestling behind her, Conrad was ready to carve out a social life. She stumbled on Real Art Ways, attended a few art events and has been returning ever since.

Here, she says, she's found a vibrant group of people, provocative artworks and films and a place in which she feels welcome as Audrey.

"And actually, I've found I don't have any difficulty here in Hartford, or Connecticut. I go pretty much anywhere in 'girl mode' and very seldom have anyone take notice of me," says Conrad, 61. "One of the nice things about Connecticut is people are fairly involved with their own lives.

"They haven't the time to worry about others."

Her pro may be another's con, but she does sum it up quite right.

Back inside the gallery, people meander, nibble on cheese and crackers and peruse the hanging photographs of artist Caleb Portfolio. In another corner, a small group is clutched around the DJ and dancing to the loungey music.

All around, there's laughter, conversation, even quiet introspection. There are artists and office drones, activists and college students, urban and suburban, gay and straight. And those who don't fit neatly into any of our "boxes."

And, of course, there's Conrad.

"I'm not sure I've made a lot of deep friendships here. But I've met a lot of interesting, vibrant people," she says. "This is a place to go once a month and see people and chat.

"And at the end of the evening, you say goodbye and 'see ya next month.'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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