For twenty-six years, one thing always remained the same.
Inside the bustling halls of the convention, there was a powerful sense of relief in the air.
Whether guests were young or old, male or female, were from a small Wisconsin suburb or New York City, there was no holding back smiles or even hugs from each other. From the shimmering poolside to the elegant dining hall, everyone chatted together fondly as though they were speaking to long-lost family.
There was one thing that truly held everyone together at the conference, and that was their experience in the transgender community.
For the second consecutive year, Broward County had the pleasure of welcoming the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC), one of the largest gatherings of the trans community in the world. Closeted trans women and men, allies, openly-trans activists and partners of transgender individuals alike spent the week at the Bonaventure Resort and Spa in Weston from Sept. 27 through Oct. 1.
If it weren’t for Richard Gray, the LGBTQ Managing Director for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, the Southern Comfort Conference would not have made it to the welcoming arms of Broward County.
“LGBTQ spells people,” said Richard Gray, speaking on the importance of the conference. “And love knows no boundaries. It is time for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to emphasize the importance of the ‘T’ in LGBT.”
True to his word, Gray played an essential role in carrying the conference through its second year. The bustling resort was proud to welcome guests who had been present since the very beginning of the SCC, many of whom have traveled across the country to experience just a glimpse of authenticity year after year.
However, not everything was deja vu for the conference. As the transgender movement has begun to see itself pushed farther into the spotlight, many members at the conference began to hint at their own eagerness for more inclusion of faces from a younger and more evolved side of the trans community.
Nonetheless for those who attended this year, whether young or old, all quickly found their sense of comfort in exploring the vast selection of events and guests that the conference once again successfully had to offer.
Photo credit: Steven Shires.
Guests From Near And Far
Over the years, the Southern Comfort Conference has welcomed over 400 presenters from near and far to shed light on the transgender experience. These speakers range from doctors to transgender celebrity icons, all eagerly open to conversing with guests on a range of topics.
Many conference seminars involved topics relating to surgical options for physically transitioning, such as the presentation given by Dr. Sherman Leis from Pennsylvania who spoke about his experiences performing gender confirmation surgeries. Local transgender-friendly practitioners included Dr. Russell Sassani, who was featured on an episode of TLC’s “I Am Jazz” just this summer.
Like last year, many of the conference’s topics also focused much more on psychology. A session was once again offered to help mentally assist those who do not have the support to transition at home and are forced to return to the closet. Other sessions focused on spirituality, how to practice voice modification, and even how to communicate with a cisgender partner who is not necessarily well-acquainted with the politically correct way to approach topics of transition.
Yet also like last year, the special guests stole the show.
Late Friday night, the conference showed “Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride.” The award-winning film is based on the true story of the trans activist Gloria Stein, who was present herself at the conference during the screening. Also present during the conference was Sarah McBride, the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.
There was even an all-levels dance workshop led by popular ftm choreographer Sean Dorsey.
Also on the trans-masculine end, the conference had the pleasure of welcoming Schuyler Bailar, a trans male athlete who swims for Harvard University. He is the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer, as well as the first known NCAA Division 1 trans male to compete as a man in any sport. Thanks to the SCC, guests had the opportunity to speak in person with him.
Perhaps none traveled farther to participate in the conference than Kellie Maloney, the British boxing manager and promoter. Maloney’s leadership is credited with guiding Lennox Lewis on his path to the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World. Yet in 2014, the world turned its eyes on Maloney for a new reason as she began her transition into life as a woman.
Maloney not only spent time signing personalized messages in copies of her book, “Frankly Kellie,” but she found plenty of time to mingle with other conference members, eagerly absorbing the stories of those around her.
“I loved listening to Schuyler, I thought that was brilliant,” Maloney said, reminiscing over the talk that the trans man gave earlier that week. Prior to the conference, Maloney said, she had little experience with the male side of the community – a rift that is not unusual amongst transgender people.
It is rifts such as these that the Southern Comfort conference looks to fix.
Stefanie Schumacher (left), Alexis Dee, Richard Gray, Christy Anderson, and Phyllis McCall were the strongest minds behind putting this year’s conference together.
Photo credit: Steven Shires.
A Transition For Southern Comfort
In past years, the Southern Comfort Conference’s demographic typically reflected a greater number of older guests in the trans-feminine spectrum. There are a number of reasons for this, as trans women face greater pressure in society to pass for their own safety. Those who discover their identity later in life have the additional struggle of making up lost time when picking up the behavioral expectations of their gender identity, further risking their exposure as a trans person.
For so long, the Southern Comfort Conference has provided many people in these situations a chance to explore and grow comfortable in their bodies without a fear of judgment.
This year, however, marked a surprising new topic amongst those who participated in the conference.
As the times have changed, so has the typical demographic of the transgender community. Because of this, many have suggested that it may be time for some younger faces – especially from the largely invisible trans male community – to get involved with determining the programming and events at future conferences.
“The identity of the conference needs to change,” said Atticus Ranck, the Director of Transgender Services at Sunserve. “As the community changes, the conference needs to change with it.”
Much of this is an inevitable result of the paradigm shift that the trans community has undergone in the past few years. As more youth begin to feel comfortable enough to transition, there has been a rapid succession of changes within the transgender community.
To top it off, as a result of discriminatory laws such as HB-2 in North Carolina, transgender rights have undeniably hit the mainstream media, further molding the idea of what gender identity refers to in society.
“I found in a lot of conversations that people from different generations have very different perspectives,” said Sarah Nicole, a new speaker at the conference whose session delved deep into her own experience as the partner of a trans person.
Those who have already stepped forward from a younger demographic have already found Southern Comfort to be a powerful platform for change. Both young and old alike spoke of the conference as an incredible opportunity awaiting the transgender community in Southern Florida — if they choose to embrace it.
As mentioned, the SCC offers a range of engaging activities each year centered entirely around the needs of trans individuals, from a marketplace where vendors offer specialized products to meet-and-greets with international transgender celebrities.
Yet there are also typically a range of entertaining activities, such as excursions to the Everglades, a trip to Las Olas Boulevard, and multiple wildly successful karaoke nights, to name a few.
Ultimately the conference is a group effort, meaning it’s up to the local community how the conference is run in future years. Anyone is welcome to get involved if they’re interested in contributing.
Lexi Dee emphasized the importance of welcoming a younger crowd, which would allow for a fresh new perspective in how to bring the trans community together.
“We need to get the younger people involved,” said Dee. “We really do.”
Photo credit: Steven Shires.
Home Is Where The Heart Is
Even as many discussed which ways that the conference will be able to grow in the future, it was evident when walking around that the resort was above all a sanctuary. The calm atmosphere of the Bonaventure Resort and Spa was filled to the brim with transgender guests who were able to express themselves in any way they felt comfortable.
For as far as society has come in the march for transgender equality, this is still the one week per year that many are finally able to truly express themselves.
Not only did the pool allow many guests to try on their appropriate swimming suits for the first time free of judgment, but the hugely popular karaoke night gave guests an opportunity to practice their voice in a safe atmosphere.
“It was a lot more lit than I expected,” said a first-time guest at Thursday night’s karaoke who asked to remain anonymous.
While the conference typically focuses primarily on its seminars and guests who give trans people a chance to network with experienced professionals, it’s the warm environment that draws guests back year after year.
In fact, for many guests, Southern Comfort is their only chance to show themselves authentically. While more and more trans people have found acceptance in their lives at home, others have built lives that would be too difficult or even impossible to walk away from.
Only at the SCC were many guests finally free to dress authentically as they lounged together at the bar. Regardless of anyone’s appearance, the welcoming staff of the resort shunned not a single person’s identity. Trans women were free to sip wine without fear of judgment, regardless of how polished their makeup skills were.
No matter what the future brings for both the trans community as well as the Southern Comfort Conference, it’s apparent that the conference will always carry its legacy as a sanctuary for anyone in need of a true home away from home.
Always Moving Forward
As the transgender community continues to march forward on the shaky ground of the current political climate, one thing is still guaranteed at the end of the day.
The Southern Comfort Conference will proudly return to Broward next year, giving shelter to a community that is increasingly tossed into the limelight.
Many guests are eager to see what ways the conference will begin to grow based on those who step forward, but the Southern Comfort Conference will continue to strive for its reputation as a refreshing safe space for trans people to network and grow together.
“The only reason we do this is to help people,” Dee said proudly on Saturday, still catching her breath after Saturday night’s formal ballroom dinner. “We’ve had people here say, ‘you’ve changed my life,’ we’ve even had people say ‘you’ve saved my life.’”
For more information on attending or contributing to the Southern Comfort Conference in the coming years, visit sccfll.org