When walking into the Southern Comfort Conference, one was greeted with a sense of calm.
It wasn’t the wild prideful convention that one might expect of the gay or lesbian community, but instead felt like a place of warmth for those who were forced to live a double life.
One might say it was a vacation, and the destination was authenticity.
“Many of the people at this conference are not out,” said Alexis Dee, Board President of the Southern Comfort Conference. “Their families have no idea they’re transgender, so they come here and have the opportunity to be themselves.”
Yet the conference was not all about the peaceful luxury of the Bonaventura Resort in Weston where the conference was hosted for the first time this year.
Ripe with seminars, excursions, and transgender health specialists, the conference aimed to cover every aspect of survival for a community long swept under the rug.
For the previous 24 years, the SCC had been hosted in Atlanta, GA, touting itself as the largest gathering of its kind in the U.S. While there had been no immediate concerns about its previous location, it was thanks to Richard Gray, the LGBT Managing Director at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Visitors Bureau (CVB) who reached out to the conference and convinced them to come to South Florida.
“Without Richard’s dedication to the transgender community, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Commissioner Stacy Ritter of Broward County at the conference, shortly after she proclaimed October 3rd to be Southern Comfort Conference Day in Broward County.
While there had initially been many concerns about the move to South Florida, Gray’s efforts alongside the CVB made the transition as smooth as possible.
And that’s what the Southern Comfort Conference is all about.
One event debuting at the 25th Southern Comfort Conference was geared towards local healthcare providers.
Provider’s Day, held on the day before the regular conference started, gave local transgender health specialists an opportunity to delve into the knowledge base of special guests and learn new ways to monitor their patients in a field that is heavily bogged down by political tape.
The event was hosted by Jamison Green, President of World Professional Association for Transgender Health as well as Vin Tangpricha, the Secretary-Treasurer of WPATH and Jay Brown from the Human Rights Campaign.
This new event began with an in-depth presentation from each speaker, then welcomed questions from locals in a warm gesture towards the Florida community that gave local providers a chance to learn more about the complexities of transgender healthcare.
One topic that was heavily stressed by Green was the importance of advocacy.
As President of WPATH, he emphasized the importance of working with HRC to show companies that their employees were given benefits that allowed them to transition.
Together with the HRC, Green says they have drastically spread awareness and raised the number of companies that will cover their workers by staggering numbers in just the last few years alone.
“I really believe that we would not have the healthcare inclusiveness offered today if corporations had not first been shown it was possible,” Green said before encouraging his providers to keep in mind that the workplace was just one of many places that their patients found obstacles in their journey.
Despite running as a three-hour session, the seminar for Provider’s Day was arguably too short, as was apparent by the number of questions that couldn’t be answered in depth.
Yet most could agree the difficulties were much a result of the uncharted waters that doctors were still sailing in order to assist their transgender patients.
“The studies just do not exist at this point,” said Tangpricha, referring to a question from one provider about the length of time it would take for certain risk factors to arise during hormone therapy.
All three speakers agreed, however, that the most important rule for a trans healthcare provider is to work with their patient closely and listen.
That alone, Green said, is groundbreaking.
“Many people seem to feel that transgender lives are bifurcated lives. That’s how trans people have been historically viewed. But their lives are incredibly diverse,” he went on to explain.
As the Provider’s Day seminar wrapped up in preparation for the conference’s following events, Green finished with a statement that seemed to sum up the importance of the comforting environment that the SCC had proudly named itself for.
“Trauma is the most universal experience of trans people,” Green professed. “Regardless of how successful their transition is.”
Seminars and Guest Speakers
Many at the convention were disappointed by the limited time slots of the seminars, as the selection of speakers was truly remarkable.
Some highly-anticipated guests included Zackary Drucker the co-director of “Transparent” (see SFGN.com) and Jazz Jennings the transgender youth currently starring in her own television series. Yet speakers also included surgeons hailing as far as Philadelphia, as well as a number of local surgeons.
Each of the sessions were hosted throughout the conference center of the Bonaventura Resort, whose staff were incredibly welcoming towards the diverse guests staying for the week. Yet once the doors to a session were closed, conversation was allowed to open even further, branching into topics that were revolutionary just for being spoken aloud.
Most topics ranged from various types of surgery for both transwomen and transmen to talks around how well to dress and of course the psychology of gender.
One seminar hosted by Dr. Timothy Herley even focused specifically on society’s powerfully influential yet limited perspective of gender, titled, Why all the Upset about Gender?
Meanwhile, another session by Dr. Sara Fackelman, titled, Oy vey – You’re Jewish and Transgender? What would Yentle say? even offered to bless transgender Jews for their sex reassignment surgeries.
Not to be forgotten, however, were sessions that encouraged the conference’s guests to live even if their journey could never be completed.
Michelle Cooper, M.S., hosted a seminar on Coping with Inability to Transition, which spoke about the impassible circumstances that many transgender individuals face in their journey such as finances, health, and even family responsibilities that force their journey of self-discovery to a halt. As a science educator, Cooper spoke on ways to find peace, despite feeling condemned to a life of misery and inauthenticity.
Alexis Dee with Richard Gray, the LGBT Managing Director at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Visitors Bureau
Perhaps one of the most beneficial part of the SCC’s move to Broward is Fort Lauderdale’s diverse and open environment.
Giving members of the conference a chance to enjoy life in their authentic form is a large part of what makes the Southern Comfort Conference feel so much like home.
All throughout the week, guests boarded shuttles that would bring them into the heart of Fort Lauderdale to neighborhoods including Wilton Manors, famous for its inclusive atmosphere. Other events went as far as the everglades, giving attendees a chance to experience Florida in its wildest form.
Another excursion allowed guests to visit the famous Stonewall Museum and Gallery in Wilton Manors, granting conference members a moment to honor their history.
Yet the importance of escaping to such a welcoming environment could be seen on conference members even by the poolside.
For once, there was no guilt as conference attendees basked in the sun far away from their struggles back home.
While many events focused on the life that attendees deserved to but were in most cases unable to live, other events involved keynote speakers such as Gina Duncan, the Transgender Inclusion Director of Equality Florida.
A proud advocate for the trans community, Duncan spoke at the lunch event on Friday about Equality Florida’s new Transgender Resource Guide with crucial information regarding transgender healthcare in Florida.
“When someone is looking for an endocrinologist in Fort Myers, they can click… and find those resources,” Duncan said.
There was also a chance for people to meet Jazz Jennings after one event, allowing them to receive a personalized signed copy of her book “I Am Jazz” as an inspirational souvenir. Jazz’s entire family joined her for the event, sparing no enthusiasm towards the conference attendees who had questions.
Yet while most events were geared towards those transitioning, there was a place of reprise for family members who had come along for the journey.
The Nest Program was open all day, giving spouses, parents and children of transgender conference members a place to find support in one another.
In between events, the marketplace also thrived with live.
Sprawling through one of the resort’s largest conference rooms, the marketplace was alive with vendors offering specialized assistance in numerous topics.
Some mentionable vendors included In The Closet Boutique, assisting trans women with hairstyling, makeup and shoes, as well as Cross Dress, a boutique offering stockings and shapewear.
Many vendors in the marketplace offered services for emotional support, such as the Trevor Project who offered information to assist LGBTQ youth in need of crisis intervention.
From lawyers and surgeons, wigs to breastforms, the marketplace offered a chance to shop and touch up — both physically and emotionally — before heading out to see everything that South Florida had to offer.
Where Did All The Boys Go
Even when glancing through the list of seminars, one noticeable fact about the conference stood out. At the SCC, most seminars and events were focused towards trans women.
There are a number of likely reasons for that, yet much of it comes down to speculation.
“Even in Atlanta, most of the guys who came were local,” said Dee somewhat regretfully.
This year seemed no different, with most of the trans men who were present hailing from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County.
The traditional low attendance of trans men at SCC makes it difficult for the conference to plan more male-centered events, as there’s simply no guarantee that the seminars’ attendance will weigh out the cost of time and commitment.
Many at the conference quietly speculated that the high rate of blend-ability amongst trans men has played a major factor in their attendance. Once receiving hormone therapy, trans men are far more likely to achieve a fully masculine appearance and conform to a life of stealth, meaning they do not live as openly transgender.
This was evident by the limited seminars for trans men. Only one of the seminars diverted from the topic of chest or lower surgery, instead focusing on a trans man’s ability to assimilate into masculine conversation and speech.
Sessions offered for trans women, on the other hand, ranged from clothing to voice training, socialization, using breast forms, and even facial feminization surgery.
Even events for trans men were limited more to all-inclusive nights, with only an open-bar football night exclusively hosted for trans men by Mel Coleman, Director of Transman functions.
Alexis Dee is optimistic that the conference will be able to attract more trans men in the future if they can continue to spread awareness in the community, and the conference aims to extend its arms out for anyone who wishes to change the low attendance rate with an event that will be more appealing to trans men both local and afar.
“[In Atlanta] the guys there often pointed out the lack of events, but I have always welcomed any men who wish to join us as volunteers,” said Dee sincerely. “They’re a part of our community.”
Farewell For Now
The last day of the conference was filled with seminars and events for those who had energy left after the events of the week, yet the grand finalé was undoubtedly the Saturday Night Gala.
Hosted by Alexis Dee herself, the dinner was a chance to dress your best before bidding farewell to the SCC’s beautiful new home.
From sparkling dresses to clean-pressed suits and even a wedding dress, trans men and women alike were invited to a cash bar of fine liquor before relaxing in the convention hall.
Once it had begun, guests joined in celebrating with everyone who had worked so hard to make the SCC’s 25th year a success.
A thank you went out to the audience as well, many of whom were early pioneers who had stopped attending in order to live their lives, only to return this year for the SCC’s grand unveiling in Florida.
To finish the awards, several groups took a moment to thank Richard Gray for his involvement.
The Florida Chapter of the Trans Latina Coalition, led by Arianna Lint as they marched up to the stage, presented Gray with one of two awards of the night, the other of which he received from the Fort Lauderdale CVB for his efforts in inclusiveness for the LGBT community.
Once the formalities had ended, the dance floor was opened up, and Alexis Dee was welcome to sit at her table.
When asked how the event compared to previous years, she spared an exhausted but grateful smile.
“It doesn’t change much,” Dee said, explaining that the conference itself aims to be a place of comfort rather than excitement. “For many people, this conference is just home.”
Fortunately that home in Broward County will be here to greet the Southern Comfort next year, and hopefully for many years to come.