A Pilgrimage to Florida with 500 Trans People
At the 25th annual Southern Comfort Conference, the world's largest gathering of trans people, men and women from around the country came to talk, reflect on the past, and feel free.
Photos by Mariette Pathy Allen
The Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) is advertised as the largest gathering of transgender people in the world. At the event, which takes place in Bonaventure Resort, Ft. Lauderdale, a miniature rapid of white water crashed over an acrylic stone formation above the pool. Trans women mingled in the deep end, and in small circles on the concrete pathways that wove between the hotel buildings. It was the Friday afternoon pool party at SCC. I'd arrived that morning, knowing I looked somewhat out of place in my black New York uniform, jeans and a denim jacket. I pulled my boots off and put my feet in the water.
Near the Bayou Bar, wading in the shadow of its slanted palm ceiling, I saw a young man—fat, raised scars wrapped around his chest muscles on either side, not quite connecting. He tossed a ball to a boy crouched in the water at his knees. They were just talking and horsing around like any young men. I couldn't look away from them. Two old friends, Celia and Amy, were deep in conversation beside me at the pool's edge. Their voices melted into white noise as I stared toward the future: How many transgender boys have a role model to hang out with, someone who can speak with experience to the pitfalls and machinations of trans male masculinity? They were brothers, if not by blood.
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I was only one year old when SCC began in 1990—just a baby in a crib somewhere in Western Massachusetts, wrapped in a blue blanket. This year, the conference celebrated its 25th anniversary. Today trans people organize on social media, and public discourse on gender identity is popular throughout culture. But when SCC began, before the Internet, transgender people were wanderers. Meeting one another was uncommon. If you wanted community you had to search the earth to find it. Trans conferences, retreats, newsletters, and mail chains were like candles burning in a window along a stretch of unlit road; they were a light in the darkness, signaling welcome to rogue members of a secret society. Ever since 1990, Southern Comfort has given transgender people a way to connect in large numbers and privately, away from their everyday lives.
The first time I walked into the ballroom I saw 500 trans people together. I just didn't know that could happen.
"The first time I walked into the ballroom I saw 500 trans people together. I just didn't know that could happen, that it exists." Amy's voice drifted back into focus, and I looked away from the two trans men I'd been watching. She's now in her early forties, but when Amy first came to SCC in 1998 she was just 24 and had no clue how to deal with her gender identity. "You spend so much time thinking that you're the only one. You live in this quiet place where you can't talk about [being transgender] with anybody. And then you go somewhere where everybody you meet has somewhat of a similar story, you find yourself finishing each other's sentences."
There is a loneliness you'll know only if your life is strictly segmented into parts secret and public. It is the loneliness of never being known completely, a half-life with silent hours spent raking soil for a dead crop. You sometimes feel like you'll completely disappear, but every year that loneliness is punctuated with sisterhood, and that keeps you going. There are bedrooms where you dress in private, hotels in two towns over, and conferences across the country or the globe that you fly to every fall. These places and moments make up a scrapbook of your survival. They may be all you have of her.
Amy and Celia attended SCC for the first time together. They knew each other from support groups back West. After they found Southern Comfort, they kept coming for a few years, even volunteering to help with registration. At its height, the conference had over 1000 attendees. This year there appeared to be around 500.
By the year 2000, both Celia and Amy began to feel like they might not have that much in common with conference attendees. "[Transition] was all about normalization [at that time], slipstreaming back into life," Celia said. Both lived in Midwestern towns, where they kept their trans identities secret at work and among friends.
"Back then it seemed like after you went full time [as a woman] you went back to your normal life, or your new normal life," Amy explained. But keeping their transgender history hidden meant they were no longer plugged into the community that encouraged them to transition in the first place. "I didn't really want to be a trans person in the world," said Amy. "[Going stealth] sort of just happened."
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After 15 years of living deep stealth lifestyles, Celia and Amy felt anxious to reconnect with a part of themselves that they rarely thought of any longer. The Southern Comfort Conference first formed out of necessity for people just like them, and it fulfilled its purpose in their lives.
The world changed during their 15-year hiatus from the trans community. Celia and Amy internalized the isolation of the 90s, carrying it into their lives as women. But at the same time, the world around them became less isolated and more aware of transgender issues. They both acknowledge they're dealing with a certain degree of internalized transphobia, and they'd like to change that.
"I think I am starting to get to a place now, after 15 years of this, where I am a little bothered by feeling like I can't talk about [being trans]," Amy said. She's scared to share this part of herself in her life today because she's planted roots in her stealth lifestyle. There are so many relationships, personal and professional, in which she's never shared her identity as a trans woman. "That's really the big reason I wanted to come back this year. I just wanted to be able to talk about it for a little bit and not feel like it's something I was always keeping in a little vault deep down that I wouldn't share with anyone."
"I wouldn't say that I am generally proud of being trans," Amy said. "I am feeling better about it now than I probably ever have."
After the pool party, I returned to my room to dress for dinner. The 25th Southern Comfort Conference took place on a resort in Florida, but each of the 24 before it were held in Atlanta, Georgia. The convention organizers in Broward County, Florida strongly encouraged Southern Comfort to transplant. Ft. Lauderdale is already known as an LGBT area, but they'd like to strengthen their reputation as a transgender friendly destination for tourists and transplants.
The ballroom was just as Amy described. It was enormous, filled with round tables blanketed in white cloth, plates and water glasses. Trans women and men were seated, waiters hurried platefuls of pale dinner, and a handful of conference execs operated cameras, lights, and microphones from an elevated control center in the back of the room.
Midway through dinner, after a few barely audible speeches by trans ambassadors hailing from various corners of the globe, the stage cleared and a circle of light appeared in the center of the ballroom floor. Kristin Reichman scissored her way through the crowd in a skintight red and black dress. She had one of those black bulbous microphone ear pieces coiled around the left side of her head, and she came to a halting stop in the center of the spotlight.
"Do you know the top three things that prevent people from achieving a fulfilled life?" Reichman's voice was omnipresent. All eyes were on her as she listed our fears. "They are fear of not having enough money, fear of the reactions of others, and just plain fear of the unknown." Silverware lowered and ears perked. "Out of the these three things so many people live unfulfilled, and unhappy lives."
It was so hard. Today, it's not easy, but it's easier [than it used to be].
For 20 minutes, Reichman gave a pseudo-TED talk. Before dinner, the woman to my left had mentioned how great Kristin is. She leaned over and whispered it again: "See," she said. "She's awesome."
After our conference food cleared, I found out just how truly awesome Reichman really is. She's a motivational speaker and a regular at SCC. In fact, she used to run it. "I ran the conference in 2006," she told me, reclining after her performance. There were tens of thousands of beads sewn into hundreds of dresses shifting around us as people cleared out of the ballroom. "In 2007 I was the President of the board of directors, and I started the first transgender work exposition."
Beside Kristin sat a beautiful older woman named Gene Rich, her mother. If the trans male brotherhood I'd witnessed in the pool seems uncommon, the mother-daughter relationship between these two women feels impossible. Like her daughter, Gene is also transgender; Gene and Kirstin transitioned at the same time. "[Kristin] took a step way beyond myself, in terms of becoming an activist and doing things to change society," Gene said.
Rich began coming to the conference two decades ago. As she spoke of it, tears welled in her eyes. "It's generational," she said, smiling through the stain of her own hard, unforgettable history. "Every movement has its generations. There are people here who are Vietnam vets; some people are in their eighties." Year after year, for a quarter of a century, a generation of transgender people came to this place in pilgrimage.
Southern Comfort is both a time and a place. It is defined by a clear purpose, and it couldn't exist if it didn't come to an end five short days after its start. For many men and women (mostly women), Southern Comfort is the only time of year when they are free from the mask of their birth sex.
"I've noticed that in the last ten years," Rich explained, "Thanks to the Internet, now we have many people who were part of the conference in its early years who've gone on and aged, and not as many young people have followed. They don't need the conferences as much [as we did]. But, I will say one thing, I think the conferences, especially the very, very early ones, had some of the people that really made a difference in the law."
Gene went on to describe a judge from Texas and more than a handful of attorneys who worked toward change from within the system. The Southern Comfort Conference was an annual rallying point where trans people could discuss the political and cultural issues facing their community and walk the grounds no longer incognito, without the disguise that many wear at home.
"I knew some of the very early people in the movement," Rich said. "The George Washingtons and the Martha Washingtons." The tears in her eyes spilled into her hand. "It was so hard. Today, it's not easy, but it's easier [than it used to be]."
"We stand upon the shoulders of giants," Kristin said, putting a hand on her mother's shoulder. "We must never forget those that came before us. There are some extraordinary people who went through unbelievable experiences. Some are no longer with us, and not necessarily due to natural causes either. It is our responsibility to keep reaching for the stars, but we do stand upon their shoulders, and must never ever forget that."
When Kristin was a kid, her mom had not yet come out as transgender or begun transitioning. In Kristin's teenage years, Gene sat her down for what must have felt like one of the most difficult conversations of her life. But as she relayed her lifelong story of gender dysphoria, discrimination, and self-acceptance, her kid just sat there and smirked. "Eventually after about 20 or 30 more minutes of [Kristin] smiling at me, I said, 'What the heck is so funny about my life?' She smiles and says to me, I am too."
"Let me add something to that," Kristin said. "It hasn't always been perfect—nothing is." She described how after they both came out to each other, Gene also apologized. "She said, 'I am sorry that I gave this to you.' [But I told her,] 'You gave me this wonderful mind, and you gave me the capacity to overcome so many challenges in the world. That's the greatest gift any parent could give. I regret nothing.'"
On Saturday morning the trans teen queen, reality TV star Jazz Jennings arrived at Southern Comfort. In a bid to keep their conference alive in the 21st century, and to share their long tradition with the future generation, the SCC planning committee organized as many contemporary, youthful speakers and workshop leaders as they could for their 25th anniversary. Zackary Drucker also presented. Drucker is an artist and a producer of Amazon's hit show, Transparent. Jazz and Zackary were in the lobby on Saturday morning taking interviews with local press.
Jazz broke into mainstream media five years ago in an interview with Barbara Walters. At the time, she was 11 years old. Since then, Jazz has become an advocate for the transgender community. She has co-authored a children's book about being trans, speaks regularly on issues facing transgender youth, and now stars in I am Jazz, her own reality TV show on TLC. At Southern Comfort, she stood out not just because of her budding celebrity, but because she was one of only a handful of guests under 25. Most attendees fall somewhere between middle aged or elderly.
"When I see transgender individuals who are older than me and who are from a different time, it's hard for me because I know they suffered so much more [than I do]," she said. "Those people are so brave. I applaud them for continuing to fight until they could reach that day when they could live their lives authentically. And that's what I tell them when I meet people like them. You're brave. You're strong."
Those people are so brave. I applaud them for continuing to fight until they could reach that day when they could live their lives authentically.
It was late Saturday evening, the last night of the conference, and the gala dance at which everyone dressed to the nines. For those not dancing, big buses shuttled back and forth between the resort and the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. I was in my hotel room, dressing for the evening. I put the gray plastic card into the reader on my room's door—Do Not Disturb—then pulled my hair from the bun it lives in, through a boar bristle brush, and blasted it with heat until it was flat and straight. I knew it wouldn't stay that way long in the Floridian humidity and hoped the wrinkles in my black silk dress would settle soon.
It was a warm night with a breeze. The stars and moon brightened the crashing water on the pool's acrylic stones. Red embers glowed from the mouths of women smoking cigarettes in groups of three and five. I went inside and passed into the bar. It was low, recessed into the floor, and it swept across one full side of the room.
Celia and Amy were seated at a table. They waved when I came in. Kristin was talking with a group of women. Gene's hand appeared on my arm. "I want to thank you," she said. Our conversation the night before meant a lot to her, she told me, and we embraced. I do not know what it must have been like to come this far. I did not fight in a war or father children. The elder generation at SCC created the space they needed.
The next morning, everyone departed. Some of the women I'd spent the past two days with were now dressed as men. Numbers and email addresses were exchanged, then we hugged goodbye, and I went to the hotel restaurant for one last breakfast buffet.
As I poured coffee into my mug, I glanced above the heated platters of apple sausage, waffles, and eggs. The room had entirely changed; it was now decorated for a baby shower later that day. Blue streamers had been put up across the room, over the archway that entered into the bar. There were miniature, pastel blue wicker carriages with crinoline on the tables, and congratulatory baby shower signs plastered over the bar's wooden posts. The night prior, that room was filled with women who had been misidentified at birth, who survived for decades beneath the mountainous M on their birth certificate.
It's a boy! The signs insisted.