Libido: Naked Brunch: Comes Naturally
monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #103

The Largest Gathering of
Transgendered People in the World

"You are attending the largest gathering of transgendered people in the world," Maxwell Anderson, co-chair of Atlanta's Southern Comfort Conference, announces to conference registrants gathered for lunch.

It is only the second day of the four-day conference, but already conference organizers have closed conference registration at 675. Already the all-Conference events are filling the ballrooms of Atlanta's Sheraton Buckhead Hotel to the rafters. There is simply no room for any more people.

The mood is infectiously celebratory. Everyone cheers Maxwell's triumphant announcement. It is SCC's 10th anniversary, and this year's conference is clearly going to be larger and more successful than even its confident planners were predicting.

There is a special, powerful, almost predictable, form of magic that occurs whenever a marginalized, disenfranchised group draws its people together en masse to claim some piece of physical, social, and emotional turf as their own. It doesn't matter how temporary or limited the time and territory of liberation may be. What does count is the fact that when disenfranchised people mobilize and assemble, for once the outsiders become the insiders. People painfully familiar with the futility of being disempowered come to be the people who wield power, the people who are in control. At a gathering of the marginalized, group norms that govern behavior and social interaction -- the tool used so effectively by the mainstream to degrade and threaten nonconformists -- are turned on their head. No longer an instrument of social control, group expectations become instead an exhortation to individuation, experimentation, alternative expression, and personal liberation.

Here at Southern Comfort -- a polyglot gathering of gender outlaws ranging from transsexuals to intersexed people to cross-dressers -- the cultural bias will be in favor of acceptance and celebration of difference, rather than the enforcement of uniformity. Here the collective call will be for full personal expression in the service of individuality, rather than for personal confinement in the service of what some would presumptively call "good taste." For the length of this particular five-day weekend, at two adjacent Deep South hotels, the all-too-well-known demands and threats of a hostile world will be kept at bay by the sheer force of Southern Comfort's existence -- by the strength in numbers of the people it has gathered together, and by the power of the conference itself, now an established cultural and financial institution, to claim unapologetic visibility and respect for everyone within the embrace of its wings.

"This is our 10th year and we are growing stronger than ever," the conference program proudly proclaims. "Party with us, socialize, learn, have fun and most importantly, be free to be yourself. There is a lot to be said for freedom. We are family, welcome home."

* * * * *

The issue that binds this family together is gender -- transgender, more specifically -- a willingness to step outside the rigid gender binary that would divide human beings strictly into categories of male and female and assign that gender designation solely according to a person's genitals at birth. As archaeologists and anthropologists are rapidly learning, gender transgression and flexibility are issues that have existed throughout history and across all cultures. Yet, in this society, the idea that one's gender does not always conform to one's birth genitals -- and that it is possible to actively reject the gender expectations of friends and family in favor of the gender identification a person feels from within -- is only now emerging from the shadows of social ridicule into the light of public discussion and increasing societal acceptance.

As any transgendered person can testify, there is still a long way to journey down this road of liberation before transgendered people are accepted as fully legitimate, fully respected, human beings with all the rights and privileges that traditionally gendered people take for granted. An openly transgendered person is still far more likely to be attacked than to be admired on the streets of both cities and small towns. Yet in the last several years there has been a surge of sympathetic, even intrigued, interest in gender mutability, both from the mass media and from the general public quite different in tone from the sensationalizing titillation that has long been a mainstay of daytime television talk shows. Hollywood films focusing on the difficult realities of transgendered life -- films like The Crying Game and Boys Don't Cry -- have been well-received by the public and honored with Academy Awards.

A growing movement of female-to-male transsexuals has taken its place alongside the older and more established organizations of transgendered women and crossdressers. The internet been revolutionary in freeing thousands of transgendered people from isolation and ignorance, providing a flood of references and resources ranging from cultural, medical, and legal information to counseling, support groups, and social contacts. New doors have been pried open in social movements for equal human rights, winning transsexuals a place alongside gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the general social battle for respect, visibility, and legislative protection against abuse, harassment, and discriminatory treatment.

* * * * *

With transgenderism emerging as an issue of national consciousness, the enthusiasm and turnout for Southern Comfort 2000 could almost have been taken for granted. Yet the confirmation of having so many diverse people actually together in one place still seems to amaze just about everyone present. While the conference naturally draws a good percentage of its people from the proximate South (Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas seem particularly well-represented), people have traveled to this conference from all over the United States and, in some measure, from all over the world.

Organizers have made a point of emphasizing inclusivity, welcoming participation by people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identifications. This year, for the first time, both of the co-chairs of this traditionally male-to-female oriented event are female-to-male transsexuals. "The men are at the helm," the program announces proudly, "and we have some very special events in store for all of you!"

There are, indeed, quite a number of FTM's present, a sign of the warming that has been occurring in the sometimes chilly relations between the two transgender movements. (At the most recent FTM gathering in Southern California last October, organizers made a similar point of reaching out to MTF's, and there was enthusiastic feedback from all conference participants about the growing bonds between the two groups.)

Even a casual glance around the meeting rooms, banquet hall, or the always buzzing hotel lobby bar makes clear that the Southern Comfort family includes people who come to gender issues from a wide variety of different perspectives. Crossdressers, intersexed people, androgynes, people in early and late stages of gender transition, and people who have been living in their new gender for decades are all plentifully represented -- not to mention spouses, lovers, parents, children and friends of both crossdressers and transsexuals, people just beginning to think about shifting their gender identities and, at least at the bar, a generous smattering of the group affectionately called trannie-chasers. (Surprisingly, I seem to be the only person covering the conference for the press.)

There is, of course, a full spectrum of educational workshops, but education and information are only one facet of what Southern Comfort is all about. There is, for example, a welcoming reception for partners, family and friends of the transgendered, another for conference newcomers, a third for transmen. Buses have been arranged to take conference participants during the day to such tourist attractions as the Jimmy Carter Library and the Margaret Mitchell House/Gone with the Wind Museum, and in the evening to a series of trans-friendly nightclubs anxious to capitalize on the excitement and adventuring spirit of so many out-of-town visitors.

"For many people who come to Southern Comfort, sleeping is optional," the program notes dryly, and it's easy to believe that for a good many conference participants that's precisely the case. Socializing, cruising, the acute art of seeing and being seen, all start early in the day and continue every night into the not-so-wee hours of the morning. For many the conference is a rare opportunity to dress up, go out, and be as unconventional as you please without having to worry about disapproving looks, catcalls, or more serious physical danger --hardly an opportunity to be squandered with sleep or reticence. The dress code is anything goes, with a parenthetical eye to legal limits and the sensibilities of other hotel guests. "If you are going out dressed in risqué fetish wear or the like, please consider the hotel lobby and wear an overcoat or other wrap," the program requests. In fact, the wardrobe of choice ranges all the way from the subdued to the quietly elegant to the blatantly outrageous. The people similarly run the gamut from plain to glamorous, from young to old, from shy to boisterous. There is no one mold for people to fit, no single image to be fulfilled. There is room for everyone here. The issue is not who you are or even, in the end, how well you present yourself. What matters most is that you be willing to be your real self, whoever that might happen to be.

* * * * *

Over five days, 65 concurrent workshops are offered, dealing with issues that range from the philosophical to the practical, from anthropology to politics, from medicine to fashion, from grief management to sex and play. Subjects include "Transgender Legal Issues," "MTF Hormone Therapy," "Ethnic and Cultural Diversity," "Building and Maintaining a Support Group," "Personal Safety for Crossdressers," "Living in the Transwoman Body," "TG Sex Without a Compass," "Feminine Carriage and Appearance," "The Art of Cruising Men," "Styling Hair and Wigs," "Everything You Wanted to Know about Electrolysis and Laser Hair Removal," "The Partner's Journey," "The Intersexed," "Coming Out to Friends, Family and Co-Workers," "Transgender Revolution," and "Transgender Spiritual Activism."

There are a number of workshops exploring the notion of gender itself -- what gender is, how it is defined by society, and especially how rigid gender expectations limit people's opportunities to understand and express the fullness of who they really are. At a workshop on "Traditions of Transgender," anthropologists Anne Bolin, Jason Cromwell and Marisa Richmond discuss how different forms of gender flexibility have developed in different societies and different historical times. Bolin's "Fivefold Cross-Cultural Model of Gender Variation" includes roles for hermaphrodites, the "two-spirit" traditions of various Native American cultures, socially-approved contexts for crossdressing, transgender forms of marriage, and socially sanctioned rituals for expressing crossgender identities.

Richmond notes the virtual explosion in anthropological literature on transgender issues in recent years. She speaks in particular of how growing acceptance of athleticism in women is breaking down traditional definitions of both gender and gender roles, not only in the U.S. but also in countries like Brazil.

Cultural anthropologist Cromwell adds a female-to-male perspective to the panel, noting that anthropologists have now identified FTM social forms in some 200 different cultures. He notes that stigmatization of women who identify as male is absent in many small societies, and that in many societies women are permitted to become male warriors, especially after large numbers of genetic men have been killed in times of war.

A workshop on "Ethnic and Cultural Diversity" takes a hard look at racism within the transgender community, and at the particular dilemmas of transgendered people of color. Participants speak of their often conflicting racial and transgender identities, such as the difficulty of coming out as transgendered while maintaining ties to traditional church communities also important to them. The workshop also provides a vehicle for the relatively small number of people of color at the conference to share strategies for dealing with their minority status at the conference, and for new outreach to increase participation by people of color in the future.

A particularly moving workshop, "The Children Speak," provides an opportunity for several children of transgendered people to discuss what it has been like for them as their parents have become transgendered. Four children from transgendered families, all but one still in their teens, speak frankly and movingly of their various feelings and experiences after they learned that their fathers were in some stage of transition toward becoming women. While all the people in this group have clearly come to accept and appreciate their parents' changing gender identification, it's clear that the road to acceptance has often been difficult and complicated. Individuals talk with remarkable ease and clarity about their initial surprise, about their early confusion and conflicted feelings, about how they have dealt with embarrassment and misunderstanding among their friends, and in some cases how they were affected by their parents' divorce. They agree that the hardest issues have been dealing with what they see as their various fathers' emotional fragility, and also the difficulty of keeping the issue a family secret, in cases where the fathers were not yet public about their transitions.

The emotion in the room is palpable as the audience, mostly transgendered parents struggling with when and how to talk with their own children, turn to the young panel for perspective and advice. Happily, the panel rises to the occasion magnificently, offering sympathetic understanding, experience, and impressive emotional insight and perspective, which the audience takes in with obvious gratitude. Basically, the panel advises transgendered adults that their children are a good deal stronger than they think, and able to deal with difficult, complex family issues when those issues are explained to them truthfully, and when there is emotional room for the kids to work through whatever conflicted feelings and responses they may have.

The unmistakable message that the people in this group understand how important realigned gender has been for their fathers, and that they have been able to make their way to genuine feelings of support for their fathers' transitions, provides a deep opportunity for healing to everyone in the room. Some are able to go further, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to grow and gain new maturity and emotional depth. The session ends when workshop organizer, therapist Zantui Rose, invites the parents of the panel members, who have been waiting outside, to join the workshop, introduce themselves, and ultimately stand together with their kids as the room erupts in appreciative applause for parents and children alike.

Another emotional highlight of the conference is the premier showing of a feature-length documentary film, also titled Southern Comfort. This beautiful, powerfully emotive film, directed by Kate Davis and co-produced by Elizabeth Adams, documents the final year in the life of Robert Eads. Eads, an FTM mother of two from rural Georgia, died in 1998 of ovarian cancer after being denied treatment by over twenty doctors who feared that having a transgendered patient would be detrimental to their medical practices.

At its most basic level, the film is a powerful cry for non-discriminatory medical services for the transgendered. But it is even more significant as a portrait of Eads, of his support community (including the Southern Comfort Conferences and many of the current conference organizers), and of the spirit of personal honesty and mutual caring that is such a fundamental characteristic of the entire transgendered subculture.

Southern Comfort follows Eads after he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer as he unexpectedly falls in love, and as he, his new love, and the two transgendered couples who are their closest friends, all deal with their love, grief, hope, and anger as he grows weaker and weaker and finally, after one last Southern Comfort Conference, dies. It is a moving story of the power of love in an unaccepting world, and of the importance of wholehearted enthusiasm for life when death lies just around the corner. The film is also a powerful testimonial to the profound sense of family and community that has grown with the transgendered movement, and to the spirit of one remarkable man who demonstrates by personal example the possibility of triumphing over pain, injustice, and even death through a deep commitment to living one's personal truth, unambiguously expressing and receiving love, and maintaining an unflagging, irrepressible sense of humor and appreciation for life, complete with all its painful ironies.

Southern Comfort, directed by Kate Davis and co-produced by Elizabeth Adams, is in the process of going into general public release. Information on the film is available from Q-Ball Productions, 412 West End Avenue #3E, New York, NY 10024; 212-475-5186.

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