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.
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"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.
The first time I walked into the ballroom I saw 500 trans people together. I just didn't know that could happen.
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.
Read More: Learning How to Dress as a Trans Woman
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."
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."
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.
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.