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|Annual transgender conference offers resources, community|
|by Ryan Lee|
|September 14, 2012 00:00|
For most of life, Blake Alford was enveloped by solitude.
From the ostracism experienced coming of age in the 1950s and ‘60s – getting beaten up and kicked down the stairs at school for being queer – to more than 30 years on the road driving a truck, Alford was used to feeling alone.
And sharing one’s own company can be particularly isolating when you are at war with yourself, when your body and your mind have dueling definitions of who you are.
“Being behind the wheel of a truck, you don’t see very many libraries, you don’t hear very much about being transgender, especially back during that time, so I didn’t have any information about it,” said Alford, who, at age 56, transitioned from female-to-male almost a decade ago.
During Alford’s transition, his therapist suggested he attend Southern Comfort, an annual transgender conference in Atlanta that this year takes place Sept. 18-23 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Ashford-Dunwoody Road.
“The first time I walked through the door at Southern Comfort, it was honestly like I was home for the first time in my life,” Alford recalled of his first conference in 2005. “I was with family.”
“I spoke with doctors and I spoke with other therapists, and you learn that you really not have been the only person on this planet that was like this,” Alford said. “It was just an eye-opener to find out that I was a real person, and that I was not some type of freak. Because I really thought I was alone out there, because I thought I was the only one that was going through this.”
The transgender gathering uplifted Alford so much that by the end of his first Southern Comfort, he asked organizers if he could volunteer the next year.
“I told them I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to work,” said Alford, who is the chair of this year’s Southern Comfort. “I didn’t want anybody else to go through what I did and not be able to get the knowledge.”
Information and entertainment
Southern Comfort itself has undergone a remarkable transition since it began in 1990 as a gathering of about a half dozen friends. This year’s conference features 96 seminars on mental health and legal resources, information on surgeries and hormones, and even fashion tips. The doctors who will offer insight at Southern Comfort come from all across the United States, as well as countries such as Belgium.
“In the past, we were probably asking and encouraging some doctors to come and do whatever we could do to get them there, and now we turn half the people away,” said Shamayim Alexander, trans health coordinator for Southern Comfort.
In addition to helping attendees navigate the variety of issues that transgender people encounter, the conference also offers “a communion with people who are of like mind and supportive,” Alexander said.
The “social education” aspect of Southern Comfort has been Christy Anderson’s favorite part of the conference since he began attending in 2005.
“There are still segments of the community that don’t have easy access to that type of information [provided in seminars], so there’s always going to be a need for that,” Anderson said. “I honestly think the education you get just by going out and being out in public, in ‘June and Ward Cleaver World’ as I call it, you get just as much and as important an education as you get from talking to a doctor.
“So many of the attendees write us back and tell us what a positive effect the conference has been, just really from the ability to be out and talk with people and interact with people,” Anderson added.
Southern Comfort has regularly planned outings to venues such as Agatha’s Mystery Dinner Theater and the Georgia Aquarium, but organizers have focused on bringing more entertainment opportunities to the four-day affair.
This year’s list of social activities includes three nights of karaoke, a mechanical bull-riding rodeo Friday night, an appearance by transgender entertainer Buck Angel, and a Friday night concert by the rising Atlanta rock band The Sexual Side Effects, whose lead singer, Amber Taylor, is transgender.
For all of the information and revelry Southern Comfort can provide, Alford regrets that there is still a Cinderella aspect to the weekend for some attendees.
“It’s very upbeat and everybody has a blast, but about 11:30 or twelve o’clock [Saturday night], the tone starts to change from being constantly laughing, cutting up and carrying on, to everybody’s falling apart because they’ve got to go home and go back to the other life,” Alford said. “That part is hard, it’s very hard.”
‘Times are changing’
The size and make-up of Southern Comfort attendees continues to evolve, with about 1,000 people expected to attend. Most of the crowd is male-to-female transgender people, but the number of female-to-male participants numbered 160 last year, compared to the 10 or 15 who attended during Alford’s first year.
Southern Comfort has also expanded its programming to included the spouses and significant others of transgender individuals, and mothers have started attending with their transgender children.
“Now we’re seeing more of the younger FTMs and MTFs coming in with their parents, and I think that’s fascinating because they’ve got the support of their families,” Alford said. “They’re coming and they’re attending the seminars together and they’re working together to see that their children get what they need, and I think that it’s great.
“If somebody would have suggested that would have happened a hundred years ago, I mean, we would all be hung up on trees behind the barn,” Alford said. “But times are changing and people are beginning to realize that people are people, and they deserve rights.”
Top photo: Left: Buck Angel will be a special guest at this year’s Southern Comfort Conference. A female-to-male transsexual, Angel makes and acts in adult films and also advocates on behalf of the transgender community, especially trans men. (Photo courtesy Buck Angel/CC 3.0) Right: Attendees at Southern Comfort enjoy a range of activities, from educational seminars to gala dinners. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)
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