The conference is known for educational and informative speakers and sessions, close to 100 of which will take place. The keynote speakers this year include Masen Davis, executive director of Transgender Law Center; transgender advocate Meghan Stabler; and Kristen Beck, the transgender former Navy SEAL who made national headlines when she released her autobiography earlier this year.
“It’s like I’m on a new mission,” Beck told GA Voice when she visited Atlanta in early August to speak at First Metropolitan Community Church. “A lot people are listening about this because I was a Navy SEAL then maybe weren’t before.”
Among this year’s Southern Comfort sessions are “Make Them Fire You! A Guide to Workplace Discrimination and How to Respond,” conducted by Vandy Beth Glenn, who successfully sued the Georgia General Assembly when she was fired based on her gender identity, and “Speaking Out for Equality – Using Your Story to Advance Transgender Rights,” by Jeff Graham and Jamie Roberts of Georgia Equality.
For the first time, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates is partnering with the conference for an onsite Workplace Equality Track, focusing on job-related issues.
The internet has changed the scope of the conference, Dee acknowledged. When it started, pre-Internet, little was available for the trans community, yet now there is information readily accessible online.
“When we first started our mission, it was educational but now it’s both educational and social,” Dee said.
This year’s social outings include a movie day, a round of golf, dinner theater and a wine tasting. Social events within the conference include a casino night and a prom.
Support for first timers
While Southern Comfort, like the transgender community, has evolved through the years, organizers recognize that the first steps toward coming out can remain difficult. The conference offers specific programs designed to help new attendees feel comfortable.
The Big Sister/Big Brother program is one that has proven instrumental. According to Dee, attendees have come in past years and stayed in their rooms for the entire conference, not having the confidence to get out.
Having a mentor helps them with getting out and interacting with the others.
Another fairly new program is Princess Day, which was started three years ago as part of opening day events. Anyone is welcome, although the prime target will be first timers looking to “do the girly things they always wanted to do,” Dee said.
Dee is also proud of the Robert Eads Transmen Health Partnership. The partnership honors Eads, who died in 1999 of ovarian cancer after doctors throughout the Atlanta area refused to treat him. The partnership will offer medical exams/consultations for transmen and trans-masculine individuals at no cost.
Open and inclusive to all
Southern Comfort is one of the longest-running transgender conferences in the country. Another well-known transgender conference, the large Be-All conference in Chicago, ended this year when one of its founders, Julie Ann Johnson, passed away.
Events such as these have become increasingly hard to produce.
“This is done on donations,” Dee said. “We have no paid employee.” Instead, the event depends on volunteers.
The Crowne Plaza has long been a gracious host, Dee noted, and the conference is the largest annual event the hotel holds. 2011 was one of the biggest years for Southern Comfort, prompted by the collaboration of WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
Attending Southern Comfort helps attendees gain support and encouragement to deal with issues such as an ongoing lack of acceptance, Dee said. It’s not just the mainstream world that has been unaccepting; some in the LGBT community have not been welcoming, she said. Other prominent issues are healthcare and employment.
Although it’s hard to get demographics for all the attendees ― “some people are hesitant to give out information,” Dee said ― the conference hosts a healthy mix of female to male (FTM) transgender, male to female (MTF) transgender, those who identify as cross-dressers and those who identify as “other.”
Yet it’s an event that is open and inclusive to all, Dee stressed.