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Southern Comfort Conference
An Interview with Alexis Dee
By Denny Patterson
Thanks to Richard Gray, the LGBT+ Managing Director for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, Broward County will once again have the pleasure of hosting the Southern Comfort Conference, one of the largest gatherings of the trans community in the world. From September 6-8, 2018 open and closeted trans women and men, allies, activists and medical professionals will gather at the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Blvd for a weekend of education and fun. Since the conference’s founding in 1991, it has built a reputation as a safe place for LGBT+ people with a familial atmosphere and aims at inclusiveness. This conference attracts people from all over the world. I received the chance to chat with Alexis Dee, Southern Comfort’s Chair and Board of Directors President. Not only did she provide more information about the conference itself, but she also shared some intimate moments about her own personal journey.
Southern Comfort will be held September 5 - 8, 2018. Visit www.sccfla.org for more information.
For those who are not familiar with the Southern Comfort Conference, why don’t you start off by telling me what it is.
The conference started in 1991 by a group of people in Atlanta who were concerned the lack of informational places for the transgender community for outreach. This was basically before the internet, it was just getting started. So, some transgender people in Atlanta put together a small group of people by snail mail, advertising and solicited attendees to come to a conference where they brought in doctors and therapists and other professionals who were involved in services geared towards the trans community. So, it was an informational forum and like I said, it started in 1991 and it has kept growing and growing. It became more popular as people found out about it, and they got more prominent doctors and people to come. People came specifically to talk to doctors about their options for surgery and other treatments. The conference gathered quite a following and in 2003, it was incorporated as a 501c nonprofit.
When did you get involved?
I got involved in 2005 as a volunteer. I attended for the first time in 2004, and it basically changed my life. I knew I was trans since I was five-years-old, and back then, there was very little info to none about what being transgendered was. So, when I attended the Southern Comfort, it was a fluke that I found it, I was just searching on the internet. It changed my life. So, the next year, I went back and volunteered. I didn’t mind putting the time in because it felt like I was repaying a debt. They helped me so much, and I wanted to help someone else. Every year it kept growing bigger and bigger. We averaged back then between 400-500 people. Then in 2008, I was asked to sit on the board and 2010 was the first year I chaired the conference. The conference is very important to me.
Why did you initially want to get involved?
Here’s the thing. I told my wife about three years into our marriage that something wasn’t exactly right with how I felt about presenting as a male. I have always known that, and again, back then there was little to no information on it. So, we had discussions about it and she tried to accept the situation. The initial knee jerk reaction to most spouses when their husbands transition from male to female is that this isn’t what I signed up for. I’m not a lesbian and I thought I married this guy who was my knight in shining white armor. To find out that their husbands are more comfortable presenting themselves as a female and wearing dresses changes everything. So, for a whole lot of years between my child being born and my career, how I felt was put in the closet, but it never went away. After my wife and I semi-retired, that was when the internet was starting to come about. I was beginning to find more information and get involved in chat rooms. In 2003 was when I found out about Southern Comfort and I was like wow, a lot of people out there are like me. 2004 is when I went to the conference. I had to lie a bit because I didn’t want my wife to know I was going to it. When I was there, it was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. I met a therapist and she basically said to me that if I ever wanted this to work out and if I wanted to make my relationship work, I had to be totally honest. So, I went back home and started talking about it and it took some time. I have been out as transgender for 14-15 years now and my wife and I had some rough times, but she finally realized that I was happy. I wasn’t happy as the person I was. And all of this is thanks to the Southern Comfort. Like I said, I feel like I am repaying a debt. I want to help someone out there become the person they want to be. I spent 50 years of my life presenting as someone I didn’t want to be, so that is why I do this. And that’s the only reason. I don’t get paid or make any money. This is just something I want to do.
So, your family was supportive of your transition?
I am very fortunate that I have been married to the same woman for 43 years and she stood by me. It was a little tough going sometimes, but we have a great relationship and she has now accepted the fact that this is the way I have always been. I have an incredible daughter who basically feels the same way and a granddaughter who just doesn’t care how I dress. For the rest of my family, I have a couple of sisters and nieces, basically nobody really cares. I am very fortunate.
That’s fantastic. It sounds like this conference is very beneficial.
Oh, yes. In the last 15-20 years, there are now other conferences across the country that focus on the trans community and trans people are more open about themselves. So much started when people like Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner transitioned. One of the biggest problems is dealing with the general public and trying to get them to understand that transitioning from male to female is not a man just dressing as a woman to attract men to be gay. Many of us aren’t “gay.” So, learning all of that and putting it all together to help other people, that is why I work with Southern Comfort. That is the only reason. As long as the conference continues, I’ll be there.
When did the conference move from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale?
We stayed in Atlanta until 2014. After 2011, our attendances went down a bit. We think we basically kind of used up the local people who came. Even though we were in Atlanta, other conferences similar to ours were popping up. We lost a lot of attendees, and in 2014 we ended up with about only 300 people. So, in 2012, I was speaking at a diversity conference at the Marriott and people from various CVBs were there. One was Richard Gray from Broward County and Greater Fort Lauderdale. After the meeting, he told he that he would really like for Southern Comfort to come to Fort Lauderdale. I was like, the chances of that is not good. Florida, as far as I know, is one of the reddest states throughout the country. I didn’t think it would be very diverse. Richard told me, listen, you don’t understand, Broward County is totally different. It is absolutely friendly and has one of the largest gay and lesbian populations in the state. I kind of blew it off, but he didn’t give up. He kept pulling and pulling. He finally said, I want you to come to Fort Lauderdale. I am putting together a group of people who want to talk to you about how we can go about getting the trans community to vacation in Fort Lauderdale. He showed me a property down there and said he would help sponsor the conference. So, we moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2015 and had a good turnout. In 2016 we had a great turnout as well. We had celebrities like Jazz Jennings and some people from the show Transparent. 2017 was rained out because of the hurricane, so now we are putting together this year’s event. We are moving to the Riverside Hotel, which is right in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Las Olas Blvd.
I spoke with Richard Gray not too long ago. He had nothing but kind words about the Southern Comfort.
Richard is an interesting person. He and I are best friends. If I were into guys, I’d totally marry him. He is an incredible person who is so devoted, and he is the leading force of the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB for the LGBT+ community. I love him to death.
What can attendees expect at the conference?
The conference is three days. Thursday-Saturday. Thursday is basically full of medical and psychological presentations and seminars where doctors come to talk about surgical procedures and how different treatments have been upgraded over the past couple of years. On Friday, we are having some people come in to talk. A representative from the TSA in Washington will come in to talk about travel for the trans community because that sometimes causes issues. A lot of people don’t have matching credentials, or their passport picture is of their former selves. So, she will talk about that. The only time there’s really any problems is when our people have attitudes before they get in security lines. Some of my documents are changed, but when I renew my passport, I’ll change that. I travel all over the world and have never had any big issues. Also, a representative from Medicare will be coming to talk. Again, a lot of problems with non-matching credentials with people on Medicare and they are having problems getting services. Friday night, we usually have some sort of entertainment like karaoke. On Saturday morning, Gia Gunn from RuPaul’s Drag Race will come in and talk about some of the things she had to go through while transitioning and her political activism, so there will be a general session and Q & A with her. From Noon-1:30PM, we always do a reception for transgender veterans. That’s a pretty big thing we do and quite a few come to that. It’s amazing how many there are that come out after they are done with their service. We then have a gala dinner Saturday night to say goodbye and have dancing and DJ music.
What was one of your most memorable conference memories?
2011 was a big year for us because we collaborated with WPATH. WPATH is the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Back in the 1970s, one of the top people studying transgenderism was Harry Benjamin. He put together a group of people doing research and trying to understand the causes and effects of being transgendered and treatments. Harry Benjamin was the first person to come up with basically standards of care for the trans community. During that time, in order for a person to be considered trans, they had to go through a lot of hoops to get therapy to okay them for any type of operation. They did a lot of reassignment surgeries back then, but you had to live two years as your desired gender before they would even think about operating. In 2011, WPATH completely rewrote the standards of care for the trans community. This was huge. They made it much easier to see physicians and tell them this is the way I am. You no longer must go through getting two doctors or therapists to sign off before you get your medicine. It was a ground-breaking event, and that year, we had over 1,000 people. The new standards of care were important.
What do you hope attendees take away from the conference?
One of the things we like to say is the minute you walk through the door, you become family and you’ll always be family. We want people to understand that they are not alone, and they are not mentally disturbed. The number one thing in the trans community is support and understanding. Some people who have come out as trans have literally lost their family, their kids, and everything because of the way they are. It’s amazing because when somebody asks why you would all of a sudden come out as trans and take a chance of losing everything, the answer to that question is because I have to. An interesting statistic is that according to a lot of doctors half of their clients who come out as trans are 60-years-old and over. It’s sad because a lot of people who come out at that age were waiting for their parents or someone to die so they didn’t have to come out to them. It’s a very common thing. So, the number one thing I hope attendees take away is, be true to yourself and help others and just understand that you are not alone.
What do you personally look forward to about the conference each year?
Seeing old friends. There are people who come every year, and one of our directors, she has been to every conference since the beginning. Seeing old friends, and the comradery. Some people who come to the conference, this is the only time they can be the person they are and not worry about someone looking at them strangely. I am like a master of ceremonies, walking around and meeting new people and creating new experiences.
Mark your calendars for September 5 - 8, 2018. Visit www.sccfla.org for more information.