By John Hayden
South Florida is transcending perceptions and transparency. Leading members of the Trans community will be visiting Fort Lauderdale to attend the annual Southern Comfort Transgender Conference (SCTC). The weekend of August 15-17, 2019 will feature plenty of guest speakers, networking, seminars and tons of fab fun.
“Greater Fort Lauderdale is a progressive destination, and we are very proud to sponsor this conference,” said Stacy Ritter, President and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Celebrating diversity and inclusion is something we are very passionate about and this signature conference does just that.”
“The trans community is too often overlooked and underrepresented. This amazing conference is taking its turn in the spotlight to focus on everything from inclusion and acceptance to family and fun,” said Richard Gray, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. He’s worked for 28 years to make Broward County a destination for everyone, and bringing Southern Comfort is an accomplishment that came courtesy of a special bit of inspiration and vision when thinking about the LGBT+ community.
“Four years ago I said to myself, ‘I have this enormous global tourism platform and I say LGBT+ all the time, but what is the T, the forgotten T.’ After the first ever transgender travel study that we sponsored we launched a trans campaign called, ‘Where Happy Meets Go Lucky.’ We never looked back after that. It has been an amazing journey.
“The conference sits really nicely here. And it shows that we, in Fort Lauderdale and South Florida, welcome all travelers. The trans platform is a complex platform. I learn more and more each day about the trans market. We highlight how inclusive we are. We feel that trans people are really important.”
Having a conference like this fits perfectly in a mission nearly 25 years old in Broward County. “We’ve been in this platform as global thought leaders since 1996 when we launched our Rainbow Campaign. We are one of the longest running bureaus that markets to the LGBT+ traveler. We have become global pioneers in the trans platform.”
The theme of this year’s conference is A Safe Space to Explore and Celebrate the Gender Spectrum, something Richard says is perfect for Fort Lauderdale. “This is a destination where the trans community feels safe and free to be themselves. I think that sums up greater Fort Lauderdale.” Our community was the first destination in the world to promote being trans friendly and the first destination in the world to include trans, lesbian, gay and straight people in their mainstream marketing. “We want all of our travelers to have a better experience. Now we’re focusing on the trans community.”
Lots of guest speakers are coming and will hold seminars on a variety of topics. Makeup artist extraordinaire, Amy Vodkahaus, is very excited to be back. She hit up last year’s conference and has had a busy year telling organizers, “Over the past couple of years, I have expanded my horizons in this field within our community. I started attending all the conferences and before I knew it, this is the only thing I do for a living. My dog loves it, we get to spend so much time together. Every day I wake up grateful for all the wonderful people I meet through my work, networking opportunities that are presented to me, and for all the love, respect, and acceptance for me and all those around me. I guess I found my happy bubble.”
Also on the beauty front, Laurie Chisum, the founder of Everyday Beautiful Wigs & Glam is coming. She is an industry leader specializing in both custom wigs and glamorous transformations and is driven by her love of helping people.
There will also be plenty of speakers highlighting visibility, from living day to day in your community to political awareness and advancement. Sarah McBride is the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and the author of, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality. She was also the first openly transgender person to address a major party political convention when she spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
And visibility is important. As Richard points out, there are still a lot of closets yet to be opened. “A lot of trans women define as lesbian. A lot of them are stealth. A lot aren’t out to their own partners. It’s a very stealth community. Which is why safety is important but they want to blend in. It’s about being free to be themselves.”
But it’s the keynote speakers you won’t want to miss! Reality star, Van Barnes, will be addressing the conference, talking about her successes and, just as impactful, her struggles. Van is probably best known as the first person to out the CIS male lead actor who was eventually fired from Amazon’s award winning and critically acclaimed TV show, Transparent, when she joined the #metoo movement, disclosing her experience working several seasons as the personal assistant to the lead actor.
Van began acting way back in the early 1980s, appeared on plenty of daytime talk shows in the 90s as a club kid, and finally transitioned. That was likely her biggest challenge, having to do it twice before finally getting it right. She appeared on Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show, I Am Cait, on E! and is now married and proudly living a self-described, Green Acres style hillbilly life.
Now if you think the group is going to stay cloistered in the Riverside Hotel quietly talking amongst themselves for three days, you don’t know the SCTC. They will be out and about across Broward County. Richard says it’s their opportunity to just be themselves. “The wait staff doesn’t give them a second look. They’re people. Another reason why I think this is a great destination.”
There will be a dinner at Lips, a Princess Event Day, and a gala to wrap up things (or really get the party started) on Saturday night.
The trans community is still fighting for acceptance in all areas of life. This month they bring the fight to South Florida for three days of fun, education and, most importantly, visibility. “They inspire me,” Richard says. “Their journeys are remarkable. Those journeys inspire me and make me want to do more for trans people.”