Sometimes “T” is for tough
A lesbian SO’s view of Southern Comfort 2006
by Beth Maples-Bays
Reading about Southern Comfort online last year, I realized that it was simply time for Sam and I to go check it out. After 15 years of living and loving together as well as weathering the storm and demands of transition five years prior, I felt that I owed it to Sam to invest in a trip to at least one trans-oriented convention. Southern Comfort was the closest, so it was a natural choice.
Allow me to give you a bit of background about what brought us to that conclusion. When we began our relationship in 1991, Sam got a healthy, employed partner making more than $40,000 annually as a registered nurse. Before then end of our first year together, I became very sick and was soon completely disabled. Complete blindness, respiratory problems, joint and skin manifestations of the autoimmune disorder that was ravaging my body put me in a position of helplessness that I had never before experienced. With a pre-existing severe bilateral hearing impairment, the loss of my vision also meant the loss of my primary means of communication.
Throughout the ensuing eight years, I experienced numerous eye surgeries (14 total,) 32 periocular injections of corticosteroids, immunosuppressant therapy, respiratory debilitation that precluded independent ability to get from one room to the next without assistance, and many other serious medical problems. I saw internists, retinal and vitreous specialists, pulmonologists, rheumatologists, cardiologists, and other highly specialized medical practitioners as we began the hunt for a diagnosis that was stubbornly elusive.
Throughout this ordeal, Sam was always by my side. I never went to a doctor’s appointment alone. I never had to worry about getting medications from the pharmacy. I was supported and loved by a partner who, initially unbeknownst to me, was struggling with important issues of his own.
One day in 1992, I was sitting on the bed in my bedroom, resting from an exhausting trip to the bathroom, gasping for breath, unable to see myself in the vanity mirror less than three feet away. Sam, who was then using his feminine name, sat down beside me on the bed. He was holding some sort of paper in his hands, and he told me that he had something to tell me. The paper he was holding was a pamphlet from the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The conversation that occurred between us that day was not long or complicated. Sam told me that he is transsexual, that he had known this since early childhood, that he had had the vocabulary to articulate his transsexuality since early adolescence, and that he had actually written to the Ericson Foundation more than thirty years prior to obtain information regarding transitioning from female to male.
My immediate response was simply one of exasperation, and I told Sam that it just was not something I had the energy to discuss. I was having trouble getting through the day alive without considering anyone’s gender identity, my own included. I promised him that if I ever got any semblance of health restored, we would deal with it at that time. Sam patiently accepted my promise.
What ensued were seemingly endless years spent blind, tapping with a white cane, undergoing surgeries and highly invasive procedures in hopes of getting a handle on a medical condition that no one could name, much less treat. When 1998 rolled around, I began immunosuppressant therapy that resulted in a halt to disease progression. At the same time, Windows 98 SE personal computer operating system came equipped with accessibility features for the first time. In a rash of competition, the prices on home computers became so low that I was actually able to purchase one. That opened up a world of information that would eventually benefit both of us in ways we never imagined.
After months of intensive self-taught immersion in computer applications, I began to stick a toe in the puddle of available information concerning transgender people, including social/support and informational sites. As I racked up the URLs in hopes of one day finding the answers that Sam needed, I found that it did not take nearly as long as I thought it would. By 2001, Sam was on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) supervised by our family internist who had gone the extra mile in educating himself on this when he realized there was no one in East Tennessee at that time who was qualified to do so.
The next big hurdle was Sam’s chest reconstruction surgery. He felt strongly that without that, he would never pass as male. To make a long story short, in October 2001 he had the surgery done in Timonium, Maryland, by Dr. Beverly Fisher, despite great financial hardship. That debt became our primary financial priority for years to come.
Finally, in 2006, I could see our way clear to manage a trip to the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) held in Atlanta, Georgia. Initial correspondence with “Cat” Turner and the other gracious organizers, who see to it that no one needing a scholarship is turned away, was exciting. We both looked forward to our first conference with hope and enthusiasm.
Going to Atlanta early in order to have time to do some “touristing,” we anticipated the beginning of the conference with heightened eagerness as we realized it was about to begin. The program schedule was packed with a great mix of informative and entertaining events. The organization of the conference was splendid, and the meals and accommodations were superb. We were both delighted to have the opportunity to meet so many transfolks from so many different backgrounds. SCC is the largest conference of its kind in the world. Attendees have come from all fifty states and numerous foreign countries. Volunteers do all of the organizing and informational presentations. They do so with professional demeanor, with very few exceptions.
One of those exceptions occurred Thursday morning. I attended a welcoming reception for parents, family, and friends of transfolks. The hostess for the event was an SCC board member who is a licensed professional counselor. We were seated in a hospitality suite as the significant others, family, and friends of transgender persons dribbled in one or two at a time. Eventually there were about fifteen people present. At the facilitator’s suggestion, we took turns introducing ourselves and stating how we came to be at SCC. By the time the circle had finished, I realized that I was the only partner of a female-to-male (FTM) in the room. While I was a bit surprised, I was nonetheless glad to be surrounded by partners of transgender people. As the circle widened and more women joined the discussion, I soon realized that I was not only the only FTM’s significant other (SO), but also the only lesbian-identified partner. All of the partners present identified in one way or another as heterosexual. Most were married or planning to marry. That ratcheted my surprise up a notch, but I was still enjoying the meeting.
At one point the moderator made an attempt at a summary statement to move us on to the next discussion point in which she made a sweeping motion to indicate the whole group and said, “All of us were either married to our partners when they transitioned, or we met our partners after they transitioned.”
I was taken aback. The story I had told them was very similar to the one included at the beginning of this article. Her dismissal of my experience was one of many to come over the ensuing weekend.
When I reminded her that I was neither married or planning to do so, as the laws of my state do not allow Sam and I to marry. Her face flushed. She dismissed me, more directly this time, and moved on with her talking points. She also repeatedly referred to me as “gay,” despite my objections and explanation that I prefer to be called “lesbian.”
Later that morning, I attended a workshop on FTMs of color presented three panelists. As I listened, I heard the same tired stereotyping of lesbians that I experienced online during the time that Sam was transitioning. In fact, one of the panel members said, “I was too masculine for the lesbians, so I did not feel accepted.” Which lesbians? Hello? There are entire listservs and support groups of lesbians who are attracted only to very masculine women. Surely, this person could have found one in his hometown, which is a major metropolitan area. Recognizing one’s transgender status and taking steps to align the physical presentation to the person between the ears is entirely valid. Blaming it on lesbians about whom you obviously know very little is quite another.
In addition to the workshops, daytime activities included such goodies as a trip to the Georgia Aquarium, Lennox Square Mall shopping trip, tour of the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theater production of “Elliott, A Soldier’s Fugue,” and a 60’s Luau pool party. The evenings were filled with myriad activities and events, ranging from Agatha’s: A Taste of Mystery Dinner Theatre and a Sweet 16 PJ’s and Slumber Party to Al La Bone’s 1920’s Speakeasy and So-Co A-Go-Go. Late night events included clubbing at the Wetbar and a 1970’s Saturday Night Fever Blowout. There was truly something for everyone.
I declined the offer to repeat the “support” group experience the following morning. The group was designed to be an ongoing support for SO’s attending the convention, however as the old saying goes – fool me twice, shame on me.
Sam and I opted to hear Dr. Toby Meltzer, plastic and reconstructive surgeon, speak on surgical techniques for FTMs. It was a highly informative choice. With a background in nursing, I was eager to hear more regarding gender reassignment surgery (GRS) from a surgeon actively practicing in that area.
Friday was filled with workshops overflowing with information for transfolks on topics ranging from HRT to political involvement to makeup tips for the male-to-female (MTF) trans women. The open microphone was a rousing good time, and the vendors offered everything from wigs and jewelry to books on transition experiences. It was a bit of a treat to see lovely ladies’ shoes in size 13 wide lined up in a delicate display. The makeup artists were there as well, creating painted ladies one by one.
The formal dinner that evening was wonderful, and we lingered a while to talk with another FTM/SO couple. They hailed from Asheville, North Carolina, just over the mountains from our home in Knoxville. As Sam spoke with the FTM, I chatted with the SO, finding that she, too, was heterosexual. Her background in occupational therapy had given us some fodder for conversation, and we were just about to launch that topic when the “support” group leader joined us. She had announced from the dinner podium her intent to form an advocacy group for elder transgender people. I complimented her on her goal and suggested that it might be good to join with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to further her objectives.
What followed was a tirade about the way transfolks have been treated by “gays.” My repeated objections in the prior workshop had been ignored, as they were again on this evening. While it is a fact that trans persons have had to fight tooth and nail for a place under the LGBT rainbow, it is not because of my lack of earnest advocacy. As an activist in my community, I am an ardent supporter of inclusion for trans people in all aspects of the LGBT community.
In 2004, I organized our area’s first-ever Transgender Day of Remembrance. There had never been an observance of that important commemoration in East Tennessee’s history. I wrote an article advocating for the inclusion of MTF community members in lesbian groups and events, posted on my personal Web site, in 2003. I have personally lobbied the Tennessee General Assembly with regard to the need for statutory changes allowing changes on the birth certificates of persons born in Tennessee who transition to another sex. Those lobbying efforts occurred in 2005 and 2006 as part of the Tennessee Equality Project’s Advancing Equality Day on the Hill. In short, I am not only an FTM/SO, I am an ally and an active one at that.
Under attack because of past injustices inflicted by others, I tried to explain, but could not break through the angry tirade. I simply got up and left the room. As far as my heart was concerned, the SCC was over. The following day, I found some healing in the sweet, tender circle lead by Holly Boswell. As the circle participants presented their requests in the healing phase of the ceremony, I found myself asking to be welcomed. The sense of isolation at being the only lesbian partnered with an FTM at the conference was truly overwhelming. In this circle of healers, I found solace and comfort.
I needed that circle more than I realized I would. Saturday morning brought fresh wounds in the workshop entitled “Partners of Transmen.” I won’t rehash the entire hour, but will offer this as an example of what I heard. The panel consisted of three women, two of whom identified as heterosexual, and one claimed “queer” as her descriptor. A bit more savvy this time, I asked the participants if anyone in the room identified as lesbian. No one did. Later in the conversation when I referred to myself as the only FTMSO lesbian in the room, the remark was characterized as “harsh,” and I was silenced. I gave up on trying to communicate at that point. I also gave up on SCC. With many burners in the fire, I cannot dally with folks who are not supportive and who will not or cannot open their minds to the possibility that there are others who are different, but who do accept and support them.
On the drive home, Sam and I discussed these events ad infinitum, analyzing and re-analyzing in hopes of coming to some greater understanding of how and why they occurred. Our conclusions were relatively simple. SCC, while doing their best to welcome FTMs and their SOs, is rooted and grounded in a culture and tradition that primarily reflects the needs of MTFs and crossdressers who are heterosexual. They were the overwhelming majority of the conference participants. It is also primarily an entertainment event. Despite the organizers best efforts to offer enlightening and informative workshops, the preponderance of participants seemed to be there for one big party. There is nothing wrong with having a party. I’m just not interested in that form of entertainment, particularly in a setting in which I received little if any validation for who and what I am.
If the organizers want to increase the participation of FTMs and SOs, they need to reach out into the community in which those people live. They need to study the subculture of FTMs apart from the FTM and trans organizations, looking instead to the local LGBT communities. The ability of FTMs to become truly invisible in the larger culture does not mean that all identify as heterosexual and choose the path of either stealth or trans activist. There are other choices. Some of us like a larger family. We feel supported and accepted on the local level in ways that cannot be replicated by national organizations of any stripe.
We find our local community to be accepting and supportive without need for credentials to prove who we are, without pressure to succumb to anger rooted and grounded in the past, without the push to live a separatist lifestyle based on Sam’s trans identity. We like our local LGBTQ community. They know us. They love us. They support us.
At a time in our nation’s history when the slings and barbs of the radical right are assaulting all of us, it behooves us to gather and find strength in numbers. It can be done.