By Mike Brewer
While LGBTQ Americans are slipping into the mainstream of society, most cities struggle with the “T.”
Out of necessity and personal safety, Transgender people are peeking out of their closets to find homelessness, chronic unemployment, and brutal attacks await them. Some are even waiting until their parents die before they come out and have gender reassignment surgery.
Fort Lauderdale wasn’t always as welcoming to the LGBT community at large and to transgender people specifically.
In the 1950s, Fort Lauderdale city government worked to shut down as many gay bars as possible and enacted laws making cross-dressing illegal. From 1956 to 1966, the Johns Committee of the Florida Legislature actively sought to root out homosexuals and transgender people in state employment and in public universities across the state, publishing the inflammatory "Purple Pamphlet," which portrayed all homosexuals and transgender citizens as predators and a dire threat to the children of Florida.
But today the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (GFLCVB) is welcoming the Transgender community with open arms. In fact, the “T” is now a centerpiece of the GFLCVB marketing efforts and has become a model for other cities to follow.
As the only U.S. destination with a designated LGBTQ department, in 2014 the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB commissioned a first-ever study of transgender travelers in North America with the goal of identifying the travel motivations and priorities of the market. The survey provided insight as to how the CVB could communicate appropriately with transgender travelers and deliver a sensitive and authentic welcoming experience, including providing training to the local community. Last year alone, Fort Lauderdale welcomed more than one million LGBTQ visitors to the area.
“We held a roundtable of key national transgender leaders within the LGBT community. What we found out was astonishing,” said Richard Gray, the GFLCVB’s LGBTQ Managing Director. “They travel frequently, when they do travel, they look for hotels where they are free to be themselves. We also found out that many are stealth – or do not share their transgender status with any of their family, friends, or co-workers. This was a major motivator for us to get the word out that Greater Fort Lauderdale is the place where they really can be themselves.”
Gray, a 20-year veteran of the gay travel and tourism industry, was inducted into the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2000, he received a Hometown Hero award from the Broward County Board of County Commissioners for his achievements in gay and lesbian travel, and in 1998 was inducted into PlanetOut's Travel Hall of Fame for outstanding individual achievement in gay travel.
Several years ago, Gray approached his boss at the time with his idea of marketing to Transgender people. It was not an easy “yes” to get, but eventually he got the green light. Finding a qualified sample of Transgender people willing to participate in his study was also a difficult task, but if you drill down the numbers, it was an obvious challenge.
Consider these statistics from the National Center for Transgender Equality:
The Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB is addressing many of these issues as part of putting out its welcome mat for the Transgender community, and the LGBTQ community as well.
Last year, the GFLCVB lit up a billboard in Times Square, spreading awareness about Greater Fort Lauderdale’s LGBTQ inclusiveness during a two-month advertising campaign. It was the first campaign of its kind in the world and the beginning of the CVB’s newest branding effort specifically targeting LGBTQ travelers.
Greater Fort Lauderdale was also the only destination in the country to be invited to host an LGBTQ presentation at the United Nations. It was an unprecedented achievement, giving Greater Fort Lauderdale exposure as one of the LGBTQ capitals of the world.
Armed with his research and a convincing pitch, Gray approached Lexi Dee, President of the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference. The annual event has drawn thousands of transgender people and their supporters over the years, and is considered one of the largest transgender gatherings in the world. The dedicated outreach advocate that Gray is, he courted Dee for several years and was instrumental in securing a three-year commitment to hold Southern Comfort in Greater Fort Lauderdale, after Atlanta had hosted the event for 24 years.
“He kept bugging me and bugging me,” said Dee, laughing. “Finally, he told me that he was hosting a roundtable with Community Marketing Insights, Inc. He said he wanted me to come speak about how to bring more transgender visitors to Greater Fort Lauderdale. That’s how I convinced the [Southern Comfort] Board to bring the conference to Greater Fort Lauderdale.”
In 2015, the host hotel for Southern Comfort was the Bonaventure Resort & Spa in Weston, FL. This year, Southern Comfort moves to the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard in the heart of Fort Lauderdale – closer to the beach, downtown, and attractions attendees will enjoy visiting.
One of the driving forces for Dee’s leadership role in Southern Comfort has been educating people about the misconceptions they have about being Transgender.
“If you’re gay, you go to your parents and say, ‘I’m gay.’ It’s cut and dry. The problem with the non-trans general public is they equate being Trans with Drag Queens,” said Dee. “Along with all the other acronyms, they get lumped into somebody like me. But I’m just a normal, female person. People think we are a lot like the LGB community. In some ways it is, in some ways it’s not.”
In stark contrast to many in the Transgender community, Dee is thankfully living a comfortable life with her wife of 43 years. She has one daughter and a granddaughter who live in Sweden.
“I am a 65 year old transgender living in North Carolina, which is perhaps the second toughest place for a transgender to live, besides the Big Red State of Florida,” said Dee. “I have been out for fifteen years. My daughter and granddaughter are both accepting of me.”
As a leader in Transgender education, Dee says this year’s Southern Comfort Conference will be centered on empowerment for Transgender people. Noted speakers planned to appear include:
The conference will also include transgender speakers from Guam and Columbia, who will educate attendees on specific issues in their respective homelands. “Many people don’t know that Guam is an important protectorate of United States law, abiding by our protections” said Dee. “Guam is experiencing an influx of transgender people from Southeast Asia and Japan.”
By all accounts, this year’s Southern Comfort Conference promises to be a big success. The Riverside Hotel has sold out of its 275 rooms, exclusively blocked for Southern Comfort visitors. It’s a milestone not lost on Dee. “When I was dealing with these issues, there was no Internet, so I had no real educational outlet to learn about being transgender,” said Dee. “After the Internet, I started surfing around and found the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference site. It has changed my life for the better.”
Southern Comfort Transgender Conference
September 14-16, 2017
620 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
Individual event tickets are available from $45. Registration packages start at $75. To find out more about the event and to register, visit www.sccfla.org.