In times of dire need, LGBT+ people find safe havens. Shon Faye reveals that Fort Lauderdale, in Trump’s stronghold of Florida, is one of these.

Make America Great Again. The Trump-endorsing billboard loomed into my eyeline as I was making my way to Southern Comfort, the world’s largest transgender conference, being held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Three months before my trip, the Pulse nightclub massacre in nearby Orlando had shocked the world. A few months after my visit, and the state of Florida helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

It’s clear that the queer community here feels embattled in the face of the right-wing, homophobic politics of division that Trump represents. However, as so often occurs in queer history, in the midst of a culture of hate, small havens arise where LGBT+ people come together. Fort Lauderdale is becoming such a place.

Normally, when tourist boards sell themselves on their desire to become an “LGBT destination” I take little notice. As a trans woman, I’m conscious that “LGBT destination,” often means a resort holiday of interest exclusively to gay men – either promising safety for couples or plenty of clubs and bars.

Fort Lauderdale does offer those – I got so drunk in one  that I climbed on an exercise bike that was powering the dance floor lighting and pedalled  so hard in 5in heels that I lit up an entire Britney Spears remix.

But what sets Fort Lauderdale apart is that it is also committed to transgender tourism. The area’s LGBT+ credentials are genuinely strong. As an LGBT+ writer who’s fascinated with forgotten or lost queer history, the Stonewall National Museum and Archives allowed me an afternoon wandering around a collection of 5,000 items of LGBT+ personal records, periodicals, serials, pulp fiction, audio and visual footage – and, yes OK… erotica.

Just as the readers of an emergent gay magazine in the 1950s subscribed by post to erotica thinly veiled as men’s health or sporting interest (a reason for the enduring popularity of the jockstrap, perhaps), I learned that transvestites and transsexuals had their own equivalents – sold as cosmetics brochures.

A large part of the museum’s raison d’etre is to provide an educational and community resource for LGBT+ people in Florida and beyond. Many archivists and gay historians use it and it organises several events each year, including talks and screenings.

Educational outreach is a huge part of the activities undertaken by Fort lauderdale’s LGBT+ landmarks and perhaps the most impressive of these is the World Aids Museum. On arrival, I met the museum’s director of operations, Ed Sparan, who said it’s the only institution in the world devoted to documenting the epidemic, which has claimed more than 35 million lives since the early 1980s.

It’s a simple place, consisting of one central exhibition: a timeline of the epidemic, from its possible origins among primates through to the 1981 New York Times story about a “rare cancer” detected among homosexuals. The failures of the Reagan government to respond is chronicled alongside the frontline activism of organisations such as ACT UP and individuals, including Veronika Fimbres, an African American trans woman, HIV survivor and campaigner.

At one stage, you pass a wall of artwork and posters. Not all of them are kind. AIDS KILLS FAGS DEAD reads one of them, created by a nameless homophobe. The museum is moving, but not macabre, and the most striking artwork is entitled 10-Year Ribbon, created when an artist saved his epzicom and viramune bottles for a decade and transformed them into a gigantic red ribbon representing about $333,000 (more than 260,000) in HIV meds. As we moved on, Sparan, who describes themselves as a former theatre queen, revealed that they are the artist behind the ribbon.

I also discovered that the gay community in Fort Lauderdale is highly visible outside its museums, whether it’s the two muscle queens I saw holding hands as they walked their dog or the café where I had lunch which was booming out Cher hits, the queer community shapes this area’s identity.

It was very hot and I soon took to walking around in my smallest, lightest dresses and skirts. I am used to stares or comments walking around London in my black sheer mesh dress but in Fort Lauderdale, the absence of this spoke volumes. For the entire four days I was there I cannot say I was made to feel uncomfortable about my gender presentation once – as a trans person this is something you notice.

This feeling of safety and comfort was particularly obvious I attended the Southern Comfort transgender conference to watch British former boxing manager and promoter Kellie Maloney give a speech. As I sat chatting to her, I felt something was unusual. Slowly it dawned on me that the majority of the people in the bar were trans. Trans men and women from across America come to Southern Comfort, organised and chaired by Alexis Dee, herself a trans woman.

One woman I spoke to lives her daily life as male mechanic – she is not out to family or friends, and Southern Comfort is the one time of year she can meet others in the trans community and fully be herself.

Maloney’s speech was a tour de force, documenting her transition as a person from the hyper masculine world of professional boxing. Her speech ended on a high: “and if anyone doesn’t like it, fuck em!” which received an ovation from the entire room.

There is an element of wishful thinking to the sentiment; many of the trans people here have led lives marked by a need to hide themselves from people who don’t like them for who they are. They live in a country handed over to a regime that is threatening to be regressive and harmful to their wellbeing. But no individual can change that, and in times of strife, community becomes more important, speaking louder becomes more important and education becomes vital.

All these things can be found happening in Fort Lauderdale.

  • Words by Shona Faye

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