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Transgender groups meet in Dallas for education, activism

Carter Brown stands before his family and begins to cry.

Dressed all in white, the group seated in front of him seems to glow in the conference room’s dim light.

The Dallas Morning News reports their figures swim before his teary eyes. Brown breathes in the sweet odor of the burning incense, letting the low beat of the drums calm him.

“Excuse me,” he says, chuckling. “I have something in my eyes.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Brown takes a breath, smiles and convenes the 2018 Black Trans Advocacy Conference in Dallas with a hope and a prayer. He speaks freely, knowing he’s safe being vulnerable here, among his people.

Seven years ago, Brown founded BTAC, which would become the only nationwide organization run by and for transgender African-Americans. What started as a small private Facebook group run out of the Arlington native’s home has grown into a nonprofit with global reach.

What’s more, it’s a family.

“I’ve been homeless. I’ve been hungry. I’ve been abused. I’ve been rejected,” Carter tells the group, his voice steadying. “We all have our struggles.

“But at the end of the day, I want you all to know you’re going to be all right.”

This is how Dallas became home for the black transgender community – and why its leaders think it needs to stay put, deep in the heart of red Texas.

Upstairs at the Wyndham Dallas Suites off North Central Expressway, volunteers sign people in at the registration table.

They pass out name tags and blue lanyards to those who are OK with having their picture taken. Green lanyards are for those who are not openly trans or who don’t want to be pictured in promotional material. On a nearby table sit dozens of orange tote bags.

Welcome to BTAC 2018.

For the past seven years, Dallas has been the site for this annual gathering for transgender and gender non-conforming Americans, meaning they do not identify with the sex assigned at birth or their gender expression might different from the traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity.

Hundreds of attendees from the Bay Area to the Bronx turned out for the recent weeklong event, which includes dozens of panels on everything from discrimination in housing and health care to dating, love and anti-trans violence. There’s a barber and free HIV testing on site, an open-mike night and an awards gala.

At a pageant, they crown a new Mr. and Miss Black Trans International – the group’s lead advocates for the next year – and over the weekend they gather for “family day” at a ranch in Flower Mound to sing, dance and play games.

Many of the attendees are already activists. Many others are just starting their transition. The youngest haven’t hit their teens; the oldest is 71. Here they find covenant partners. They recognize excellence. They discover fellowship.

BTAC traces its roots to 2011, when Brown started a private Facebook group for black transgender men like him. At first, a handful of local Dallas guys would meet for drinks or a pickup game of basketball. But within a few months, 400 men from coast to coast had signed up.

“This was something we couldn’t find anywhere else,” Brown, 43, said. “It just became a real staple for the community, albeit virtual. I mean, guys were in there all day every day just communicating, building relationships, friendships.”

Today, Black Trans Men Inc. boasts more than 4,000 Facebook members. Along with sister organization Black Trans Women Inc., the two form BTAC, which has its headquarters in northwest Dallas.

Jonathan Thunderword, a minister and elder known as “Pop,” and his wife, Triptta, said Brown has “carved out a place” for their community. At BTAC, attendees whose biological families have shunned them can discover new brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and even mothers and fathers.

Rainbow family, one person called it. Chosen family.

Atlanta native Tiffany Starr, the outgoing Miss Black Trans International, never had children of her own. But she now has seven trans sons and daughters whose parents rejected them, some of whom have taken her last name. Maddox Jackson of Austin met his brothers TreShaun and Trenton here. Jackson’s wife, Rebecca, coordinates “Anchors,” the partners and spouses of trans men and women.

They look up to Thunderword as a grandfather.

“The saying goes, ‘If you build it they will come,’ and that’s what happened over the years,” Thunderword said after his keynote address. “It was easy for us to follow.”

The Thunderwords have been together for 20 years, living everywhere from the California coast to the Texas Panhandle. But soon, they plan to move to the Dallas area to be closer to their BTAC family. A few people others have also made the move after attending the conference.

“There’s something about the Dallas community,” Triptta said. “Everyone has been so warm and friendly.”

Dallas was the first city in Texas to pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on gender identity – a measure that was expanded it in 2015. There are city and county LGBT task forces, and Dallas is the home of Genecis at Children’s Health, one of the only pediatric clinics for transgender kids and teens in the country.

Louis Mitchell, a minister and the executive director of Transfaith, has been coming to the conference since its inception in 2012. He said it’s the mix of the professional and personal that makes Dallas uniquely suited to host them.

“Urban expertise and Southern hospitality,” Mitchell said. “That’s the combination that makes it work.”

In the hotel’s cavernous atrium, other conferences are getting underway as BTAC begins to wrap up. A group from Tanzania gathers near the business center. A bunch of vitamin salesmen in cowboy hats and boots hoot and holler near the entrance. A couple of guys in suits are posted at the bar, watching replays from the NFL draft the night before.

Malaysia Walker is sitting near the elevators.

Walker, 39, who performs under the stage name Malaysia Black, was just crowned Miss Black Trans International 2018. During the talent portion of the competition, she unveiled portraits of Chyna Gibson, Mesha Caldwell and Kenne McFadden, three black trans women killed in the South and Texas since 2016.

Walker said BTAC having its headquarters and holding its conference in a conservative state like Texas means something. Being out and proud in Dallas, being visible in red Texas – where Republican lawmakers last year unsuccessfully pushed the bathroom bill – makes more of an impact than it would in New York or California. But they can still feel safe here, which Walker doesn’t think she could guarantee for her trans family in her native Jackson, Mississippi.

“Northerners don’t experience the hardship Southerners do,” said Walker, 39, who leads the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program for the ACLU in Mississippi. “But Mississippi is not ready.”

Walker, a conference newcomer, almost didn’t make it this year. One of her “rainbow kids” was just killed, the victim of a random shooting, and she didn’t think she was strong enough to make the trip. That’s when Esperanza “Espy” Brown, Carter’s wife, called her.

The conference has helped her and her husband heal, Walker said, something she didn’t think was possible a month ago: “We needed to be here.”

Carter and Espy Brown hope the attendees – their family – carry with them this sense of healing until next year, when the community comes home to Dallas for BTAC 2019.

“The core of what we’re building, the core of our organization, is love,” Espy Brown said. “Whenever you come here, we’ll be here.”

Information from: The Dallas Morning News,

(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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