And Then There are Families
I met Robert Eads only once. I did not know him.
The night he died, about three months after I had heard his amazing speech, and months yet before I saw the movie about him, I danced until four with much of his Southern Comfort family—by then my family too. I remained fully clothed; I can’t speak for any of the others. That was eight years ago tonight.
I had gone to the Southern Comfort Conference in October 1998, knowing that it was the most attended of the transgender conferences I had secretly been reading about online. I already had made my decision to transition a couple years earlier, and with my target date less that a year away, it was time to push myself out there to learn who I was and was becoming.
I had arrived in Atlanta without even a name by which to introduce myself —with almost nothing but the knowledge that I was a transsexual and it was time to do something about it.
At lunch on Friday, I think it was, Robert walked to the microphone to deliver the keynote address. I was stunned at the peaceful man calmly telling us that he was about to die. I remember being shocked, even unable to cry, when he shared that he had asked God to let him make it to one more Southern Comfort. As he spoke, the room was silent—the most silent and attentive audience I have ever felt. So powerful was it that when I see the film, I still feel my breath slow like on the that day in October when he stood on the stage.
Soon enough, after his death the following January, Robert became somewhat famous as the focus of the powerful documentary “Southern Comfort,” named for the conference that still feels to me like my transgender home. To many people, Robert’s story—the part covered in the film anyway—is of the months leading to his death from ovarian cancer after being turned away by dirty dozens of health care providers because he was a transgender man. Society, and even medical providers, carelessly and with great callous allowed (and still allow) it to be okay to disrespect an obviously wonderful person and even watch him die because he was different. Apparently it was embarrassing for the gynecologists and oncologists to have a man with cervical cancer in their offices. So Robert died. But as he said in the film, and you had to believe him, the movie was not about his death but about family.
Like most decent people, I was outraged at his story and thankful that he told it. I feel awe at how much Robert has done for me and all trans people.
It was Robert who startled me, in the gentlest way, to begin to understand both what I would win and lose by transitioning. I might gain a family and a large measure of inner-felt congruence and dignity, but I would most certainly lose the advantages I had taken for granted in society when people had assumed unconsciously that I was not transgender.
I saw the tradeoff in Robert’s story and knew that, like him, I would voluntarily join his amazing community, not worrying about the rejection, the disrespect, the tradeoff. He made it seem in the speech that day like an easy choice. So I selected the community—the family really—that would be there for me as my life attempted joyous but anxious pirouettes and I came to acceptance of my transness and how so much would be different.
After the speech, I never saw Robert again, except in the film and in pictures taken by my friend Mariette. But just over three months later, I had joined his Southern Comfort family and was with them in Atlanta on the night he died.
Coincidentally, many of us were there that weekend to plan the next year’s conference; some were in town to be with Robert. Those of us who were not at the hospital that Saturday night, ate, drank and danced. The dancing began in earnest in honor of Robert when Lola came to the hotel and let us know that Robert had gone. In my mind there was a sudden quiet frenzy to the dancing. A couple of the women removed their tops; others may remember why. I remember only that it was intense and calming and surreal and for Robert. Maybe that night, maybe the next day someone called it the dance of the Trans Nymphs and that has stuck in my memory.
For a large part of the dance, my new friend and sister Celia, at a similar unsure but determined early point in her transition, huddled with me in a corner, wondering, talking quietly and doubting that our planned transitions would allow us to be so confident in our physicality. Even in that very safe family space in a large hotel suite, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe about being out as transgender. I had spent forty years feeling unsafe about it, and though I was exhilarated about the transition that was becoming more and more inevitable, I could still taste the real danger. Robert, lying there, dying there, just miles away made that danger even more palpable.
I was very aware of what Robert’s story said about that danger. Though he seemed as confident and safe in his own skin as anyone I had ever seen, society had helped kill him or at least throw him away for his transness. No doubt there was danger. Yet there I was, eight years ago today, in a hotel suite with twenty or so transsexuals and some others, feeling free and hopeful and even surprisingly safe.
Those two weekends, three months apart, simply changed my life. Robert and his Southern Comfort family silently enveloped me as I edged away from much of my life as I had lived it.
And Robert, thanks to your love, your story and your voice, your family is ever bigger and safer.
Thank you, brother.