Robert Eads

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.


8 Responses to Robert Eads

  1. Cole says:

    Thank you for reminding us of the passion and empathy that bring so many of us to this family and this work. Your efforts are making the world safer for so many of us.

  2. DeniseUMLaw says:

    I was there for Robert’s speech at Southern Comfort that night. It was my 3rd or 4th SoCo, and I had had the privilege of meeting Robert several times before and, by that time, Lola was friend.What a moving post, Mara. Thank you for sharing it — and you — with us.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well the movie was a wounderfull work.I have know the folks in the movie for years .I knew Robert and he was a wounderfull man. He was a vereygood sole and a verey understanding one also.Ifeel that he would roll over in his grave if he knew how and by who SCC was being run now at this time.That the boared of SCC would tell a member of the SCC family of 14 years that your not welcome .under made up allagations and slander of that persion.And none of it is true to the facts.Be nice too your face get what they want and 4 months later out of the blue tell you YOUR NOT WELCOME!what has this communitty come too.? Southern Comfort Conference Is Not The loving understanding Nor carring Conference it was .All They really want is your money !!Now I must say it is Run by a Persone that use pepole, Lies too pepole and treat other they think there better than like dirt.But if your someone that gives lots of money to them you can stand in the hotel bar and be just as mean and rued too pepole as you see fit .Or someone that is well know in the lime light and the same thing applys to them also.It’s a sad day too know that something we loved so much has gone down hill in the politacland unjust wat it has in the last few years with the new BOSS if you will .I have been treated like dirt for the last time by this persone at SCC they all know who they are .IF You attend SCC in the futher Dont let your hair down nor dont dress too sexy they will have a big problem with it ..The bottom line is Its just not a Fun time anymorre I’m sitting here thinking of my friend that died this morringI woundering JUST what the HellWERE They Thinking My name you ask me ? well it dosent matter at this point does it So if you go too SCC whatch your selves if they dont like you if you have some thing too say one bit out of line well you might be next sad to say

  4. Anonymous says:

    I do not understand how this can happen. Physicians and hospitals are not allowed to refuse care…this would be malpractice. This is just something I cannot understand. Thanks

  5. Anonymous says:

    Robert’s story brings a lump up in my throat. I find it so hard to believe that he died for no good reason….. But it is the truth, the ugly truth that trangender is still not acceptable to most of the US population…… I swear to goddess if I had been a surgeon or an OB/GYN at that time, I would have given Robert what he needed for free. I’m crying as I write this….. Where has all of the compassion gone?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Nature revels in diversity, why cant we…..i had never heard of Robert until i saw this movie. As i type this a single tear falls for this man and all others who are not of the “norm”. By what and who’s standards do we judge “normal”…i cannot answer that. It is surely not god as we all gods children. We were created in the likeness of god or so they tell us. I am disgusted and appalled and even shocked that Doctors who take the oath to administer and save lives could turn away this gentle human being. Where were the lawyers fighting for Roberts rights ? COme on the USA is litigation heaven…where were you all ? I am honest here, i do not fully understand transgender issues and as a lesbian i am confused over some of the issues i saw in the movie. Please i do not wish to be admonished for not understanding, i am slowly learning about diversity in this world. I have and am reading several books and documentarys on this subject to enable me to understand and learn.I can only relate at this point to my own coming out which was painful and isolating back in the 70’s and i understand the power and frenzy that drives you to fight for your survival.To all of you who are Diverse and beautiful in your own making….i wish you safety, peace and acceptance wherever you may find it.

  7. Stefanie says:

    My dear friend, Mara. I had just told the story of the night Robert passed away to my co-workers two days ago. How fitting that he was on my mind and that my Google search led me here.Robert was a dear, sweet, gentle, man. Those of us who had the fortune of meeting him are better for it.As for the “Dance of the Trans-Nymphs”, I’m afraid that I will have to take the blame for that. Holly and I were dancing and it was warm. She was wearing a sweater over paisley tights. We stopped to get a drink and she mentioned she was hot and wished she could take off her sweater. I said that she should. I agreed to take off my cocktail dress if she took off her sweater. The rest is Trans-nymph history. It was a celebration that I’m sure Robert approved of whole-heartedly! :-)Thank you, Mara, for all you do for all of us…even the ones who seem to have disappeared!I love you!Stefanie Schumacher

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