Bad Decision? Maybe.
Op-Ed on the SCC Board’s Decision to Relocate to Fort Lauderdale
By Dallas Denny
I was present at the first planning meeting of the Southern Comfort Conference and so consider myself one of its founders. I was on the first board of directors and served on the board on and off for some years. I was in charge of programming for three or four of those years. I’ve attended every SCC but one, and I’ve presented one or more workshops every time I attended. I met wonderful people through my involvement in the conference, and learned much. SCC is and has always been close to my heart.
The makeup of the board has changed many times since I last served. I know the names of the current board members, but the only members I know on sight are Stephanie Schumacher and Blake Alford. As of Sunday, Blake has resigned from the board, which means Steph is the only board member I know.
I have to say the various boards have always been good to me. My workshop proposals are accepted and I am given a pass to attend workshops. That’s most kind, and appreciated, as otherwise I would at best be able to pay for only one day.
I’m sure the board gave much thought to the relocation of the conference to Florida. I know the decision wasn’t unanimous, for Blake was unhappy enough about it that he left the board before his term was up. I commend him for honoring his commitment to SCC by keeping silent about the move. I also commend him for his warmth and amiability toward attendees. He has been, in my opinion, at least, the public face of SCC for some years now.
So yes, SCC is dear to me, as it is dear to hundreds of others. The conference has positively impacted thousands of trans people, their supporters, and their families, and has created a family of people who care for and support one another, even if they are able to meet in person only once a year. Thousands of people have discovered themselves at SCC. It has changed thousands of lives, and for the better.
And so a momentous change like a move from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, 640 miles to the south, and especially a change that was announced as a surprise and delivered with hyperbole and dazzle, is bound to concern me—and not only me. It worried practically everyone with whom I spoke at the conference—new attendees, long-time attendees, staff, and presenters. They told me of their uneasiness about the relocation.
It might have gone down better had the board been able to keep its secret—but secrets have a way of becoming public knowledge, and the SCC board’s big secret was no exception. There were people who didn’t know of the move until the Saturday banquet, but they were in the minority. The halls and meeting rooms were abuzz for three days with the news.
And how did the secret get out? I suspect it leaked in a number of ways, but the most obvious giveaway was printed as a QR code on the back of everyone’s membership tag. In previous years the code helped organizers determine which meals and events had been paid, but in this case it read something like “Surprise! SCC will be in Fort Lauderdale, Florida next year!” I can’t say that’s an exact quote because I’m a doofus with my smartphone and can’t get a read, but it’s close enough.
News of the move broke big at the pre-conference envelope stuffing, when someone scanned a card and posted the code and its message to Facebook—not that it mattered. By way of a September 3 post from Monica Roberts on her TransGriot blog, I and many others knew by the time the conference. began.
The primary reason for the move, according to Conference Chair JoAnn Purcell in a response to a post I made in FaceBook, is because the board believes Atlanta had lost sustainability as a host city:
... if the conference stayed in Atlanta, it would have likely gone the way of Be-All in 2-3 years. SCC wants to be in business in 2040, and the decision was made with the sustainability of the conference in mind.
This rather boggles my mind. Certainly the South Florida Metropolitan area, with a population of 5.5 million, is the same size as Metropolitan Atlanta (also 5.5 million) and, like Atlanta, South Florida has a large trans population—but it’s difficult to imagine what advantages are conferred by a venue that is, according to what several people told me, 40 miles from Fort Lauderdale and the ocean and practically in the Everglades. I sure wish I had picked up one of the many Fort Lauderdale brochures that were lying around (another hint about the relocation) so I could disconfirm that. I want it not to be true.
I’ll give the SCC board the benefit of the doubt about the decision. They know what I and the other attendees don’t and are trying to ensure the survival of Southern Comfort. They don’t know that this will work (as JoAnn wrote)—but who could?
I am decided unimpressed, however, by the lack of transparency of the decision-making process. Attendees have a stake in the conference and should have been allowed a say. Ultimately it’s the board’s decision, but it seems not only foolish but arrogant to rule from the top down—which is, as it happens the opposite of the way things were when SCC was founded.
It just seems to me the conference has lost its heart and perhaps its mind.
I’m beyond sad, but I hope the move works out, both the sake of the conference and for the sake of the board. Perhaps the move will save a dying conference. Perhaps it won’t, but at least the board did something.
There will be a new conference in Atlanta. That’s a good thing. A conference in South Florida won’t draw many attendees from Metropolitan Atlanta or for that matter from any state other than Florida. To the south of the new conference area there’s only Key West, and to the east and west there’s only ocean. From any other state, Atlanta is a far shorter drive than Fort Lauderdale. One attendee, who lives in Tallahassee (in the Florida panhandle), told me Atlanta is considerably closer than Fort Lauderdale for her, and I checked. It is, 265 miles to Atlanta vs. 460 to Fort Lauderdale.
This means that aside from people living in South Florida, every SCC 2015 attendee will need to fly or make a long and tedious two- or three-day drive. This will make getting to the conference expensive and in fact out of the realm of possibility for many SCC attendees (and hence the relocation has already sparked the formation of another conference). JoAnn wrote in a response to a post I made on FaceBook that the board expects 20-30% participation from outside the U.S. I hope that happens, but I fail to see how relocation won’t result in a population that is more affluent than SCC’s attendees have been to date. That means more crossdressers and fewer transsexuals, doesn’t it?
Monica Roberts recently criticized Southern Comfort’s board for repeatedly failing to reach out to Atlanta’s sizable population of trans people of color. That makes me wonder how the conference will handle language issues in an area with almost as many Spanish speakers as English speakers. Will it be a bilingual conference? I hope so, and I hope the board is already addressing that issue—and others.
Godspeed, Southern Comfort! I have my doubts about what you are doing, but I wish you well.