New transgender support group is latest sign city’s LGBT community has come of age
FORT WORTH — Seated in comfy chairs amid dim lights and the scent of cocoa beans at a small coffee shop, a small group shares intimate stories about growing up and being transgender.
The stories range from exile and acceptance to coming out and coming to terms with their new selves. The group of eight is a portion of the membership of the new group Fort Worth Transgender Support that went out for coffee after its July meeting at Celebration Community Church.
Nikki Taylor, the founder of the group, moved to Fort Worth in December to be closer to her kids. Taylor attended Gender Education, Advocacy & Resources, or GEAR, when she lived in Dallas and still goes to its monthly events, but she felt that she needed something closer to home.
“When I first got here, I was so scared because I thought I was the only transgender person in Fort Worth,” she said.
After creating a website for the group, Taylor quickly discovered she was hardly the only trans person in the area. The site drew 60 online members to the chats and more than a dozen people to the first meeting in May at Taylor’s home. She knew then that she couldn’t accommodate a growing group and partnered with the church for a meeting space.
“It was overwhelming,” she recalls about that meeting.
Now about 20 people attend the FWTS meetings on a regular basis with ages ranging from teens to 60-somethings who are at varying stages in their transition.
Jon Nelson with Fairness Fort Worth, the only LGBT advocacy group in Fort Worth, said the group’s formation symbolizes a change in the visibility of trans people.
“The transgender community has been the most discriminated against and the least represented,” Nelson said. “Over the last few years that’s started to change.”
The city of Fort Worth added transgender protections to its nondiscrimination ordinance in 2009 after the Diversity Task Force made 21 recommendations to the City Council after the Rainbow Lounge raid. The only recommendation left is comprehensive healthcare coverage for transgender city employees.
Tori Van Fleet is a Fort Worth city employee who served on the Diversity Task Force and brought up trans healthcare coverage. Van Fleet transitioned in 2006 and had to pay for her own surgery, an expense of about $50,000 that resulted in financial difficulties later on, she said.
Van Fleet said she doesn’t think the City Council needs to vote on adding the coverage, but rather the city should have its healthcare provider delete the line that prohibits trans coverage. She added that the city is close to having conversations about changing the coverage to include trans care.
Van Fleet said Fort Worth hasn’t had a trans group since the end of 2009 when a longtime support group disbanded after organizers left. She said a support network is vital to the trans community because “no one goes through what we go through without having issues.”
GEAR coordinator Blair High joined the Dallas group four years ago for support. She now helps run the six-year-old Resource Center Dallas program that includes health services, as well as social and educational events. High said trans groups are important for socializing and helping find resources.
“It was a place I could go and really be a part of a community,” High said. “It was a lifesaver.”
Among the youngest members of the new Fort Worth group is 16-year-old Azzie, a self-identified socially awkward teen whose mother refuses to call her by her preferred name instead of her female name.
Azzie came to the group through Lisa Earley, who brings her teen daughter to the group in order to support her older daughter who transitioned several years ago.
While Earley’s older daughter lives out of state, she said it was important for her to come to the group to support her daughter and to mentor Azzie, who wants to transition after she leaves home for college next year.
Earley said that while Azzie’s father goes to PFLAG with her, her mother is unsupportive and refuses to acknowledge that her daughter is trans. But that’s what the group is for.
Taylor said Earley has been a blessing to the group because she is so understanding and offers a motherly touch for members who have families that have shunned them for being trans.
“That’s amazing that someone has a mother that would go to the meetings for her,” Taylor said. “It’s one thing to go with your child, but it’s another to go for her.”
Taylor said she knew she was trans when she was 10 but was a late bloomer and didn’t start living as a woman until she was 19. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, she only stayed female for a year amid threats her family would disown her.
“I was thrown back in the closet with shackles,” she says of that time when she felt forced to live again as a man.
When she was 32, Taylor decided to live again as a woman and began her transition. Shortly afterward, she found out her girlfriend was pregnant. After her son was born, she wasn’t allowed to see him because the mother thought her being trans meant she was a sexual deviant.
But Taylor hired a private detective to find her son and took the mother to court for visitation and to pay child support. After the legal battle, she said she moved to Fort Worth to be closer to her son and his older sister.
Now Taylor uses her experience to offer legal and medical resources for group members, along with emotional and educational support.
“We all have issues, but we try to support each other,” Taylor said. “By hanging out with each other, it makes us feel like we have a family that understands.”
Healthcare costs are preventing Taylor from completing her transition. While she’s changed her name, she’s trying to afford reassignment surgery. “I feel like my life is on hold,” she said about waiting.
Jessica Peyton started transitioning a few years ago while she was a bus driver for a Wise County school district. She said she switched routes after complaints from parents that a man dressed as a woman was in charge of their kids.
Peyton, 54, recently left that job after 13 years and is looking for one closer to Fort Worth because the city is more inclusive. She also would like to be closer to the group after trying to join others that quickly disbanded after forming.
“It’s been a blessing finding this group,” Peyton said. “It’s definitely needed.”
Cassie Nicol came across FWTS on an online search. Having begun her transition two months ago, she was eager for the support and advice.
The 51-year-old came out as trans with a good response from her wife, who she said was encouraging. However, she said they are moving toward separating after other things in their marriage have forced them apart.
Although the new sensations and changes taking over Nicol’s body have been intense in the past few months, she said having the group behind her has helped immensely.
“Transitioning can be scary,” she said. “I think the best part is just acceptance and not worrying about hiding who we are. That’s the biggest thing we all needed and never found anywhere else.”
Socials outside of the meetings have ranged from beauty makeovers to how-to lessons on makeup and femininity, and have made Nicol feel like the group is similar a pre-teen clique at times, she jokes.
“We’re teaching each other the skills that we would’ve learned in junior high,” she said.
But transitioning for Nicol has been more than teaching her how to live her life; it has saved her life.
“I’ve been denying it my whole life and got to the point where I didn’t want to live,” Nicol said. “Transitioning is literally saving my life.”
Taylor said FWTS members will march in Fort Worth’s Pride Parade in October as an introduction to the local LGBT community. By the end of the year, she plans to have filed and received nonprofit status for the group.
She said she wants to develop the group into whatever its members need, highlighting that creating a housing program is among the group’s goals among discrimination against the trans community at area religiously-affiliated homeless shelters.
But while the group is still gaining its footing and hopes to hold on longer than those that have come before it, Taylor said the work she’s done has given her a purpose by sharing her own story and helping others who are still struggling to tell and live theirs.
“I feel like my life has meaning and purpose,” Taylor said. “I don’t fret anymore about being an outcast.”
FWTS offers meetings, website
Fort Worth Transgender Support meets every second Thursday of the month at Celebration Community Church, 908 Pennsylvania Ave. in Fort Worth. For more information, visit www.fortworth-transgender.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 17, 2012.