Featured photo: Devonte Jackson, one of the organizers of the first annual Trans Pride Festival performs during Saturday’s event.

All photos by Stan Sussina

Sparkling spring sunlight streams through the vaulted glass ceiling of an indoor courtyard in the Innovation Quarter, reflecting off the broad smiles of people laughing and talking at large, round tables draped in white.

The atmosphere here is collegial, familial, even in a room of mostly strangers. A parent hurries past with a stroller, looking for a place to change a diaper, while a little girl in a bright fuchsia sweatshirt waves a pair of pink, white and blue flags. 

For many members of the transgender community, the warmth of this space is not the reality of their day-to-day lives, especially not in a public venue like this. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign, violence against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is at its highest level in the US since the group began tracking data in 2013. Moving the cultural needle towards safety and inclusion was a primary driver in organizing the first annual Trans Pride Festival in Winston-Salem, which took place on Saturday.

“There’s so much youth trans violence,” says organizer Devonte Jackson as he stands behind the sound booth. “There’s a lack of resources and a lack of knowledge of how to get those resources.”

To that end, the festival aims to be a place to provide those resources, besides being a safe space for self-expression and belonging. 

Inside the venue are booths where people can get information from groups like Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Wake Forest Law’s OUTLaw program, the Winston-Salem Police Department, New Faith MCC Church and more. Sprinkled throughout the afternoon’s dazzling drag performances are informative talks from the groups. 

One such speaker is Peyton Aldrich, a law student at WFU. When she takes the mic, she tells the crowd about OutLaw’s free clinic on April 16, where attorneys and students will guide people through legal name and gender-marker changes, free of charge and with courtesy notary services on site.

And although the event moves along smoothly, putting this festival together was not without challenges. Inspired by a similar festival in Hickory, planning began in late 2019, with the original event planned for spring 2020, according to organizers. The idea grew through monthly sessions of T with a Tude, a discussion group exploring transgender and non-binary issues sponsored by Pride WS. The pandemic had other ideas, and it took until now for it to come to fruition.

Three days before the festival was set to take place in Winston-Salem Park, the city discovered a double booking thanks to an error with its new reservation system, leaving organizers Jackson and Jerry Morin scrambling. They were able to land an indoor venue at Wake Forest BioTech Place Atrium at the last minute, but not without some sacrifice as everything would now be indoors.

“We would have liked to have had it out in public because it’s freeing for people to be themselves,” Jackson says.

Despite the setbacks, Jackson’s body language is energetic and his face jubilant as he interacts with festival-goers and entertainers.

A waterfall of strawberry-blonde hair cascades down to hostess Jamie Monroe’s bejeweled waistband, where her curls meet a torrent of dark fabric feathers that ruffle to the floor in a majestic train. She steps lightly through the audience, her eyes kindly meeting the gaze of the people in the crowd, even as she herself is larger than life.  

“Sometimes when you make that transition you lose friends, you lose family members,” she explains.

Her earnest voice is confident, but it communicates a truth and a struggle that is intimately familiar to everyone in attendance. But this festival, one hoped to be the first of many, has shown that for the most vulnerable in the community, family is something that can be found.

“People have the chance to get together and truly be themselves for a day,” Jackson says.

Learn more about T with a Tude on their Facebook page or at pridews.org.

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