Staff Photographer

Carter Brown stands before his family and begins to cry.

Dressed all in white, the group seated in front of him seems to glow in the conference room’s dim light. Their figures swim before his teary eyes. Brown breathes in the sweet odor of the burning incense, letting the low beat of the drums calm him.

“Excuse me,” he says, chuckling. “I have something in my eyes.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Brown takes a breath, smiles and convenes the 2018 Black Trans Advocacy Conference in Dallas with a hope and a prayer. He speaks freely, knowing he’s safe being vulnerable here, among his people.

Seven years ago, Brown founded BTAC, which would become the only nationwide organization for transgender African Americans. What started as a small private Facebook group has grown into a nonprofit with thousands of members who consider themselves family.

“I’ve been homeless. I’ve been hungry. I’ve been abused. I’ve been rejected,” Carter tells the group, his voice steadying. “We all have our struggles.

“But at the end of the day, I want you all to know you’re going to be all right.”

This is how Dallas became the de facto home for the black transgender community — and why its leaders think it needs to stay put, deep in the heart of red Texas.

[VIDEO GOES HERE]

‘Urban expertise, Southern hospitality’

Upstairs at the Wyndham Dallas Suites off U.S. Highway 75, volunteers sign people in at the registration table.

They pass out name tags and blue lanyards to those who are OK with having their picture taken. Green lanyards are for those who are not openly trans or who don’t want to be pictured in promotional material. On a nearby table sit dozens of orange tote bags.

For the past seven years, Dallas has been the site for this annual gathering of black Americans who are transgender or gender nonconforming, meaning they do not identify with the sex assigned at birth or their gender expression might different from the traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity.

Hundreds of attendees from the Bay Area to the Bronx turn out for the weeklong event, which includes dozens of panels on everything from discrimination in housing and health care to dating, love and anti-trans violence. There’s a barber and free HIV testing on site, an open mic night and an awards gala.

At the Thursday night pageant, they crown a new Mr. and Miss Black Trans International — the group’s lead advocates for the next year — and on Saturday they gather for “family day” at a ranch in Flower Mound to sing, dance and play games.

Many of the attendees are already activists. Many others are just starting their transition. The youngest haven’t hit their teens; the oldest is 71. Here they find covenant partners. They recognize excellence. They discover fellowship.

BTAC traces its roots to 2011, when Brown, an Arlington native, started a private group online for black transgender men like him. At first, a handful of local Dallas guys would meet for drinks or a pickup game of basketball. But within a few months, 400 men from coast to coast had signed up.

“This was something we couldn’t find anywhere else,” Brown, 43, said. “It just became a real staple for the community, albeit virtual. I mean, guys were in there all day every day just communicating, building relationships, friendships.”

Today, Black Trans Men, Inc. boasts more than 4,000 Facebook members. Along with sister organization Black Trans Women, Inc., the two form BTAC, which is headquartered in northwest Dallas.

Jonathan Thunderword, a minister and elder known as "Pop," and his wife, Triptta, said Brown has "carved out a place" for their community. At BTAC, attendees whose biological families have shunned them can discover new brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and even mothers and fathers.

Rainbow family, one person called it. Chosen family.

Atlanta native Tiffany Starr, the outgoing Miss Black Trans International, never had children of her own. But she now has seven trans sons and daughters whose parents rejected them. Maddox Jackson of Austin met his brothers TreShaun Pate and Trenton Johnson here. Jackson’s wife, Rebecca, coordinates "anchors," who are the partners of trans men and women.

They look up to Thunderword as a grandfather.

“The saying goes, ‘If you build it they will come,’ and that’s what happened over the years,” Thunderword told The Dallas Morning News after his keynote address. “It was easy for us to follow.”

The Thunderwords have been together for 20 years, living everywhere from California coast to the Texas Panhandle. But soon, they plan to move to the Dallas area to be closer to their BTAC family. A few people have made the move after attending the conference.

“There’s something about the Dallas community,” Triptta said. “It’s surprised me.”

Dallas was the first city in Texas to pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on gender identity and expanded it in 2015. There are city and county LGBT task forces here, and Dallas is the home of GENECIS at Children’s Health, one of the only pediatric clinics for transgender kids and teens in the country.

Louis Mitchell, a minister and the executive director of Transfaith, has been coming to the conference since its inception in 2012. He said it’s the mix of the professional and personal that makes Dallas uniquely suited to host them.

“Urban expertise and Southern hospitality,” Mitchell said. “That’s the combination that makes it work.”

‘We’ll be here’

In the hotel’s cavernous atrium, other conferences are getting underway as BTAC wraps up. A group from Tanzania gathers near the business center. A bunch of vitamin salesmen in cowboy hats and boots hoot and holler near the entrance. A couple of guys in suits are posted at the bar, watching replays from the NFL Draft the night before.

Malaysia Walker is sitting near the elevators.

Walker, 39, who performs under the stage name Malaysia Black, was just crowned Miss Black Trans International 2018. During the talent portion of the competition, she unveiled portraits of Chyna Gibson, Mesha Caldwell and Kenne McFadden, three black trans women killed in the South and Texas since 2016.

Walker said headquartering BTAC and holding its conference in a conservative state like Texas means something. Being out and proud in Dallas, being visible in red Texas — where Republican lawmakers last year unsuccessfully pushed a so-called "bathroom bill" — makes more of an impact than it would in New York or California. But they still feel safe here, which Walker doesn’t think she could guarantee for her trans family in her native Jackson, Miss.

"Northerners don’t experience the hardship Southerners do," said Walker, 39, who leads the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program for the ACLU in Mississippi. "But Mississippi is not ready."

Walker, a conference newbie, almost didn’t make it this year. One of her “rainbow kids” was just killed, the victim of a random shooting, and she didn’t think she was strong enough to make the trip. That’s when Esperanza "Espy" Brown, Carter’s wife, called her.

The conference has helped her and her husband heal, Walker said, something she didn’t think was possible a month ago: “We needed to be here.”

Carter and Espy Brown hope the attendees — their family — carry with them this sense of healing until next year, when the community comes home to Dallas for BTAC 2019.

“The core of what we’re building, the core of our organization, is love,” Espy Brown said. “Whenever you come here, we’ll be here.”

An "all gender" sign is taped to the women’s restroom during the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition’s Family Picnic at Circle R Ranch in Flower Mound on Saturday, April 28, 2018.

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