A City of Refuge

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #103, Fall 2003.

by Deborah Greenway

It surprises many of my friends now, but I once lived in the dream of being a Baptist minister. This was in a younger, more idealistic time, before I knew the political landscape, and before I reached my current level of self-knowledge and acceptance. I?m so comfortable now with my femme self, Deborah, that I will go anywhere, any time, and not give it a second thought. Recently, the day came to return to a place preserved in memory, to meet it as it exists in reality today?as my current self?and to proclaim peace.
Traveling east through Kansas, the driving is fast, and daydreaming is easy for someone who spent a good portion of life in the area. It?s that time of year when the trees are budding, and you know it?s spring. A spotty, light rain is falling. When we reach Missouri, the terrain gets more interesting?there are hills and a plethora of billboard signs, apparently sponsored by local churches?Christians Obey!!!! this or that selected Bible verse, hopeful attempts at 60-mph roadside conversions, or perhaps an effort to keep the unruly masses in line. The billboards continue, and so does the rain.
We pass a factory of some kind, with the huge mowed area in front lined with rows of little crosses, a mock cemetery stating the owner?s views on the abortion issue. A mother and her three children, walking along the road, seem both needy and ignored.

A transgender conference in the Arkansas Ozarks? You kidding, boy? This is a place full of those with hate toward those different from the tyrannical majority mold?yet this is where my wife and I are headed. It?s a transgender conference called The En Femme Getaway. The sponsor is a retired Arkansas State Trooper. The event has been billed as unlike other transgender conferences around the country?it isn?t to take place in the big closet of a hotel. Participants are to have a meal or two together, and then be on their own around the town.

The Getaway is in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Once known for its healing spring waters, a sort of smaller sister to the more famous Hot Springs, it?s now a Victorian resort with winding streets, old neat houses, and the nickname ?The Switzerland of America.?

In the 1960?s, a giant Jesus statue was built nearby. Created by a ?name? fundamentalist radio preacher, also a vicious Jew hater and Nazi sympathizer, it?s sold as ?70 feet tall! 2 million pounds of concrete! Can hold 3 cars on each arm!? Like a Soviet monolith, its creator is buried near its base. Like the best of P.T. Barnum, it?s in the mist of a 50-acre religious theme park, complete with a four-hour performance of a play on the last days of Jesus. See! A cast of hundreds! See! 100 Camels! 200 Sheep! Costumes! Souvenirs, T-shirts, and the fabulous Bible Bar candy, with a selection of flavors named straight from the Old Testament. Coming to a vending machine near you! Your purchase decisions can now move Toward a Theology of Convenience!

See! Moneychangers! See! Us, starring in a remake of the end of the movie ?Easy Rider? or a Larry McMurtry novel, where the travelers are belittled, then attacked, by vicious redneck types.
The event was centered in the Basin Park Hotel, built in 1905, and once featured in Ripley?s Believe It or Not as having seven stories and a ground entrance on each floor. We arrived, checked in, and took a look around.

Eureka Springs is like many American towns were before World War II. There are a lot of small shops, and an interesting and varied architecture. Most of all, it?s on a human scale, made to be easily walked, with friendships and social connections soon to be easily made. No cars are needed.
Most businesses in town had been asked by the organizers if they had any problems with transgender. Out of a hundred-plus, only two said they had a problem and I would bet they finally came around. After all, they?re used to having a Diversity Day.

We met many people at the conference, including a couple from Salt Lake City (my current residence) we hadn?t known before. Some folks were reminiscent of those special people who populate your treasured memories. The whole experience resembled a legendary weekend one remembers from college days, golden in memory, only now real again.

Did we pass? Does it matter, when a person comes up to you and says, ?Happy diversity day!? Were we read, or did he think we were a lesbian couple?

Were we accepted by the townspeople? The town and the people themselves became like a big conference. Most there could be your friends, accepting your humanity and ignoring the transgender aspect.
We toured a Victorian house, and the owner allowed that her former husband had ?had a
little secret? in being, like us, transgendered. As she showed us the tools of life from an
earlier era, she told the story of how she found out.

I?m from this area of the country; the mannerisms, accents, dress, and geography took me back in memory to a time when I was the only one on earth in the then-unnamed state of being transgendered. In a way, I went back in time? only in triumph, now. I made friends with every remembered thought, innuendo, comment, and close encounter. What a beautiful way to finally come Home.