An Interview with Dee LaValle Director of TransWeek

An Interview with Dee LaValle Director of TransWeek

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Since Dee Grace LaValle began her transition nine years ago, she has been a TransWeek attendee, eventually being named executive director of TransWeek in 2018 and recognized in 2021 with the event’s highest honor, the Fantasia Fair Award. Growing up in Massachusetts, Ms. LaValle works for an international multimedia corporation and is a member of her company’s DEI task force and on the board of directors of its PRIDE business resource group. She has been honored to promote LGBTQIA+ awareness throughout her company. Ms. LaValle and her spouse recently celebrated their 30th anniversary and are proud parents to a 22-year-old daughter, an 18-year-old son, and a black cat who is always plotting Ms. LaValle’s demise. Ms. LaValle enjoys skiing with her children in the winter, and since her spouse despises snow, they enjoy traveling in months that are snow-free.

Interviewing Ms. LaValle, I had the wonderful opportunity to gain experience about the history of TransWeek, an event I was unaware of, but hope to attend next year. I also learned about the honor that is being awarded by TransWeek to Angela Gardner, TGForum editor. Congratulations, Angela.

Dee Grace LaValle

TGForum (TGF): TransWeek, formerly known as Fantasia Fair, has been going strong for 49 years.

Ms. LaValle: Indeed. Our first event was in 1975, in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, and Provincetown has been our home ever since. We are, to the best of our knowledge, the longest-running trans event in the Americas, and perhaps in the world. It all began in Boston with a social support group called the Cherrystones, who were looking for community support and a safe space to come together. A member had attended an event called Dream on the West Coast, and people asked, “Why can’t we do something like that here?” Three members provided seed money and newly-out self-identified androgyne Ariadne Kane was selected to plan and run a 10-day event. Provincetown would be the location because it had long been a welcoming place for LGB people and is far from everything on the tip of Cape Cod. Fear of being outed or attacked in public was a major concern for trans people in that era, and still is today, so safety and the built-in isolation of P’Town were important. October was chosen because summer crowds would be gone, room rates would be reasonable and because the cool autumn weather would be comfortable for people wearing wigs and makeup.

If you think about the history of gay rights, in the mid-seventies’ things were at last moving forward. That wasn’t the case with transgender people. While many of found home in the gay community, many didn’t, and those who did were at the fringes. We were left at the altar, so to speak, even though we had been instrumental in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. As progressive as it was, even Provincetown seemed a risk for a trans event.

Over the decades, Fantasia Fair flourished. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit was formed to oversee the event and a board of directors was established. The support from Provincetown was and has remained fantastic. It’s a great and safe place to be for self-exploration, socializing, fine dining, natural features like the seashore and sand dunes, and, of course, crossdressing.

TGF: When did it become TransWeek?

Ms. LaValle: We became TransWeek in 2022. And yes, next year will be our 50th anniversary. Big things are planned.

Although Fantasia Fair was formed at a time when gay and bi crossdressers and transsexuals were excluded from most trans groups, the event was always open to anyone who wanted to attend. After all, Ari Kane, the principal organizer throughout the 20th century, considered himself bisexual and what we today recognize as nonbinary—a term that didn’t exist at that time. Even though the Fair was often described as an event for heterosexual crossdressers, people from all parts of the gender rainbow have always attended and have always been welcomed. We strive to make the event enjoyable for everyone, whatever their gender identity or sexual orientation or age or race.

Over the years, our demographics changed. More transsexuals registered, and more trans men. By year two, there were a variety of spouses and partners in attendance; we have long been known for the support and amount of programming we provide to significant others. As a result, hundreds of marriages have been saved. We are unaware of any other conference that provides the same level of support.

While Fantasia Fair was a good choice for a name in 1975, it no longer properly describes our seven-day long gathering. Yes, it can be a fantasy to get away from one’s everyday existence to express a life-long dream, but for many being trans is just who we are. And trans communities and terminology have evolved. Gay crossdressers and transsexuals no longer find themselves excluded. The term transgender didn’t come into common use until 1993 and is a better descriptor of who we are and what we do. And so, around 2018, we began a slow move toward changing the name from Fantasia Fair to Transgender Week (TransWeek in short). We still honor the name Fantasia Fair, but we move toward the future as TransWeek.

TGF: What’s your role in coordinating the TransWeek event?

Ms. LaValle: Just that. I coordinate the entire event with the help of a committee and board of directors. I’m on the point of all higher-end decisions. I navigate and set the tone and pace, identify issues, and listen to the group that I have around me as to what their concerns are processing, and, with the board and committee, formulate a plan. Frankly, I get involved with everything.

TGF: Is this a paid or volunteer position?

Ms. LaValle: It’s important to know everyone involved is a volunteer. We have no paid staff or committee members. I don’t get paid a dime for a difficult year-round job, no compensation whatsoever. It’s all strictly volunteer,

TG: So, how do you pay the rent?

Ms. LaValle: That’s a good question. I work for an international multimedia company. I’m an operations manager and I get involved in company scheduling. It’s kind of like a quarterback managing several manufacturing facilities worldwide. My focus is the Northeast. And so that sort of plays hand in glove with my role at TransWeek. I have a lot of experience managing a lot of complex projects, and with a lot of stakeholders.

TGF: When did your involvement in the event begin?

Ms. LaValle: My first year was 2015. That was when I first attended. I certainly wasn’t thinking about getting involved as I have. I was just working on my own situation and trying to come to terms with my own identity, never mind anybody else. I became more involved in 2017. I learned that the Fantasia name didn’t really describe the event and somewhat inhibited what we were doing. I started talking to the board of directors and the committee members and it became apparent that the Fantasia name had become problematic.

Dallas Denny, our board chair, had long wanted to change the name, and we worked together to make it happen. In 2018, we minimized use of the term Fantasia Fair and went with FanFair, but our goal was to migrate to TransWeek.

Many people in Provincetown, including many city leaders, knew the event from the days when crossdresser was a common term and had never put two and two together and realized we were trans people. I went to local town hall meetings and spoke about the event. The town was embracing us, and although they wanted to put us in a little box, they could understand who we were. They believed we were just a bunch of men that wanted to parade around in women’s clothes, I said no, we’re transgender. They knew what that meant, and just to be sure, I explained it anyway. The result was an increased interest in the town and a larger grant for us to promote tourism in Provincetown.

TGF: It seems like that was another reason for changing the event name.

Ms. LaValle: Yes. The name Fantasia really didn’t do justice to who we are and what we do. Provincetown has themed tourism weeks: along with a variety of weekends and festivals, there are Bear Week, Family Week, Women’s Week, Womxn of Color Weekend, Men of Color Weekend, and Pride Week, so it was only natural for us to move past any resistance and be recognized for who we were.

Dee in 2021.

TransWeek started rolling out on a soft kind of opening. It wasn’t the headline at first. It worked its way into the dialogue. We first did that in 2019, and then the pandemic happened, forcing us to go virtual for our 2020 event. As a result, 2021 was when we really revealed it. Instantaneously attendance increased, and we got more hits on sponsorship. It’s now easier to talk to people about the event. It was truly amazing. Only traces of Fantasia Fair still exist. Almost.

TGF: How many people do you expect to attend this year?

Ms. LaValle: Many people register, but there have always been people who just happen to show up in Provincetown during the event. We have always been fine with that and throughout this century have offered townies and anyone who happens to be in town, free attendance to our daily keynotes and low-cost tickets to our Common Threads and Follies evening events. Now, we are officially encouraging people to show up and enjoy the seashore, beaches and sand dunes, nightlife, fine dining, and the company of other trans people. My best guess is there will be about 500 people in town for TransWeek.

There’s a lot of heavy lifting that’s going on emotionally for participants. It’s a powerful event for a lot of people. TransWeek is not one where you come and try to get book smart about the trans community. It’s about fully embracing your identity and seeing how that works. I tell people it’s like the training wheels of your life. You can kind of learn who you’re going to be in the morning because after a week you know what it means to you and how that experience was. We’ve had an amazing number of people who would go either way. It really is a crossroads in a lot of people’s journeys. A lot of marriages have been saved by this event, including my own.

We’ve had marriages where people decided this is it, but we have many more where people find identity with their spouses. We have a great sub-event, if you will, of just significant others. They move at their own pace and do their own thing. They get together for lunch and socialize throughout the week. Every day, we have workshops for them, led by mental health professionals. And that’s what we do.

TGF: That’s quite amazing.

Ms. LaValle: Yes. Amazing indeed. Quite a few support groups and at least one trans conference were born at TransWeek, and dozens of people who came over the years who have become activists in the community, including some who first came as recipients of scholarships. Attending has led many people to decide to transition—or not transition. We let people decide on their own—I don’t need to do this anymore, or simply say I just want to dress once a year. It’s just not coming to a convention room and experiencing a couple of workshops listening to people talk to you about their lifestyle. It’s about filling the entire town and talking not only to attendees, but to the wonderful and understanding people of Provincetown.

TGF: I would imagine, with drawing that kind of attendance numbers, the shopkeepers love it.

Ms. LaValle: Provincetown is not a day trip. You don’t just roll in or take the train from where you live. People come, and they stay the night. Not many people just come for one night. It’s usually at least two to three nights. That leads to numerous restaurant visits, and other shopping excursions. Hundreds of people coming for a common purpose has a dramatic economic impact within the community and upon the local economy.

Anybody is welcome. We offer full-week packages as well as half-week packages, either for the first half or second half of the event. People get to choose for how long and when they want to come. We always have several cisgender people at the event. We have a wide demographic. We are struggling to accommodate the needs of nonbinary and genderqueer people. We have business and health professionals, and politicians too. Some will speak at our plenaries or workshops. We also have therapists that host events as well. So yes, we do welcome anybody.

TGF: You began transitioning about 10 years ago. Easy or bumps along the way?

Ms. LaValle: Of course, there were bumps along the way. I was and am still married. I guess for me, it was all about my family. Certainly, people in the community sometimes think trans people are selfish. that we make it all about us. Well, society consists of a lot of selfish people. I think it’s an individual situation. I was navigating on my own. It was a personal crisis. I always knew something was up in terms of feeling I didn’t fit in and not really having a name for it. I don’t even know what that name was.

Maybe about 15 years ago is when I really started thinking about and being drawn toward it. Maybe that’s a better word. Not necessarily even considering it. It just wasn’t on the menu for me. I know I felt I had these feelings, but I had no context. I had no understanding of what was going on. But certainly, once I got some context around it and I did my due diligence, it started to come together. I went to therapy and started understanding what it meant to other people.

And I went to TransWeek, and that’s when I found who I was. For the first time in my life, I felt peace. That’s the best way I could tell you what it was. It was peaceful. It was more like a revolution to me. But my family was always important to me. My spouse. My children. I had a home and a career. It was basically living the American dream. I had young children at the time, and navigating through all that wasn’t easy. And I left that in large part. That’s a decision I made. Other people decide what they’re going to do and what’s important to them. And they do what they must do and see what happens. I wanted to do the right thing and try to work through it all. And we did. It took a while, but eventually, eventually the day came when my big revelation came out at work in 2017.

I haven’t looked back since then. I began progressing, getting my birth certificate changed, and all my legal documents changed.

TGF: In terms of your family, was there overall acceptance?

Ms. LaValle: Oh no. But we’ve evolved. We’ve come a long way. Every day builds on the past few days. Time is built on the foundation of the past. The future is built on the foundation. And that is what it is. It’s one day at a time. I’m easy with them. I don’t get on their case about pronouns when they mix or might make a mistake here and there. As a family, we just live with it. We’re on a ship here, and we’re navigating it together. And that’s the best way I can put it. I don’t need to be an activist in my own family. I can let my hair down and we just live our lives and work through it. I try to be knowledgeable. You know your space. Certain things that you are comfortable with. I’m okay with that. I live in a dream here because in many cases I can have my cake and eat it too. I’m just grateful to them. I think in fact, our relationship is better than it ever has been. I think that’s the thing because you know when you’re being authentic and whether you like the situation or not. You can really have a deeper relationship when it’s authentic, not when you’re stressed out. I’m calm and cool. I try to be organized, and I’m a worker. I work hard at everything I do. I can relax. I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to relax before I transitioned. It’s one thing being physically and mentally tired from what you do. It’s another thing just to be exhausted from just getting through the day.

TGF: Thank you for sharing that about your life. Let’s move on to the 2023 Transgender Pioneer Award that is being bestowed on Angela Gardner the TGForum publisher. Talk about the award and how Angela was selected.

Ms. LaValle: You must go back to the beginning of the event. Angela was one of the original pioneers in the community. She was cofounder of Renaissance Education Association back in the ’80s and has been publishing TGForum weekly for many years. If it wasn’t for people like Angela and their work and their perseverance, we’d all be hiding in the closet or under our bed because we would be afraid to go out the front door. That’s what people have done in this community over the years – build it brick-by-brick. They created an opportunity for each of us to have our feet on the ground and be able to walk out that front door. Some people, more than others, have done things that have changed the landscape. People who have dedicated their lives to a good portion of it moving the needle forward. This is what this award stands for. So, the Transgender Pioneer Award is given to those who go where no one had gone before and allowed others to follow that path. You know, the adage of walking in in the footsteps of another is so true when it comes to this award.

Many trans people have been positively affected by Angela’s work. I know she’s a humble person. I get that feeling. She is probably a lot like me in the sense that you know we’re dealing with the thing at hand. You do what we must do and let everybody else figure out how that fits in with the scheme of history. That’s how I take Angela. She’s a plugger. She plugs along, and she has been doing it for a long time, providing a lot of good material and goodwill. So now it’s time for her to get recognized for it.

I’ve been involved in the selection process since 2017. The person that’s really been the heart and soul of this event is Dallas Denny. Dallas is an accomplished author and well-known community activist. She has been here since about 2000 as board chair and director, and she’s my boss in terms of who I report to, if you wanted to put a hierarchy there.

TGF: I appreciate what you have to say about Angela and the publication. I agree. For our readers who want to TransWeek, can they still register, and is the website the place to go?

Ms. LaValle: They can get all the information they need there.

TGF: Fantastic. That’s easy enough. Anything else that you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

Ms. LaValle: It’s important to talk about the philanthropic offerings of this event. We’re a nonprofit organization. It’s not a money-making operation. There are certainly people who come to the event who are very generous. I think our community is generally willing to pay it forward. One thing that we’re happy about is the scholarships we’re able to offer individuals on an annual basis. When you come to this event in Provincetown it changes you, and the idea of having an opportunity to bring others to this event will fill a desperate need to be a life-changing event. It’s satisfying, when you’re in the grocery store and somebody ahead of you is short a few dollars and you throw $20 dollars on the counter and just move along. You naturally feel good about that because it’s important to them. And that’s sort of what this is. This is paying it forward a little bit. It’s important for your readers to know that we are a really caring group. It’s not an event where you get lost. We’re big on networking. That’s why I believe people become generous because they get so much out of TransWeek more than can be imagined.

We want to break even every year. But we want to bring people to the event who need and want the experience. So, when we give out a scholarship to bring somebody to the Cape, we finance their registration fees and housing costs. Each scholarship costs us about $2,000. We offer multiple annual scholarships. We’re proud of it.

TGF: Thank you for your time and insight. Good luck with this year’s event. I’ll try to attend in 2024.

Ms. LaValle: We hope you all do.

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Category: History, Transgender Community News


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