Power in Community: The 24th Annual Houston Transgender Unity Banquet Honors Leading Activists

By Terrance Turner
Photo by Dalton DeHart

On September 17, our community’s largest annual transgender event will take place at the Marriott Hotel in north Houston. The Houston Transgender Unity Committee (HTUC) Unity Banquet, now in its 24th year, is a night where trans people and their allies can come together to honor the activists working on the community’s behalf. The black-tie event also raises money for education scholarships, Houston Pride activities, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other endeavors.

The HTUC scholarship committee awards continuing-education funds to deserving candidates. The Peggy Rudd Transgender Scholarship Fund application can be found at unitybanquet.com, and awards are granted throughout the year.

The procedure for selecting honorees to receive HTUC’s community awards is considerably more involved. Robin Mack—who is on the HTUC board—explains the process of recognizing those who have made significant contributions to trans progress during the past year: “Anyone can nominate an individual or organization for a community award,” she says via email. “In addition, we specifically reach out to selected community leaders and former award recipients to request their award nominations. After nominations are closed, the awards committee meets and decides who will receive the awards. Awards are not given in every category every year.”

The HTUC’s Apogee/Brenda Thomas Award is given to the individual whose work has been a high point for the trans community. The non-transgender individual who was the staunchest trans advocate over the past year receives the Champion Award, and similarly, a non-trans organization receives the Champions Award for its advocacy work. The Horizon Award honors an individual who is new to the community and is making a positive difference.

Mack says that there were over 200 people at the event last year. She adds that some people, who can’t attend because they are traveling around the country (and the world), will send emails as they watch the event’s live feed. This kind of travel, according to Mack, is common for those in the community: “A lot of trans people are engineers, they’re IT people, they’re business professionals, and they travel in and out of the country all the time.” She elaborates that many trans people must work multiple jobs to cover the high cost of their gender-affirmation surgery. This is only one of the job-related issues that concern those in the community.

“Trans people are usually less employable,” Mack says. “A lot of times, even if someone’s super-qualified and has more degrees, they won’t [be hired because employers] don’t know what to do with them or how to deal with them.”

Even when they are hired, trans people often face uncertainty—especially in Houston. “Since we don’t have a Houston equality ordinance, [LGBT] people still stand to be fired,” Mack continues. “Trans people have to deal with the cost of everyday living, plus surgeries and hormones, plus risking [legal complications and termination].” As someone transitions, he or she may have trouble with changing their name on legal documents. This can cause difficulties with banks, mail services, utility companies, and particularly the government.

With no legislation in place to prevent wrongful job termination from occurring, trans people are at particular risk. Not only do they run the risk of being fired while transitioning, they may not be hired to begin with. Mack says that while the legal and social issues involved in transitioning don’t bother some employers, some highly qualified trans applicants who have gone through many rounds of interviews still end up being passed over or fired.

Is the Unity Banquet meant to be a resource for those facing issues like employment discrimination? Not exactly, Mack says: “The banquet is a place where people can come together, share a meal, and mingle. They get to be a part of an experience.” The formal event also allows people to present themselves as they truly are, she continues, even if they cannot dress as themselves in their own community: “They get honored and received as who they are, [from the moment they arrive] until they leave, which is magical.”

Banquet attendees include at-risk youth, PFLAG members, and representatives from corporate sponsors like Shell. The diverse crowd also includes politicians, according to Mack. They may arrive with the intention of just making an appearance. But when they encounter the crowd—which she describes as fun, loving, and diverse—they stay. When they choose to stay, they learn. Information about support groups is also shared as part of the awards ceremony.

One of the honorees at last year’s Unity Banquet was Dee Dee Watters, who was recently selected to serve on Mayor Turner’s LGBT Advisory Board. “Dee Dee does a lot of selfless work, but nobody had really acknowledged her at a banquet,” Mack says. “Like, a black trans woman of color? I mean, you might tokenize someone, but that’s not how we do it, and that’s not how it comes off. And so it’s really powerful, because we talked about the work that she cares about, and we thanked her. It’s as basic, but as fulfilling, as that.”

What: The 24th annual Houston Transgender Unity Banquet
When: Saturday, September 17, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Houston Marriott North, 255 North Sam Houston Pkwy E.
Details: unitybanquet.com


Terrance Turner

Terrance Turner is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.
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