HRC Blog

Finding Comfort and Family: JoAnn Purcell

JoAnn PurcellPost submitted by Beth Sherouse, HRC Senior Content Manager

The word “transgender” didn’t exist when JoAnn Purcell was growing up in the midwest during the 1950s and 60s. And most Americans considered “transsexuals” to be mentally ill, including JoAnn’s parents.

Assigned male at birth, she talked to her parents about her gender identity when she was a child. So they went to their local priest for advice.

“The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital getting shock treatments,” said Purcell, who feared the treatments would continue if she didn’t claim she was cured.

It would be decades later – after she’d married and raised a family – that Purcell would open up again about her identity.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I came out to my wife and she began researching and learning more about transgender issues,” recalled Purcell.

In 2001, Purcell and her wife attended their first Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, where transgender people gather each year to attend informational panels and spend time in a trans-centered space. Purcell began volunteering with the conference a few years later, and has since become a leading organizer, serving as Program Director from 2011 to 2013, and currently as Conference Chair. Her wife, who has attended the conference with her each year, also volunteers.

“I don’t consider myself an activist, to tell you the truth,” she explained. “I just consider myself a support person. I’m there as a representative of the community. I just try to be a positive force for the community..."

Like many other Southern Comfort attendees, the conference is more than just a yearly meeting for Purcell. “It’s a gathering of, well, our family,” she said. “People come back year after year. If for nothing else to reconnect with everybody, to share our stories. And for new people, the resources that we provide are as good as anything out there. My reward is just, every year I get those one or two or three folks who just walk up to you and just say ‘Oh, thank you so much! This meant so much to me.’”

Human Rights Campaign staff and board joined the Southern Comfort Conference and spoke during the 2013 meeting. This year, in 2014, the Human Rights Campaign is also a proud sponsor of the conference and providing additional resources to conference organizers.

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