I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.Beneva Fruitville March 27, 2023
I am a drag queen performer from Florida. I was born in Winter Haven Hospital and lived and studied in the state for 17 years before I finally got out in 1993. I left because I had the drive and passion to pursue musical theatre for a living. I did, however, have an incredible education and opportunities to excel before leaving. I went to a performing arts high school, where I worked with and was mentored by some of the best people in the musical theatre industry, including Ann Reinking. I also felt comfortable with myself and the world that I existed in to come out as gay when I was 15 in 1991. But I was so ready to get out and see the world.
I was later accepted to every college program I auditioned for, including schools in New York, Boston, Florida, and Ohio. I settled on the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and its illustrious musical theatre BFA program. Four years later, I began working in New York. I sustained myself in musical theatre for 17 years. Somewhere during that time, I discovered drag. It became an outlet for me that combined my talents and education, while branching into a whole new form of entertainment that focused on my own work and my ideas, instead of those of a theater director. I fell in love with drag and the character I created, Beneva Fruitville. I got my drag name from an actual intersection in Sarasota, Florida. The first time I heard of it, I thought it would be a perfect drag name. I worked as Beneva for 13 years. I loved her, and being her taught me how to love myself.
I was on the board of directors for an LGBTQ+ youth organization when Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was proposed. I was working with youth and helping the organization’s programming in various events frequently scheduled. It was a devastating blow the day the legislation passed, mostly because I truly did not understand what it all meant as a trans woman who performed as a drag queen. The subsequent issues and further legislation continued to obscure and blur lines to the point where I do not know what it is I am allowed to do. I have been scheduled for events, specifically a book reading event where I was threatened not to attend. I had planned to take the gig, but on the morning of the event, I had a full-on panic attack and couldn’t stop crying or leave my bed. I felt horrible for the organizers because I left them in a lurch but I could not, physically and mentally, handle leaving my bed. I lost several regular gigs, mostly in restaurants. None of them overtly said it was because they were scared, but I’m sure they just didn’t want any trouble. All those regular gigs were how I made a living. Feeling unwelcome in Florida, I decided to move out but when I lost all of my work, I couldn’t afford to do that, and I had great trouble finding a job in the professional world as a trans woman. As a result, I asked my mother, who is on a fixed income in Florida, if I could stay with her. She has been amazing, but finding work outside the entertainment industry and being trans in Florida is impossible. I have supported myself as an entertainer and business owner for at least five years and all of that is now gone. My anxiety and depression have almost made me agoraphobic. I sugarcoat the helplessness I feel with ideas of just laying low and trying to figure out what my next step in life is, but I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.
I just know that staying in Florida is not an option. It is draconian and dystopian here. I live in fear. As an activist and advocate for LGBTQ+ youth, I have had to take a step back for my mother’s safety and mine. I stopped using Facebook because I received multiple anonymous threats and hateful messages. It became so toxic and time-consuming trying not only to explain that I deserve to exist, live, and thrive but to also dispel misconceptions about my life. It blows my mind how much misinformation there is about what being trans actually means and how Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and hormone blockers affect the body. People eat fast-food crap and yet worry about what a medicine that has been through dozens of tests does. It’s mostly ignorance, prejudice, and outright hate of the “other.”
I want to work and help out and fight, but I am so exhausted and depressed. When your entire existence is on the news every day and subject to legislation, it makes it extremely uncomfortable to exist in this world. I feel like I let so many people down by my semi-retirement as Beneva, but I don’t know exactly what to do. The thing I’m most proud of doing as Beneva was working with LGBTQ+ youth because if I had opportunities and mentorship in my own teens, it could have saved me from some major problems I had in my 20s with drugs and sex. Through Beneva, I found a love for myself that I didn’t have before. I couldn’t imagine that it would help to heal me. That ultimately made me want to give this gift to others. Through story times, flash mobs, family-friendly Pride events, LGBTQ+ prom, and my work with a youth group, I was able to connect and share love and acceptance with hundreds of kids who may not feel that they are allowed to be who they are.
I had a conversation with a friend during one of my last mentoring sessions with LGBTQ+ youth. I began to cry as I knew this would probably be my last visit. I told her how exhausted I was and that I have been fighting for nearly 30 years: beginning in college with Act Up, later with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, CAN Community Health, Suncoast AIDS Theater Project, and most recently ALSO Youth.
My friend said to me so lovingly, “It’s okay for you to rest now, we’ve got this.” But I can’t stop feeling like a failure. I know in my head that these laws and legislations are wrong and harmful, but my heart is so broken and my sense of self is shaken. Instead of fighting the fight publicly, I’m now fighting the fight internally to allow myself to exist. It’s the biggest battle I’ve ever fought, and some days I feel like I’m losing.
Files coming soon.
As the Human Rights Campaign declares a “national state of emergency” for queer people in the U.S., filmmakers, singers and drag performers talk about the heartbreaking choices they are making between staying put and resisting or moving: “I’ve lost my freedom to live in society.”
Plus IconJUNE 15, 2023 9:15AM
On April 25, native Floridian Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, joined with hundreds of her fellow drag performers for a Drag Queen’s March in Tallahassee, Florida. They were there to protest a plethora of hateful legislation targeting drag shows, trans-affirming medical care and bathroom usage. “It was just a show of resistance versus more trying to get anything changed, because we knew it was going to be signed,” she says.
Ayers was right. The laws were passed and enacted by Gov. Ron DeSantis — who signed 2022’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill — and Ayers saw the life she had worked so hard to build in Sarasota for the past 18 years slip away. “All the regular places that I would work were getting scared,” she says. “They were saying, ‘Maybe we just take a little beat and not do your show for a while.’ And that sucked. So I basically lost all my income. I lost my freedom to live in society, and I lost my medical care.”
And so, she made the painful decision to start over in New York. “I left,” says Ayers, who has started a GoFundMe to aid her new life. “I feel like I had to leave. I felt like I had no other choice.”
Across the South, LGBTQIA+ performers and creatives are being forced to contemplate leaving their homes as states including Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia pass bills targeting their community. In April, retired Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade revealed that his family — including daughter Zaya, who is transgender — had relocated from Florida to California for a safer life, even before this new wave of legislation. “The laws, the politics … it’s unsafe conversation, and it’s unsafe for my daughter,” says Wade.
With more than 525 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in 41 states so far in 2023 and more than 75 signed into law (see details on new laws in four states at the end of this story), civil rights group The Human Rights Campaign declared a “national state of emergency” on June 6.
This backlash has come amid decades of progress, with queer creative communities flourishing in growing entertainment hubs like Miami, Austin, Nashville and Atlanta. Many queer artists living in these metropolises have long been wary of venturing out of their liberal enclaves (referred to in Atlanta as “OTP,” or outside the perimeter). This fear has increased in recent years. “I shot a feature last year, and I left the state to shoot because I was like, ‘I don’t feel like I can job it here.’ I didn’t necessarily feel a hundred percent comfortable,” says Austin-based transgender filmmaker Bears Rebecca Fonté. “We were doing a lesbian vampire thriller [Crimson Shadows]. It’s going to be amazing, but that’s something that might, I don’t know, piss somebody off and they might have an open-carry gun.”
The regressive laws also have made queer performers and their allies reluctant to travel to work in certain states. “I’ve had opportunities that were supposed to be shot in some of these states,” says UTA digital agent Pranav Mandavia, who reps comedians Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers and drag stars including Trixie Mattel and Monét X Change. “My clients have passed [on performing in some states] because they’ve … felt uncomfortable physically. So, they’re just not in that mindset right now because it’s an attack on their being, essentially.”
Nashville filmmaker Christin Baker (Christmas at the Ranch) encountered this phenomenon recently. “I did a creative retreat where people came from out of town and were really nervous, and I would have to talk with them and be like, ‘I promise you this is a safe space,’ ” Baker says. “What you see out there is not what you will experience when you come here.”
Nearly all of the artists THR spoke with say that their careers and the entertainment industry as a whole in their cities had yet to be significantly impacted by studios or jobs moving out of their states. Many, like Atlanta-based trans actress and filmmaker Ava Davis, believe this is a good thing. “If you’re pouring money into productions in a state where you have laws being passed, then, in effect, you can change the narrative,” she says. “But if you’re pulling out, then you have no voice in the conversation.”
While some local pride events in Florida have been canceled due to fear of reprisals — and one town, Wilton Manors, amended the permit for its June 17 pride celebration to prevent drag performances on outdoor stages — many queer creative communities and their allies have banded together. Nationally, a “Drag Isn’t Dangerous” telethon on May 7, featuring stars like Charlize Theron and Marcia Gay Harden, raised nearly $600,000 for initiatives like the ACLU’s Drag Defense Fund. Locally, there have been events like Nashville’s Love Rising benefit concert, which protested odious anti-queer and anti-trans bills and featured performers like Maren Morris, Jason Isbell and Allison Russell.
“It’s a terror campaign. It’s a fear campaign,” says Russell, who co-organized the benefit with Isbell. “It’s the age-old fascist tactic of find a scapegoat and whip up a frenzy of fear around this scapegoat. And exactly like Nazi Germany in the early ’30s, the nationalist movements they have started seem to like to target our queer communities first because we’re the most vulnerable.”
“[I brought] my daughter and every other musician brought their kids,” adds Russell of the Love Rising concert. “It wasn’t like we planned it. We just all had that same impetus of no, there’s nowhere safer for our kids in this state right now than in this room at Love Rising where everyone in this room is saying, ‘We are committed to upholding and protecting the equal rights of every single human being in Tennessee, regardless of their gender orientation, of their sexual orientation, of their artistic expression.’ Drag is as old as humanity and all of a sudden we’re demonizing it? So, are we going to outlaw Shakespeare or Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, Kinky Boots? How far are we going?”
Colby Gallahar, a foundation manager at Creative Artist Agency and a Nashville resident, believes the concert helped raise awareness in Tennessee. “I think so many people, my family included … aren’t necessarily aware of what legislation was being passed or what the sentiment towards the LGBT community was at that time,” explains Gallahar. “So, concerts, they’re wonderful and provide the fundraising, but they also create an awareness because you have artists who span demographics, who transcend the political divide.”
So far, it is local drag performers who have been the most impacted by new anti-LGBTQ legislation. “On a national scale, we’re not seeing a tremendous effect, but locally it is having really nasty consequences on some of the people who are least able to pivot,” say UTA comedy touring agent Michael Grinspan, who represents drag stars including Bob the Drag Queen. “If there’s a particular state [my clients] can’t go to, it’s easy for us to just kind of pick up stakes and go somewhere else.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Kameron Michaels, a former Nashville resident who now lives in Las Vegas, sees this affecting many of her former co-workers who perform at clubs in the Tennessee capital. “Drag is a real career now. A lot of these clubs are offering benefits,” Kameron says. “For some of these girls, that’s all they have. And so, when these people are passing laws to try to take that away … this is people’s livelihood.”
As a touring performer, Michaels, who grew up in Tennessee, makes sure to call out oppression wherever she goes. “Every time I go to a venue, I try to look at their local laws. I ask the local performers, ‘Do you guys have a drag ban right now? Do you guys have a trans health care ban?’ ” she says. “Everywhere I go, I try to ask and then I try to say something on the microphone.”
Many performers THR spoke with are determined to stay and fight, even as the political climate worsens in their state. “For the most part, what we’re finding is that there’s a defiance,” says Craig Hardesty, chair of the board of directors of Atlanta’s Out on Film LGBTQ Film Festival. “It’s like, ‘No, we are going to keep creating, we’re going to keep telling our stories. We’re going to stay and do this. This is where we live, you know, this is where we work. And this is our community.’ “
Austin-based filmmaker PJ Raval (Call Her Ganda) agrees. “If this is where change needs to happen, well then, this is where people like me need to be. We need to be working here. We need to be active in terms of participating in what the community looks like.”
For many Southern-born performers, there is a sense of brave obligation — they are staying to create art that will inspire and educate their people. “The only movies I make are lesbian-led, queer-led,” says Baker. “I think it’s incredibly important that people know gay people live in rural Southern cities — it’s not a big-city phenomenon.” And then there’s the sense of fellowship: “One of the main reasons why I am staying is because I do love the camaraderie of the South,” says Atlanta-based Leo Hollen Jr., an actor and filmmaker (Queer Moxie). “The queer creative community here, they see you, they know you. They’re going to say hi, they’re going to give you a hug, they’re going to help you out any way they can.”
There is a real sense of sadness, however, that comes through in speaking with many of these creators who believe these new bills are not the will of the people but rather the result of extreme gerrymandering that has given Republican-led state legislatures unchecked power. The real-life impact of these new and possibly additional laws mean that at some point they may have to reconsider their future.
In Austin, Fonté is anxiously watching the progress of Texas bill SB 1029 (which so far has passed the state Senate). The proposed legislation would make it very difficult for doctors to give trans-affirming care to adult patients. “My wife and I were talking about it,” Fonté says. ” ‘Well, what are we going to do about this? We can’t live somewhere where I can’t get medical care.’ And so, the solution that I was toying with was that maybe I need to get an apartment in Los Angeles and just fly out once every couple of months to see my doctor and get my prescriptions filled. But how ridiculous is that?”
And although Fonté feels safely cocooned in Austin, she knows that the city’s progressive government cannot protect her. “It’s really sad because Austin is a great town, and I feel like Austin obviously is not in favor of any of these things. But Austin not only has no control, the government is actively trying to give it less control. They’re trying to take some decisions away from the City Council just because they hate Austin so much.”
These realities have led some queer artists to realize that it’s time to go. “My wife and I just put our house on the market,” says musician and filmmaker Janelle Faimen, who has lived in Nashville for 17 years. “I’ve been ready to get out for a while. But this current legislation was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were like, ‘No, we’re not doing it.’ We’re not going to stay and fight. We’ve done that. We’re both very active politically. And to be honest, if we just look at Florida, we can see what’s coming.”
Added to Tennessee’s anti-trans and anti-queer legislation is the state’s draconian anti-abortion law. That’s not the climate the couple want for their family. But most of all, they are weary. “Honestly, being a member of the community that goes to protest, my wife being on the board of The Pride Chamber — we’re tired,” says Faimen. “It feels like you’re fighting a giant, which you are. It’s hard to constantly fight for something that, for the last decade, we kind of took for granted.”
Nearly everyone THR spoke with had friends and colleagues who were planning to move — if they haven’t already. In Miami, an anonymous couple who work in media shared a similar story as they planned to move to Washington, D.C. “It’s hard because we’ve built a community in a sense,” the couple said by email. “We have our friends, we have our family. So it’s hard to leave all of that behind.”
The two are considering renting their home in order to hold on to it, admitting, “Really it’s just more of a wishful thinking — that maybe one day we’ll be able to come back.”
The state expanded its “Don’t Say Gay” law (which bans discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools) to all grades. It also passed bills banning minors from attending drag shows and prohibiting Medicaid from covering gender-affirming care.
On June 2, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to prevent gender-affirming care for minors. Currently, legislators are pushing a bill similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. The state had previously banned transgender individuals from girls sports in schools in 2021.
In March, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law that prohibits doctors from performing surgery or prescribing hormones for trans minors. It still allows prescriptions for puberty blockers. A bill similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, however, stalled in the state Senate.
Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that bans performances on public property featuring “male or female impersonators.” On June 3, a federal judge declared it unconstitutional. The state has also banned gender-affirming health care for trans youth.
By Beneva Fruitville January 30, 2020
I love musicals. In fact, musical theater has been my hobby and lifelong career, a path I chose after I saw the musical “A Chorus Line” at 13 years old. In that one evening of music, dance, comedy and drama, I learned that performing was not only a viable career – but one that I, Berry Ayers, absolutely had to have.
I grew up in church and sang my first solo at the age of four with dreams of becoming the next Sandy Patti. That “Chorus Line” performance still hung in my memory like the first time I saw Dorothy step out into the colorful world of Oz, however; there were people on that stage talking about abuse, sex, hurt, anger, power and ultimately, love.
My life went from Sandi Patti to Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. I studied, worked hard, went to a performing arts high school and I walked out of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music with an agent and a career. Performances Off-Broadway, in national tours, on cruise ships and in regional theater followed.
At first, the work I was getting was in the ensemble; the townsfolk in River City or the dancing waiters at the Harmonia Gardens. As a highly trained and very serious actor, when I was dancing on the “West Side Story” fire escapes of New York City, I was asked to determine who my character was, what his home life was like and what he wanted. Acting meant that you go on stage and become someone else. I didn’t have to be me; I could pick whoever I wanted to be.
At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with Manic Depressive Disorder with Suicidal Ideations. Other diagnoses through the years have been Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Severe Depression, PTSD, Anorexia, Bulimia and Body Dysmorphia. I am also an addict. Being me, all the time, was not easy. Musical theater allowed me to be whoever I wanted to be in my bedroom while “I Dreamed A Dream” onstage.
As my career progressed, I started making a name for myself and was able to pick the roles I wanted. It was about this time I was picked to perform in an AIDS benefit in drag, something I had only done onstage in a musical. I was also asked to pick a name for this performance.
At the time, I was hired for the musical “Chicago” in Sarasota. The rehearsals were at a dance studio located at the intersection of Beneva and Fruitville Roads. Upon hearing that, I said “Beneva Fruitville … that sounds like a drag name!” My friends laughed and I suddenly had a new nickname. Beneva Fruitville it was!
Drag opened so many doors for me, beginning with guest performance spots. Within six months, I was hosting my own show. I have since created the longest-running theatrical production in Sarasota and occasionally co-host a daytime talk show for our ABC affiliate. It has also been wonderful having a modicum of notoriety, something I dreamed about when I first sang that Sandy Patti song in church so many years ago.
Somewhere in the middle of this journey, something changed in me. For so long I had chosen to be someone else – but intrinsically, without the Beneva persona of being sexy, sassy and salacious – who was Berry?
I tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I played with the concept of gender fluidity. I also tried non-prescribed and illegal hormones. Things got very dark, suicidal dark, and I resumed therapy. I discovered that I was experiencing something called dysphoria, adding it to my previously stated list of diagnoses.
In any case, I had finally found my true self: a 44-year-old, trans woman who has never felt more alive and more comfortable in her own skin than being able to say those words. So, what does a girl do when she realizes that she needs to put her mental health first? Quit her day job and make drag a full-time career!
I clearly didn’t think that out thoroughly. Jobs give health insurance. No health insurance, no therapist. A little lost and wondering what my next step would be, friends told me to call Metro Inclusive Health. I made an appointment for an assessment and in December, I met my new therapist.
She talked me through the basics of Metro’s services, treated me with respect and care and we are proceeding at my pace. Now, let me tell you, I want my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and I want it now! I also want my boobies and I want them now! But, I am literally just beginning my journey; just beginning the process of getting my letter of support so that I can begin HRT.
In order to get approved for HRT you must have a letter from your therapist explaining your dysphoria and we are working on that process now. Going through my past, defining examples of my specific dysphoria and notating them. Metro, praise God, also works on a sliding fee schedule – so what you pay is based on what you make.
So this is my journey. I choose to be open, honest and transparent because for the first time I can pick who I really am – and this time, I am Picking Berry.
Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, has been honored for her theatrical roles and volunteerism. She has performed onstage from New York to Fiji and can be seen on screen via Amazon Prime and Sarasota’s Suncoast View.
By Beneva Fruitville December 3, 2020
I came out as a gay male in high school during my sophomore year. It was 1990 and I had my first boyfriend, who was in school with me and a year older.
We were in a production of “Oklahoma!” together, during which I began to make it clear that I was interested in him. I knew he had told some people that he was gay so I would not be barking up the wrong tree. He was funny, gregarious and charming. I set my sights on making him mine. It was innocent enough. I put a note in one of his textbooks. Then through a chain of female friends, we began passing notes. Not nearly as simple as “Do you like me – circle yes or no,” but also nothing as earth-shattering as “I am gay, you are gay, should we be gay together?”
We mostly discussed weekend plans, referenced rehearsals or made inside jokes. Then we began to include random hearts drawn above the “i’s.” Finally, I – with much fretting and sweating – decided to write “Love, Berry” at the end of an exchange.
Would that be too much? We had only been talking for a few days, but I had to let him know how I felt or I was going to just burst. But what if he didn’t feel the same way? What if he was just being nice? Or worse, what if he just wanted to be friends?
I could not live with that. I would have flung myself on a large bed with satin covers like any true cartoon princess in that moment, if I had an audience and the bed. Alas, my fears were unrequited, but my feelings were not! In the next note I received, he ended it with “Love,” and his name.
All was well in the world and just like in my cartoon fantasy, the woodland creatures were once again dancing around my princess feet. We began our relationship surrounded by a small circle of female friends that would hang out with us during rehearsals.
We would all be sitting together chatting, the girls in their long gingham rehearsal skirts, spreading them wide to hide the sight of he and I holding hands beneath their excess material. It was magical to me.
I had gotten the guy and I did not have much agita in getting him either. We sailed through the rehearsals and run of the show with teenage tenderness. It was a sweet relationship, one where we were kind to each other, supported each other, listened to one another and truly became friends.
I experienced pretty much all of my “firsts” with him, but like all “firsts,” the relationship ended. I am happy that it happened and am grateful for the sweet memories.
In my dating career, I have had two sets of two-and-a-half year runs of pseudo-monogamy within a seven-year span. The relationships could not be more different simply because the two guys could not have been more different.
I have been mostly single since 2008, for many reasons. For one thing, I find that I get very uncomfortable with online dating. I am much more comfortable and much more myself in person. I am so much less focused on trying to be what the picture on the other side of the screen wants me to be when I am talking to someone face to face.
While prior to the pandemic I would frequent bars, a lot of the time it was because I was working in them as an entertainer. Other times, when I was just out socializing, my anxiety would lead to a lack of self-esteem and fear of rejection that would become so overwhelming I would self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Who wants to date an aging, drugged out, lost soul?
I took a hard look at what my life was, what I wanted it to be and I made changes and sought help. I chose me. I am now living my truth as a transgender woman of a certain age. I have been clean for some time, with an occasional set-back that I refuse to beat myself up for, and I am ready to have someone else in my life.
So, what to do? I refuse to be someone’s fantasy and I refuse to be someone’s fetish, but there are certain things about me one must accept in order to be with me. Due to the pandemic, meeting people in public places is potentially life threatening. There is also the frighteningly constant threat of violence towards transgender women.
I do not have the answers and it is difficult. It is a problem the transgender community faces in unprecedented ways and not just during a pandemic. I am looking for someone who will not try to lead me, who will not follow behind me, but who will walk beside me in this life.
Maybe though, that love I’m looking for is the love I get from being in front of an audience, from “Oklahoma!” to now. Maybe I have already had the love of my life. I’m not certain but I hope not – and I think that is the operative word: hope.
Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, has performed for audiences onstage from New York to Fiji. On screen, she can be seen on Amazon Prime and ABC7’s Suncoast View. She has been honored for her theatrical roles and volunteer work.
By Beneva Fruitville March 24, 2021
Happy anniversary to me! Happy anniversary, HRT! I have been on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) for one full year.
I began my transition journey in July of 2019 and subsequently began HRT in March of 2020—and here we are. I knew a year ago that my life and body were in for major changes and I was right.
I was quickly made aware of what general changes to expect while being reminded that everyone will experience HRT differently. All of my therapists, doctors, nurses and friends who have transitioned gave me advice and said to ask any questions that ever came up.
I took some of them up on their offers, as there were some things that I found to be quite confusing. But there were many things that I was completely surprised by. Here are some things that I was reticent to ask about that may be helpful to anyone who is transitioning or may simply be curious.
My chest has grown on HRT. A lot! I was under the impression that in order for me to have full-size breasts that were proportional to my body, I would eventually need to have breast augmentation surgery. This is not the case for me.
Over the past year my breasts have developed into a full D-cup. I not only fill out my D-cup bras but according to the Metro Inclusive Health, my clinic, there are potentially two more years of growth before they will have fully reached their maximum potential.
The next topic might be a little awkward, so the bottom line is that other parts of my body have shrunk. Drastically. Everything “downstairs” has kind of gotten smaller, except during times when I’m intimate.
During those times, everything looks and feels like it always has, though it can be more sensitive. There are also some changes in the end results. I can have a normal sexual response and even climax, but it’s a no muss, no fuss and no clean up situation.
Another thing that I knew would happen but didn’t fully comprehend the extent of is that my body fat has been completely redistributed. It’s forced me to slowly rebuild my wardrobe as nothing fits the way it used to.
Since I do drag for a living, I had acquired quite an assortment of clothing that I had planned to incorporate into my daily wardrobe. I am smaller than I was in some places and larger in others, especially in my hips and butt. This has been both good and bad – good in that I’ve gotten new clothes, bad in that that it’s forced me to spend more money.
I am also still figuring out my style. I have experimented with a lot of different looks over the past year, a process that I am enjoying. I can definitely say that sweat is a factor here in Florida and removing your bra is a beautiful feeling.
There are also huge emotional and psychological aspects that are more intense than the physical aspects of transitioning. I am learning to be truer to my emotions; to really feel what I am feeling instead of trying to deny or hide it. I cannot say that I am more emotional than before I began HRT, but I am certainly more apt to show my emotions.
A lot of my general anger in life has subsided. Some might say the I had a fiery temper before I transitioned. I would not deny that, though I also cannot attribute my nicer temperament to HRT. I firmly believe that now that I am living in my truth that I am simply a happier person. The estrogen also probably helped. A lot.
In my transition I have found a new voice to stand up for my fellow members of the LGBTQ+ family. A sense of passion for our rights and visibility has re-emerged from my college days of ACT UP, a group which worked to end the AIDS pandemic.
I have also become intensely passionate about our government and its inner workings and cogitations. I watch C-SPAN and yell at the TV like it is a sports ball game. I can name and tell you the state of origin and party of far too many House and Senate members. I even hate-watch specific networks in order to hear what they are saying about us.
The fact that any politician still has a say in our inalienable human rights is infuriating. The fact that our rights to live normally are still being legislated is maddening. I do not understand it and I will not be quiet about it.
But all of this is me. When or if you are considering your transition, you do not have to be as public. It is perfectly fine if you want to just be yourself. “Passing” and gender are social constructs that are outdated and overrated, which brings me to the biggest thing I’ve learned in the last year.
You don’t have to fit into any mold. The best part about living your truth is that it is yours.
Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, has performed for audiences onstage from New York to Fiji. She has been honored for her theatrical roles and volunteer work.
By Beneva Fruitville February 24, 2022
I grew up very religious, in the kind of religion that relied on not asking a lot of questions.
It was also the kind of religion where you could sleep in the same bed as your same-sex partner of 20 years every night, but maintained separate bedrooms in case anyone came over. The kind where if you were caught having an affair, drinking, gambling, cavorting, fornicating or any other sin, all you had to do was ask for forgiveness.
We didn’t even have to confess it to someone in person because we weren’t Catholic. The Lord would just forgive you when you asked him.
I was taught in those years to judge everyone and that appearances were everything, and that the one thing I could not be in my religion was gay. I never understood why – but like I said, questions were frowned upon.
I remember a short but pointed conversation with my pastor after I came out. You see, I was kind of a celebrity at my church because I sang solos on Sunday mornings, something no teenager had ever done there before me. Ever. In the rainbow glow of my newfound gayness and my ever-present ego, I had decided to come out despite that high profile and left the closet doors wide open.
Everyone knew, so I knew what happened next was coming. My pastor called me into his office, which felt like being called to meet the principal in school. There were no pleasantries, no handshakes, nothing.
He looked at me with the most insincere look I have ever seen. He began with something like, “It really pains me to say this” or “The Lord has put this on my heart,” I don’t remember the exact words.
My ears felt like they would burst into flames, my heart was beating ridiculously fast and I was sweating like, well, myself in church well before I had ever been labeled a whore! Then with one sentence he informed me that I was no longer welcome there. Period.
I expected it to happen, I just didn’t expect to feel so devastated. The experience turned me away from organized religion for about 25 years.
That rejection was one of the most painful experiences of my young life. I didn’t know how to process it. I couldn’t understand that it wasn’t reality that was being preached from the church’s altar.
I experienced something similar when I came out as a transgender woman. I found that many of the gay and lesbian members of our community were no longer my allies – and that many find transgender people to be a detriment to their fight for equality; a hindrance when it comes to our rainbow family.
Lesbians have told me that I am living out a sexual fantasy and that my gender dysphoria does not exist. I have been told that by being in female-only spaces I invite women to be raped and murdered because I am a man, no matter “what mutilations I do to my body.”
I have also been told that I am the reason gay men can’t adopt or are seen as freaks. I have been threatened with violence and death because of my coming out, but I never thought it would come from my own community.
To say it is disheartening is an understatement. It is heartbreaking.
There would be no LGB rights movement without the T, look at Stonewall. We need to take a good look at our own community, because transgender people are absolutely a part of it – we always have been and we always will be.
Trans men and women must be respected as we continue to battle for equal rights. The Florida Legislature is fighting to erase entire families and sections of our community. If we can’t band together in times of distress, we will never be able to fight against the people who want to eliminate the very discussion of us.
Our entire community needs to remember what it felt like to be rejected. To think about the sense of helplessness and worry about where we could turn, something so many of us have felt, and the subsequent reward of finding our tribe.
Whether it was with an LGBTQ organization, by doing drag, going to a bar, a coffee shop or on the internet, many of us have come to feel safe as we began living authentically.
I challenge everyone to imagine finding that and the confidence that comes with it, only to have members of that community – your safe haven – turn against you.
It’s worse than the original rejection you felt. It cuts deeper.
It’s important that every member of our community remember that we’re all fighting the same fight, and it’s not with each other.
Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, is a transgender artist who has starred on stages, national television and in film. She is an activist and board member of Sarasota’s ALSO Youth.
By Beneva Fruitville July 14, 2022
When I was 17, I couldn’t wait to get out of my house. I had just graduated high school and I was headed to college out of state.
I had traveled a little bit, but this would be a first. The first time I would have only myself to answer to with pure and unadulterated freedom. I could eat ice cream every day, I could stay up all night. I could smoke every cigarette. I could do whatever I wanted and made my own rules.
I had lived 17 years in the same place, with many of the same faces and connections. I was able to build a solid reputation of self as an openly gay leader and I was respected for it. I’d also built a reputation for my talent, playing leading roles and holding my own next to professional actors on stage.
I decided that I needed to leave that comfort for a bigger pond. I was self-aware enough to know that while I was good, really good, I could be better – and being good in a small town was not going to make me better, or take me to another level of skill and solid training. I wanted to experience my dream of Broadway lights, so I leapt off the cliff and I moved nearly a thousand miles away to go to college and be better.
College was hard. I had made it into an incredibly exclusive musical theatre major in a world-renowned, four-year conservatory program, which pretty much guaranteed me a career in musical theater upon graduation. It was basically a triple major – singing, dancing and acting – which put me in class or practice from 8 a.m. ballet to show rehearsal which would often end at 10 p.m. that evening.
Spring Quarter of my senior year was my smallest class credit hour load over my four years in school with a mere 18 credit hours. But it wasn’t Florida, it wasn’t home. I had built a new reputation, sought to define myself as a young adult and became ridiculously focused on my future career and how to maintain my life within the arts and specifically how to get work in musical theatre. Which I did.
National tours, global cruise travel, starring in Off-Broadway shows. I worked and I was living my dream. I saw the country and the world, all while performing; I had made my living as a performer.
I had seen my name in lights on a New York City marquee. I signed autographs on actual Playbills at stage doors after shows and then I would go to the Duplex piano bar to rousing cheers.
The pianist would stop playing their song and invite me to come sing before I could get my coat and scarf off. It was my dream. Then life happened.
Due to a series of circumstances, I came back to Florida. It was meant to be temporary, just until I could get back on my feet. Maybe book a new show in New York. I had picked up a few contracts here and there, in Orlando and then in Sarasota.
I had zero intentions of staying in Sarasota, but this town captured my heart. There was a massive arts community; professional theatres, opera and ballet companies, independent venues for artists to create and make new art. It was an artist’s oasis.
Money and greed have altered the storied beauty of the community in Sarasota, and it is sad that this former commune for the outcasts and others has become the city of unaffordable housing, homelessness and sound ordinances. The charm that people spend money to live in Sarasota has been sold to the highest bidder and the influx of political and religious outrage has dimmed the vibrancy of Sarasota’s streetlamps.
I made a home here in Sarasota for 18 years. It’s the longest place I’ve ever lived, including my childhood home. Florida politics frighten me. As a transgender woman, I am frightened daily of what new law Ron DeSantis will sign that will alter my ability to live and work, to pursue life, liberty and happiness, if you will. So I have decided that it’s time for a change.
Here I am at 46 years old, back on that cliff. I have only myself to answer to. I have pure and unadulterated freedom. I can eat ice cream every day, I can stay up all night. I can smoke every cigarette. I can do whatever I wanted and make my rules – but I am so scared.
Over the past couple of years and now in post-lockdown mode, I literally and figuratively find myself in a transitional state – and transitioning has shown me that it’s time to start a new chapter of my life. So I’m pushing myself out of the cozy nest I’ve made here in Sarasota and moving up North.
So, thank you, Sarasota. Even though I got here when I was almost 30, I grew up here in the last 18 years. I will always be Beneva Fruitville, Sarasota’s hometown girl! Whatever it is you’re afraid to do, be your own Beneva Fruitville and you act like you “own” the entire town – because one day, you just might.
Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, is a transgender artist who has starred on stages, national television and in film.