Citing waning participation and a shortfall of funds, one of the nation's largest transgender conferences has ceased organizing after more than three decades in the Chicago area.
The Be-All Conference, which gathered hundreds and hosted big name speakers in Downers Grove, has been cancelled.
"Everything has a life cycle, and unfortunately, it looks like we're at the end of ours," said Katie Thomas, an organizer of the conference.
According to Thomas, attendance at the spring event has dwindled in recent years, from about 500 at its peak to around 325 in 2012. That combined with a struggling economy and a lack of volunteers did the conference in.
Organizers faced a Dec. 28 deadline for booking a hotel for the 2013 conference. Facing declining attendance and financial liability, they finally called the event off.
News of the cancellation comes just weeks after Illinois Gender Advocates, longtime the only transgender policy organization in the state, announced it was considering dissolution due to declining membership.
Both organizations were primarily run by middle-aged transgender women, a large community currently experiencing waning participation across the board.
Chicago Gender Society, a transgender social group that formerly organized Be-All, has also struggled to maintain members.
"It's all in decline, really," Thomas said. "It's no fun playing in an empty house."
For years, Be-All served as one of few places in the country where many wanting to explore gender could go. While some identified as transgender publicly, others only crossed gender boundaries at the conference, often safely away from spouses or kids.
Be-All began 30 years ago, under the stewardship of Tri-Ess, a national crossdresser organization. Chicago Gender Society eventually took over the conference in 2000. It later became its own non-profit and has operated independently since.
Be-All trailed only one other conference, the Southern Comfort Conference, in attendance. Two years ago, the conference hosted Chaz Bono. Last year Amanda Simpson, the first out transgender presidential appointee, keynoted the event.
But many now lament that Be-All failed to attract younger participants to keep the organization going.
"Generationally, we're a lot older than the kids that are out there now," Thomas said. "We got to be an old ladies group."
But for those who have relied on Be-All for decades, Thomas points to a glimmer of hope. Transgender people have longed for acceptance in society beyond the conference, she said. Organizers worked hard to create a high-quality conference, with an emphasis on education to improve the lives of attendees beyond its annual meeting. Diminished attendance may signal the actualization of that dream.
"It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Thomas said. "We set the standards ourselves, and we have no regrets about it."