Amid anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, a North Texas college town hosts its third annual trans pride event

Bowie Brae, right, dances while rehearsing a song Oct. 4, 2023, in Denton. Brae is lead singer of the band Nip Slip, which will headline Dentons third annual Trans Pride Fest. (Matt Iaia For The Texas Tribune, Matt Iaia For The Texas Tribune)

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DENTON — Bowie Brae discovered his singing voice at his North Texas church when he was 14 years old. He trained belting out worship songs like “Good Good Father” and Hillsong’s “Oceans.”

Six years later, Brae began testosterone treatment as part of his gender transition. His voice changed.

“I didn’t sound great,” he said. “I was terrified I wasn’t going to be able to sing again.”

Then, he discovered a support group for transgender artists in Denton. With the group’s help, he relearned how to sing in his new octave.

Settled into his vocal range, Brae and his band Nip Slip are headlining the city’s Trans Pride Fest on Saturday.

The third annual event in this North Texas city comes amid several legislative setbacks for Texas’ LGBTQ+ community. New state laws take aim at health care access for trans youth and certain performances by drag queens. Many of those laws echo legislation passed by state legislatures across the southern U.S. and have been challenged in court.

Brae and event organizers say these laws make the pride celebration, which will be held at a private concert venue in downtown Denton, more meaningful.

“It breaks my heart to see other people having to hide for safety,” Brae said, adding he feels safe in Denton despite the new state laws.

Bowie Brae poses for a portrait before Nip Slip’s band rehearsal Oct. 4, 2023 in Denton.

Bowie Brae before Nip Slip’s band rehearsal. Credit: Matt Iaia for The Texas Tribune

Texas’ largest cities have long hosted LGBTQ+ pride events, typically during the summer. A growing number of smaller and more suburban cities have increasingly hosted their own events. The Denton event stands apart for its focus on the transgender community. Denton is in one of the fastest growing counties in the state, with a population of more than 100,000. The city, home to the University of North Texas, can act as an LGBTQ+-friendly and liberal enclave in an otherwise conservative suburban sprawl.

To organizers of the fest, it is part of what makes the event, which started on the university’s campus, possible.

“I don't even think there are any comparable events in the whole state, or if there are, they're maybe not as big,” said Alex Stock, head organizer for the event and local community volunteer.

The Saturday event will be the first to be organized by local activist group Denton Left. The group, alongside the University of North Texas’ Young Democratic Socialists chapter, picked up the responsibility of hosting the event after the original organizers decided they did not have the resources to host another.

The trans pride event started as a counterprotest.

In March of 2022, UNT’s chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas hosted an event featuring Jeff Younger, a prominent anti-trans figure. Students gathered to protest the event, which gained national attention, and began a series of other protests across the campus.

Then came Trans Pride Fest.

The inaugural event began on the sidewalks at UNT outside the university’s student union — a more humble event than this year’s three-stage, 22-band lineup at one of the city’s most popular concert venues, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. It was the last of the protests on campus, advertised as a positive respite from the monthlong string of outcry.

Posters advertising a show with various band performances on a wall at Nip Slip’s band practice Oct. 4, 2023 in Denton. The band Nip Slip will headline Denton’s third annual Trans Pride festival.

Posters advertising a show with various band performances are seen on a wall during Nip Slip’s band practice. Credit: Matt Iaia for The Texas Tribune

Bands brought amps from home, and vendors set up plastic tables on the union’s lawn for concertgoers to browse while listening to music.

Anti-LGBTQ+ protesters went to the initial event but were outnumbered by students and concertgoers.

LGBTQ+ events in the North Texas area, especially performance-based occasions such as drag shows, have drawn small pockets of far-right protests. But as of now, no one involved with the fest has received any complaints about the upcoming event. Organizers say that despite the political climate they are unbothered by any potential protest.

“Everybody always asks, ‘Oh, aren't you scared about doing this, isn’t this a risk?’” Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios manager Chad Withers said. “Luckily nobody's come protested or anything. But I mean, even if they did, who cares?”

For Brae and others, the city of Denton provides the space for an event like the fest to be held, and a respite from much of the conservative feelings surrounding LGBTQ+ presence in the state.

“Any time I come in and drive through Denton, I can breathe a little bit more, a lot more comfortable here,” Brae said.

Even as organizers prepare for this year’s fest, they are already planning the future of Trans Pride Fest for the coming years. Stock said his organization hopes to be able to create an event that can be sustained.

“It's such a big thing, especially now, and especially in Texas and Denton,” Stock said. “Denton has a trans and queer community that we wanted to show it off.”

Disclosure: University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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