ST. PETERSBURG — Bree Alkire walked into the LGBTQ Welcome Center on Central Avenue unsure about what to expect, but hoping for guidance.
Behind her was her partner, Stephen Holland, and her mother, Cathy Naabe. They settled into a small living room space to wait for the start of class, a session for transgender women and others on how to apply makeup.
Alkire pulled out her cellphone and used the camera as a mirror. As others began to fill the room, she squinted at herself behind glasses and a cropped haircut. She fussed with her eyebrows.
“I feel like I need a complete makeover every day to feel good about myself,” said Alkire, 35, leaning into Holland.
“That’s why I make you shave every day, so you look good,” said Holland, 37.
The room felt quiet, a little uneasy.
People filled the chairs and couches quickly, but few chatted with their neighbors. Some wore makeup, others came in worn clothes and chipped nail polish. Some were early into their transition, or still just thinking about it, but had no idea where to start when it came to eyeliner and lipstick.
Heather Fontaine stood at the front of the room with bright pink lips and thick glasses that magnified her brown eyes. Bottles of concealer and foundation spilled from plastics bags onto the table next to her. She clapped her hands, greeting the class.
“How do you feel when you don’t get to dress in feminine clothes or wear makeup?,” Fontaine asked the group of more than 15.
“Like I’m in a straight jacket.”
Then Fontaine asked how they felt when they got to wear feminine clothes. And she confided, “I feel my best when I wear makeup. That’s why I’ve been doing drag since 1973.”
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Members of Tampa Bay’s transgender community and others whose gender expression is feminine gather every other month at the LGBTQ Welcome Center not only to get makeup tips and makeovers, but to meet others like them. Fontaine, a St. Petersburg resident, leads the class with help from makeup artists at nearby salons.
The class is part of a larger collection of events called Beautiful TRANSformations, aimed at Tampa Bay’s transgender community and hosted by Metro Inclusive Health, a nonprofit that specializes in LGBTQ health care. The group has clinical offices, pharmacies and support programs across Tampa Bay.
The idea to teach makeup came from a conversation in November 2017, when a young transgender woman from Pasco County called looking for resources, said Cole Foust, the LGBTQ program manager at Metro. She had no experience using makeup, and no family or friends to teach her, Foust said.
“Usually that’s where people look to someone in their life that they’re close to, like a mom or a close friend or family member,” he said. “But for many in the trans community, they don’t have families who support them.”
While 60 percent of transgender people surveyed in America said they had come out to their immediate families and felt generally supported, 18 percent said their families did not back them, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Those from unsupportive families were more likely to experience economic instability and mental health issues including suicide attempts. Homelessness is a growing problem, too, according to the survey.
Nearly 30 percent of transgender people in America are living in poverty, compared to 12 percent of the nation’s overall population, the survey found.
For reasons that have to do with safety and feeling whole, many transgender people place a premium on “passing” with a look that fits with societal expectations for their gender identity.
That’s why a little makeup can go a long way.
Foust said Fontaine’s class is intended not just for transgender women, but also anyone who identifies as non-binary, meaning their gender identity falls outside the categories of man and woman.
“The goal is to give those who are transitioning a safe place to experiment with makeup, and learn some tips along the way,” Foust said.
That was the case for Michaela Rose Guerin, 68, who drove to St. Petersburg from her home in Spring Hill just for the class.
The Marine Corps veteran came out in 2014 and had gender confirmation surgery last year. She’s still learning about women’s fashion and makeup.
“I knew I was this way all my life, but I pushed it away for so long. I remember being 5 years old and praying God would make me a female,” Guerin said. “I should have done this years ago. All my friends say they’ve never seen me this happy. But I feel like I waited too long, and maybe I wasted all this time.”
Guerin described herself as not flashy. And because she didn’t grow up with makeup, she felt intimidated.
“I normally just wear concealer,” she said. “But foundation and all this other stuff, I have no idea how to do it.”
During Fontaine’s class on a recent Tuesday evening, Guerin’s mood changed almost immediately after a makeup artist helped her find a blush that complemented her foundation, and showed her how to create a smoky effect with eye shadow.
She looked in the mirror, and couldn’t stop smiling.
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Alkire watched as Fontaine carefully applied lip liner on another class member, and then mascara. She was next in line for a makeover.
She sat down in the stool as Fontaine admired her skin and long eye lashes. “Your eyes are your best feature. We’ll definitely want to highlight them,” Fontaine said.
Alkire smiled and took a deep breath as she settled in, tilting her head upward and into Fontaine’s hands.
“When I was in high school, some of the other students in my class told me my eyelashes were too long. I went home and physically cut them off,” said Alkire, who still identified as a man at the time. “I think that was my turning point.”
From there, she began dabbling in drag performances.
“I tried it and loved it,” she said. “That’s when I knew I was a girl.”
Naabe, Alkire’s mother, took notes as Fontaine got to work. She jotted down the name of the makeup brands in her phone.
“She’s a Mary Kay sales director,” Alkire said of her mother. “But the Mary Kay foundation doesn’t cover my five o’clock shadow.”
When Fontaine was done, Alkire couldn’t believe how smooth her skin looked.
On the way home that night, she planned to stop at the store with her partner and her mom, and together they would buy new makeup.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.