When Maureena Benavides helped start Out in West Texas last year, she found there to be a lack of need for the care of transgender individuals — a need she said is growing.

Transgender individuals, those who identify with a gender other than the one they were born with, ended up having to go to Austin or Dallas for medical transitioning. There was a lack of knowledge in transgender affirming-practices in the medical and mental health field, as well as the legal field, something Benavides said Out in West Texas is seeking to change.

“It’s not that transgender people are just coming into existence, they’ve always been here,” Benavides said. “Now, because of media exposure, they have a name for it, and they can understand it and talk about it in a way that was before very difficult.”

It’s this lack of education on transgender issues that Benavides said can cause a negative stigmatization to occur.

“Unless you break out of that with education and advocacy, then it will continue to exist, because people just don’t know, and they don’t know how to talk about it,” Benavides said.

To fight that stigmatization, Benavides and Out in West Texas have been talking to local health professionals, for help talk with transgender patients who may look to transition, and legal professionals, for those who may want to change their name or their gender on their driver’s license. They’ve been talking to faith communities to help them better understand the transgender community, and have also been talking with school officials at Midland ISD and Ector County ISD to help school counselors deal with children who may be struggling with their gender identity.

“A lot of kids start identifying as early as age 4, whether that identity stays with them,” Benavides said. “Definitely by teenage years, there’s greater prevalence for kids coming out as transgender and needing some kind of assistance.”

Out in West Texas will have an event at 7 p.m. July 20 at the Recovery Room, 2802 N. County Rd. W., called Sally’s Project. The event will be a fundraiser and storytelling event, with stories from transgender residents of the Permian Basin telling their stories of coming out, including local drag queen Stella Darling. The funds raised will go to the organization’s major projects, including lunch and learn trainings for local companies and their two-day educational symposium in November.

Benavides is co-director of Out in West Texas alongside Kerry Manzo, who himself is transgender. Manzo identifies himself as genderqueer, meaning he doesn’t feel like that he falls under man or woman, but said he feels more masculine most of the time. Manzo said he wants Out in West Texas to help find and bring together transgender individuals in the Permian Basin, of which about 50 have been found so far.

“We’re out here as a beacon for the transgender community,” Manzo said.

One of those individuals is 22-year-old Kaz Gonzales of Odessa, who came out about two years ago. But growing up, being transgender was something that took some time for Gonzales to come to terms with.

“I feel like I had to battle against a lot of internalized transphobia,” Gonzales said. “I’m Latino, so I grew up in a very strict, Catholic home. We didn’t talk about being trans, we didn’t talk about being LGBT of any kind, and if we did it was sort of in a negative light.”

Gonzales said he was never into girly things growing up, choosing instead to hang out with her brother, playing video games and going to skate parks.

“I didn’t feel like I could identify with girls when I was young, but I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said he still has some fear about being openly transgender in Odessa, and feels that many people still have misconceptions about transgender people.

“We’re just people like everybody else,” Gonzales said. “We’re not like some weird, different species. We just want to do what’s best to make us feel more comfortable.”

Venus Smith, 57, is another member of Out in West Texas who has lived in Midland for the past 40 years, and came out as transgender two years ago on March 31, International Transgender Day of Visibility.

Since then, she has gone out every day wearing what she wants, often wearing a dress and make-up. Walking around the store, Smith said she often receives positive comments from other women on her clothing.

“It seems like everything is really starting to take shape and change in West Texas,” Smith said.

Smith said she was raised by women, without much interaction with her father, and didn’t really adoptany male characteristics. She followed the women’s rights and LGBT movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s but never felt it was the right time to come out as transgender until a couple of years ago.

“It’s just great to finally be myself,” Smith said.

If You Go

>> What: Sally’s Project.

>> When: 7 p.m. July 20.

>> Where: Recovery Room, 2802 N. County Rd. W.