From the opening scene, L Word Mississippi is on a mission to show that the relatively accepting and glamorous West Hollywood lesbian scene is not reality for most.
“How is being a lesbian in Mississippi different from what you see on TV?”
No public displays of affection. The idea that you’re damned to hell. As one woman says in a thick Southern drawl, “Living here, it has been beaten into you that homosexuality is a sin.”
To say that the past few years have been a watershed period of improvement for LGBT America is an understatement. Since the Supreme Court struck down DOMA last summer, it seems like every week another state overturns a same-sex marriage ban. An NFL season is about to start with the first openly gay player on a team roster. A generation is coming into adulthood having gone to schools with gay-straight alliances and pride weeks.
We’ve spent their hours watching Glee, Degrassi: The Next Generation, and Modern Family. And, of course, there was Showtime’s The L Word, which showcased the romantic, professional, and personal entanglements of lesbians, bisexual, and transgender women in Los Angeles. It was a hot drama more focused on love triangles than hate crimes.
Meanwhile, public opinions have dramatically improved at an unprecedented rate: Nearly 60 percent of Americans support same-sex marriages and believe lesbian and gay relations are morally acceptable, up from 40 percent in 2001.
So it’s easy to forget that there are still large patches of the country where being gay can cost you your job, your family, and your life. There's that not insignificant 40 percent of Americans who think LGBT members are not only second-class citizens, but second-class humans.
L Word Mississippi is an effective, painful reminder of this. The film—produced by Ilene Chaiken, who also did The L Word—acknowledges that for all the immense good that came from television portrayals of lesbians, these shows have often glossed over the hardships, bigotry, and, most frightening, well-intentioned condemnation that plagues these women in many parts of the country.
The immensely strong hold of the Bible Belt culture transcends nearly every aspect of lesbian life in southern Mississippi. Most women interviewed, regardless of age, race, or background have some deep familial connection to church. One woman, BB, is a former pastor who was outed to her congregation before she could even tell her loved ones. Being shamed by her church was tantamount to losing her community and her job. Her partner, Susan, runs a gym that the church instructed the congregants not to use, which cost her about a third of all her business. As part of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” culture, many townspeople are still polite and cordial to their faces. Or, as Susan says, “They don't have the balls to say it to your face. Then they'll see you in Walmart and ask how your mama is.”
The documentary shows how regularly LGBT opponents calmly counter arguments for gay marriage by saying pedophiles and practitioners of bestiality shouldn't be allowed to marry, so why should gays and lesbians? These aren't a crazy minority of Westboro Baptist Church extremists. These are neighbors they meet outside of stores or at BBQ joints who feel what they are stating is no more complicated or controversial than saying the sky is blue.
But these exchanges along with the ample shots of highway chapels and megachurches preaching the “pray the gay away” messages we're all too familiar with isn't what's shocking: it's that many of the lesbians still wrestle with seeing themselves as sinners.
The vast majority of women interviewed pray. A lot. Prayer is said before meals and before bed, and they teach their children to dutifully say the same. Anyone who has read a Gene Robinson article knows that blending Christian spirituality with LGBT acceptance can easily go hand-in-hand, but a number of the women in L Word Mississippi don't believe in this more modern approach and see themselves—as the rest of the Bible Belt does—as violators of God's commandments.
One of these is Cameron, an African-American woman planning a commitment ceremony with Amber, her partner of four years. Amber has two children from a previous relationship, and they love and treat Cameron as their parent, too. The biracial family of four, living a lower-income but happy life in Mississippi, make the landmark Cam and Mitchell of Modern Family look like boringly typical Mike and Carol Brady. But we quickly see that Cameron’s strong religious upbringing plagues her sense of identity as a lesbian.
“The Bible tells me I’m going to hell for being a lesbian, so I repent daily,” she says. “I don’t want to die a lesbian. I want to be a better person.” A shot of her lying in bed next to Amber face-to-face as she prays to God to guide them to improve themselves is heartbreaking. Amber simply says, “We’re gay, baby.”
In another scene, we see Cameron with her gay “family.” Unfortunately, the L Word Mississippi only touches upon the subculture of LGBT “families” in Mississippi that seem like sororities mixed with non-violent gangs. They have names like Loreal, Hilton, Royale, and Per2yon (Cameron’s), and the founding members are called mom and dad with each new degree of members christened a child or a grandchildren of the family. We’re only given the slightest glimpse into this world, which is a shame because it shows how new support and familial structures form when one’s own family abandons you. When Cameron is at a BBQ, she again says of being gay, “We all know it ain’t right.” While her family members disagree with her, Cameron never stops wrestling with her belief that “being a homosexual is an abomination.”
Cameron’s inner struggle pales in comparison to Rene’s, who has taken on a chilling commitment to “fighting” her homosexuality in the name of Jesus. Rene is as stereotypically butch as one could be, and she talks about how she has long had lesbian relationships and, at the same time, desired to be a man so much that she would walk around with a strap-on. However, at a poignant church visit, Rene says, “I rededicated my life. I surrender. I cannot fight this homosexuality.” Thinking “God has a bigger plan,” we see her eagerly trying on new, more traditionally feminine clothes to the approval of her sister and niece. She’s seemingly happy and no longer claims to feel anything sexual toward her longtime friend, Anita.
It would be easy for the documentary to mock Rene and treat her as a delusional Bible-thumper, much as the media shredded Evangelical minister Ted Haggard. Instead, we see there is a painfully innocent happiness to Rene about her spiritual “transformation.” Yet, the viewers can tell how superficial and false it is.
The only person who does call Rene out directly is her son, Devan, who is not introduced until the last half-hour of the documentary. Devan is an openly and proudly gay recent college grad, a dramatic counterexample to his mother’s submission to the Bible Belt culture. Rene feels a tremendous amount of guilt that her son is gay. “I think I am a big part of the reason he is gay,” she says, weeping. “God delivered him from me.”
But Devan says he’s grateful he was raised with a mother who used to never care what people thought of her, which made coming out relatively easy for him. This “new” Rene is disappointing to him. “I do not believe my mother is straight. I think she’s at a phase where it’s going to be conveniently permanent,” he says.
L Word Mississippi illustrates a more subtly sinister side to the Bible Belt culture, one that not only teaches its congregants to hate homosexuality, but teaches people to hate themselves. The scariest battles are not with neighbors, pastors, or family, but within their souls. Attempts of suicide are recalled by different women throughout the film who were, and still are, at times unable to shake their deep-hearted belief that they are sinners. More than the political struggles or communal oppression these women face, the engrained self-hate is the most upsetting insight into being a lesbian in Mississippi.
This film isn’t merely a reminder that Laurel and Hattiesburg are social light-years away from West Hollywood. It’s a warning.
“I’ve prayed to God that if I ever go back to that lifestyle, He’ll take me out before I do,” cries Rene. “Or I’ll take myself out.”