Trans identity in the rural world
Southern Comfort is a documentary film directed by Kate Davis and published in 2001. It follows the life of Robert Eads, a fifty years old farmer living in Toccoa, a small rural community in Northern Georgia, traditionally more on the conservative side. Diagnosed with cancer in 1996 he seeks help from dozens of doctors, but each one of them refuses to operate on a transgender person as they are afraid it would negatively impact the reputation of their clinic, thus condemning him. The film recounts the last months of Robert’s life and shows the sometimes harsh reality of transgender people living in the rural world, and how they are fighting discrimination.
The film takes its name from the “Southern Comfort Conference” held every year in Atlanta, Georgia. It is one of the most important transgender events in the Eastern part of the United States of America, gathering celebrities, doctors, therapists, among others. They host panels and take part in debates. This conference is the common thread of the film, as one of Robert’s last goals is to live long enough to be able to attend the 1998 edition. The director follows Robert and his loved ones through the last four seasons of his life, with the convention as the final act, during which Robert gives a speech to an audience of 500 people, and organizes a ball for his wife and friends.
Living with cancer
Robert’s fate is especially cruel since it could have easily been avoided. While he was transitioning, Robert wanted to have a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), however his doctors did not judge it necessary, telling him that there was no risk of cancer as he had already gone through menopause. The American medical system is one of the main themes of this film, and especially the inequalities transgender people face compared to cisgender people. Like Robert, many transgender people are denied proper care or are victims of disadvantageous prices, or even malpractice. They are at the mercy of a system that sees them as second-rate patients.
Erasure is another major issue that is touched on in the documentary. This phenomenon is both a medical and social issue and as we see in the documentary, transgender people must sometimes deny their true self and pretend to be cisgender in order to get an equal treatment. Robert talks about the time before his transition, when he was pregnant and married to a cisgender man. On the one hand he was delighted to have children as he always wanted to be a parent, but on the other hand he felt like his body was betraying him. Today, although progress have been made in the medical field for transgender people, it is still a budding discipline.
Chosen family and biological family
When Robert learns that his cancer is untreatable and that his days are numbered, he decides to dedicate the time he has left to those he loves. He gets back in contact with Lola, a transgender woman he met a few years prior. The fear of leaving each other without ever being able to explore their relationship gives birth to their couple, which we follow throughout the film. Robert also introduces us to both of his families: his assigned one and his chosen one; his friends. The director allows us inside the homes of Robert’s friends, all inhabited by different couples. His friend Cass is a transgender man married to a cisgender heterosexual woman, who had previously been married 6 times, but only to cisgender men. She tells us how she managed to overcome her prejudices before meeting Cass, and her views on love. Maxwell, Robert’s best friend who he almost considers as his son since Robert took him under his wing while they were both going through their transition, is also living with a transgender woman. Their couple is different from Robert’s as it is more free and maybe a little less mature. They tell us about how they met, their views on the opposite gender before and after their transition, but also their sexuality which they see as unique. All of these couples live in Toccoa and have bonded through their experience being marginalized.
The scenes with Robert’s chosen family are interspersed with visits from his biological family. He still maintains good relations with his son, to whom he plans to leave his farm after his death. His son still struggles to completely understand the person who he always saw as his mother, and he’s not very sure of the pronouns he prefers to use to talk about him. Nevertheless, he still sincerely loves him as a parent and is profoundly shaken by his cancer. He tells the camera that his friends have often advised him to deny his father and pretend that his mother was dead rather than accepting the truth, but he has always refused that option, saying that being true to oneself is the most important thing his mother taught him. Robert’s parents, with whom he was on bad terms for a long time, still talk about the hopes they had for their “daughter”, dreaming that “she” would marry a powerful man. They regret his decision, but are forced to accept the truth one way or another. Robert’s three-year-old grandson is the only family member to see him only as a man; to him, he is his grandfather and nothing else.
The stories recorded in this documentary testify that gender identity is never something that is fixed, but that it exists on a spectrum. Transition is a journey during which everyone takes a different path. Each person interviewed in Southern Comfort is going through a transitional phase: some are waiting impatiently for a surgical procedure, some are in emotional transition caused by the pain of a loved one, others are seeking acceptance and have to reevaluate their relationships. All of their daily lives have been shaken, and throughout the film we witness the changes this has on their emotional state.
Right from the start of the documentary, we feel affection for Robert, as he is the incarnation of the peaceful and loving grandfather we could tell everything in confidence, while still being accepted and understood. Thus, the sorrow felt at the end of the film is as real as the story of this man, who fought throughout his life to become the person he knew he always was. He battled to accept himself and so that his loved ones could accept him. The viewer is but a powerless spectator in his gradual loss of physical and mental capacities, as he is the victim of a healthcare system that has abandoned him.
Whether he realized it or not during the shooting of this documentary, Robert left an incredibly valuable message to the trans generations which succeeded him. Him, his friends, and all the attendees of the Southern Comfort Conference are pioneers of the modern western trans identity. The essence of this documentary lies in the profound reality of its people. They are neither caricatures nor characters, but real people facing their lives and problems, to which it is easy to relate and from which we can only grow and learn
We recommend this documentary, regardless of your gender identity. It is of course very relevant to educate oneself on trans identity, but it also deals with issues related to love, life, family, and healthcare with a rare and relevant approach. Indeed, the number of works which focus on the stigmatisation of transgender people seeking healthcare is terribly low, even though the topic is still very relevant today, 20 years after the documentary was released.
TORNEO, E. (2001) . Interview with Kate Davis : Producer of Sundance Film Festival Award Winning Movie Southern Comfort. Polare magazine. [online] Feb. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130927132632/http://www.gendercentre.org.au/resources/polare-archive/archived-articles/interview-with-kate-davis.htm [Accessed 18 Mar. 2022].
VENERUSO, T. (2001). Southern Comfort WINNER! Grand Jury Prize, Documentary Competition, Sundance Film Festival 2001. Next Wave Films. [online] Apr. Available at: https://nextwavefilms.com/southern/ [Accessed 18 Mar. 2022].
RAVISHANKAR, M (2013). The story about Robert Eads. Journal of Global Health. [online] 18 Jan. Available at: https://archive.ph/20130914005716/http://www.ghjournal.org/jgh-online/the-story-about-robert-eads/ [Accessed 18 Mar. 2022].