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Op-ed: These Lesbians Will Break Your Heart

Op-ed: These Lesbians Will Break Your Heart

Op-ed: These Lesbians Will Break Your Heart

While Ilene Chaiken's earlier series depicted the lives of lesbians in glamorous L.A., her latest project is her realest yet.

“It’s not like I live in the Deep South,” I told my mother in one of many coming-out conversations, this one at a sushi restaurant in a Boston suburb. “And I never will. I’ll be OK.” She was concerned not only for my safety as an out lesbian, but also for the degree of social comfort and acceptance I would feel. It’s rarely verbalized common knowledge that location is the greatest determination of what your experience as a gay person will be like.

L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin, which premiered August 8, follows the lives of lesbians living in the Bible Belt over the course of several months, revealing to viewers what life is like in a place where you are entirely unwelcome. After all, Mississippi has “no nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people at the state or local level in employment, housing or public accommodations,” nor does the state recognize marriage or civil unions, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

This new L Word venture is in a very different and dark direction from Ilene Chaiken’s previous work, which focus on both fictional and "real" lesbians "living, laughing, and loving" in glamorous Los Angeles. It’s hard to believe the Mississippi portrayed in the documentary was filmed even in the same country as the L.A. versions. In L Word Mississippi, the women do not hold hands or kiss in public and have few options in terms of welcoming communities.

The lives portrayed in this new L Word venture are, to me, all the more interesting than the past seasons' cast of characters for the harsh reality they depict. These women are all struggling with the complexity of living in a place where religious conviction is inextricable from daily life and arguably what makes the South the South.   

The women featured are deeply conflicted; they at once cherish their spirituality and are at odds with it, unable to reconcile their orientation with religious doctrine that has convinced them that they are depraved perverts who will go to hell if they do not repent. “Being a homosexual is an abomination,” says Cameron. “I repent daily ... I don’t want to die a lesbian, I want to be a better person.” This, in the weeks before her commitment ceremony with her girlfriend of four years. Cameron prays in bed with her girlfriend each night, their heads resting on each other’s, hoping they will change.

It’s heartbreaking, as is Renee’s story. Like many of the women, Renee has attempted to "pray the gay away" her entire life, but unlike the others, she feels that in the past year she has become successful. She slowly trades her flannel shirts and work boots for rhinestone-encrusted tunics and tiny crucifix earrings, and claims that she knows she has been saved by Jesus because she can watch a movie in bed next to a friend she once loved and feel nothing. Her son, who is gay himself, laments, “I do not believe my mother is straight. I think she’s at a phase where it’s going to be conveniently permanent.” And if it is not, Renee says through tears, “I’ve prayed to God that if I ever go back to that lifestyle, He’ll take me out before I do. Or I’ll take myself out.”

According to the HRC, 65 percent of LGBT people in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama have experienced verbal abuse, and 20 percent have been subjected to physical violence. L Word Mississippi does not address this issue directly, though all women have had strangers shout obscenities at them in public.

The main focus is on the social and familial isolation that befalls the women when they come out. Some are forced out of their beloved churches, and others lose customers at their small business when local pastors urge congregants to make sure their money goes to nonsinners. Few are in contact with their parents. One woman came home to find all of her childhood dolls and baby pictures in boxes on her front porch because her parents could not bear to have anything that reminded them of their homosexual daughter in their house. A Baptist pastor interviewed sums up the general sentiments of the community: “There are a myriad of problems that arise from the homosexual lifestyle, just like there are myriad problems that arise from bestiality or any other sexual perversion.”

There are numbers and figures and laws (or lack thereof) to explain just how trying it can be to live openly in Mississippi. The true devastation the documentary was able to capture was how the women feel about themselves, how they have internalized the “you are a depraved pervert” monologue and must fight through it to do something as basic as be whom they are.

Brandiilyn Dear stands out in the documentary for her ability to, in spite of having lost her cherished ministry when she was outed, envision a life in the South where she and others can be gay and remain a Christian. With a dearth of LGBT communities available to her, she began The Dandelion Project, which meets both online and in person. On their website they launched the WeAreCampaign, a series of short videos, to “challenge society’s labels and perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community.” In one set to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” men and women peel off labels like “dyke,” “sinner,” and “sissy boy” to reveal that they are also mothers, students, and brothers. “We want to make sure people see us in a different light,” Brandiilyn says in a Huffington Post interview. “We're not perverts out there running around naked. We want to change this community and make it better on all fronts. We are more than lesbians. We are more than gay. We are your sisters, your daughters, your teachers, your neighbors.” Clearly a far cry from the oft-nude cast of The Real L Word.

The comparison is an important one: these women do have options. They could, you know, leave the South, which treats them as second-class citizens and views them as lost souls. Leaving is a story given to gay people as hope. If you are from somewhere that won’t let you be who you are, you can grow up and move to a large metropolis that has gay bars, dance nights, and pride parades each June.

It’s advice doled out often by gay people to other gay people: In particular, on his podcast Savage Love, Dan Savage jumps to moving as a solution whenever he gets a call from a gay person struggling with conditions in the South. The narrative we have not really explored, and one that L Word Mississippi does so well, is that of those who do bravely stay where they are not welcome.

As Brandiilyn says toAfterEllen, “I would love to move to a bigger city but things will never change if we all migrate north. We have to stay here and change things because I just don’t think it’s fair to leave that fight and that struggle and fight to a younger generation ... We’re trying to empower a younger generation, and teach a younger generation and support a younger generation, again, to live out and live authentic ... The fight is real, the struggle is real, and it’s not over. We’ll never leave. We’ll never leave. This is our home and this is where we live. This is where people wave when they pass you on the road and you don’t get that anywhere else.”

As of this past May, Southern lesbians and gay men are not alone in their fight: The HRC has launched Project One America as an attempt to close the riff between the South’s regard for LGBT people, and the rest of the country’s. Through the use of personal stories Project One America hopes to focus on “changing hearts and minds, advancing enduring legal protections, and building more inclusive institutions for LGBT people from the church pew to the workplace.” You can find their videos on YouTube, which feel like a shorter version of L Word Mississippi, as well as hundreds of comments from Southern men and women in support of the project.

MICHELLE CHEEVER holds a BFA in writing and publishing and a minor in gender studies from Emerson College. She currently lives in Boston with her wife.

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Michelle Cheever