From a lack of access to healthcare and education to limited legal protections, trans rights continue to remain under attack throughout the United States. With Florida’s recent ban on gender-affirming care for trans and non-binary youth, along with several conversations surrounding queer and trans representation within the media, the 2001 documentary Southern Comfort directed by Kate Davis serves as a timely reminder of the importance of trans visibility and representation on screen.
Southern Comfort, titled after the annual transgender conference held in Atlanta, Georgia, presents the melancholic narrative of Robert Eads’ life and eventual passing. Eads, a trans man living in Toccoa, Georgia, prepares for his final appearance at the Southern Comfort Conference with his partner Lola Cola. The documentary, which includes members of both Eads’ biological and found family, chronicles the final four seasons of his life while sharing intimate and heartbreaking stories about living as a trans man.
Set against the backdrop of a conservative Southern culture, the documentary focuses heavily on Eads' declining health. After a late transition within his life, Eads was denied bottom surgery from countless doctors in his area out of fear that treating a transgender patient would hurt their medical reputation. Five years prior to the release of the documentary, he was then diagnosed with both cervical and ovarian cancer but experienced another two dozen doctors refusing medical treatment because of his identity. While Eads was later accepted into a treatment program, his cancer had already progressed and spread to other parts of his body. Eads expressed that it was “kind of a cruel joke that the last truly female part of me is gonna kill me.”
Along with Eads’ two friends Maxwell Scott Anderson and Cas Piotrowski, fellow transgender men, the documentary highlights the men’s past experiences with medical negligence and discrimination in the South. Since the 1980s, just over half of all of HIV/AIDS diagnoses have been located within the southern states of the United States (CDC). Transgender people in rural areas also face significant health disparities, in which they are nearly three times more likely than their rural neighbors to have a disability and are twice as likely to lack health insurance (The Movement Advancement Project). As the film captures the last year of Eads’ life, his physical health and appearance deteriorates quickly on screen, shedding light on the state of transgender healthcare in the early 2000s.
While Southern Comfort stands out as one of the most prominent documentaries about trans identity in Southern America and won the Grand Jury Prize Documentary at Sundance Film Festival, it doesn't enjoy the same level of mainstream recognition as Netflix releases like Disclosure or The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. With stories of medical negligence that can easily elicit outrage and sadness from viewers, the documentary employs a more subdued approach to its emotional subject matter. Through casual conversations with found family members and clips of Robert and Lola’s intimate relationship, queer and trans joy proves to be much more of a force than any past experience of prejudice.
Although the documentary was released over 20 years ago and Eads has since passed, the documentary offers a brief yet insightful window into the lives and perspectives of American transgender individuals through their own words. In the final scene of Southern Comfort, Lola Cola begs the question, “What a curious thing to be so uptight about. Nature delights in diversity, why don’t human beings?” A sentiment more relevant and more important than ever.
“HIV in the Southern United States.” Centers for Disease Control. CDC, September 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/policies/cdc-hiv-in-the-south-issue-brief.pdf.
“Where We Call Home: Transgender People in Rural America.” Movement Advancement Project , Nov. 2019, www.lgbtmap.org/file/Rural-Trans-Report-Nov2019.pdf?ftag=MSF0951a18.