By Kaley Michael, Staff Writer
This week’s segment of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Lecture Series included the viewing of the 2001 award-winning documentary, Southern Comfort. The film narrates the final days of Robert Eads, a transsexual man dying of ovarian and cervical cancer in the woodlands of Georgia. He spends his final days surrounded by his biological family and his “brotherhood”, as well as his girlfriend, Lola. The movie’s name comes from the South Comfort Transgender Conference, a national conference held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida each year. Ead’s goal was to live long enough to make his speech at the conference in 1998. He accomplished his dream and died at the age of fifty-three in a Georgian nursing home.
The documentary focuses heavily on the relationships in Robert Ead’s life. Beginning with his “adopted” son, Maxwell, Eads describes meeting and coming to love his fellow “brother.” Maxwell, a fellow transgender man, relies heavily on Eads for emotional support. Robert Eads notes that when he passes, although the rest of his family will have people with whom they can share their grief, Maxwell will not have anyone. However, this excludes Corrisa, Maxwell’s transgender wife. Maxwell passed in January, 2010 after battling brain cancer.
Lola is depicted as Robert Ead’s pride and joy. For many years, Lola struggled with her identity, and throughout the film continues to work as “John” through her job. That former part of her is merely a construct and in no way part of who she has become after her transition. Although she feared becoming a social leper, she is content being out as Lola. Lola and Robert met at a Southern Comfort Conference eight years before the documentary was filmed. He wondered how he was lucky enough to date her. Despite beginning their relationship as friends, neither looking for a romantic entanglement, they fell in love quickly. Part of Lola held back from Robert, knowing that she would be heartbroken if he did not survive his cancer.
The inequality that permeates transsexuality and the discrimination that transexuals face is very evident in the movie. Eads chronicles the experience of a friend of his who saved his funds for six years for top surgery, only to be met with results that paled in comparison to those of radical mastectomy patients. Maxwell declares that “[You] cannot make men from second-class citizens.” When Eads wanted a hysterectomy, he was denied by medical professionals. They claimed that he was already going through menopause, thus cancer would not be a threat. When he woke up one day surrounded by blood, his friends called hospitals and doctors requesting medical attention. After doctors heard that he was transgender, they said they did not want to embarrass their other patients or make them feel uncomfortable. His friend stated that he must have been denied by at least twenty doctors. He is aware of the irony, quoting, “The only part of me that really is female is killing me.”
Robert Eads grew up feeling out of place in his body. He was coerced to wear dresses and play with dolls, feeling like a “little boy dressed in drag.” When he started taking Testosterone, the growing pains worsened along with the length of his bones. His mother let him live next door for ten years with his lover, never knowing that he was transgender. When he told his mother, she treated it as a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue. Later, when he got his top surgery, she asked him, “Why couldn’t you have just stayed gay?” His father continued to deem him “Barabara”, his birth name, even after his transition. He was very unaccepting and did not want his neighbors to know about his daughter’s transition. Eads addresses the fact that he evaded bottom surgery, but says that being a man or woman has nothing to do with your genitalia, rather what is in your heart and mind. Being transgender was a Catch-22 in the eyes of Eads. You either make yourself happy and let others hate you for it, or make yourself miserable and see everyone with the happiness you wish that you had.
A light note of this documentary is Eads’ relationship with his son. When his son comes to visit, they spend time cooking and doing chores together. Robert proposed that God intended for him to be a parent. Pregnancy was marvelous yet difficult for him, as he felt homosexual being married to a man while feeling like he was one himself. His son did not want to remember Eads as he was but said that if he had ever gotten married, he would have wanted his mom to be his best man at his wedding.
Eads wanted to leave his children and friends the land that he called home. He asked that his ashes be spread across the acres after he died in his trailer. Respecting his wishes, his family and friends spread his ashes around a Christmas tree to symbolize the growth and change in Robert Eads’ life.