Chicken and Fried Okra

By Jason Ball

Originally published on Advocate.com October 05 2007 12:00 AM ET

After meeting a
young man from Arkansas, Oscar Wilde is reported to have
said, "I should like to flee like a wounded heart into
Arkansas." I have often wondered what that young man
told Mr. Wilde about our fair state (or maybe Wilde
just thought he was hot). As a young gay boy growing
up in the rural South, I often felt like a wounded heart
that should flee out of Arkansas. Early on I
knew I was different -- not like the other boys. So
flee I did.

Now in my 30s, I
haven’t lived in Dixie for more than a decade and
most likely will never move back. However, I will
always consider myself a Southerner and an Arkansan. I
can’t bear it when people attack or belittle
the South. That duality is the heart of my documentary,
Out of the South.

Out of the South still 1 (from the author) | Advocate.com

The idea for the
film began to take shape in early 2006. By then I was
living in Los Angeles with my partner, Troy (yes,
he’s a Southerner too -- of the Mississippian
variety). Many of our friends and coworkers are like
us: gay and from the rural South. We also have an entire
group of friends in New York who are gay Southerners.
Turns out I wasn’t different from all the other
boys...only 9 out of 10 of them.

Anyway, it was as
if we were all Southern exiles -- strangers in a
strange land. We were all raised to love our mamas, fried
okra, and Jesus. No matter how far you are from the
Mason-Dixon line, you get two Southerners together and
the “y'all”s and the “fixin’
to”s come out of the woodwork. We all loved our
families and our homes, but for one reason or another
we had to leave. One friend told me, “Yes, my parents
know I’m gay, but they aren’t about to
tell their friends. It’s just something
they’re not comfortable talking about.”
Another friend said he felt so self-conscious, he had
to find someplace he wouldn’t stick out so much. I
wasn’t the only one conflicted about the South.

I’m a
television newsperson by trade, so I knew I could make a
documentary. It’s essentially what newspeople do
every day, just longer. I ran the idea by Troy, who
was all for it (without his support and encouragement,
I would have quit a long time ago). So I started lining
people up to interview. I was ready to interview anyone and
everyone I knew who was from the South and gay. I did
my first interview in late May 2006. That day I
learned the most important lesson any filmmaker can
learn: Just because you know someone doesn’t mean you
have any idea what his/her life has been like or what
he/she has been through. In every interview
I’ve done, I’ve learned things about people
that have touched my heart as well as broken it.

Out of the South still 2 (from the author) | Advocate.com

By the end of the
summer I had eight good interviews, and I edited them
together to form one basic narrative. All the stories were
compelling, but the film felt disjointed and flat.
Actually, it was boring. It needed some action. It
needed something to bind the characters together. The
solution hit me in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.

Southern culture
is composed of three things: family, faith, and food.
All these elements intersect at least once a week in most
Southern homes -- at Sunday dinner. It’s when
the entire family gets together after church to share
a Southern-cooked meal. I decided to focus my project on
my friends who live in Southern California and center it
around a Southern Sunday dinner in Los Angeles. Troy
and I invited the guys to our house for dinner on a
beautiful Sunday afternoon in January.

Imagine a house
full of Southern queens in one kitchen trying to get
dinner ready. It was a scene. Everyone had a different idea
on the best way to fry okra and what should go in the
oven first. The iced tea and the Johnnie Walker flowed
(served separately, of course). When we finally sat
down to dinner we had a feast that would have made Scarlett
O’Hara proud, complete with fried chicken,
barbecued chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens,
red beans and rice, jambalaya, peach cobbler, and
homemade bread pudding. We laughed as we reminisced about
our rural roots. Teased each other about who was the
most country. And had heart-to-hearts about what it
was like growing up gay in the Bible Belt and how we
had to hide who we really were. That night after everyone
was gone, I told Troy I knew we had something special.

Out of the South still 3 (from the author) | Advocate.com

For me, this
project has always been about understanding the struggle we
faced growing up in the restricted culture of the rural
South and how we created new lives for ourselves --
not in spite of, but because of, our upbringing. Our
stories are just the tip of the old gay iceberg.
That’s why we are creating the Sunday Dinner
Legacy Project. The goal of the SDLP is to document
and compile the stories of gay men and women who grew
up in the South. I know gay Southerners who’ve left,
who’ve stayed, and even a few who’ve
returned. Everyone’s story is important.
Everyone’s story is relevant. To share your
story, go to outofthesouth.com and click on
“Share Your Story.”

I, for one,
wouldn’t change anything about my life. I am and
always will be an Arkansan. I just hope Out of the
South
and the Sunday Dinner Legacy Project will in
some small way make it easier for all the gay boys and
girls growing up today in the South.

Special note: I
dedicated this film to another gay man from my hometown.
Jerry Coggins also grew up in Trumann and ended up living in
Los Angeles, not far from where I live now.
Unfortunately, his life was cut short just as mine was
really getting started. In 1988, at the age of 29, Jerry
died of AIDS complications. I was a senior at Trumann
High School. I never met Jerry, but I know he also had
a story to tell.