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Chicken and
Fried Okra

Chicken and
Fried Okra

The Advocate's Champions of Pride from the South

In his new documentary, Out of the South, Jason Ball invites you to Sunday dinner with some good ol' gay boys -- men who fled places like Trumann, Ark., and Bossier City, La., to live authentic lives as out gay men in L.A. only to discover that coming out of the South doesn't mean leaving it behind.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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