The story around the American fight for LGBTQ rights often feels inextricably tied to the movement’s most notable and vocal opposition, Evangelical Christianity. Amid the divisions and historical tensions between these two groups, there is room for nuance and perhaps reconciliation. This is less about putting aside those differences than acknowledging them while still believing in harmony, becoming aware that people of non-normative sexualities and gender identities can be of deep faith, and that there are people of deep faith who are welcoming to those who are non-normative. In light of recent attacks on the LGBTQ community by the Trump administration and certain states, there’s been a wave of documentaries presenting the struggles and hopes of impacted communities, and the outreach and activism they’re undertaking to fight back. Two of these films, Gay Chorus Deep South and The Gospel of Eureka, deal with the relationship between queer and Evangelical communities in the American South, examining performances tied to both queerness and religion to reveal the intersections between them and challenge stereotypes. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote an essay for the booklet accompanying Kino Lorber’s DVD release of The Gospel Of Eureka.)
Gay Chorus Deep South, directed by David Charles Rodrigues, follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on a tour across the South that was put together in reaction to the 2016 election and various pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation. The idea of song as a form of communal outreach attracted many of the members of the SFGMC to join. For some, the choir fulfilled a void in their lives, as they came from church choir backgrounds but, due to their sexuality, were no longer welcome in that world. Rodrigues spotlights members who were once part of the Southern Baptist church, but left due to its hostility and homophobia. Stories about conductor Tim Seeling or Ashle, a longtime member who has come out as a trans woman during the tour, hit on their complicated relationships with the church, God, community, and family.
While there are testimonials from LGBTQ residents in the South, the film cannot shake the feeling of an outsider perspective. This is furthered by the fact that the various anti-LGBTQ laws and the towns the Chorus visits are rendered in vague terms. Consequently, it’s also vague what exactly this tour is expected to accomplish. The film does frustratingly minimal work outlining the SFGMC’s history and activism. HIV/AIDS is only mentioned once, its founding in reaction to Harvey Milk’s assassination is only briefly discussed, and how the gay liberation movement happened in the 1970s is not at all discussed. Since that movement formed in reaction to anti-queer ordinances remarkably like the ones we see today, this is not an insignificant oversight.
Instead the film declares that the actions of the Trump administration and conservative politicians are “unprecedented,” rather than history repeating itself, modernity echoing what provoked the fight for gay rights in the first place. And it prefers not to align with any gay history in the South, instead positing the struggle as a successor to the African American Civil Rights Movement — which is a strange way to frame a struggle that’s still ongoing. We see the SFGMC and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, a majority African American choir that accompanied them on the tour, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge together. The intentions are good, but Rodrigues neglects to probe deeper, continually relying on the music to carry the film’s emotional weight.
Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s The Gospel of Eureka takes an incredibly different approach, both formally and narratively. It keeps its focus directly on Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This is a place famous for its religious symbols: Christ of the Ozarks, which is the largest statue of Jesus in North America, as well as The Great Passion Play, which has run every summer for many years. The town also has a small but thriving LGBTQ community. Queer life here is depicted as both critiquing and riffing on the town’s Evangelical legacy, even as their own identities are tied to it. We see drag queens dressed as church ladies who lip-sync to Christian novelty songs at a gay bar. A gay pastor speaks to his congregation about how scripture has been arbitrarily used to attack the LGBTQ community, invoking other scripture which contradicts their assertions. The town’s tourist traps were the projects of the fascist organizer Gerald L.K. Smith, but we’re shown how it can evolve.
Still, the town is facing a reckoning over a local anti-discrimination ordinance that’s up for a vote, and the pushback against it brings out some incredible transphobia. The film’s portrayal of this ignorance is sly; a critic of the ordinance lays out all of his presumptions about the amorality of the LGBTQ community right in front of an older woman who he has no idea is both trans and a practicing Christian. While the film is hitting on serious matters, it has fun and panache to spare. Narrated by New York trans cabaret performer Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, it embraces the theatricality of both drag queens and the Passion Play performers. Both groups extend the legacy of Eureka Springs into something welcoming to everyone.
Gay Chorus Deep South feels like a self-serious PSA designed by the Human Rights Campaign than challenging cinema. In contrast, The Gospel of Eureka subverts the outsider gaze by using Eureka Spring’s local color to demonstrate how its Christian and queer populations are more intertwined than divided. At the same time, it isn’t a utopian portrait of the place, putting certain residents’ opposition and ignorance on full display. While the town can’t be called a distillation of an entire country, it can still perhaps be an example for many other places to follow.
The Gospel of Eureka is available on DVD and to stream at the POV website. Gay Chorus Deep South is playing at Outfest in Los Angeles (running through July 28), as well as other upcoming film festivals.