Showtime’s The L Word franchise has received a lot of flack for its focusing on the glamorous lifestyles of lesbians in Los Angeles. The original dramatic series followed by a docu-series (The Real L Word) that claimed to be about “real” lesbians highlighted “cool clothes and coffee shops,” which is a far cry from the lives of gay women in the South, which is why L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin is a much different experience. The 90-minute-documentary premieres tonight on Showtime from L Word creator Ilene Chaiken, who oversaw the production but wasn’t as hand- on in casting and filming as she has been with the the original series. Instead director Lauren Lazin worked with Magical Elves (the production team behind The Real L Word and several other successful reality shows) to find the women they filmed over six to eight months in different parts of rural Mississippi.
Ilene Chaiken said the original premise was to find different parts of the country where being an out lesbian was less friendly than it is in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles.
“So much progress has been made, and we feel like we’re really making the civil rights gains that we fought for, and a lot of the world thinks, ‘Hey they won, they’ve got it now,’ and we know that’s not the case,” Ilene said. “There are still places in this country, not to mention the world, being gay, being lesbian still brings hardships on people. So we wanted to tell that story.”
Casting crews went to scout in several different parts of the country and found “many stories to tell, all of them equally as compelling,” Ilene said. Mississippi serves as a focus point because, according to Ilene, it would make a better way to tell the story to choose just one place to begin.
“We’re telling universal stories,” she said. “It’s not just a story about Mississippi. It’s a story that, you know, because we chose Mississippi, it’s very specific about Mississippi, but a version of the story could be told in lot’s of other places. My hope, of course, is we get to tell it on there places, if we get to make more movies in the future.”
Director Lauren Lazin isn’t gay, but she has done several LGBT-themed projects for MTV and Bravo, and said she was a fan of The L Word franchise.
“I always wanted [The L Word] to come back in some way so it was really fun to be part of that,” Lauren said.
After selecting the women who would be a part of the film, crews followed the lives of several lesbians in Mississippi, including two interracial couples with children from previous marriages, a pregnant lesbian married to her newly transitioned husband, and a woman who is converting to heterosexuality despite her masculine disposition and former pride in her lesbianism and same-sex relationships.
“We filmed over a couple of months,” Lauren said. “I would say we dropped in on them over a period of maybe three, four months and they were very open about their lives. They shared their day-to-day with us, which was so wonderful. None of them are looking to be reality stars. They wanted to show this is the voice of Southern lesbians and they’re all really different from each other, which I also appreciated.”
One element of The L Word and Real L Word that is missing is the on-screen sex. Hate the Sin is not about the kinds of bedroom action these women are seeing. Instead the stories are much darker, with veiled threats from disenchanted homophobic mothers about taking their unborn grandchildren away if they deem their gay daughter unfit, and emotional retellings of outings that had some of them thrown out of their homes, churches and communities.
“We did film some more sexual scenes with the women that were open to it,” Lauren said. “Some of them are just like, very shy, polite Southern girls who are uncomfortable with that but we did film more sexual scenes. In the end, the decision was made that it was just really more powerful as a whole to not focus on that. But I will tell you that every one of them is having a great sex life. They are really, really enjoying themselves.”
“Of course we didn’t want any real sex scenes or anything like that because that’s very private for us, very personal,” says documentary subject Brandiilyne Dear. “So we were really guarded in that aspect. We wanted to tell our story and we didn’t want to take away from what happened and we’re trying to break free from stereotypes. So that was real important.”
Director Lauren Lazin with Brandillyne Dear
Stereotypes of the South were one thing Lauren said all of the women were concerned about.
“There’s so many stories to tell and we wanted to make sure it was a nuanced telling, it wasn’t just the obvious,” she said. “I think we really edited the documentary with an eye toward keeping it nuanced, keeping it complex, not having it be stereotyped in anyway. That was very important to all of the women. They do not want to be stereotyped and they are all extremely intelligent. Each one of them said to me, ‘People hear you come from the South and they think your IQ drops 20 points.’ And all of these women were very, very bright and that was important that we keep it at that sophisticated level.”
Although there are some moments of joy (like a visit to a gay bar and an introduction to some of the chosen families black lesbians are part of in the South), Hate the Sin is much more about the hardships gay women face because of the religion they are brought up with. Interview subject Renee presents as a butch lesbian, for example, but is actively hoping to pray away her homosexuality because she doesn’t want to go to Hell.
“We originally wanted to find somebody that was actually going through reparative therapy or someone who was actively praying away the gay because we thought it was important to show that, for some people, they feel it does work for them,” Lauren said. “I wanted to make sure we showed that because there are quite a few people in Mississippi that feel that way. So she came to us through a series of different churches. We explained what we wanted to do. And we just fell in love with her. She is so charismatic and so open and funny as hell. She agreed to a part of the documentary and that was a tough decision for her. She really doesn’t want to be judged, you know. I felt she could hold her own. She’s a very strong person and I felt she could explain herself. I thought it was very important to have her voice included.”
“The decision to include her was partly, simply, hers is such a compelling story and she’s a compelling person,” Ilene echoed. “And also because it is so much a part of this story of being a lesbian in the kinds of communities we’re talking about. Everybody has dealt with conversion, with wishing—a number of other women in our story talk about praying the gay away, how many years they struggled with it and wished they weren’t gay. It just felt like Renee and where she is and whether that remains a fixed identify for her or whether it shifts again is very much in the fabric of this film.”
Brandiilyne was one subject that casting reached out to directly because she is an ex-minister that began an LGBT group in Mississippi called The Dandelion Project. Along with her partner Susan, she shares her story of being ousted from her church when they found out she was in love with a woman, and hopes to encourage the gay community of the South to come out and live authentically.
“When I decided to do The Dandelion Project, I felt like myself again,” Brandiilyne said. “I know what I’m supposed to do is helping people and this is where I’m supposed to be. It’s been a great experience. We have a lot of members. We have members all the way from 15 up to 60 and every week people come and are able to be themselves and embrace their identity and that’s the safe place. And a lot of the adults come there like, ‘I wish I had this when I was younger.’ So it’s been a really, really awesome experience. We encourage all of our people to come out and live out because it’s so important that society and our communities get used to seeing us together and seeing us out because otherwise we’re just gonna remain hidden and no one’s going to accept us. We have to live out and authentic in order to reach equality and acceptance in the South.”
But Brandiilyne (also called BB) is faced with opposition in the film, from those who are believers of “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” an idea she’s firmly at odds with.
“There’s no love in that statement,” she said. “There’s absolutely no love in that statement. When people say ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner,’ whatever, they’re basically saying, ‘I hate homosexuality because homosexuality is a sin.’ And guess what? I’m a homosexual so basically what you are saying, is you hate me. If people would understand that acceptance is not approval, you don’t have to approve of our lives, you don’t have to approve of who we love. To accept us as equals, to accept us as people, and to love us. I’m not sure if I have a single friend that I approve of everything that they do. I’m sure there’s things they do that I don’t approve of but I would never reject them and that’s the way they are and that’s the way they choose to be. And that’s the way it is. The simple truth: Acceptance is not approval. If Christians could just get that. Not just Christians, but people in general. You don’t have to approve of our lives to accept us. It’s pretty simple.”
Brandiilyne has seen “tremendous change” in Mississippi over the last year, and she thinks some of the conversations started because of the cameras following her and her Hate the Sin peers around in public situations like in Wal-Mart parking lots and the county fair. Ilene Chaiken said there was no real dangerous altercations, but it was something they were mindful of when shooting.
“Obviously we didn’t want to invite it,” Ilene said. “We weren’t there to provoke anyone and we knew that many of the people whom we were featuring in our stories had encountered dangerous situations. Yeah, we knew it was a possibility. Nobody got into trouble, nobody got into any fights but pretty much everybody had been there. I guess, maybe, in the film we didn’t wind up telling those stories but a lot of women told us stories of harassment of—in some cases—violence against them.”
The women of Hate the Sin lament the fact they can’t hold their girlfriends’ hands in Wal-Mart, or any kind of public place without inviting harassment. They also, for the most part, have estranged or strained relationships with their parents, all based on Christianity. One woman, Cameron, even says that while she’s currently in a relationship with her fiancee, Amber, she hopes that she doesn’t die a lesbian because she wants to go to Heaven.
“I was surprised,” Ilene said. “It’s not my experience. I was surprised and yet not. To see it in reality, really to see and get to know folks who live with that experience daily was a new encounter for me and surprising in just to feel what it feels like. Even though I think we know it’s true and that it’s the case, it’s just still surprising.”
A lot of people might think that women like Cameron or Brandiilyne might be better off moving to a city like Los Angeles, or even a closer college town where things aren’t so homophobic. But Brandiilyne acknowledges both in the film and during our interview that the fight is necessary right where she lives.
“I would love to move to a bigger city but things will never change if we all migrate north,” she said. “We have to stay here and change things because I just don’t think it’s fair to leave that fight and that struggle and fight to a younger generation. It’s just not fair. That’s actually what we’re doing. We’re trying to empower a younger generation, and teach a younger generation and support a younger generation, again, to live out and live authentic. We’re so much more than our sexuality. When people see us for people and human beings, we’re just, we’re the same. That’s why we stay here, because the fight is real, the struggle is real, and it’s not over. We’ll never leave. We’ll never leave. This is our home and this is where we live. This is where people wave when they pass you on the road and you don’t get that anywhere else.”
Lauren said she hopes that viewers will see the stories of Hate the Sin as American stories, important parts of our country and people that aren’t frequently told or shown in such a way.
“I guess it’s what you want any documentary to come away with is empathy for people that you don’t know,” she said. “They are American, admirable people, they are fun as hell, and they are interesting. I think it’s very healthy as a country for us to understand people that we might not know so well. These are voices we don’t hear a lot and they are voices to understand and empathize with.”
“I hope people watching, if they are closeted in living in the South and are gay, I hope it encourages them and strengthens them and empowers them to come out of the closet,” Brandiilyne said. “I think they need to see you can be Christian and you can be gay. That’s another thing I would like people to see. It’s OK to be gay and be Christian as well. They’re not mutually exclusive. You can be both. I hope people are encouraged again to be authentic, to live an authentic life is to help equality come to the South.”
“I think they are human stories,” Ilene said. “I hope that a lot of people come to see it, not just lesbians, not just LGBT folks. I consider our stories and the films and television that I make for as wide an audience as possible.”
If Hate the Sin is successful, Ilene hopes Showtime will allow her to keep going with stories of lesbians in other parts of the United States, too.
“We did talk about it when we decided to make this documentary. We talked about it as a possibility, but it depends in part on if they feel the film is reaching an audience that’s significant for them,” she said. “But yeah, I’d love to.”
Lauren said the hardest part for her in filming was taking herself out of the subject matter, which was inherently religious-based, something that was very different from The L Word incarnations past.
“I mean these are all very religious women, or spiritual, even if they don’t participate in organized religion. All of them. That is something that in this part of the country is really cherished,” she said. “There’s more churches per person in this area of the country than any other place in the country, so I knew it had to be a film that was not just about gender preference but was also very much about faith, and you had to feel that faith. It couldn’t be a condescending, ‘Oh the world of religion doesn’t like gays.’ It couldn’t be that kind of judgmental stereotype film. Not if it was going to honor how these women love. They love their faith. They’re not looking to reject their connection to God. It’s just very, very complex when, from the moment you’re born, you’re told that if you’re gay, you will go to hell. That is something that has been drilled inside everyone’s head and I did not want to have an outsider’s point of view on that. I wanted to really feel it with them.”
She came to know them so well, Lauren said she’s sad can’t be in the South for the premiere of Hate the Sin.
“I wish I was watching it with all the women in Mississippi because it’ll be a hell of a party,” she laughed. “With really good food!”
L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin premieres Friday, August 8 on Showtime.