The Making of ?Southern Comfort?

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #103, Fall 2003.

written by and photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen

Many of our readers will know Southern Comfort is an annual conference held every September-October in Atlanta, Georgia. Now in its 12th year, SCC, or SoCo, as it is variously called, routinely draws more than 500 attendees. Robert Eads loved SCC. He was there at its inception, and attended every year of his life. It?s fitting that Kate Davis chose to name her film, which tracks Robert?s last months, as he was dying of ovarian cancer, after the conference he loved so well.
?Southern Comfort?s? genesis was ?The Transgender Revolution,? a documentary made for A&E television in 1998. Through a mutual friend, I met Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, respectively, a filmmaker and a writer. They are married with two children; at that time, they lived just three blocks away from me.
Kate wore a tuxedo to her high school prom and persuaded her best friend to come as her ?date??she saw it as a political statement, a rebellion against convention. That seemed like a good start, but when I read the proposal Kate and David had sent A&E for a documentary on transsexuality, it was clear they had little knowledge about the subject and their assumptions were outdated.

Sensitive and intelligent, Kate and David were open to a learning blitz: books, tapes, dinner with Kate Bornstein, and much excited, staccato talking. As their consultant,
I made three major suggestions: that this film be politi-
cal rather than just the usual series of personal stories;
that the film?s content be changed from transsexual to transgender to increase its scope; and finally, that it be shot on the East Coast over the next few months. The Transgender Day of Remembrance, Tiffany Club?s First Event, and the True Spirit conference fit perfectly into our schedule.
Maxwell Anderson, who had brought his best friend, Robert Eads, to True Spirit, cried throughout the week-end while we were filming. Knowing Robert was seriously ill with ovarian cancer, Max was afraid Robert wouldn?t make it to his beloved Southern Comfort convention, that this would be his last community gathering.

A group of men from True Spirit sat around in a circle next to the hotel swimming pool, talking about their lives while being filmed. Robert spoke twice, even more elo-quently than I had remembered from earlier conversa-tions. He spoke about the importance of family and the feelings of loss when families abandon their transgendered children or partners. The next morning, just before leaving, Kate had breakfast with Robert, who, as always, was passionate on his favorite subjects: black coffee, cigarettes, and beautiful women. He charmed Kate. On Sunday night, Kate and I had a long chat. We had both had the same idea: the next film had to be about Robert!

After that decision, remarkable things began to happen. Robert, who had never been a political activist?tended to live his life in private?was open to the idea. He felt his story could help other men avoid the mistakes, pain, and frustration he had gone through. He hadn?t had a hysterectomy when he transitioned, had in fact for 12 years avoided going to an ob/gyn because of the discom-fort he felt about being in the office. He wanted to tell his story: how he had faced prejudice when he got sick, how at least twenty doctors and three hospitals had refused to treat him when they learned he was transgendered.
Robert felt that by allowing his life to be seen in all its intimacy, he could make a contribution in his last days. In opening up his life, however, his circle of friends, parents, children, and grandchild would also be exposed. Which of the people in Robert?s life would be willing to come out along with Robert, and how long would Robert himself be with us and able to communicate? This was, obviously, a risky film to attempt.

Kate bought a digital video camera and learned to use it before we flew to Georgia for Easter. Elizabeth Adams, who lives in New York City but by chance hails from Atlanta, agreed to take sound; as it turned out, she stayed with the film all the way through. We were the only crew.

Over Easter weekend, we all got to know each other. Kate, Elizabeth, and I stayed in Robert?s trailer in rural Toccoa, an hour?s drive from Atlanta; we slept horizontally on single beds that were put together with a board.

Although they had just begun their relationship, Robert and his partner Lola Cola had to get used to expressing their growing love on tape. A crossdressing friend of Robert?seen in drab in the film?and his wife were still in shock from the experiences they had had trying to find medical help for Robert. Finally, there were Stephanie and Cas, both shy, but charged with anger from the injustices they had seen and experienced. At the next shoot, Maxwell?s new girlfriend, Cori, would enter the picture, turning the group into three couples.

I never ceased being astonished by everyone?s naturalness and lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera. What actors could possibly have done as good a job in the Hollywood version we fantasized?
There were many tense moments: times when Robert promised that his parents had agreed to be filmed, when we weren?t sure he?d actually spoken to them, times when
people in the film weren?t getting along and we wondered what would happen, times when it looked as if Robert wouldn?t last much longer or would be permanently
incoherent. But he, and everyone else, kept bouncing back and coming through.
One scary moment occurred at the Southern Comfort conference, when the steering committee didn?t want to let the three couples be filmed dancing at the Saturday night ?prom.? Kate felt strongly that the scene was essential for the film. The committee felt people at the convention might feel their security was being violated. Finally, the problem was solved by cordoning off a section of the dance floor, lighting it, and placing some people there to guard it. We had fifteen minutes to capture the romance and significance of ?The Prom That Never Was.?

As the film evolved, the medical malfeasance theme became less important than the ongoing essay on the meaning of family and community, sex, love, and intimacy?issues everyone faces, one way or another. The film is edited in a way that takes people awhile to realize that five out of the six key people on camera are transgendered. Judging by the responses of audience members at the Sundance Film Festival and other venues, Lola was a widow like any other.

Kate Davis and Elizabeth Adam?s ability to make a film with a light and intriguing touch helps account for ?Southern Comfort?s? tremendous success. The medical malfeasance is shocking, but the point isn?t hammered. Instead, viewers experience the loss of a proud, wise,
eloquent, and highly original human being. They come
to love him, to understand his life, to appreciate his birth family, and to enjoy being with his chosen family.

The film changed all of us.


I started filming Southern Comfort with no funding, no outside support, but with a gut feeling that Robert?s story had to be told, and quickly. The trans people in the film,
who lived in rural pockets of Georgia, were brave to join in, and we all hoped the
film might change a heart or two, or save a life, and make something positive out of Robert?s death.
But none of us had any notion that the film would reach millions, through broad-casts in the U.S. and overseas, and win more than 20 awards, and we certainly didn?t plan for the film to stimulate the production of Southern Comfort coffee mugs and Lola Cola cocoa at Sundance.

What thrills me about this unexpected outcome is that it was right in line with Robert?s main goal in doing the film. He wanted to help us see trans people as human beings first. In the movie, Robert and his friends reach people through their wisdom,
humor, and love?not through any freakishness. And in this time of war, when Americans are pitted against a foreign enemy, I think we might again be reminded that those considered as ?the other? be welcomed into the fold of humanity, where we are all more similar at heart than we are different. Then, maybe rather than fueling ourselves with the force of combat, we can actually grow by embracing the infinite variations on a theme.

?Kate Davis


Lola Cola?s

Sundance Diary

Lola Cola is a transgendered MTF who met and fell in love with Robert Eads, an FTM transsexual, as he was dying from ovarian cancer. Their relationship
is documented in the film ?Southern Comfort,? winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Ms. Cola hosts the
Web site ?Lola Cola?s Peachy Pages,? described as a ?Future TG Paradise.?

Move over Dorothy, there?s a new girl in Oz.

Iarrive in Park City on the second day of Sundance,
positively astonished at being here at all, much less at the center of so much attention. I?m here because of my participation in a film called ?Southern Comfort,? which documents the final year in the life of my lover, Robert Eads, a truly beautiful human being who happened to be a female-to-male transsexual. Robert had contracted ovarian cancer and was refused treatment by over 20 doctors. When he finally found help, it was too late. He agreed to the film in the hope that it would help others avoid a similar fate. We thought it might be shown at medical schools and maybe the gay film circuit, but never imagined it would go anywhere as important as Sundance.

To truly appreciate the surreal nature of my experience here, you have to imagine being in my shoes. Aside from being transgendered, you?re a fairly typical citizen with no showbiz aspirations or remarkable talents. Suddenly, you?re whisked out of your comfy little world into a parallel universe where nearly all the inhabitants are ?movie people? of some sort or media. A strange language is spoken. I think it?s called wheelie-dealie. It sounds like English, but it might as well be Greek. Luckily, they?re bilingual, so I?m not entirely lost.

After unpacking in the hotel room, we hook up with Kate (Davis, the filmmaker) and meet our publicists, who hurry us over to a ski slope where we do an interview with CNN. I?m overjoyed at not dissolving into an incoherent blob in front of the camera, and am fairly relaxed. My toes, however, have iced over, because I wore wimpy Southern socks and urban boots. This is some serious winter weather.

After the interview, we convene to our publicists? suite, where I?m astounded to find a full-size movie poster bear-ing my image and all sorts of other promotional items. But the Southern Comfort sippy cup with cocoa was just the limit. We joke that it should be known as the Lola Cola Cocoa Cup.

I?ve decided that everyone should have publicists. Ours are Tom, David, Penny, and Winston, all with perfectly lovely dispositions and capable of Zenlike serenity while juggling ten million details. They know our schedule better than we do and always manage to get us where we need to be with minimal drama. Rather like soccer moms, except they never bitch.

The nine days spent at Sundance were a dizzying swirl of screenings, brunches, interviews, dinners, and parties. I managed to see only three films. One of my favorite events was the PlanetOut/Outfest Queer Brunch, a major party for ?our crowd??I?d guess about 300. And what a crowd it was, the most delicious eye-candy of every description and gender. I?m so proud to be a member of the family.
Meanwhile, our film is getting a very positive response. After each screening there?s a question & answer session, and the comments and questions are uniformly supportive and appreciative. I?m amazed at the depth of emotional response people exhibit.

Another memorable evening was a sumptuous dinner hosted by Sheila Nevins and HBO at an incredibly elegant Chinese restaurant. The food was divine and the company and conversations were positively brilliant, even the political discussions in the ladies? room.

One of the most bizarre aspects of this experience is that I become a ?sighting.? People are recognizing me on the street and congratulating me in the grocery store. It was a bit startling at first, but after a while became quite nice. I even signed an autograph!

The Playboy Foundation threw a wonderful party at an art gallery, and it was just oh-so-chic dontchaknow, casually elegant, hobnobbing with
the upper crust as crisp waiters
in starched white jackets circulated with exquisite hors d?oeuvres on linen-covered trays. Ooh-la-la.
We went to the Thursday night screening of ?Hedwig and the Angry Inch? and were positively dazzled, it was so very brilliant. Afterwards, we went to the Hedwig party, held in a subterranean nightclub where the drinks were plentiful and the music fabulous. We were treated to a set by Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) and the band, who rocked the house. I was totally stunned when they dedicated the last song to Lola Cola and then invited us to the private party they were throwing at the house where they were staying. Everyone was per-fectly lovely, sweet and hospitable, and I was just thrilled to be hanging out with them.
The grand finale was, of course, the awards ceremony. It was totally the real deal, all the press and paparazzi, the room abuzz with excitement and anticipation. We were so happy that ?Scout?s Honor? and ?Hedwig? won awards, keeping it in the family. And then when they announced ?Southern Comfort? as best film (documentary), it was just beyond words. And didn?t we all just march right up there like Meryl Streep and get the goods!

The Sundance Film Festival
of 2001 will be living large in my
memory for quite some time.