MY REVIEW OF "SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES"
As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I looked forward to seeing the movie “Southern Baptist Sissies”, based on the play by Del Shores, at this year’s Q-Fest, Philadelphia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender film festival. Mr. Shores was on hand afterward, as was the star, for a question and answer session. While many in the audience seemed to love the movie, I found myself left unsatisfied and empty by the film.
Del Shores, like me, is the son of a Southern Baptist minister. He has done a reasonably decent job of communicating many aspects of the Southern Baptist experience, in particular the single-minded focus most have on whether or not someone is “saved”, since one’s eternal destiny is based on whether or not one has had this emotional experience of conversion, and the opposition to homosexuality (although in my experience, it is even more rabid than he portrays). The discussion the star has with his mother upon discovering his favorite teacher is Jewish, and therefore bound for hell since she has not accepted Jesus as her “personal Lord and Savior”, despite being a nice, good person, since being nice or good is unrelated to salvation in the Southern Baptist theology, was a very good window into this doctrine and how it plays out in the lives of Southern Baptists. The music was for the most part well-done – I found myself singing along to many of the hymns. And the quoting of scripture, with chapter and verse, was certainly something all Southern Baptists and former Southern Baptists can relate to.
The play is really two plays – one about four gay young men who grow up in a Southern Baptist church, and the other about two aging ex-Southern Baptist alcoholics who become drinking buddies in a gay bar, one a gay man and one the sister of a gay man. Apart from sharing a pianist, who seems to double as the pianist in the bar and in the local Southern Baptist congregation, and a couple of tangential connections to the young men which seem forced to me, the two plays have little in common other than an attempt to comment on the damage that the Southern Baptist religion wreaks on people. The alcoholics, played brilliantly by Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey, were complex, layered individuals, with much witty dialogue, as well as much depth of insight. Most of the best lines in the play were spoken by one of these characters.
But the two plays, although meant to work together, didn’t. The film was too long as a result. And I’m sure the bar scenes were meant to illumine the scenes focused on the church, but the only illumination I experienced was a spotlight on the cardboard clichés that were the four boys and others in the Baptist congregation. And I was particularly troubled by two aspects of the play.
First, one major doctrinal difference between Southern Baptists on the one hand and Roman Catholics and Mormons on the other is that, while the latter two denominations each hold themselves out to be the “One True Church”, outside of which there can be no real hope of salvation (I realize Roman Catholics have softened this doctrine in recent decades, but only for those who have never been RC), the Southern Baptists, while emphasizing the necessity of church, nonetheless do not regard themselves as the “One True Church”. The preacher and the church are not infallible – it is the Bible which is infallible for Southern Baptists, and leaving a church that is insufficiently “biblical” for one that is more so is a time-honored tradition. So while it is very difficult for Roman Catholics or Mormons to find a new church, even while abandoning their old one, because of their deeply held belief that theirs is the only one, many gay Southern Baptists find their way to Episcopal churches, or the MCC, or other more progressive churches. Shores’ failure to explore the quite common phenomenon of people finding ways of reconciling their sexuality and their Christian faith distorts the gay Southern Baptist experience.
More deeply troubling was the suicide. Andrew is shown as always feeling alone and unloved, but when he commits suicide, he finally finds peace in the arms of a lover who is revealed to be God. I worry that this, however unintentionally, glorifies suicide, particularly when compared with the bleak lives of the other characters. That is NOT a message we want to communicate at all.
None of the other gay men in the play end up with a male partner, or even, seemingly, a circle of close friends, but are all alone and leading broken lives. One marries a woman and is filled with rage as an “ex-gay” preacher. Another is the aging, sad alcoholic from the bar (played by Leslie Jordan), who tells Andrew, in the only interaction between the bar play and the church play, not to become like him on the very night Andre kills himself. There is the sad pianist, almost completely silent, except for a couple of throwaway lines put in for comic relief. There is the vapid and shallow drag queen (played very well by RuPaul Drag Race veteran Willem, but with the character bearing no resemblance to the strong and powerful RuPaul, who would have lovingly but firmly snapped Andrew into shape as a proud gay man). And finally, there is the star, whose rage prevents him from creating a life for himself, only imagining a different world. He does in the end find a vague love-based spirituality (unsurprisingly, the agnosticShores, in the Q&A session, holds this up as “spirituality” vs. “religion”). While the last hymn and his spiritual awakening are meant to communicate hope and acceptance, there is no actualization of that hope in his real life, only in his imagination, and so it rang quite hollow for me.