Rites of Passage


The hero of Kate Davis’s Southern Comfort is Robert Eads, a Georgia farmer with a craggy face, a scruffy beard, and an old-school gallant manner; he’s also dying of ovarian cancer. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, this documentary is a portrait of Eads in the last year of his life, when two things kept him going: his desire to attend the annual convention of Southern Comfort, an organization of some 500 transsexuals from around the South, and his love affair with Lola Cola. “Lola,” he says, “is all the guys’ wet dream, the queen of SoCo. I’m Grandpa to all the guys, and I’m dating Lola.”

And why not? Eads’s wit, generosity, insight, and courage are irresistible. He recalls sitting on the porch of the general store, smoking his pipe and talking with a man who turned out to be a member of the local chapter of the KKK. The man invited Eads to a meeting. “I imagine if I walked into their meeting and told them who and what I am, there’d be quite a scene,” he says dryly.

When Eads was a little girl, his father thought he was special enough to become the wife of a future president of the United States. Believing that God meant him to have children, Eads found a suitable man, married him, and had two sons. Later he lived in a lesbian relationship for 10 years. But Eads never felt like a lesbian. Rather, he thought of himself as a heterosexual man trapped in a woman’s body. Eads opted to have a sex change—not the “bottom surgery,” but breast removal and hormone treatment. His doctor decided that since Eads had been through menopause, a hysterectomy wasn’t necessary. Eads believes this was what led to his ovarian cancer. If there’s a villain in Southern Comfort, it’s the medical profession: not only the transsexual specialists (most of Eads’s SoCo brothers have their own horror stories), but the 20 doctors who refused to treat his cancer, claiming that his presence in their offices would upset their women patients.

Eads is like a mother hen, cooking feasts and offering a sympathetic ear and sage advice. His biological family (his parents, two adult sons, and the three-year-old granddaughter he loves best because she knows him only as “Grandpops”) are annual visitors. More often hanging out in the trailer that serves as a farmhouse are members of his “chosen family,” including a younger female-to-male transsexual, Maxwell. Eads treats Maxwell like a son and worries about what will happen to him when he dies. Maxwell has a male-to-female transsexual girlfriend, but he’s quite jealous of the love affair between Eads and Lola, which, like all great romances, depends on a mutual fantasy—each lover sees the other as he or she wants to be seen.

Davis shot Southern Comfort with a small digital video camera, and, although it doesn’t deliver the prettiest pictures or the smoothest pans, its unobtrusiveness proved invaluable. No mere fly on the wall, the director, who is never seen or heard, is treated by everyone on the screen like a dear friend. They talk to her as if they were unaware of the camera and simply want to include her in the conversation. As Eads grows weaker and his love affair with Lola becomes more intense, Davis focuses on their daily life and the gestures that reveal the depth of their intimacy—the way they laugh at each other’s jokes and the way Eads, leaning on his now omnipresent cane, ambles across the room to close a button at the neck of Lola’s dress. Discreet but not prudish, frank but not exploitative, Southern Comfort is an affecting tribute to a remarkable life.