As long as there have been queer people, there has been queer community. We flocked to coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, and when we could not do that, we gravitated toward each other in more conservative regions, making Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis into unexpected queer meccas. But not everyone has the financial freedom to leave it all behind and get the hell out of Dodge, and some people wouldn’t want to even if they could. As the tides of progress move swiftly forward, even the most conservative institutions are becoming more accepting. At this year’s SXSW Film Festival, two new documentaries, “TransMilitary” and “The Gospel of Eureka,” uncover LGBTQ triumphs in two places you’d least expect: organized religion and the military.
Directed by Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson, “TransMilitary” charts the fight for transgender individuals to serve openly in the U.S. military. With an estimated 15,000 transgender service members, the military is America’s largest employer of transgender people. Many hide their gender identity because military policy bans their service, and they live in fear of losing their jobs every day. The film follows four brave service members who put their careers and livelihoods at risk by coming out to top Pentagon officials in hopes of changing military policy.
At the heart of “TransMilitary” are Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland and Corporal Laila Ireland, newlyweds at different stages of coming out to their superiors. While Logan is on assignment in Kandahar, Laila works at a base in her home state of Hawaii, and their relationship unfolds just like any other military romance — by video chat. Logan is accepted fully by his unit, bunking with the men and considered an invaluable member of his team by his brothers and superiors. His commanding officers know he is transgender, and are more concerned with a job well done than his gender identity. It’s such a dream assignment for Logan that he admits: “I would much rather be here than home.”
Thanks to a chance meeting with Logan in 2015 and other advocacy efforts, Secretary of Defense under President Obama Ash Carter opened a six-month investigation into the ban on transgender service members. In January of 2016, he announced a repeal of the ban on transgender service members. It was a massive victory, but one that came too late for for Laila, who received a medical retirement with an honorable discharge just as Logan was finally allowed to wear male dress uniforms. It’s hard not to brace yourself when the film reaches November 2016, but at the movie’s end, the military has not acted on President Trump’s tweet indicating he would reinstate the ban.
“TransMilitary” is the first film to be funded with a grant from GLAAD, the LGBTQ media advocacy organization. What began as a short film has morphed into a robust portrait of four activists who live their lives with integrity and honesty. The film balances its subjects’ personal journeys with an easy to follow timeline of events that led us up to this point, painting a full picture of this momentous fight, and leaving us much more hopeful than one might assume.
Elsewhere at this year’s festival, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s “The Gospel of Eureka” follows drag queens who perform in a small town gay bar in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, just down the road from the largest statue of Jesus in North America. The tiny town is an actual mecca; 50,000 Christians a year make the pilgrimage to witness an elaborate Passion Play complete with mechanical boulder over the tomb of Christ, and a live flogging of Jesus that would easily satisfy any leather daddies who happened to wander in from the bar.
Narrated by New York cabaret darling Mx Justin Vivian Bond, “The Gospel of Eureka” milks its country Western vibe to satisfying effect, elevating its visuals with Biblical-strength lightning storms and yarn-spinning voiceover. Its most memorable characters include the actor who plays Jesus, who proudly announces: “I’m called the smell-good Jesus, ’cause I wear cologne.” The film also chronicles the touching romance between drag bar owners Walter Burrell and Gregory Lee Keating, who call their bar “a hillbilly Studio 54.” “Just because you’re Christian doesn’t really have anything to do with who you’re fucking, it has to do with who you’re loving,” they say.
The juxtaposition of the flamboyant and the faithful, and the overlap of the two, gives “The Gospel of Eureka” its heart. The effect is strongest during a scene that cuts between the drag queens and passion players in their respective dressing rooms, but the movie could have benefitted from seeing the worlds overlap more. (With those locks, the smell-good Jesus would looks great in drag). Palmieri and Mosher bring their special town to life with a flourish, and “The Gospel of Eureka” will certainly strike a chord with Christian queers, no matter how far along they are in their own Passion Play.
“TransMilitary” and “The Gospel of Eureka” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2018. Both films are currently seeking distribution.