The last Sunday in October was hot. It was the first day of the Savannah Film Festival, and I was dressed in a jacket and tie. "I'm doing it for Matt Bomer," I told my boyfriend. "Because I'm going home with him tonight. Sorry."
Over my four years of living here, Savannah has changed. There were more LGBT films at this year's festival than any year previous and they all pulled in a packed house. This is Savannah, the small city on the lower right corner of Georgia, and although you may have heard, or seen in popular movies, that this quaint and kitschy little town is a gay haven, let me tell you the truth: gay guys here go back and forth from their homes to two bars. We make this pilgrimage every weekend because these locales are the only places where we are truly allowed to be gay.
We do not hold hands downtown after dark. My friends still get gay-bashed in broad daylight. One of them had to get his right orbital lobe surgically reconstructed a few months ago from an attack that happened at three in the afternoon. Military guys still yell "faggot" on the sidewalk.
This isn’t Atlanta. We don't have the option of different bar crowds depending on what side of town you're on. We have one gay club, filled every weekend with the same familiar faces and flocks of Southern bachelorettes who want to take selfies with "the gays."
But something about this year seems different. Savannah Pride had its highest-attended festival in 15 years, and now a roster of LGBT films have been shown at one of Savannah's most publicized events. I was asked to review them for District, the student paper at the Savannah College of Art & Design. I'm president of Queers & Allies, the LGBT student support group, and I've written film reviews for the student paper before, so it was a natural fit.
But a true film review is one that observes the whole picture – the acting, the directing, the choice of high angle shot over three quarter – as objectively as possible, without involving one's personal politics. And with these films, that's almost impossible to do. At nine in the morning on Sunday, I watched Thomas Miller's new documentary "Limited Partnership" about Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams, one of the first bi-national, same-sex couples to apply for marriage in this country in 1975. They received an official marriage license from the state of Colorado, but when Tony, an Australian, applied for a green card, he received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service saying he was denied because the couple had "failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots."
The audience gasped. Fury welled in my throat when that word filled the screen. I have heard "faggot" too many times in my life. Tony and Richard did something about it and filed the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for a same-sex marriage in the United States. My generation will reap the fruits of their lifelong fight, and somehow I'm supposed to boil that down to an unbiased review.
Brides-to-be come gawk at us
A few hours later, I held my boyfriend's hand through "The Normal Heart," HBO Films' 2014 adaption of Larry Kramer's semi-autobiographical 1985 play of the same name, about the early days of the AIDS crisis (top two photos). I didn't make it through without crying a few times. "To hell with this review," I thought 30 minutes into the film. "This is our life."
Sitting in the theater, I looked around. Every gay guy in his twenties in Savannah was there. We were anxious to see actor Matt Bomer in person after the film. (He received the festival's Spotlight award (bottom photo) and was in town for filming of "Magic Mike XXL.") Here we all were, gathered in a film house like a chapel, faced with a story that, as much as we may try to distance ourselves from it, has shaped our lives.
I thought to myself how unsurprising the story was. Homophobia on a national scale is nothing new to me, or to any of us. In the full course of history, ignoring the AIDS crisis is one part of a narrative in which we are always the exception, not the standard. What is almost more piercing than "The Normal Heart" is the fact that every time I walk into a shopping mall, I hear love songs playing on the sound system about straight relationships, never gay ones. And what insults the deaths of so many men is the fact that I still have reason to be nervous about holding my boyfriend's hand in Savannah after dark, that the brides-to-be come gawk at us, free to flaunt their privilege of marriage in a state that will likely be the last to recognize ours.
Later that afternoon, I made it to the screening of Ben Steele's documentary, "Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia," about the daily lives of Russian gays in the very real present. It follows a group of "pedophile hunters" who find gay men, beat, torture and humiliate them, and post videos of it on YouTube. I still haven't written the review for "Hunted." I don't know how. I had to walk out and breathe some fresh air. I had to kiss my boyfriend. After the film, Savannah streetlights were coming on under the live oaks. This is when the city really looks haunted and beautiful. You can somehow smell the river from as far inland as Broughton. We walked past antebellum homes, down cobblestone alleys.
'I don't know why they hate us so much'
"I don't know why they hate us so much," I said to him. As I said it, I realized I was echoing a line from Anne Frank's diary. I wanted to say more but couldn’t. That's how it is with guys. When you really need a brother, a male shoulder to lay your head on, you never know what to say. You just stay there, close to him, and it's enough.
I'm 22 and on Sunday I think I fully embraced my identity as a gay man. Walking home, I wanted to own the weight of all that oppression, all that erasure, and come out of it with something I could move forward with. I wanted to feel the loss of an entire generation of gay men before me who were gone before they could pass on any advice about how to do this.
When I pull them close to me, all those countless handsome men dancing in the black garden that I will someday enter, who left me an America with less “free love” and more fear, I think I know what they would say: that dwelling on the injustices of the world will get you nowhere, that you must do your very best to love your life, because life is all there is.
It was night in downtown Savannah and all the revelers were out. I took my boyfriend's hand in mine.
Alex Cheves is a senior writing major at SCAD and President of SCAD Queers & Allies and blogs at The Beastly Ex-Boyfriend. His essay Are gay Pride festivals still necessary? appeared on Project Q in October. You can read his reviews from the Savannah Film Festival here.