When my friend, Cincinnati-based photographer Christian Hendricks, said he’d heard from several queer people in small cities along the Bible Belt — like Starkville, Miss., and Murfreesboro, Tenn. — who were eager to be involved in his upcoming project, South of the Ohio: A Queer Photo Documentary, a piece that will capture gay life in the American South, I immediately assumed that they wanted to air their grievances through his lens.
“It’s funny: You would think that that’s the response,” Hendricks said. “Actually, a lot of people were like, ‘Gay culture is thriving down here. We’re not this completely marginalized group of people. We have our own sense of pride. It’s just a different region. We’re not any different from gays in L.A. or New York just because we don’t have a city.'”
Though I’m not so ignorant to believe that one absolutely needs an urban area to be comfortably queer, it does make me wonder what LGBT pride looks like in areas that are so heavily influenced by religion, or areas that are so isolated from queer culture that the nearest gay bar is two-plus hours away.
These are the same questions that will take Hendricks below the Mason-Dixon Line for a six-week journey this August. After raising funds on Kickstarter, he’ll head south with his camera to discover where the stereotypes of intolerance are true (one person he’s already spoken with in northeast Mississippi said that nearly every gay person in his town is in the closet) and where acceptance and Southern hospitality prevail. But more importantly, being a portrait photographer, he wants to get to know these people as individuals and show that the South is more than just bigotry, biscuits and gravy.
He’ll begin his journey in Cincinnati, just north of the Ohio River — a gateway to the American South — and head toward New Orleans. Along the way, he’ll visit major cities like Nashville and Atlanta, but he would like to focus more on the smaller, more rural towns. He’s been using the gay-dating app Grindr to find gay men in more isolated, and seemingly less tolerant, areas who’d like to be involved in the documentary. “I focused on northeastern Mississippi,” he said, “because that’s where the largest cluster of Southern Baptist churches is in the South, so I took that as a signifier that that would be one of the most conservative areas that I could visit.”
He was originally curious about gay culture in the South after living for a few months in 2009 in Gallatin, Tenn., where he was rebuilding houses with Aid for the World. “My experiences there were definitely part of what triggered me wanting to go back to the South,” he said. “Seeing Bible quotes written on minivans — it’s a little bit different from being in the North. The effect of religion down there is stronger.”
Hendricks wants his photographs to capture people in their own environments, their homes and neighborhoods. If they are (or were raised) religious, he’d like to photograph them at the place where they were baptized, to “display the tension between religion and sexuality and identity.” And for those of you who are frustrated by mainstream media often portraying “LGBT” as “white homosexual males,” Hendricks will give just as much attention to lesbians and transgender people as he does gay men.
In addition to portraits, Hendricks, who also works with video — including for the AIDS/LifeCycle fundraiser — plans to film interviews with his subjects. He’d also like to plan his trip so that he can arrive in New Orleans during Southern Decadence, “the big gay Mardi Gras.” When he’s all finished, he’s going to head home to compile a book of his photographs for publication.
Despite all his preliminary research and having spent some time in the South himself, Hendricks still doesn’t know what to expect. “That’s what’s exciting for me,” he said. “I don’t’ know what I’m going to get. And I don’t really want to know either. It’s going to be completely about exploration and watching how these photographs will manifest into a series.”