By Jim Slotek
The singer/actor – who came out in 2006 - narrates Small Town Rage: Fighting Back In The Deep South, an illuminating documentary screening Friday at the ReelHeART International Film & Screenplay Festival. The film documents the unlikely start-up of a chapter of the AIDS activist group ACT UP in the least welcoming city in the U.S., Shreveport, Louisiana.
Some of the events recounted are almost mordantly-humourous, with the handful of activists holding meetings at a local Shoney’s (telling them they were a book club), police addressing them at public events wearing face-masks, and first responders showing up wearing complete hazmat suits.
Then there was that time ACT UP Shreveport counter-protested a Klan rally. Or when their harshest political adversary, Congressman Jim McCrery, was outed as gay himself.
“It was a horrible situation to be living in that era, and having HIV/AIDS. Just being friends with someone, you were the outcast. These people in Shreveport were incredibly brave,” Bass says over the phone from L.A.’s Universal City where he’d just recorded a talk show appearance.
“And things have changed a lot. But even three years ago, I did another documentary (Mississippi I Am) where we followed LGBT people in Mississippi and we found essentially an underground LGBT church. They were hidden and couldn’t tell anybody they existed because their place would have been destroyed.
“As a Southerner, I understand how people think down there. As a kid of the ‘80s I heard everyone’s opinions on people that were gay and it was just horrible. I grew up in the church and was completely brainwashed into thinking being gay was wrong and I completely hated that about myself.
“As a little kid, I would pray every single day, ‘Please let me wake up straight.’ Because I believed there was something wrong with me and there was something wrong with my brain.”
Bass’s feelings of antipathy towards his home town and state have increased of late. Last year, Mississippi passed Bill 1523, also known as The Religious Liberty Accommodations Act. It defines marriage as between a man and a woman and allows refusal of service to anyone based on religious conviction.
“I go home to Mississippi several times a year,” Bass says. “Now when I go home with my husband and go to a restaurant, I actually have to ask them, ‘Do you serve my kind?’
“And to have to say those words in 2017 is horrible. It’s Jim Crow enacted again. We’ve reverted back to the ‘60s when we were so horrible to the Black community. And now we’re the community that’s hated and making laws discriminating against us.”
Bass says he embraced becoming a role model after coming out. “I’m so lucky to be in this position. It’s still so scary to be gay in this world, especially outside this country.
“But the environment of politics right now in the States is scary because you see half the country being brainwashed into hating the gay community even more. And I thought we were finally at that tipping point where everyone is accepting of the gay community, everyone was happy and knew there was no threat from us.
“But now, you never know, even traveling around this country, who is going to do anything to you.”
The evolution of gay politics also plays a role in Small Town Rage. Some of ACT UP’s harshest critics were within the community, trying to normalize their lives, while protesters were on the news, angrily shaming Louisiana State University for turning down AIDS research grant money.
For his part, Bass counts himself in the “normalize” group.
“You need ACT UP when no one’s paying attention. When you protest, that is for your government officials, the ones that really can make the decision. All they care about it getting reelected. So when a whole lot of people are dedicated to them not getting reelected, it can change their mind. Protest is about changing the minds of our government and our leaders.
“But people are interested in people’s lives. I understand coming from the South the whole phrase, ‘Well just don’t throw it in my face,’ which really pisses me off.
“But to an extent, to educate people is to not quote-unquote throw it in their face. If I’m going to Mississippi and I’m carrying a rainbow flag and leading the parade and hollering at people, that’s not going to change anybody’s opinion.
“But if I’m like right now, on the (Hallmark) talk show Home and Family, and I’m talking naturally about my husband and how we like to cook together, people can relate to that. And maybe some people look at gay people a little differently because of it.”
Small Town Rage: Fighting Back In The Deep South. Directed by David Hylan and Raydra Hall. Narrated by Lance Bass. Directors Hylan and Hall in attendance Friday, July 7. 519 Church Street Community Centre.
Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.