On Southern Queerness and Representation

When I put on Netflix’s Teenage Bounty Hunters for the first time, I wasn’t expecting much. I had spent the last hour laying on my couch, continuously revolving between crying over the woman that had just ghosted me on tinder and the rejection email I received on top of that while listening to songs professionally engineered to make me even sadder…I was having, in short, a bad day. So, the show seemed like a perfect, mind-numbing distraction. What I found was much, much more.

In the pilot, you’re introduced to stereotypical mean girl, April Stevens. She is a holier than thou teen at an elite Christian private school. You have seen her before. Her venom is familiar — like Regina George (Rachel McAdams, Mean Girls), Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or Rose McGowan’s Courtney Shayne in Jawbreaker, you assume she is unfailingly apathetic. (Or, maybe, just a teenager.)

However, in 1x08 From Basic To Telenovela, April Stevens becomes an outlier. She boldly claims both her lesbianism and her God in a busy arcade in Atlanta, Georgia.

Teenage Bounty Hunters, Netflix (2020).

Atlanta — where the teen comedy is filmed, set, and many of the cast are from — is an outlier in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity protections in the state of Georgia. As is true for most of the South, state-level protections are next to non-existent. This includes legal conversion therapy — and at a Christian school like the one our Teenage Bounty Hunters attend, this is a very real threat. Therefore, the show provides necessary visibility to otherwise marginalized LGBTQ youth and adults who have yet to be recognized as complete citizens by their government(s).

According to GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey, “students in religious schools reported the most anti-LGBTQ related discrimination at school compared to students in other schools” and students in the South had greater negative school experiences with the least access to LGBTQ-related resources nationwide.

In Teenage Bounty Hunters, this is expressed through a brief ‘debate’ between the main character and her love interest. “There are more people living out in our country than ever before,” says Sterling Wesley (Maddie Phillips). She is a bright, hopeful, and blindly infatuated baby queer. “And yet I still hear the word ‘fag’ around school, like, five times a day,” responds April Stevens (Devon Hales). She has been closeted for years and her senses are finely tuned. She has no doubts about what lays beyond the other side of that door.

Teenage Bounty Hunters, Netflix (2020).

The 2017 State Snapshot of the School Climate in Georgia showed that 84% of students heard homophobic remarks — some even from school staff — and 65% of students did not have access to a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). In Teenage Bounty Hunters, this manifests as the opposite binary: a Straight-Straight Alliance.

These statistics are eerily similar to those reported out of Kentucky, where I attended college — 88% vs. 84% homophobic remarks and 37% vs. 35% GSA access.

At the time I entered college in 2011, the University of Louisville was considered a bastion of LGBTQ safety in the South. While a relative truth — I was offered a single dorm room with my own bathroom and later, I helped with the development of LGBTQ-competency curriculum for the medical campus — things were not perfect.

In the fall of my senior year at the University of Louisville, a fraternity brother stopped me on campus. “Can I ask you something?” Then, at my consent, “Nevermind.” That weekend at a party, I brought it up as we sat alone by the fire pit. I knew what was coming, or at least a version of it. I have never been particularly good at hiding my queerness — and I was about to learn that my former RA, a woman who went on to oversee the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Social Justice floor, told my fraternity brother’s wife that I was trans. Something that transgender activist/actress Laverne Cox refers to, unequivocally, as “an act of violence.” In my mind, the conversation ended with much more tangible violence — facedown in the flames that warmed the backyard or maybe with the large fist of an ex-wrestler slammed against my jaw. In reality, I got lucky. Mine was a secret he promised to keep, and even shared one of his own in return. Still, the same rumors about my body swirled that led to the anxious omission of my off-campus address for fear of how far a concealed carry permit might take a couple dozen Good Ol’ Boys.

It should be said, though, that one doesn’t just find themselves in such a situation by accident. It takes a series of very specific and intentional decisions. Usually, on behalf of the offender, but in this case, I can trace my steps exactly. It started with an application to an out-of-state-state-school and showing up in Kentucky with the blind and brazen confidence only an eighteen-year-old can muster — even if they are transgender. After jumping out of the closet on my first day of high school, I was determined to seal the door shut in college. To be normal.

So, I had a multi-pronged plan to Being Normal.

  1. No one could know I was trans (this involved a lot lying about where I lived my freshman year, which was absolutely not on the girl’s floor, why would you ever even suggest that).
  2. Never so much as a glance in the direction of the campus LGBT center (this was complicated severely by my internship there my junior year).
  3. Join a fraternity.

I was moderately successful.

When I think of college, there are happy memories and achievements — late night drives or legislative advocacy trips to the Capitol — but there is also deep-seated fear. I remember the professor, a butch lesbian, who extended me an open invitation to her office when I was barely a year on testosterone and just months off top surgery. I was too afraid to go and instead just stared at the rainbow flag sticker on her office door during my Epidemiology class — but she was still happy to see me at graduation. Or, I think of the time my fraternity brother called me at two in the morning, not long after I crashed into my bed post-party. “Do you not like sex?” he asked. “Uh, I don’t know,” I said. I couldn’t explain that I never took girls home because the thought made horrific newspaper headlines flash in my head like a slasher flick.

I share these experiences not because I believe they are unique to me, but rather the opposite. They are indicative of LGBTQ experiences in the South on a larger scale. And what impact, then, does this have on the livelihoods of LGBTQ-identified individuals in Southern communities, where laws are not in place to protect them?

“I think our idea was that [April] probably wasn’t going to come out until college, until she was out from under her parent’s roof and she was in a different community. She has these aspirations and that’s why she made the choice. She’s like, ‘I know the people that I am around. I know the community that I live in and I am not going to let any of those ignorant people destroy my aspirations with their ignorance,’” said self-described Atlanta actor Devon Hales on her role in Teenage Bounty Hunters as April Stevens when interviewed by Starry Mag.

This, though could be construed an actress’ conjecture, rings true for fans in the South.

One fan, Nora, a 26-year-old bisexual woman from Tennessee grew up in a conservative Christian household and found it difficult to imagine coming out publicly. “I struggled with the same feelings April did and even though I was comfortable with my sexuality, it wasn’t until I was out of my parents’ house that I felt like I could fully be myself. It’s a very unique experience to grow up queer in the south and it makes me so happy that we now have a show that reinforces that sexuality and religion don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If even one queer kid grows up having a more loving and accepting coming out experience because of this show, it would be worth all the money it took to make it.”

Beth, 27, also from Tennessee, had a slightly different experience than Nora. “I never questioned whether God would still love me, if I was committing a sin, if there was something inherently wrong with me. And I know I’m lucky for that. I really do. I was raised in a Christian home that did not have me believing I would ever be anything but loved and embraced. But I never saw that story in media. I saw rejection, over and over. I saw conversion therapy and self-loathing.

Until Teenage Bounty Hunters. Until April proudly proclaimed that she was a lesbian and that she did not believe God would smite her for being such. That He made her exactly how He wanted her to be, because He has a master plan for all of us.

It’s so refreshing to see this side of the story. To see someone so certain in both their sexuality and their faith. And as important as this is to me, I can only imagine how much someone who is struggling needs to see this. Someone who isn’t sure God will still love them if they’re not straight or cis.”

In Kentucky, my community was the handful of people I trusted with my truth and my Netflix queue. I watched every sapphic tv show or movie Netflix had to offer at least twice, if not more. Still, it took me many years, miles, and a lot of Leslie Feinberg to face myself again. So, surrounded by U-Haul boxes as I prepare for a move back to the South, I ruminate on the news that Netflix has cancelled Teenage Bounty Hunters and the many young queers who are likely doing just as I did — desperately reaching through their tv screens for something to latch on to.

And Teenage Bounty Hunters’ unblinking Southern sensibility held out a hand — unceremoniously pulled back for reasons unknown. My heart aches for April Stevens, and all the girls like her, stuck in the amber of conservative Georgia.

I am, once again, having a bad day.

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vlsrvn.com / twitter: @vlsrvn / LGBT pop culture editor @ medium.com/the-jump-off

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