A birthday should be a day of celebration and laughs, but for me, 21 is an age I both laugh and loathe at. You see, at age 21, AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) bodies start receiving a procedure known as a Pap Smear. The procedure involves taking cells from your cervix to screen for cervical cancer. While this procedure is beneficial and should be a no-brainer for most, it is, to put it bluntly, terrifying for me.
My body has betrayed me in many ways but today, I wish to expand upon how the reproductive health care system betrayed trans men like myself via its history of exclusivity through one man’s story: the story of Robert Eads.
“They simply can’t create men from second class citizens.”– Maxwell
Robert begins the documentary with a conversation surrounding forgiveness and hatred, in that he “does not hate [the doctors], but does not forgive,” as they feel that they did the right thing. As the section goes on, we learn through Eads’ chosen family that as a post-menopausal woman prior to transition, doctors told Eads that it was unnecessary to remove his uterus and ovaries as part of the reassignment.
Unaware of his need for regular gynecological cancer screenings, Eads suffered from an unidentified illness for over a year and was denied by at least twenty doctors, until the Medical College of Georgia accepted him as a patient in 1997 and diagnosed his cancer. While ovarian cancer is notoriously deadly and hard to diagnose and treat, the year-long delay in diagnosis hampered Eads’ chance of survival and negatively affected his quality of life.
While chronicling this, interwoven are interludes of conversation among his chosen family discussing the ins and outs of the double mastectomy, otherwise known as “top surgery”. Maxwell, Robert’s chosen son, loathes over the results of women with breast cancer in comparison to his own, and specifically with how the doctors treat him and his family, citing the quote above.
One realizes that women are second class citizens in this society, and though transgender men do gain the privilege of manhood, the process of getting there with a female body is not as easy as it looks.
“[Your gender] it’s in the mind and heart.”– Robert Eads
The story chronicles the rest of Robert Eads’ family life, noting the lack of acceptance from both his mother and father – but still bonding with them after years without communication. Robert notes that he hid in the lesbian community for a long time before actually coming out as trans to his family.
Furthermore, he discusses the process of birth as a transgender man, with his two “wonderful” sons. One son does appear in the documentary, still struggling to call Robert his father. Nevertheless, he accepts Robert as his parent and grandparent, regardless of the changes that he has made. On pregnancy, Robert notes that it was the only time he felt like a “gay man”. It was simultaneously the worst and best time of his life.
He ends this section with a reflection on loss, noting that family is the most difficult to lose. As this section ends, I reflect on my own relationships with family, both biological and chosen.
“I deserve to be treated like anyone else”
Fall begins with preparation for the “Southern Comfort” convention, where Robert is preparing his speech. The section also further chronicles the father and son relationship between Robert and Maxwell, through conflict over the panel that Robert and Lola, Robert’s partner, intend to give. In the end, Robert gives his speech and runs his panel, while also taking Lola to prom.
The night is sweet and there is laughter and smiles abound.
“After I’m dead, it’s too damn late.”– Corey
Robert Eads dies on January 17, 1999, with Lola and his chosen family beside him.
we pass every month in circles,
Left to the maternal bloodline,
out to take a tumble
Among scraps of the body,
in bloodReagan Paul
As a transgender man, I reflect on the documentary Southern Comfort with solemnity and hope.
Robert Eads was denied medical care in the United States only 24 years ago. His story is a tragic reminder to trans men to take charge of their health, and a further call to the medical community to fight against discrimination. As noted in Christina Van Waasbergen’s article, out of more than 7,000 transgender and gender non-conforming Americans surveyed, doctors denied 19% of people treatment because of their gender identity. 28% reported verbal harassment in a medical setting, and 2% reported physical assault in a doctor’s office.
But you have to believe him.
The movie was not about his death, but about family.
Southern Comfort is not only a reflection on loss as a transgender person but also on trans love and happiness. All of the members of Robert’s chosen family take care of each other as if they were blood. Further, we see the love between two transgender couples: Robert & Lola and Corey & Maxwell. Seeing this love and happiness between the couples, and among the family, brings me hope for my own road ahead. A lot of what we see in the media on trans life is rejection and loss, but here we see love, acceptance – and even happiness. Happiness is needed. People need to know that transgender life is still a good life. That is the message Robert Eads exemplified.
Though not everything may be good, we need to ensure we show what good we have.
Watch Southern Comfort here.