Spoiler Alert: This review contains details from each episode of the podcast, S-Town.
The newest podcast from the team at This American Life and Serial was not pitched as an LGBTQ story. Some people will undoubtedly celebrate that about the piece – that the creators allowed the figure of John B. McLemore to unfold in all his complexities, neither centering his sexual orientation nor neglecting it. I genuinely hope that tactic worked, bringing in more listeners who might’ve ignored something too narrowly pigeonholed. But I feel somewhat ambivalent, in no small part because, as a result, it took me so much longer to listen than if I’d known this was a show about someone so close to my own experience.
To be fair, my home of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is far from a shit town these days. Since it was awarded “most polluted city in America” by the EPA in 1969, the little southern city has really turned things around environmentally. Plus, being a historic center of shipping (see the big band classic: “Chattanooga Choo Choo”) has meant there’s a lot more economic diversity than in John’s hometown of Woodstock, Alabama.
Still, as my sister in New York said in a text after we both listened to the first episode: “A lot of people are going to find this story fascinating but totally unrelatable, and for us, this is way closer to home.” And it’s not just the regional and sexual specificity of this character that resonates with me. John is whip-smart and deeply invested in questions of injustice, yet he’s emotionally and bureaucratically unable to find an outlet for his social critic. I remember what that felt like and in that Sliding Doors way, I can clearly envision a scenario in which I had grown up to be trapped like he was.
So with the deep feeling of connection I’ve had with this podcast, there are two things in particular I’d like to draw out for LGBTQ listeners – things the creators got right that I don’t want us to miss amidst all the hard feelings brought up by John’s life and death.
First, it must be said that S-Town gets it right when it comes to male bisexuality. John uses the words bi and queer to describe himself repeatedly and even goes so far as to discuss percentages – how much of the time he finds himself attracted to women and how much he finds himself thinking about men. It had to be tempting for the creators to cast this fluidity in terms of tragedy. They could easily have framed him as a pitiable person so overwhelmed by the anti-LGBTQ sentiment he was swimming in that he felt the need to hedge his bets and declare himself open to coupling with a woman. And, sadly, I think there are still plenty of listeners who heard it that way.
But John doesn’t ever seem confused about his sexuality, and I hope we as a community can see his experience for what it is – yet another example in the long line of publicly identifiable bi men that can and should put an end to debates over their existence. Before his death, John gave us the gift of his story and I think our collectively admitting that some guys are bi is one meaningful way for us to honor him.
The second thing S-Town gets spot-on is that, despite its flaws, Bibb County had a place for John as a bi man. We hear several folks in the town comment on John’s orientation throughout the series and we’re led to believe that most people knew or at least suspected it. What we don’t hear are discussions of his sexuality as a basis for expulsion from the community. And I’m pretty sure if the creators of the show had heard those discussions, they’d be in there.
Of course, this means he was doubtless the target for micro-aggressions on a regular basis and even experienced acts of blatant discrimination. But his identity didn’t prevent him from forming meaningful friendships with all kinds of people around town, from the local tattooist to a range of younger straight guys.
This reminds me of the other southern queers we’ve seen on TV in the past decade. I think of the drag queen Alyssa Edwards of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who, despite national notoriety, continues to teach at her dance studio in Mesquite, Texas. I think of Todrick Hall, who is also connected to the RuPaul empire these days and grew into himself in a black-majority agricultural town in northern Texas. I think of Honey Boo Boo’s Uncle Poodle and all the Southern trans women on Toddlers in Tiaras whose gender identities seem to be overlooked at least when their skills as pageant coaches are needed.
All of these characters complicate our image of the South. Even as John’s life came to a tragic conclusion and the success of someone like Todrick always requires leaving their hometown, this acceptance that LGBTQ people exist remind us that the South is not monolithic in its demand that we live in the closet.
Unfortunately, as with both seasons of Serial, I don’t think S-Town quite sticks the landing. For me, each of these has failed to establish the stakes of the story with a finale that takes its themes broader. I keep wanting them to use these stories as vehicles to explore greater questions, whether that’s the state of the South, the state of storytelling, or the state of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. These reporters, though, always seem to want to collapse in on themselves, focusing on the singularity of their story. It always feels a little flat at the end. In this case, the fact that the entire last episode was about mad hatter syndrome just left me wondering if the creators thought mercury poisoning played a bigger role in John’s suicide than his acute awareness of the injustices he lived with. Still, I give these folks a lot of credit. I’m a person who thinks a lot about the impact of growing up with or without media that includes characters that reflect you. But as a queer, social justice-minded boy from the South, it’s been awhile since I got to see someone who so deeply reflected who I am.
Jack Harrison-Quintana is Director of Grindr For Equality for Grindr and was recently named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business.