The Front, a pioneering new media startup founded entirely by women, premiered a web series this week elevating the voices and stories of queer youth living in the American deep south.
Titled "New Deep South," the video series explores the complex queer culture operating out of these spots of extreme social conservatism at a time of national change in attitudes towards the queer community. Unpacking queer realities such as alternative kinship systems, survival tactics and the way technology is shaping and informing the lives of these communities, each episode of "New Deep South" will focus on a different set of stories.
Thalia Mavros, founder of The Front and executive producer of "New Deep South," told HuffPost: "We love to pinpoint areas of tension in the world and tell unique stories in a way that humanizes the issues while exposing the forces that are shaping them."
This first episode, "Instababy," follows Keeta and Toni, a young couple from Jackson, Mississippi with a desire to start a family who pursue the adoption of an unborn child through social media app Instagram.
Mississippi remains the only state that still bans adoption by same-sex couples. The "New Deep South" team chose to time the release of "Instababy" to coincide with this week's federal court hearing challenging the ban.
The Huffington Post talked with Mavros this week about her team's vision for "New Deep South" and what we can expect from the forthcoming episodes in this series.
What is your overarching concept for "New Deep South"?
In terms of "New Deep South," it’s one of our premier series, mainly because it explores vibrant and multifaceted queer culture in a place that is known for its social conservatism, economic stagnation, and its adherence to traditional values and institutions. We love to pinpoint areas of tension in the world and tell unique stories in a way that humanizes the issues while exposing the forces that are shaping them. In this case, the American South was a strong backdrop for examining the tangled and complex natures of sexual identity, family and legacy for queer youth in a time of transition and national change.
How did you find the couple this first episode focuses on? Why did you decide to elevate their story?
Our first stop was Jackson, Mississippi and the surrounding Delta area. One of the creators of the show, Lauren Cioffi, lived there for three years before moving back to LA to work for Sundance and she always felt like like she wanted other people to experience the Mississippi that isn’t really shown in the media -- really fascinating and dynamic and a lot more vibrant than what people think Mississippi is. She teamed up with Rosie Haber and they went on an adventure together and the deeper they delved into the stories and the people, the more they found other stories. So from the Rainbow Family storyline (featured in our upcoming NDS Montage episode), they found the Instababy story. Our "Instababy" protagonist Toni belongs to a Rainbow family and our team saw her and Keeta at the club and they stood out, because they are inter-racial and look very young. Documentary filmmaking is a cross between being a detective and piecing together a puzzle and a being a psychotherapist unraveling people’s psyches.
Fundamentally, the what-the-fuck nature of having an unborn child offered to you over social media was reason enough to start filming with them. And add to that, the fact that Mississippi is the only state that still bans adoptions by same-sex couples. (We postponed the release of the episode to coincide with this week when the hearing is taking place in federal court). It seems like they’re struggling to create a new kind of present, because everything they know -- community, family, religion, tradition -- are all really heavy concepts that carry the weight of the past. Every sense that we get is that they’re just trying to figure things out in the moment and trying to make sense of what the world is telling them is ok and not ok.
How can seeing the way these relationships operate in extremely conservative parts of the country help us have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be queer in 2015?
While queer people have grown increasingly present in mainstream media, their depictions are almost uniformly well-off, usually urban, often white and in parts of the country where legal and moral questions about sexuality were put to bed long ago. But this represents only a slim portion of queer people across America.
This show also helps dispel myths on the other side of the equation. On paper, places like Mississippi seem like hell for LGBTQ, but queer people live and thrive in these places, and often love where they live. Our whole country is in a state of crucial flux regarding sexuality and gender, and conservative places like the Deep South are where this change is happening at the swiftest pace and with the most friction.
Lastly, it definitely makes us think about the resources we’re allocating towards supporting queer youth. Marriage is a step in the right direction (although I have my personal issues with the institution), but it doesn't solve the problem, especially in parts of the country where LGBT acceptance is still a hard sell. Prejudices run deep; there are still kids that are being thrown out by their parents and end up confused, alone and homeless.
How have you seen technology shape and inform the experiences of queers in the deep south through this project?
The social conditions for queer people are changing positively and rapidly in most of the US, but how does personal growth and queer expression happen in a place where young people don’t necessarily have a template or a roadmap? It’s fascinating to see how these young people use technology to fill the vacuum. Lauren Cioffi told me that thing that endeared her to Jackson was the really strong queer pockets that banded together, persecuted by and hidden from the traditional majority, creating communities and growing and becoming empowered together. Nowadays, people are able to connect regionally, nationally and globally on the Internet. Technology creates new realities and changes what young people perceive as possible and now those small pockets of support and community are created online.
In one of our next episodes, our trans protagonist finds his role models online. The desire to escape the constraints of daily life is universal, and technology and the connection they feel through the Internet grants them the motivation and freedom to radically realign the relationships in their lives.
What else can we expect from this web series?
So far all our stories have to do with family and queer creation of family, which is something we’re fascinated with. In one conversation, Rosie told me: “In modern society as queers, we kind of Frankenstein families together and we do it in whatever way we know how.” That Frankensteining is great source material and reveals so much about human nature and our ever-changing responses to our deepest needs and desires.
After Jackson, Cioffi is excited to visit Louisiana and Arkansas next.
I’m excited for all of us to continue having conversations like this one and Mississippi's adoption laws will hopefully join the rest of the country's before the end of the year.
Lauren Cioffi and Rosie Haber are co-creators of "New Deep South," with Haber functioning as director/producer and Cioffi as producer/cinematographer.
Watch "Instababy" above or head here to see more from The Front. Stay tuned for more from the "New Deep South" video series.
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