The popular true-crime podcast is most interesting when it begins to explore the lives of isolated gay men.
There is a moment in the sixth chapter of the ultra-popular podcast S-Town when something unexpected comes into focus. It becomes clear that the podcast is most interesting and important when it captures the life of gay men in the rural South. This moment comes when series host Brian Reed is interviewing a man named Olan Long, a former member of the Air Force who for years had a peculiar romantic relationship with the subject of the podcast, John B. McLemore. Olan speaks in a dove's sad coo about how he and John met on a gay chat line called MegaPhone, a service that's still operational. Olan says the two of them spoke on the phone nightly for almost 15 months before they worked up the courage to share physical space.
On one of those occasions, he visited John near his home in Woodstock, AL. The pair sat on the hood of a car in the parking lot of a doctor's office, waiting for John's mom Mary Grace to finish up an appointment inside. You can imagine the two of them there in the sun, arms crossed, asses planted a few strategic inches apart. Olan describes John in that moment: "He put on a clean, navy blue shirt that really enhanced his red hair. And he was wearing a pair of pants. They hugged his thighs and such, and his belly." He is defenseless in the interview, and tells Reed (and us) that he wanted in that moment to "lean over and do some stuff," to lift up John's shirt and "kiss all up around that belly and that red hair." The desire in Olan's soft voice is so thick it could make you cry.
But Olan didn't kiss John, and John didn't know Olan wanted to kiss him. As far as we know, the two of them never had sex, or even hugged. Yet we can imagine how they both would have killed to be able to. Teenagers the world over can recognize that feeling of unfulfilled longing, but what's remarkable here is that it was shared between middle-aged men in the rural South. John, specifically, had zero long-term romantic relationships at the time of his death in 2015, when he killed himself by drinking cyanide.
Olan says John told him that he was "desperate" to have a "one-on-one partnership." But, desperation aside, it's understandable that John didn't manage to find love in Woodstock, with a population of roughly 1,400. That town—Shit-Town, the crude nickname that the podcast gets its own name from—was a mere hour's drive away from Sylacauga, AL, where, in 1999, Billy Jack Gaither was gruesomely murdered with an axe simply because he apparently flirted with a man who did not want to be flirted with. Like John and his mother Mary Grace before him, Gaither lived with and cared for both of his elderly, disabled parents, but he often escaped to Birmingham with his crew of gay friends in order to meet men, sometimes even forming short-term relationships.
The similarities between the two men might seem moot, seeing as Gaither's murder took place 16 years prior to John's suicide. Also, it's true that things have since improved in America for white, gay men. (Queer people of color and transgender people still face terrible discrimination in all parts of America.) But even though the majority of Americans now believe gays and lesbians should be able to get married, LGBTQ people remain targets for violent hate-crimes at staggeringly high rates. Not to mention, Southern gay teens a disproportionately high-risk for suicide. And many Southern states with small religious communities are still working hard to reject the tide of progressivism that has given so few and precious federal rights to queer people. Altogether, the institutional problems that allow hatred for queer ways of life to flourish still exist.
As a gay man in the South, John's life and behavior were shaped by those institutional problems. He's on the record talking about "overcompensating fags" and "closet cases." If he was self-hating and spoke about fellow gay men with such open contempt, it's easy to imagine the general vibe of his community as less than tolerant. It's no surprise, then, that in such stifling circumstances, John's intimacy sometimes took unorthodox forms over the course of his life. His loneliness required that he take whatever he could get.
John's first sexual experience was with an older man named William, who Olan says focused on teaching John only about sex. According to Olan, William was also illiterate, keeping John around to help with bills and other complicated paperwork. In order to keep the company of Tyler Goodson, a young Woodstock resident featured prominently in S-Town, John often employed him around his mother's property. He even went against his anti-tattoo stance and repeatedly inked up his shoulders and chest so that Tyler and his buddy's tattoo shop—where John did most of his socializing—wouldn't go out of business. Then there's John's emotional reliance on Olan, a man at least ten years his senior and the only likely prospect for a real romantic relationship in his life.
John's relationships were often emotionally risky and one-sided. It took months of begging before John finally watched Brokeback Mountain at Olan's impassioned insistence, but when Olan didn't want to listen to another rant about Shit-Town, John ended the relationship. When Tyler didn't want to go to John's house to keep him company at the end of a long day spent together, John threatened to commit suicide—and then he did.
At the end of his story about that time in the parking lot, Olan says that, if he could change anything, he would have said to John, "I don't know how you're going to feel about this, but I really want to kiss you right now." Maybe, if he had, John would've been able to experience a more meaningful kind of love. What John experienced instead was a chain of hookups courtesy of MegaPhone: the terror of being assaulted by an unknown man's tongue in a church parking lot; a horny man standing on his porch and jerking off into a bush in the nighttime. But, like many men forced to keep their sexuality behind closed doors, he rarely experienced romantic love or companionship.
Some listeners of S-Town are understandably angry at the podcast for exposing the private lives of John and his neighbors—ordinary citizens caught up in an online phenomenon. But this type of reporting is important, as it underlines a type of life that is rarely seen by the people who aren't living it, making it easier in the process for other people to change, understand, and advocate. The lives of John B. McLemore, who "learned to live without" intimacy, and Olan Long, who went without sex for at least six years, are what gayness looks like in certain parts of the country—where gay men are few and far between, and where straight (or closeted) men feel compelled to murder when they're made to feel less masculine. That's important to remember as the country moves forward, and hopefully stories like S-Town will make it difficult to forget.
Follow Shane Barnes on Twitter.