Nov 282016

Yes, it’s getting to that point in NaBloPoMo where trying to squeeze out more blog posts seems harder and harder. The ever-longer titles don’t seem to require too much, but actual content that someone might want to read? Oi.

So how about a feel-good story?

This past summer, I attended (as I usually do) the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.1 I saw a lot of shows, but one that really stayed with me was the documentary Southwest of Salem.

It’s the story of 4 lesbians from Texas who, in the mid-90s, were accused, tried, and convicted of the Satanic sexual abuse of the two young nieces of one of the women. So yes, just some light, frothy viewing for the summer.

I highly recommend the film because it looks into a phenomenon that I lived through as a kid but had kinda forgotten about (because it’s so ridiculous): the period in the 80s and into the 90s where Satanic ritual abuse was on all the afternoon talk shows and nightly news broadcasts and it seemed like it was just popping up everywhere. I’m sure it was more muted in Canada and that’s why it didn’t stick out in my mind more, but yeah, that was a thing; at times it felt like roving bands of Satanists were waiting around every corner and, if you were a kid and you weren’t careful, they were going to scoop you up.

The film basically positions the trial of the 4 women as the last gasp of that particular, ultimately discarded as wildly exaggerated, phenomenon and further ties it to the kind of hysteria Arthur Miller so vividly wrote about in The Crucible, the witch-hunts in Salem. The fact that 3 of the 4 women were Latina and all seemed to be solid working-class gets explored too.

Anyway, spoiler alert, the documentary focuses on what a total farce the charges, trial, and insane sentences were—the woman identified as the “ring-leader,” the aunt of the two girls, received a THIRTY-SEVEN year sentence while her 3 “co-conspirators” got 15 years each—and more recent efforts to have the women exonerated. There’s even a pretty cool Canadian connection.

The film ends on the biggest documentary cliffhanger I’ve ever seen: the four women get released and are allowed to plead their case, asking for full exoneration. The initial judge (who for some reason was the same judge who tried them??) could have exonerated them then and there… but (shockingly! *rolls eyes*), he doesn’t… he does agree the matter requires more consideration and passes it on to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest court on criminal matters in Texas, and essentially their last resort).


It ends with no resolution because by the time the documentary was finished, that’s where things were.

Well last week? The verdict came down, and I’ll let you check it out yourselves.

Even in victory, these women lost over 15 years of their lives (each) and several of them didn’t get to see their children grow up. But it’s such a relief, because exoneration was no guarantee. This is TEXAS we’re talking about and there were three possible outcomes, and only 1 was good: they could have just been sent back to prison, they could have had to endure new trials, or what did happen: full exoneration. And full exoneration means they can go after the state for compensation, and while money won’t give them back the time they lost, hopefully it will help make their new lives a lot better.

  1. can I just say I have to admit I really love that they don’t namby-pamby around the word “queer” and actually just call themselves the VQFF? []

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