As a queer and gender nonconforming bad bitch that grew up under the tutelage of my pastor-grandmother, I’ve often wondered what our relationship would’ve looked like had she not died a few years ago. Might she still believe that I was going to hell with gasoline drawers on? Or would she be my biggest cheerleader? I’ll never know, but this is what’s on my mind after screening Daniel Karslake’s For They Know Not What They Do, which premiered Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival.
At the intersection of religion, sexuality, and gender identity, For They Know Not What They Do is an emotional and revealing look into how — in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage equality that prompted continued, fierce opposition by evangelical and conservative Christian communities — four religious families came to support their LGBTQ+ children. It serves, in a way, as a companion to Karslake’s 2007 doc For The Bible Tells Me So, about how conservative Christians' interpretation of the Bible is commonly used as a way to deny LGBTQ+ folks equal rights. (It was shortlisted for the 2008 Academy Award.)
The first family is Linda and Rob Robertson who were encouraged by their evangelical church to put their then-12 year-old son, Ryan, in conversion therapy. The self-hate he was taught drove him to addiction. The second family is life-long Presbyterians Sally and David McBride, parents of Sarah McBride who was the first openly trans woman to serve in the White House (under the President Barack Obama) and is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Then there is Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose child, Elliot, self-harmed before their parents’ acceptance enabled them to come to terms with their gender. Lastly, there is Annette Febo and Victor Baez, whose Catholic tradition and Puerto Rican upbringing made their son, Vico Baez Febo, think they wouldn’t accept him.
In addition to interviews with each family, a series of religious experts are also featured in the doc, including Christ Church Unity’s (in Orlando) Rev. Cynthia Alice Anderson, Rev. Dr. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church (in Clinton, Maryland), Middle Collegiate Church’s Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis (in New York City), retired Bishop Gene Robinson (who many will remember from For The Bible Tells Me So as the first priest in an openly gay relationship to be consecrated a bishop in a major Christian denomination), and Rev. Dr. Mel White, a former behind-the-scenes member of the Evangelical Protestant movement. Randy Thomas, former executive vice president of Exodus International, which at one time was the largest ex-gay organization in the country, is also interviewed.
(For you heathens, the title of the doc comes from Luke 23:34 in the Bible when Jesus says, while hanging on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”)
Very traditional in its structure, For They Know Not What They Do isn’t trying to reinvent the documentary wheel. With a subject like this, it doesn’t really have to, and in fact, I kept getting obvious glimpses of the style we came to know from For The Bible Tells Me So. The effecting narratives of each family involved drive the emotional and story arc of the doc. And while each family’s journey to accepting their child is endearing, it’s Baez Febo’s story that gutted me.
Baez Febo was locked out of his grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico after a neighbor outed him to her. Years after returning to the U.S. with his mother and father’s support, he hosted a housewarming party at his Orlando apartment on June 12, 2016. After the party, he took his friends to Pulse Nightclub where a gunman later killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. Baez Febo made it out alive — by hiding in a closet — but three of his friends died.
Perhaps the only thing I was left wanting after the film was more, which is not necessarily bad. For me, with docs that aim to obviously be teaching tools of the importance of loving and supporting queer people, it’s important that Black people are included in these stories as examples of love, too. While one of the families is interracial with a mixed son who’s trans, and two of the experts are Black, I longed for more explicit inclusion of how these conversations around acceptance can manifest themselves within the Black (and other communities of of color) church tradition which can similarly be conservative and narrow-minded. (To be clear, I reject the notion that communities of color are more homophobic and transphobic than white ones. But those societal ills look differently when communities are also grappling with things institutionalized classism, racism, poverty, etc. Check out docs like Holler If You Hear Me and The New Black to understand more.)
That said, it’s obvious that a documentary like For They Know Not What They Do — and For The Bible Tells Me So, for that matter — is necessary viewing. And considering far-too-many states still allow conversion therapy, the religious right’s continuing efforts to prevent LGBTQ+ equality, and the ongoing issue of LGBTQ+ youth suicide, it couldn’t come at a better time. Like a salve, or a balm in Gilead perhaps, the film has the potential to heal open wounds in some families as a manual of how to love — not just in spite of, but because of.