When I attended the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. a few months ago, I saw "For the Bible Tells Me So," Daniel Karslake's documentary on how religion has been misused to justify prejudice.
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival, Dan Karslake's provocative, entertaining documentary brilliantly reconciles homosexuality and Biblical scripture, and in the process reveals that Church-sanctioned anti-gay bias is based almost solely upon a significant (and often malicious) misinterpretation of the Bible. As the film notes, most Christians live their lives today without feeling obliged to kill anyone who works on the Sabbath or eats shrimp (as a literal reading of scripture dictates).
Through the experiences of five very normal, very Christian, very American families -- including those of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson -- we discover how insightful people of faith handle the realization of having a gay child. Informed by such respected voices as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harvard's Peter Gomes, Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Reverend Jimmy Creech.
Some of the voices from the film:
"I had good kids. We had one of each sex -- when my kids were growing up, I said 'God, please don't let my son grow up to be a faggot and my daughter a slut.' And he did not. He did not do that. He reversed it."
"I can't say where in the scheme of things that I saw this talk show ['The Phil Donahue Show'] and I realized that what I was embarrassed about was that I was thinking totally of how she was having sex and not about her as a person. When I saw the talk show with two guys -- buff, good looking guys -- and they were asked the question 'which one of you guys takes on the female role in the relationship' and they said 'neither one of us, we are attracted to men, if we were attracted to women, we'd be with women,' "I'm sitting there thinking, but what about the ones that twist their butts and act like women, what are they attracted to? Who are they? And I'm thinking 'but that's all you've ever seen.' That's what comes to mind when you hear 'homosexual': you think of the girlfriend-acting fellow, the butch dykey-acting woman. You don't think about everyday people, and there are 'everyday people' who are gay, and you're thinking about how they're having sex.
"I had to realize that she was my daughter: she had the same personality, she enjoyed the same things that she did before I knew she was gay. Then I had to stop thinking about Tonia that way. Although I still do not approve of the lifestyle, it was a big burden off me, that I could relate to her better and I stopped trying to push her."
"I've fallen in love with all of the families in the film," Karslake reports, "but I have a huge amount of respect for how honest and forthright the Poteats were with me. When Brenda Poteat shares that she was hung up on the sex, I really think she speaks for 80 percent of Americans and what being gay first means to them. Coming from her, that's a huge breakthrough."
After the screening, I chatted with the Rev. David Poteat, who participated in a Q&A session with Karslake at the Durham screening. He and his wife, Brenda (also a minister), are the one family shown on camera still struggling to accept their daughter Tonia's sexual orientation -- you can tell that they love her, but just can't get over the hurdle.
The Revs. Poteat preach at Faith Harvest Church Ministries in Burlington, N.C. (about 35 miles from Durham). It's interesting that the Poteats are the only black family featured in the film; all of the families featured have deep roots and connections to their faith communities. In the case of the Poteats, it was difficult to watch them in turmoil, wanting to love their daughter and still hold fast to their Bible-based condemnation of homosexuality. It plays itself out in painful ways on-screen.
In my conversation with the Rev. Poteat, it was clear that, months after filming ended, and now on the tour with Karslake at festivals, the experience has really opened his eyes. He has seen the reaction of audiences to the film and how it has moved them. He hopes that his family's participation in the documentary will change hearts and minds, and not allow people to turn their backs on their gay or lesbian child.
It's too bad that Karslake didn't get a chance to interview the Rev. Reggie Longcrier for the film. Pastor of Exodus Missionary Outreach Church in Hickory, N.C., Longcrier submitted a question on marriage equality (addressed to John Edwards) for CNN's YouTube Democratic presidential debate. It's a powerful, short and simple video.
Sen. Edwards has said his opposition to gay marriage has been influenced by his Southern Baptist background. We know religion was once used to justify slavery, segregation and women not being allowed to vote, all of which today are recognized as unconstitutional and socially and morally wrong. So why is it still acceptable to use religion to justify denying gay and lesbian American their full and equal rights?
That could have been asked of any of the Democratic candidates (including Barack Obama, who is currently dealing with the conflict in the religious black community regarding faith and discrimination and the gay community). They have all, save Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, cited personal faith as a reason to deny civil marriage, for instance, to gays and lesbians.
"For the Bible Tells Me So" clearly communicates the challenge in families that have interpreted holy texts and lifelong religious teachings in ways to justify discrimination against gays and lesbians. When confronted with a gay child who has spent years in fear first coming out to himself or herself, then musters up the courage to have "the conversation" with their parents, it creates emotional chaos, doubt, anguish and eventually, for most of these families, acceptance (including the Gephardt family, featured with out daughter Chrissy). In the Poteats' case, while we see the impact of the coming-out roller coaster over the course of the film, we're left yearning for a clear resolution and reconciliation, hopeful that, in time, it will happen.
The Rev. Jimmy Creech appears in the film as well. He is the executive director of Faith in America, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about the history of religion-based bigotry and how it is being used today to justify discrimination. The founder of the organization, Mitchell Gold, was named a Person of the Year by the Advocate. The chairman of Hickory, N.C.-based furniture powerhouse Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams felt that it was time to have these difficult discussions about religion-based bigotry, and has used Faith in America to start those conversations: "Misguided religious teaching throughout our history has blinded Americans to the injustice of discrimination against minorities such as African-Americans, women and interracial couples. It is why many cannot see the suffering of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in America today." One of the Faith in America campaigns that mirrors the issues raised in Karslake's documentary is a series of ads like these (click to enlarge).
The fact is that there are many people of faith who simply don't know anyone who is openly LGBT; change occurs when people they know and love come out. "For the Bible Tells Me So" is a compelling documentary that illustrates this beautifully. The Poteat family's journey shows that a personal connection to someone can have a real impact over time when it comes to reconciling faith, family and community -- but it is never simple; there is benefit in wrestling with these issues rather than avoiding them.
A list of screenings around the country is here.