If the words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do” don’t rush through your mind in Lauryn Hill’s powerful tenor, you probably know your scripture better than this Jewish sodomite. If that’s the case, you may know some folks who could benefit from seeing Daniel Karslake’s urgent and powerful film on religious families with LGBTQ kids, “For They Know Not What They Do.” The feature-length documentary expands on Karslake’s landmark feature, “For the Bible Tells Me So,” which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival before making that year’s Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary.
Over ten years later, “For They Know Not What They Do” revisits Christianity’s evolution on the subject of homosexuality, focusing on the parents whose queer children helped them embrace a more loving interpretation of scripture. It is a stirring call to action, and an urgent warning to those who place religion above their child’s survival. Most importantly, however, the film does not judge or speak down to those who most need to hear its message. The carefully chosen subjects in the film came to their newfound acceptance through often painful reconciliations between their so-called faith and a love for their children. By the film’s end, it’s incredibly moving to see they ways they’ve each experienced a deeper and far more profound love — both for God and for their fellow humans.
Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the Robertson family, who self-describe as being sprung from a “typical evangelical couple.” When their oldest son Ryan came out, they had a typical evangelical reaction; they told him God did not approve and encouraged him to “pray the gay away.” A deep believer raised in the church, Ryan agreed, and willfully sought out “ex-gay” conferences that preached dangerous reparative therapy. When he realized it wasn’t working, he left home and developed addiction issues. Tragically, Ryan Robertson died in 2009 after complications from an overdose. His parents have since joined a different church and host gay Christian gatherings in their home every week. “We could no longer attend a church that was about being against people,” his mom says in her shaky-voiced interview.
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Just as inspiring are the McBride family, parents to Sarah McBride, who is National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and became the first openly transgender person to speak at a major party convention in 2016. (A quick Google search reveals McBride is currently running for Delaware State Senate. If elected, she’d be the country’s first transgender state senator in U.S. history.)
For her parents’ first date, they went to see “The Ten Commandments,” a cordial outing at which they proudly state no commandments were broken. When Sarah first came out, they had no concept of what a transgender person was. They feared she would never find love and that she’d face endless discrimination. By the film’s end, they are beaming with pride at her accomplishments. After remembering the joy of walking his daughter down the aisle, Sarah’s father shares some of the most poignant wisdom in the film: “If a lot of people have just a little bit of courage, then nobody has to be a hero.”
Karslake weaves these stories together patiently and respectfully, charting each couple’s course to acceptance while explaining the obstacles without judgment. Each family is shown in all of their messy humanity, and never painted to be villains or martyrs. The pacing of the script is excellent; Karslake introduces the major players at the top before gradually broadening the scope to a few more families, while revisiting each core subject periodically.
The casting is pitch perfect, allowing for a wide range of perspectives and identities without sacrificing intimacy or specificity. Particularly moving is the story of Vico Baez Febo, a survivor of the Pulse shooting in Orlando who lost three friends in the deadliest attack on LGBTQ people in history. In the wake of the unspeakable trauma, he is able to reconnect with his religious Puerto Rican family. Another uplifting find is a young mixed-race transgender man named Elliot Porcher, whose loving parents are Episcopal but still struggled with his gender identity at first.
As he did with “For the Bible Tells Me So,” Karslake approaches the topic of religion and LGBTQ identities with a deep respect for both communities in “For They Know Not What They Do.” Having been raised religiously, the gay filmmaker has dedicated much of his career to the subject matter. Filling out the film with queer clergy members, Karslake clearly has a reverence for faith and spirituality. Like the Robertson family, he’s ready for a church that is for people, rather than against them.
“For They Know Not What They Do” will be available via virtual cinemas on Friday, June 12.