These are the words spoken by a priest in “For They Know Not What They Do,” a powerful documentary that speaks to a very real and dangerous problem happening in this country, the religious right’s pushback against equality and acceptance of the LGTBQ community.
The film examines four different families and the ways in which they handle the coming out of a family member; three are stories of hope, the fourth one could be interpreted as a cautionary tale or, better yet, a warning to families who choose faith over acceptance.
Sarah McBride came out to her Christian parents as transgender. They were floored and didn’t fully understand what being transgender truly meant. Their faith got in the way at first, with the mother stating that she worried about her child’s chances for heaven.
Victor Baez Febo came out to his devout Catholic parents after hiding his homosexuality for years. He was living with his grandmother at the time and when she heard the news, he was thrown out of the house, as his grandmother felt it was a sin against God.
Elliot Porcher grew up a tomboy but finally came out to his Christian parents as transgender after he just could not suppress the fact that, while born female, he was a man.
Ryan Robertson came out to his Evangelical Christian parents who couldn’t come to terms with hearing the news, as they felt that it was against the teachings of the Bible. Ryan’s parents would send him to gay conversion therapy which would send their son on a tragic journey of self.
The common thread within these stories is the sad truth of how afraid the children were to come out due to their parents’ religious beliefs. They were all correct in their fear that the parents were more concerned of how it would affect their children’s relationships with God rather than being able to recognize the struggles with their identity.
In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality. In an almost immediate rebuke, the religious right and Conservative Christian politicians using the Religious Freedom Act launched a nationwide attack on LGBTQ rights. These four families and their experiences both bad and good are examples of the direct effect of this immoral war on human rights.
The main idea of this film is a simple mantrathat should not be so radical and taboo. Daniel Karslake’s film says that religious beliefs should not be fueled by homophobia and that the Bible’s words should not be twisted and mangled to fit certain religious communities’ homophobic and transphobic fears.
As one pastor explains, if one were to examine the bible passages usually quoted to condemn homosexuality, one would learn that the passages are condemning sexual violence against women and children. It is in the mangling of these words and their blatant misuse where an already marginalized, misunderstood community comes into even more danger.
The dangers for the LGBTQ community aren’t just the social and workplace discriminations and peeling back of their human rights, but the fear of being shunned by one’s family and friends, that which can often lead to depression and suicide.
The Robertsons’ dealing with the mental destruction of their son Ryan after putting him through the gay conversion therapy (which led him to drugs, homelessness, and finally, death) is heartbreaking.
It was difficult to listen to their devastation regarding their son’s self-hatred after the so-called therapy. I confess, as someone who has a transgender family member, I was not immediately able to feel sorry for them. They are the ones who put the self-hate into their son, and it became too much for him to bear. Ryan’s life was destroyed by a family doing the wrong thing to save him. The Robertsons were so overly concerned of what God thinks that they turned what could have been a beautiful thing into the destruction of a Christian soul.
Their story is one that I struggled with but, ultimately, found it in my heart to sympathize with. And while it is not my place to judge nor forgive them, it is indeed heartwarming by film’s end to see them take their tragedy and turn it into a chance for change and learning.
What happened to the Robertsons is the story of so many others. For every family that accepts the coming out of their children, there are legions that shun and denounce rather than listen and accept. And this is the very issue where the religious right is so destructive. They failed in the battle against marriage equality. They have lost majority opinion on the acceptance of the gay lifestyle in modern society. So now they turn their hate toward the transgender communities. As one bishop states, the religious right are “bringing discrimination back into fashion.”
While existing as a very timely reminder that the fight for equality is far from over, Karslake’s film becomes one of hope.
Sarah McBride’s parents learned to accept their daughter and become more than proud of her. McBride would go on to work at the White House and became the first transgender person to speak at the National Democratic Convention in 2016.
Elliott Porcher’s struggle to live his life as a man was eventually accepted by his parents, as they did not want him to fall into depression and become another statistic.
Victor Baez Febo’s parents gave him their full support after he survived a tragic event (he was a survivor of the Orlando, Florida nightclub massacre in 2016) and, as of today, his grandmother has learned to accept who he is, as a gay man.
The Robertson family lost their son Ryan to drugs and depression but, in that loss, gained a better understanding of the importance of accepting those who have different lifestyles. They now offer up their home as a support group and meeting place for young people trying to navigate the world after fully coming out as their true selves.
A word that keeps coming up in this review is acceptance. This film shows the power of acceptance and the devastating tragedies that came come about due to making one feel unaccepted in modern society and, even more tragic, amongst one’s own family. Acceptance of everyone’s lifestyles, this is the truth that will heal this country.
Conversion therapy is still legal in forty-one states, preachers use racial and bigoted slurs in their sermons while twisting the messages of the Bible and scaring their congregations into hatred, and since the latest administration occupied the White House in 2016, there have been almost 200(!) anti-LGTBQ legislations.
“For They Know Not What They Do” is a profoundly moving film that keeps us aware of the battles the LGBTQ communities face to this day. The struggle is real and continues.
Live, love, and learn. And fight on.