In 2007, the sitting President, George W. Bush, was an evangelical Christian Republican who professed the belief that marriage “is between a man and a woman,” and had in recent memory backed a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage at a national level. President-to-be Barack Obama, an upstart liberal Democrat, would soon state on the campaign trail that he would support civil unions, but not marriage, for same-sex couples. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), ratified by President Clinton in 1996, was still the law of the land, permitting individual states to deny the legitimacy of same-sex unions performed in other states. It would be another seven years before Obergefell vs. Hodges, before the White House would be illuminated with the colors of the Pride flag.
It was in this tenuous climate that the Oscar-nominated documentary For the Bible Tells Me So sparked nationwide conversation about the role that evangelical and conservative Christian denominations had played in counteracting the work of LGBT activists. The film interwove stories and family interviews of LGBT people who had grown up in religious households (including Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church) with an account of the social resistance and political activism spearheaded against the gay rights movement by evangelical Christianity—all on biblical grounds.
The decade-plus since the release of For the Bible Tells Me So has seen some historic highs for the American LGBT community, from the Obergefell ruling and legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 to June’s Title VII Supreme Court decision banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet running counter to these political victories and the growing visibility of LGBT people in mainstream culture has been a continued-and-yet-evolving resistance on the part of evangelical Christianity. It is a resistance that crested with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, bolstered by evangelical Christian support and an evangelical Christian running mate, Mike Pence, with a history of anti-LGBT statements and political actions. It has continued with 200 active pieces of state legislation targeting LGBT people, with the ban on transgender servicemembers, with ongoing battles over the right to choose the bathroom of your preference or to be provided service at a local business. And it manifests in an epidemic of devastating violence against transgender people, predominantly transgender women of color.
“When you say gays are wrong and sick and sinful, you’re giving people a license to kill us, and you’re giving us a license to kill ourselves.” This quote from Rev. Mel White, the founder of SoulForce and an ex-member of evangelical inner circles who came out as gay in the mid-eighties, comes midway through For They Know Not What They Do, the 2020 follow up to For the Bible Tells Me So. White’s statement succinctly expresses the pressures faced by LGBT people in society, political life and too often within their own families. It is perhaps most true for transgender individuals, who, post-Obergefell, find themselves the main target of the Christian right’s cultural and political agitation against the LGBT community. The shifting currents of this cultural conflict through the Obama and Trump eras makes a clear case for an update to For the Bible Tells Me So, and like its predecessor, For They Know Not What They Do weaves together the stories of four religious families riding through these often-turbulent waters.
In accord with the current political climate, two storylines in the new film center on binary transgender people. There’s Sarah McBride, known for being the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign and the first openly transgender woman to work at the White House. Her parents recall going to see The Ten Commandments on their first date and struggling to understand their daughter’s revelation at first. Yet the McBrides quickly adapt and accept; Sarah’s role throughout the film focuses more on the presence and new prominence of transgender people in the workforce and in political life. (She is currently campaigning for state senate in Delaware.)
Elliot Porcher, a young biracial trans man from New Jersey, perhaps better exemplifies the experience of gender-nonconforming youth. His Episcopalian parents describe their uncertainty when faced with Elliot’s request to medically transition as a teenager, not out of religious bias but out of fear of “[getting] this right.” They recall their concern about granting their son access to hormone therapy at a young age. It is bearing witness to the pain and self-harm their son experiences that brings Elliot’s parents to a deeper understanding of his identity and his needs, and ultimately to allow him to transition.
Two additional family stories focus on distant, and yet mutually resonant, experiences of LGBT youth over the past decade. Vico Baez Fabo, a young gay man, eventually finds acceptance and love within his Catholic Puerto Rican family after hiding his identity. He confronts a far greater struggle as a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando; living with the trauma of witnessing mass murder and the guilt of friends losing their lives leaves him temporarily unable to work or cover bills. If Vico’s story testifies to the horror that politicized acts of violence can imprint on an individual level, the story of Ryan Robertson shows how families become violently politicized—even when they feel they are acting out of deep religious conviction and love. Ryan’s parents recount his coming out at a young age, and how, acting out of their evangelical faith, they encouraged him to participate in programming from Exodus International, the now-defunct Christian “ex-gay” organization. Ryan’s initial conviction that he could overcome his true self through faith led him to depression, substance abuse and eventually a fatal overdose.
The decision to release For They Know Not What They Do in the year of a presidential election seems deliberate and pointed. President Trump and the Christian right have in tandem used anti-LGBT sentiment, and particularly transphobia, to hold sway over conservative voters. The majority of the families profiled in the film don’t seem to struggle with these deep-seeded beliefs, however; in three out of four scenarios, acceptance of a gay or trans child seems to come with eventual ease, albeit through some awkward and difficult conversations, not to mention instances of rejection and pain.
The family that goes through the deepest transformation is the Robertsons, who through Ryan’s addiction and death come to see the previously invisible grip that evangelical doctrine held on their compassion and capacity to love their son—a grip that does not loosen until it is far too late. The resonance of their story goes beyond the need to elect politicians who will protect and honor LGBT lives. At a time when American society is wrestling with the lack of compassion and true justice built into our institutions—with a medical system that is letting people of color die and suffer disproportionately during a global pandemic, with excessive use of force by police against black individuals, with racism that compounds with homophobia and transphobia to devastate bodies and souls—this family’s painful reckoning with God seems to model the kind of spiritual transformation our nation badly needs.
Years after Ryan’s death, we watch the Robertsons open their home for a community meeting geared toward LGBT members of their new evangelical church. It’s a simple scene, but one that would have been unthinkable in the years that Ryan was healthy and alive. “What we don’t know can hurt other people, and sometimes you lose those people forever,” Ryan’s mother, Linda Robertson, says towards the end of the film.
Beyond politics, beyond religion, this is the core message of For They Know Not What They Do: a call to action on self-examination and education, on eradicating the blind spots we inherit from our families, our culture, our spiritual community. That the film takes its title from Luke 23:34, and the last words of Christ, underscores the conflicting forces of love and hatred, personal belief and political strategy, that continue to wear on the bodies of LGBT people in this country. At the same time, it includes the possibility of forgiveness, healing and hope. All who seek to understand the way forward for LGBT life—both within and outside of religious life—will benefit from the honest and empathetic portraits of these four families.