The documentary For They Know Not What They Do is hard to watch. Borrowing its title from scripture, Daniel Karslake’s film follows four families of faith who share the stories of how they each dealt with their children coming out to them as members of the LGBT community. There’s Rob and Linda Robertson, who tearfully recount how their evangelical church encouraged them to put their son Ryan in conversion therapy. There’s David and Sally McBride, lifelong Presbyterians who had to come to terms with their youngest’s identity as a transgender woman. There’s Harold and Coleen Porcher, who slowly came around to supporting their child to transition. And then there’s Victor Baez and Annette Febo, a Puerto Rican couple living in Florida whose son Vico fears coming out to them and his grandmother, with whom he lives back in Puerto Rico. This look at the ways religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity intersect in the United States is unafraid to delve into ugly realities that affect kids and families all over the country.
The central thesis of the doc is a simple one that nevertheless feels radical: religious faith need not be based around homophobia and transphobia. It goes one further by arguing that those who bandy the Bible’s teachings as a way to condemn gay and trans people are doing irrevocable harm to an at-risk community in a manner that goes against the Lord’s teachings. The Robertson family, for example, slowly reveal how their decision to pursue gay conversion therapy for their son Ryan eventually led to his untimely passing. All these families, in fact, show the real struggle of how to bridge what they’ve been taught about the LGBTQ community by their church and the love they feel for their kids. Karslake’s unfussy direction and emphasis on direct address on-camera interviews makes the doc feel like an intimate family lesson in religious tolerance and acceptance.
Anchored in these personal stories is a call to accept that the virulent anti-gay and anti-trans sentiment that defines the religious Right is founded on fear and not love. “They love to use the word ‘religious liberty’ or ‘religious freedom,’” says Bishop Gene Robinson in the doc, “but what they really mean is a license to discriminate based on religion.” Indeed as the film shows, since the passing of marriage equality in 2015, there have been countless attacks on the rights of queer Americans under that very banner. Rather than pit pious religious folks on one hand and righteous LGBTQ people on the other, For They Know Not What They Do offers examples of how the two need not be mutually exclusive categories.
But if Ryan’s gay conversion story, and the transition tales in the McBride and Porcher families are hard to sit through, nothing can prepare you for Vico’s story. Vico tells the camera how he used to live a double life in Puerto Rico, hiding his sexuality from his grandma, and shares how that life came crashing down once he was outed (his grandma threw him out). His account offers a textbook case of an older generation choosing their traditional beliefs over the love and support their loved ones need. But as Vico shares how supportive his own parents were and how he rebuilt his life in Orlando, Florida, you start to feel as if his will be the most lighthearted testimonial of them all. That is, until he starts to stutter his way through a retelling of how he suggested to his friends they move his housewarming party in June 2016 to a nearby bar called Pulse.
What follows is some of the most upsetting footage the film offers: Snapchats from that night, video recordings from inside the bar, images of the aftermath of a massacre that targeted the queer community of color of Orlando and which exemplify what fear and hatred of the LGBTQ community can come to look like. It’s a stark reminder that heated rhetoric has real-life consequences.
In a year when an openly gay presidential candidate is assailed by protests portraying him whipping a cross-bearing Jesus, when the Supreme Court is about to hear cases about LGBTQ-based discrimination, and when the current administration has officially made a trans military ban go into effect, the message and stories in For They Know Not What They Do feel more timely than ever. No matter how hard to watch, Karslake’s documentary shows a template for how to breach conversations about faith, sexuality, and gender identity in open-hearted ways.
For They Not Know What They Do screened as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.