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For the Bible Tells Me So -- intimate look at coming out stories with regards to religious families

  • Oct 13, 2010

I think I have always avoided doing what I’m doing now. I’m reviewing a documentary I just watched. I know I have started some immediately following but have always stepped back and started again.

Daniel Karslake directed For the Bible Tells Me So. Before I summarize and go through the normal process I need to say a couple of things. First, the documentary is not balanced and it does not pretend to be. Second, I am just finished with one set of tears and will probably have a few more very soon.

The summary is fairly simple. The Bible calls homosexual acts abominations among other things. Literalists use this to attack. Let’s say that the contextualists are the ones who say that following the Bible literally is impossible and that each apparent rule must be taken within the whole context. For instance, “On the second day . . . “ isn’t a rule, it’s a story. They say that if you take the Levitican restriction against male/male sex out of context, then of course it is horrible. They also point to the restriction against eating a rabbit or wearing clothing of different fabrics that occur before and after this famous snippet (it isn’t in the film but about half of the 18th chapter is about who can see who naked and when).

Balanced here between the contextualists are parent telling their stories of finding out, of being told. Of course the documentary explains how about half a dozen men and women came out of the closet (Bishop Gene Robinson, first openly gay bishop ordained in the Anglican communion and Chrissy Gephardt daughter of Dick Gephardt, Democratic leader of the House and onetime candidate for president are the most famous, but they do not steal the show).

In a nutshell, that is the summary of the film. The reason I’ve decided to write this so quickly after seeing it is how the film was told.

The parents were center stage. (I will cover my personal stuff below, indicated as such so you can skip it if you choose.)

A coming out story is a coming out story. There are variations on themes from “we already knew” on the plus side to “get the fück out” along with punching and kicking on the minus side. In this respect, For the Bible Tells Me So isn’t really for gays and lesbians who are already well out of the closet.

In all cases, the parents had to deal with fear and stereotypes. In all but one case, the families are still together. Two families require specific attention; I say this because they are bound together by cause not by case. Mary Lou Wallner and the Reitan’s Phil, Randi, and Jake (father, mother, son respectively).

First the Reitans. Jake came out at 16. His parents tried Christian counseling and other attempts to fight him (you cannot separate the sexuality from the person you attack the person even if it is the “disease” you think you attack). He insisted on coming out in high school. He and his parents paid nuisance prices (name calling and petty vandalism) for a while. Then they decided that they needed to stop fighting him (they were succeeding in only pushing him away) and see where their faith would take them. It led them to create Soulforce (www.soulforce.org). Their first act of protest occurred just three years after Jake came out. They protested a Lutheran Synod meeting trying to get the Synod to change its stance on homosexuality. The protest failed, but they kept going, and keep going. Naturally this is an extreme case, not all parents are put in positions to start, engage in, and assist protests; however, the Reitans can be an object lesson that fighting the person only leads to pushing them away.

Mary Lou Wallner is the painful object lesson. According to the website, she is a delegate from Soulforce. She and her daughter exchanged a couple of hateful letters over the course of about 2 years. Her daughter, Anna Wakefield, committed suicide (the documentary says that the suicide rate for gay, lesbian, transgendered, and questioning teens is 3-7 times higher than the national average—the wide variance is due to how studies are conducted with regards to determining cause when no note is left). Unfortunately, every documentary of this kind has to have a suicide or a gay bashing or both. What separated this required facet from those I’ve seen before is how Ms. Wallner explained herself and her situation.

You cannot take on a biblical fight against homosexuality and not use Dr. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family organization—this is true even if you make an anti-homosexual documentary. The Reitans are shown being arrested for trespassing after trying to deliver a letter to Dr. Dobson who, knowing this would happen, closed the site. Interesting, but so what? The so what is Ms. Wallner’s object lesson. She became an advocate with the Reitans because she listened to Dr. Dobson’s radio show on how to raise children and read his books and employed their edicts. That hit like little else did throughout the film.

To be fair, one minister explains that Dr. Dobson has no divinity background. His doctorate is in psychology and when he was a psychologist on the radio, he apparently was effective. It was only after he began to take on the homosexual fight that he lost his way and his initial message. I am fighting with pretty much all I have to say this because his current behavior is so deplorable that it makes any good done before writ in water.

For the Bible Tells Me So vilifies anti-homosexual ministers. None of the ministers appears in an interview. I don’t know if it is because none would grant an interview or if Mr. Karslake opted to use only footage of speeches, sermons, and radio broadcasts. So, to stress this again, this documentary is not balanced. If you seek that, then this film will not only fail, it will likely upset.

Believer or not, I think the audience for this film is unfortunately small given the quality of the storytelling (it is fantastically edited and paced). The audience is for the closeted dealing with fear and shame, for recently out children and for parents coping. The number of closeted, recently out, and coping parents isn’t exactly small, but it is smaller than the film deserves. I recommend it highly but with the warnings given.

Personal Stuff

I wouldn’t bother with this were it not for the Reitans. Jake is significantly younger than I, but our stories are remarkably the same up until the important point. I was 16 when I came out. My parents went nuts. I was out at school and that pretty much had me marked with the red letter A (AIDS) and F (fággot). My parents pushed me into Christian counseling—this is the only difference so far since Mr. Reitan is a practicing Christian and I’m a neverbeliever—which only made me hate them more. That failed and the fighting continued. Mr. Reitan’s parents built a cause that goes well beyond the bond of these three people.

Now more than 20 years on, the best I can say is that my parents and I sit in a DMZ. You cannot fight the gayness out of a child, you fight the child. The child only has a couple of options. The first is to fight back. From here it is keep fighting until something breaks. For the Reitans the break brought a cause. For Ms. Wallner the break was a suicide and its painful lesson. For the Gephardts the break was relatively simple, just a fear for the now adult child with regards to acceptance/violence. For the Robinsons the break was with tradition.

For me, the break is still happening. The only thing you get while sitting in a DMZ is that there are no weapons. There is no peace, there is no ease. In my case what sits in this un-place is a low grade and tiresome fear and a pre-mourning I find it harder and harder to tolerate upon each meeting which I try to keep to a minimum for that reason.

It’s egotistical to do it in the first place, but I would probably have avoided it if not for Jake’s story. My dearest wish is for small versions of Jake’s story to spread and for Ms Wallner who has taken on “hundreds” of surrogate Anna’s to end. Sadness and loss are horrible ways to learn because if we make good choices while depressed it is by luck alone and if you learn from loss, you don’t get anything back once you have learned the lesson.

If you have read this, thanks for indulging me.


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For the Bible Tells Me Sois a compassionate and insightful documentary about the contemporary face of an old conflict between Christian fundamentalists and gay and lesbian people. The film looks deep into the hearts of several families--a few of them quite famous--that have struggled with making sense of having a homosexual son or daughter in the fold. At the same time,For the Bible Tells Me Sois a deconstruction of thin arguments that the Bible actually condemns homosexuality in a few passages and through the story of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction. A number of clerics and scholars explain the cultural and historical context for Old Testament quotes routinely referenced as arguments against homosexuality, and point out translation confusion about the real meaning of the Sodom story. Unquestionably, the most compelling part of the film is its focus on various families, including that of former U.S. presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, who has a lesbian daughter for whose safety he worries. Also among the interviewees is Gene Robinson, a gay man who became bishop of New Hampshire’s Episcopal church in 2004, and his parents, as well as a gay teen whose folks joined him on the front line in protest of their church’s negative stance on gays. Not every story is affirmative: there are tragedies within these tales, too, as well as an indictment of so-called cures that supposedly banish the gay drive from homosexual men and women.--Tom Keogh
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