Daniel Karslake, producer and director of For the Bible Tells Me So, was in Chicago Nov. 26 with some of his cast members to promote the Nov. 30 opening at the Music Box Theatre. The film traces the stories of five deeply religious families, their reactions to—and transformations by—having a child come out as lesbian or gay.
One or more members of each of Karslake's families attended an event at the Center on Halsted Nov. 26, watched a screening of the film and talked about the experiences, their faith journeys and the transformations that are still taking place in their lives.
Pictured: Chicagoan Michael Leppen (image #1 second from right) hosted a grand premiere for the new documentary he helped produce. Director, Daniel Karslake ( image #1 far right ) , was on hand, as were representatives of each of the five families featured in the film, including parents Randi and Phil Reitan ( image #1 left ). Chrissy Gephardt (image #2) , Bishop Gene Robinson and Rev. David Poteat. Photos by Steve Becker/www.beckermedia.com . More photos at www.windycitymediagroup.com/gayandlesbianimages/Bible
Karslake described one of his goals in making the film as wanting 'to elevate the conversation about religion and homosexuality, nationally, to a higher level. I have watched this conversation for years and years sort of get darker and darker and more separated and angrier. People on my side of the argument—the gay and lesbian community—very rightly so, feeling very angry and rejected, and conservative Christians getting more and more defensive, and kind of going off further to the right.'
He hopes that 'non-gays would be able to see themselves on the screen in one of these five sets of parents and understand their negative first reactions, but also watch their transformations, watch them ultimately, in some way or another, embrace their gay child.'
Most of the five families come from conservative and traditional religious backgrounds. Mary Lou and Bob Wallner were evangelical fundamentalists, and Mary Lou said her own rejection of lesbian daughter Anna was in part responsible for Anna's committing suicide nine years after she came out. As a fundamentalist Christian, she had held the belief that being lesbian or gay was 'a sin.'
After Anna took her own life, 'we had to come up with some answers. And so, we began to search and study, read, and talk to people on both sides of the issue, and study the scriptures, and ultimately came to the belief that it's not a sin, that it's not a choice, and that we had judged her in our hearts and sometimes to her face for that reason. So we came to our new belief, and have not wavered since. We tell our story wherever anybody will listen, trying to save lives. The bottom line—our only goal is to keep somebody else from doing what our daughter did.'
Brenda and David Poteat, African-Americans whose daughter Tonia came out after moving to Yale, are pastors of their church in North Carolina. David Poteat said he and his wife have come a long way in their understanding: 'We really struggled, and at first I couldn't understand, because you have to go back to how I was raised. In the area that I was raised in, there were maybe two gay guys that were out of the closet, and no gay women, I didn't know what a gay woman was. And it was always a guy, and not a girl.'
Coming from that environment, he felt that if Tonia had gone to college back home in North Carolina and not at Yale, she might not have become a lesbian. Now he laughs about it: 'I told her, if she hadn't of went up there, she wouldn't have caught this cold, this gay cold.' In the film, he and wife Brenda renew their relationship with Tonia, but they have not reached the closeness with Tonia and her partner that some of the other families have with their gay children.
Participating in the film and further consideration of its issues have brought the Poteats further along in acceptance since actual filming was completed, however. ' It's been a wonderful experience for me,' he said 'It started me to think more broadly about these things. My mind is not as closed as it was two years ago,' he told a Chicago audience which applauded his statement.
Jane and Dick Gephardt, the former House Minority Leader and his wife, came from different church backgrounds—one Baptist and one Roman Catholic—and raised daughter Chrissy in the Catholic Church. Chrissy said she learned in church that 'two things that were an abomination—homosexuality and suicide.' She followed the path of getting married and trying to be heterosexual before realizing that it wasn't going to work for her. Eventually divorcing, she says she 'broke her husband's heart,' but she had found a relationship with a woman in which she felt fulfilled.
When she met with her parents to come out, they 'were pretty open about it, but I grew up in a family where it was taboo. I mean, I don't think anybody grew up in a family where it was like, 'Oh honey, I hope you turn out to be gay.' It doesn't happen.' Nonetheless, her mother intuited what their meeting in a restaurant was all about: 'She said, I think I know what you're going to tell us; that you're a lesbian and that you're involved in a relationship.' Chrissy said her mother told her she'd seen the transformation in her life, how happy she was, especially when she was around her partner, so she understood how much they must love each other.
Randi and Phil Reitan, Minnesota Lutherans for three generations, initially rejected their son Jake when he came out at age 17. Later, they would lead protests of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's policies against gays at national meetings and get arrested trying to deliver a letter to Focus on the Family's James Dobson protesting his anti-gay positions. Now Randi says she lists her occupation as 'retired teacher/gay rights activist.' She's been arrested at protests eight times.
Imogene and Victor Robinson, parents of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, live in rural Kentucky, where they regularly attended a small, conservative church. Growing up, Gene had a perfect attendance record in the Disciples of Christ Sunday school for 13 years. Their Southern reserve and understatement are evident in their filmed conversations, but tears began to form in his mother's eyes as she worried about her son's safety once he'd received death threats before his Episcopal consecration. 'There's a reason God saved him' from dying right after birth—which is what doctors told her would happen—'and I believe this ministry of his is it,' she said. 'If anyone's going to heaven, Gene is.'
Robinson sees his role as an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and its global reverberations as comparable to 'what a family goes through when a child comes out. And so in some sense, I'm the gay child that the Anglican Communion now has to deal with. And what we're seeing is the same kind of chaos that a family goes through—there's grieving, there's anger, there's disappointment, there's fear in a family because everything changes when a kid comes out as gay or lesbian. And in some ways, I think, the worldwide Anglican Communion is now struggling with, 'Oh my God, what do we do now? One of our own is gay!' And, you know, it's a very humbling privilege to have been called into that role. It's a very awesome thing.'
Karslake hopes the film will influence the 'moveable middle' of American religious families who may not have closed their minds on the issue of homosexuality. With interviews from Harvard theologians and a maverick young rabbi to Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, theologians reiterate the point that the Bible must be read in historical context, and that separating six supposedly anti-gay verses and taking them for literally applicable truth today while ignoring hundreds of similarly bald but inconvenient verses, is hypocritical or disingenuous, at the least.
As for the crisis in Bishop Robinson's Anglican Communion, he said that during the debate over his election another bishop said, 'not since the civil rights movement in the '60s had he seen the church risk its life for something.'
'And I think that's what you're seeing right now,' Robinson added. The church is 'about to declare who it really is and who it means to be. And if that has ramifications beyond the United States, then so be it, but my sense it that we're not going to go back. And I guess the reason I stay hopeful and can do all of this is, that in my heart, I know where this is going to end. And I think most people know where it's going to end, even the conservatives: it's going to end with the full inclusion of all of God's children in God's church.'
Premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and presented at 10 other festival, where it won nine audience awards for best documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So opens Friday, Nov. 30 at the Music Box Theatre.
For the Bible Tells Me So: www.forthebibletellsmeso.org
Mary Lou Wallner: www.teach-ministries.org
Randi and Phil Reitan, Jake Reitan, theologian Rev. Dr. Mel White: www.soulforce.org
William Burks was involved in the startup days of Windy City Times and Outlines, having served as a writer, photographer and assistant editor, before moving into corporate public relations. He currently does public relations consulting, writing and editing. A lifelong Episcopalian whose faith and church were supportive of his coming out at college, he spent four years as an Anglican Benedictine monk and continues his interests in religion, spirituality and gay/lesbian issues.