Wednesday, July 1, 2009

For the Bible Tells Me So (Atticus Group, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was For the Bible Tells Me So, a chilling and moving 2007 documentary about the clash between religion and so-called “family values” versus real family values in the case of parents of Queer children. It’s not an especially fresh subject for drama, either documentary or narrative film — at least two PBS documentaries have already traveled the same path, as well as the surprisingly good Lifetime TV-movie Prayers for Bobby, in which (as does Mary Lou Wallner in this film) a mother drives away her Queer child (a Gay man in Prayers for Bobby, a Lesbian in For the Bible Tells Me So) with a religiously-driven negative reaction to his/her sexuality, then feels guilt-ridden when their Queer child commits suicide and does what she should have done while her kid was still alive: read up on the subject, change her mind and ultimately become a Queer-rights activist.

Though it was in the works before that, For the Bible Tells Me So was inspired by a 2006 protest in Colorado Springs at the headquarters of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (a loathsome organization that when it’s not bashing Queers and telling their parents they need “reparative therapy” is advocating a really vicious “dare to discipline” attitude towards child-rearing including frequent use of corporal punishment — it’s a wonder any kids raised by parents who follow Dobson’s advice, even the straight ones, end up at all well-adjusted and happy!) and all but one of the families profiled came from people who were involved in that protest. That one was African-American minister couple David and Brenda Poteat (that’s a real name!) and their Lesbian daughter Tonia, included because the film’s director,Daniel Karslake, insisted on having at least one family of color in the mix.

Some of the people in the movie are celebrities — including the controversial Episcopal bishop W. Gene Robinson, the first openly Gay (and sexually active) bishop consecrated by any diocese in the Anglican communion (an act that is still splitting the church apart, as conservative churches and even entire dioceses in the U.S. seek to split off from a U.S. church that countenanced something so “anti-Biblical” and re-affiliate themselves under the supervision of culturally conservative churches in Africa) as well as Chrissy Gephardt and her father, former U.S. Congressmember and Presidential candidate Dick Gephardt. Watching this film was an intense experience for me even though it left me (as usual with writings or movies on this subject) with a profoundly mixed bag of emotions — torn between loving the people who were gradually able to get over their Bible-fueled prejudices and love their children as God, nature, nurture or whatever made them and hating not only the particular religious prejudices that had led them to reject their kids in the first place but the very idea of religion, period.

I grew up in a free-thought home and never set foot in a church until I was well into adulthood — and, I must say, always looked down (and to an extent still do!) on people who believe in all the old superstitions of the Bible and its rival religions simply because they can’t accept the reality of their own deaths and therefore need to believe in a fantasy of immortality as the next best to the real thing. (I can’t see any other reason for the persistence of religious belief, including its appearance in otherwise intelligent and even brilliant people — though I must say that watching a movie like this gives me empathy for the importance other people attach to religion, spirituality and God even while simultaneously angering me about the depths of misery to which that can lead a person who finds out he or she is the “wrong” sort of human being to be accepted as fully righteous and legitimately human in that particular religious tradition.)

The storyline of Mary Lou Wallner and her late daughter Anna — particularly the letters that passed back and forth between them, Anna’s written in longhand in purple ink on lined paper and her mother’s typed precisely because only by depersonalizing it through the machine could she write it at all; Anna’s talking about love and emotional struggle and her mom’s using the condemnatory language she’d heard in church and read in black and white on the pages of the Bible — is not surprisingly the most moving and wrenchingly tragic in the film; the story of Jake Reitan and his parents, Phil and Randy, serves as a sort of counterpoint as they not only get off the anti-Queer judgmental soapbox in time to accept their son before he gets near suicide but ultimately the three Reitans become the first to break the line at Colorado Springs and get arrested in an act of civil disobedience against Dobson’s pustulent organization (the folks who brought us Proposition 8, by the way; the initiative’s principal author and spokesperson, Ron Prentice — whom I tried and failed to get an interview with, by the way — is the California organizer for Focus on the Family and it was in that capacity that he pushed Proposition 8 to the ballot and fended off the activities of a rival Christian-Right group who wanted a more far-reaching measure that would invalidate domestic partnerships and civil unions as well).

I could have asked for more nuance in the movie, less of a dichotomy between “Gay” and “straight” in its assessment of the dramatis personae — after all, W. Gene Robinson was married for some time and had children; and Chrissy Gephardt was also married to a man when she met Anna (a different Anna), the woman who brought her out and who identified herself as dating both women and men — yes, that’s right, in this film as well as in so much other discourse in the Queer community it is bisexuality that is the love that dare not speak its name — and I had mixed feelings about the bizarre cartoon sequence in the middle. It’s done in a deliberate parody of 1950’s “educational” movies and it’s a rather heavy-handed scene in which a homophobe named “Christian” who’s drawn like a grown-up version of Charlie Brown (complete with a zig-zag pattern across the front of his T-shirt) meets a Gay man named “George” and a Lesbian named “Martha” (I’d have liked to know if the use of the names of the famously squabbling straight couple in Gay playwright Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was deliberate) and also hears from a voice-of-God narrator (played by the late Don LaFontaine, one of the leading narrators of movie trailers) reciting statistics, studies and scientific authorities that refute the common assumptions about homosexuality.

Director Karslake was uncomfortable enough with this scene that he almost cut it out of the film and only restored it after a trial screening for three straight Christian couples, from Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, at Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary. “The first thing they all mentioned was how much they loved the cartoon, how it gave the film some much needed comic relief, and how much they learned from it,” Karslake said. (At the same time I can’t help but be concerned about the whole idea that scientific “fact” should be determined by popular vote; the American Psychological Association only decided that homosexuality is not a mental illness in 1974, and if for some reason they should reverse themselves and decide that it is again, would that make it true?) One of the film’s executive producers is Michael Huffington, the famous Republican challenger to Senator Dianne Feinstein (who came close to defeating her) who later broke up with his wife Arianna and announced that while he didn’t want to label himself “Gay,” the fact was he’d rather date men; another executive producer, Robert Greenbaum, showed up last night and fielded a few questions (too few, since there was another event in the room right afterwards — a comedy night — and the audience for that was lined up outside clamoring to get in), making the recommendation that people look on the Web for lists of famous Gay and Lesbian people throughout history … and, being the sort of person I am (an inveterate troublemaker even in sympathetic settings!) I spoke up and said most of the so-called “famous Gay and Lesbian people throughout history” that appear on those lists were in fact Bisexual.

As I’ve said before, as a community we’re going through the motions of inclusion with that horrible acronym “LGBT people” but aren’t facing up to the fundamental changes in Queer ideology that would be necessary to incorporate the reality of Bisexual and Transgender people and how their existence challenges the shibboleth that sexual orientations and gender identities are either genetically determined or fixed early on in childhood. For the Bible Tells Me So rightly condemns the so-called “reparative therapy” programs pushed on Queer people and their families by the religious Right and the churches affiliated with it (to the point where conservative churches and their ministers outright tell parents not to accept their Queer kids on the “tough-love” assumption that disapproval from their parents will push them into reparative-therapy programs to seek to be “cured”) but it also buys into the “born that way” notion and, like a lot of other pro-Queer material, profiles people like W. Gene Robinson and Chrissy Gephardt who changed from leading straight lives to Gay or Lesbian ones without acknowledging the possibility that that might also work in the other direction: that a person might live in a same-sex sexual lifestyle and behavior pattern and then spontaneously shift to an opposite-sex one based on their own changes and the people around them (including simply meeting and falling in love with a person of the other gender). We’re right to condemn the use of religious dogma to force people into attempts to change their sexual orientation, but we’re wrong to assume that the Queer-to-straight progression in those who make it on their own, for their own reasons, is somehow less legitimate, less honest, less real than the straight-to-Queer one.