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‘For They Know Not What They Do’: LGBTQ Doc Prays For Acceptance and Forgiveness (Tribeca 2019)

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

The Tribeca Film Festival has an excellent history with their documentary slate and this year is no different. One of the most moving docs to come out of the festival this year is For They Know Not What They Do, a look at the intersection between Christianity and LGBTQ+ rights through the lens of four different stories of families and their gay or trans children.

Each family details their experience of their children’s coming out, how they dealt with that in terms of their personal feelings and experiences, their concerns about social reaction, and their religious beliefs. The families represent a spectrum of the Christian community, from evangelicals and Catholics to members of more progressive congregations. Interspersed with the personal narratives are interviews with clergy members, former proponents of conversion therapy, and human rights activists, as well as more general discussions of the far-right Christian emphasis on the “sin” of homosexuality and the shift in focus to transgender rights. What emerges is an at times tragic, at times uplifting, and very human story about the complex interplay between familial love, acceptance, and faith, and how those elements inform American families and American society at large.

One of the most moving things about For They Know Not What They Do is the lack of judgment either from the camera eye or from the people themselves: these are all parents who love their children deeply, and the film evades condemning their behavior when they, by their own admittance, respond badly to their children coming out. Each story covers the spectrum of experience of coming out, acceptance (or lack thereof), and the different teachings and ways of learning that the families undergo to comprehend something that, for them, was previously incomprehensible. For They Know Not What They Do tries to understand the families’ responses in the context of Christian faith in America, the arguments about homosexuality and non-heteronormativity, and the preaching of hate and sin from pulpits. None of these families are acting in bad faith, even when they harm others—as one pastor makes clear, “None of these people set out to be homophobic.” But their stories elucidate how we can harm those we care about even as we believe that we’re doing them good, and how misplaced faith can damage the vulnerable.

The film also covers the ripple effects of legislation and cultural conversations, for good and ill, in the understanding of homosexuality and especially the transgender community. In narrowing the focus of the story and then widening it again, it examines the real-world impact of legislation and rhetoric—when a pastor preaches that “homosexuality is evil,” that has real resonance in American households, a straight line drawn from that to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. When homosexuality is typed as a “choice,” that has a direct effect on young girls and boys who get taken to, or enroll themselves in, conversion therapy. When a state politician passes a law to stop transgender people from going to the “wrong” bathroom, that has a real world effect on the public perception of trans people. The film doesn’t flinch away from discussing the murders of trans and gay people, but also makes those stories personal by providing insight into the people who live through and around that. It’s a reminder to us all, but especially those shaped by hate, that trans people are someone’s children, and they deserve to be protected.

For They Know Not What They Do’s title also forms its argument. Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him “for they know not what they do,” a sentiment that echoes through the film as the parents who fail or struggle with accepting their children for who they are see the sometimes tragic effects of their behavior. Too often, discussions of faith, especially Christianity, become binary in our culture. This film looks for nuance in what are superficially obvious things: of course you should love your children. Of course God doesn’t hate gay people. Of course you should support the person that your child is. But that’s not always easy, and rather than simply dismissing those people as wrong or evil, trying to understand them and bring them to understanding (not the same as being passive about their myopia, by the way) is a way forward to a better, kinder, and ultimately more inclusive and loving world.

For They Know Not What They Do is showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.