In many ways, Robin and Bruce Voss represent the audience for which FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO was made.
An Orange County, CA couple who go to church every Sunday, the Voss’ almost didn’t marry ten years ago because, as Robin recently told the Orange County Register, “their politics became an issue. [I] had gay friends, and Bruce was uncomfortable with that.”
Robin told Bruce that he would have to accept her gay friends or she couldn't be with him. And Bruce, so intolerant of gays for so long, learned to accept them. "If he could do it,” Robin told the Register, “then other people can.”
Robin Voss is just about as mainstream American Christian as you can get. She sold Mary Kay cosmetics for 18 years and earned a fleet of the company’s signature pink Cadillacs in the process. She was a vice president in the Helen Grace chocolate chain. Family is really important to Robin; she has three children and as many grandchildren.
One day at St. Mark’s Presbyterian, her home parish, Robin picked up a brochure about a seminar to be held there on "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality." She was new to St. Mark’s and imagined the tenor of the seminar would tell her all she needed to know about whether or not it was the right place for her to worship. She even made what she now calls a “sarcastic” phone call to a friend, a Los Angeles talent agent named Keith Lewis, inviting him to come along for the ride. Expecting that good old ‘fire and brimstone’ intolerance, Voss and Lewis instead heard something quite different from the literalist interpretation with which they were so familiar.
“I could tell right away that the people participating were there because they were very conflicted about their faith and what it meant to them on a very personal level,” Voss recalled recently. “These were people of great faith who had a gay friend or relative and they were experiencing profound spiritual turmoil. They were there because they had only heard one perspective.”
As the five hour seminar unfolded, and people began to participate and break into groups, the conversations “had a profoundly healing, transformative effect,” Voss says. “It opened hearts, opened minds. It got straight people like me to be open to hearing something different from what they’d been taught their entire life. That experience was so overwhelming that I believed in my heart that I had to do something, like make a movie, to perpetuate the ideas and the healing I’d experienced that day. If people in Orange County, California, were seeking this kind of message, then people everywhere would soon be ready to stop struggling and start understanding what the Bible really says about being gay.”
Adds Keith Lewis: “If you look at the evolution of gay awareness in this country, the whole idea of gay identity is really brand new. Only in the last fifty or so years have people in all walks of life started to realize that they have gay friends and relatives. Our country is so faith-oriented that this seminar made me realize that a lot of straight people really needed these kinds of tools to grapple with a whole new social era. Robin and I left that seminar convinced that the time for such a tool is now.”
“I truly believe FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO was driven by a divine presence,” Voss concludes, and that Daniel Karslake was exactly the right guy to make the movie. The day we talked with Daniel, we recognized that as a man, and as an artist, Daniel had exactly the right understanding of spirituality and religion the project required. He has made a brilliant film that speaks directly to a mainstream audience. It’s time has come. Our country is in great need of healing, in great need of anything that spreads the message of tolerance, understanding, and inclusiveness.”
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"Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. But last night I happened to turn on your show and just knowing that someday I might be able to go back into my church, I threw the gun in the river. My mom never has to know."
This is the email a novice television producer named Daniel Karslake received from a boy in Iowa the day after the PBS series “In the Life” aired a segment Karslake produced about Reverend Irene Monroe, an out lesbian theologian at Harvard University. It was 1998.
Karslake had been interning at “In the Life” for about six months, learning everything he could about television journalism. A Christian whose day job was as a fundraiser for New York’s Riverside Church, Karslake had often wondered why “In the Life,” an excellent newsmagazine show made for a national gay and lesbian audience, had never done a story about religion. The show’s executive producer explained that “In the Life” was a PBS show and that the topic of religion, particularly the nexus between religion and sexuality, would surely be too controversial for too many people.
But when Karslake met Reverend Monroe through his work at Riverside Church, he knew she would make a great subject for an “In the Life” profile, and got the green light. The segment not only saved at least one life, it was honored with the first Emmy award nomination the show every received, and Karslake became the “go to” producer at the show for stories on spiritual issues and the gay community.
“That email from the young man in Iowa was the first of hundreds of emails I got from gay and lesbian people from across the country who felt so rejected and condemned by their own churches that they had considered or were still considering taking their own lives,” Karslake recalled recently.
“Ironically gay kids, especially guys -- I think because of how we’re made and who we are -- many gay kids grow up really involved in their church and tend to be very much a part of that church family. So when the condemnation happens and the rejection, it’s like another family rejection. It’s very strong. So when that first piece aired, it sort of became what I was all about.”
Karslake went on to produce more stories for “In the Life,” mostly about religion but occasionally on other topics. But he began to feel frustrated. “In the Life” may have been the best gay news show on television, but it was hard to find on the dial and, Karslake increasingly felt, was “preaching to the choir.”
This was a time, Karslake said recently, in which “Almost everyone was meeting a gay person for the first time – either at work, in school, in their families, even on TV. But these same people had been given no tools to fight against the intrinsic intolerance and misconceptions perpetuated by literalist interpretations of scripture.
“Then,” Karslake says with a smile, “I saw BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.”
Karslake saw Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary about the gun lobby in a movie theatre near his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and stayed for the next show.
“It became clear to me that I could make a movie,” he recalled, “that reconciled homosexuality and scripture, by bringing the argument to a level that normal lay people could understand. BOLWING FOR COLUMBINE had managed to say some very difficult things about who we are as a country, but in a way that was actually going to be heard by a wide spectrum of people. The movie used all different devices to try to break people’s defenses down – funny stories, touching stories, music, video, animation -- and I remember I couldn’t get out of my seat.”
Some time later, Karslake produced an “In the Life” story about how drug companies were spending huge amounts to market AIDS-fighting drugs to the community, yet the models they were using in the ads were being attacked for looking too “healthy.” A Los Angeles talent agent named Keith Lewis, way back in 1994, had launched an initiative he called “Proof Positive,” using HIV-positive talent for pharmaceutical advertising for which Lewis and his company, The Morgan Agency, were honored with the prestigious Humanitarian Award from Samaritan Village. “In the Life” assigned Karslake to go to LA to interview Lewis.
After the story aired, Lewis, who had no knowledge of Karslake’s specialty at “In the Life,” called Karslake to say he loved the segment and also to pick his brain. A friend, Lewis said, wanted to make a movie of a church seminar they’d recently attended about homosexuality and the bible, and did Karslake know of anyone who might be right to direct it.
“It was just so strange,” Karslake said recently. “It was as if a divine force had brought me together with Keith and Robin.”
Voss and Lewis really wanted Karslake to meet the preacher who’d delivered the seminar at St. Mark Presbyterian, Reverend Steven Kindle. So Karslake flew to Los Angeles and heard Kindle give his seminar in a room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
“As you can see from the film, Kindle is a smart, persuasive, articulate and warm preacher,” Karslake says. “I immediately saw why his seminar so appealed to Robin and Keith.”
Kindle reminded Karslake of another Disciples of Christ minister he knew, the Reverend Dr. Laurence Keene, a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California who had performed the commitment ceremony between Karslake and his partner years before. Like Kindle and the first person Karslake ever interviewed, Harvard’s Reverend Irene Monroe, Keene would be a great source for this project that was starting to look like it might actually happen.
But if Karslake had learned one thing from BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, it was that if people in what he called “the movable middle” of America were to be at all persuaded by the film’s argument, they would have to see themselves in it.
“To change hearts and minds,” Karslake said recently, “people need to see themselves on screen. I wanted to focus on straight, Christian parents of gay kids – not so much the kids themselves, but on the families, so that people could see the film and say, ‘Oh, I totally relate to that.’”
Convinced of Karslake’s approach – to view the issues through the prism of the American Christian family – Voss and Lewis agreed to move forward with him. They would help Karslake create the initial financial infrastructure for the production, while Voss brought in another producer, Robert Greenbaum, who along with Voss would put up the initial money for the film.
Karslake met Kindle just before New Hampshire’s Episcopal Diocese had elected a beloved and openly gay minister named Gene Robinson at its convention in June, 2003. Robinson was on the front page of every newspaper and all over the TV news. “I was watching that closely,” Karslake remembers. “I’d always been obsessed with how the media covered religious topics, so I recorded everything I could about Robinson’s election and read everything I could find. I saw all the inconsistencies and misreporting on it and it drove me insane.”
“I decided to go after interviews with clergy first, because that was where I had my relationships,” Karslake explained recently. Karslake interviewed the Reverend Dr. Laurence Keene and Brian Zachary Mayer, the Reform Rabbi, in the summer of 2003.
As the summer wore on, the story about New Hampshire’s openly gay, Bishop-elect Gene Robinson continued to build as his consecration, scheduled for November 3, grew near.
“The more I followed the story, the more convinced I was that Gene was the key to the movie,” Karslake says. “I knew if I could somehow get to him and get him to agree to participate, then everything else would fall into place. He was a huge deal, but also the most threatened public figure in the world, with layers of security around him. I did a lot of research on him – I knew what he seemed to care about in his ministry.”
Karslake got a meeting with Robinson in his New Hampshire office in September.
“So who are you and what do you want?” Karslake remembers Robinson asking.
Karslake remembers feeling the adrenalin pumping while he tried to remain calm. He told Robinson he had been a TV producer for “In the Life,” and about the email he’d received from the young Iowa viewer after his profile of Irene Monroe had aired. Robinson had seen the segment and had loved it. Then Karslake told Robinson he had to ask three things of him, in ascending order of obnoxiousness, and to please not answer until he’d asked all three, otherwise he didn’t think he’d be able to go through with it.
The first thing Karslake asked for was an email relationship. He was looking for stories of how Christian families had dealt with discovering a gay child and he imagined Robinson’s email would be a great source. The second thing was to ask Robinson to travel to LA a month after his consecration to participate in a fundraiser for the film. The third was to ask Robinson to participate in the film, to give Karslake access to his ex-wife and his parents, whom Karslake had referred to as “amazing Christians.” As Karslake rattled off these requests, he felt Robinson bristle with what he perceived to be anger.
“Let me get this straight. You want me to share confidential email with you, email I get because I am a priest. You want me to go to LA – with my schedule! – and help you raise money. Then you want me to risk my relationship with my partner, my daughters and my parents so you can make your movie?”
Yes, Karslake said, that’s what he was asking of Robinson.
“Let me just answer with a blanket ‘Yes,’” Robinson said, and then he laughed. “You thought I was going to say ‘No!’ I should be saying no,” Karslake relates, “but I am overtaken by your passion.”
“Gene Robinson is,” Karslake explained recently, “the single most significant person who made the film happen.”
Robinson did indeed travel to Los Angeles in December of 2003, a month after his consecration, and participated in the first fundraising event that Voss, Lewis and Greenbaum put on for FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO. The evening was a “Converse and Contribute” salon-type dinner held in Lewis’ home. The conversation was between Robinson and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox Rabbi, whom Greenbaum had met years before and had helped Greenbaum through his own coming out process.
“It was a predominantly straight crowd,” Greenbaum recalls. “All these dots started to connect. The talk offered a lot of insight to the people in attendance. I am very happy that Steve and Gene’s friendship has grown since that night and have since given talks together outside of the movie.”
The Salon-type evening brought both financial donations and attention to FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO after Robinson and Greenberg’s conversation was written up in the Los Angeles Times. The producers would hold similarly intimate fundraising salons in such cities as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Phoenix, Palm Springs and Laguna Beach over the next two years. “In the process, we have built a very strong base of interested, motivated and influential supporters for the film,” Lewis notes.
The need for a populist articulation of the argument was underscored to Karslake as he watched a February 24, 2004 edition of CNN’s “Larry King Live,” which had booked four people to talk about the news that President Bush had backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage: San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who had brought the issue center stage earlier that month when he ordered the city and county to issue same-sex marriage licenses; nationally syndicated Christian broadcaster Pastor John MacArthur of California's Grace Community Church; Chad Allen, the actor and producer who starred in TV hits like "My Two Dads" and "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman," who became an activist after he was outed by the tabloids in 1996; and Representative Marilyn Musgrave, Republican of Colorado, who introduced the anti-gay marriage legislation in the House.
“All MacArthur had to do was invoke the Bible,” Karslake recalled, “and the whole discussion seemed to shut down.”
“It's in the word of God, it's unmistakably clear in the Bible,” the show’s transcript reports MacArthur saying about whether or not gay people choose to be that way, and why it’s a sin.
“I knew my film would not only have to move people,” Karslake explains, “but it would have to give them tools to counter this interpretation when it comes up with family or at a dinner party. People get so shut down when anyone mentions the Bible because people either know it, or they think they know it, or they don’t. And if you don’t know the Scripture, then how can you talk intelligently about the issues?”
By way of illustrating his point, Karslake notes that while it’s very hard to find any clergy who will say the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexuality, “if you stop people on the street, nine out of ten think the story is only about homosexuality.”
As much as current events underscored the need for a film like FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, its producers began to realize that a number of challenges stood in their way. They were literally raising money to finance the film in a piecemeal fashion, fundraising and shooting and then fundraising a little more.
“We found that some would-be supporters had trouble getting over the idea that Daniel was a first-time director, and that others had a hard time understanding why a gay filmmaker and gay-friendly producers would want to have anything to do with the Bible in the first place,” Voss explains.
Karslake was frustrated too. Even though he had a commitment from Gene Robinson, and an idea that telling the story through the eyes of American Christian families was the key to his narrative, Karslake still felt the project was little more than a seemingly insurmountable ambition until he attended the Sundance Independent Producers Conference in July of that year.
“The world of independent filmmaking is a mysterious place for an outsider, but the conference demythologized it for me. Indeed, it was my time at the Institute that summer when I learned exactly what I needed to do to make this film a reality.”
One thing Karslake learned at the Sundance Conference was “how important it is to be able to communicate the essence of your project effectively in the least number of words possible,” he recalled recently. “There was one marathon session when each attendee pitched their project to a panel of executives, and I found that both fascinating and extremely educational -- even though my own personal pitch was pretty awful.”
The other thing Karslake learned at Sundance was that an effective sample reel could be an extremely useful fund-raising tool, something he “hadn’t really thought about before. I spoke with a number of film-makers and distributors about what they looked for in a sample reel, and I left the conference very clear about what I needed to do.”
With thanks to co-producer Helen Mendoza, who knew the president of a Los Angeles post house, Karslake was able to create his sample reel that featured respected clergy refuting literalist interpretation of the Bible; a TODAY show segment on Robinson; and ended with an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
A major turning point for FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO was at the Human Rights Campaign’s National Convention in October of 2006 in Washington, DC. Boasting a membership of over 600,000 people, both Greenbaum and Karslake knew HRC board members who helped arrange for the reel to be shown during the proceedings.
“The response was overwhelming,” Greenbaum recalled recently. “Dozens of people wanted to talk with us and support the movie. Even though it was only six minutes long, the reel made a huge impact on the big screen. They immediately saw the film as a tool that they could give their straight friends and families as a pragmatic way to help their situation. They saw it as a tool that could make a difference in their own lives.”
That winter, the group PFLAG showed the trailer at their national convention, motivating support for the film from some members of its 200,000 strong base.
Support also came from Hollywood. The actress Judith Light, whom Karslake met when he was at “In the Life,” helped Karslake and his producers seek both advice and financial backing from some of the most prominent gay people in Hollywood, people like “Will & Grace” creator Max Mutchnick; “Frasier” writer/director/producer David Lee; AMERICAN BEAUTY producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks; and “Six Feet Under” producer Alan Poul. They were impressed not only by Gene Robinson’s participation in the project, but also by the film’s thesis, supported by the clergy on Karslake’s reel, that scripture does not condemn homosexuality.
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Of the five families we meet in FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, some were easier to get to than others. Gene Robinson encouraged his parents to participate, and they did so happily.
Jake Reitan had seen Karslake’s six minute reel at the Human Rights Campaign meeting months before he and his family would be arrested in Colorado Springs as they tried to deliver a letter to Reverend Jim Dobson’s Focus on the Family headquarters there. The protest had been organized by the Reverend Mel White, whom Karslake had interviewed the day before. White had also arranged for Karslake to interview Mary Lou Wallner in Colorado Springs on the same trip.
At the HRC meeting Jake Reitan had been passionate about the film; but it was only after Karslake met the whole family – “they were so Midwest, so Betty Crocker” – that he went to Minnesota to interview them as a group. “They get arrested all the time now!” Karslake enthuses.
Karslake had read the People magazine story about Chrissy Gephardt’s coming out to her family and her subsequent participation in her father’s campaign for the Presidency that year. Judith Light was also a friend and supporter of the Gephardts, and helped Karslake get a ten minute meeting with Chrissy as the campaign came through New York City. Chrissy was impressed that Karslake knew that her father was a Baptist and that her mother was Catholic. “They never talk about that!” she said. A couple of days later, Chrissy got back to Karslake with the news that her parents would participate in the film, and she offered the filmmaker about forty hours of home movies.
Karslake’s biggest challenge was finding a family of color to interview. “I did not want every family in the film to be white,” he said recently.
Karslake had heard about an organization called the Point Foundation, which helped gay kids who had been kicked out of their family unit secure funds for college. He saw Tonia Poteat’s picture in a Point Foundation brochure, and then went through a Point Foundation supporter, Michael Huffington, who would become an executive producer of FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, to contact her.
“Tonia was clearly bright and articulate, and her parents were both preachers, so I knew they were exactly the kind of family I was looking for,” Karslake recalled recently. “Tonia was very dubious about her parents’ participation, but she said she’d work on it.”
A few months later, Tonia made good on her promise, but explained that her parents would have to meet Karslake in person. She said she would be visiting them on Mother’s Day, and that she really liked the idea of them participating in the movie because it would make the family “deal with it.”
Though they were initially wary of having their family story told on screen, Tonia’s parents felt comfortable with Karslake and agreed to be a part of the movie.
“I’ve fallen in love with all of the families in the film,” Karslake reports, “but I have a huge amount of respect for how honest and forthright the Poteats were with me. When Brenda Poteat shares that she was hung up on the sex, I really think she speaks for 80% of Americans and what being gay first means to them. Coming from her, that’s a huge breakthrough.”
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As Karslake shot interviews, he and his producers Voss, Greenbaum and Lewis continued to raise funds, and FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO collected more and more friends. Karslake started to look ahead towards shaping his countless hours of footage into a cogent feature.