Tonia Poteat

In For the Bible Tells Me So, conservative Christian pastors David and Brenda Poteat share their struggle to accept their daughter, Tonia, as a lesbian. While a student at Yale University, she came out to her parents in a conversation that – as she recounts in the film – ended up creating a pall of tension in the family. 

Ultimately, the couple’s love for their daughter prevails, though they still express conflicted feelings about her sexual orientation because of their Christian beliefs. “I have a huge amount of respect for how honest and forthright the Poteats were with me,” filmmaker Dan Karslake has said. “When Brenda Poteat shares that she was hung up on the sex, I really think she speaks for 80 percent of Americans and what being gay first means to them. Coming from her, that’s a huge breakthrough.”

In the following interview, Tonia Poteat talks about what it was like to be a part of the film.
How has this film affected your life?

In a lot of ways. The most personal has been my relationship with my parents. We didn’t have a bad relationship before the film, but I guess my mother used to call it “walking on eggshells.” There were things we avoided talking about or sort of tiptoed around because they were difficult conversations. The film created a space in our relationship to talk about those things – room just to be and not to worry about walking on eggshells.
I’ve definitely seen many more conversations and thought around homosexuality. And I feel like our relationship is better and richer. I feel more comfortable being myself with them.

Exactly how did your family’s participation in the film come about?

When I was working on my master’s degree in public health at Emory, I got a scholarship from the Point Foundation, which is a national scholarship fund for LGBT students throughout the country. [Filmmaker] Dan [Karslake] was friends with one of the trustees on the foundation’s board, and I guess Dan talked to him about the film and said he was looking for another family, and my name came up. So Dan called and I said, well, I’ll ask my parents, but I’m sure they’ll say no. So I called my parents and asked them and they said, “Sure.”

It’s funny, later my father said that he’d agreed because he thought it was some little documentary film and nobody would ever see it. [Laughter] It wasn’t exactly the case, was it?

My father was very agreeable, and I think my mother just went along. I don’t think she had the same level of enthusiasm about it.

In the film, your parents seem to express that they are unresolved about your sexual orientation in some ways. Is that how you interpret their reactions?

I think that’s kind of how it was presented in the movie, but I don’t think there’s necessarily a trajectory where there’s a beginning, middle, and an end that they’re supposed to reach. I don’t think it’s very unusual for people to come to a place with their family where they agree to disagree on certain things and still make a relationship and love each other. I don’t know if that’s necessarily “unresolved.”
What was important to you about being a part of the film?

One of the things that was important to me, as well as to Dan, was that the movie wasn’t just about white people. That was important to me – to be a family of color. I think what often happens is that black people are presented as more homophobic as everyone else, and it was important to me that that not be the message.

So you don’t think that stereotype has been earned?

No, I don’t. Just from my personal experience, when I came out to my parents, they weren’t happy about it. But one of my really good friends, who’s white, came out to her family and she was disowned. My family would never have done that. I thought my parents might be angry or they might yell at me or be upset, but I never thought, my parents will never talk to me.

That’s just two examples, but people make their decisions based on what they’ve heard and their own experience.

Was the film what you expected it to be, or were you like your dad, thinking it was just a “little documentary”?

I didn’t have a sense of how big it was going to be. I thought maybe some people would see it, but I didn’t think it would have such a huge impact.
What was it like seeing the film for the first time?

It was intense. I immediately wanted to see it again. There was so much in it that it was hard to absorb all of it.
What was it like seeing yourself?

It was uncomfortable. I think it would be for most people to see your face so gigantic on the screen. Some parts are still painful to watch. The last time I saw it at a showing, I was sitting next to my mother, and I was watching my mother on the screen saying things that hurt. That was hard. Then Dan reminded me that the film was made several years ago, and she wouldn’t necessarily answer those questions the same way today.
Besides your story, what other family moved you the most?

Mary Lou Wallner’s. I’m not a mother and I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, but I can only imagine the kind of pain she carries around. I think a lot about that and about her.
What do you think is the most important message of the film?
Do I have to pick one? There are so many.

One thing I really like about the movie is that gay people have a context. We’re not that horrible stereotype of pedophiles running the streets, attacking children. We come from a family. We have relationships. Even in positive things, like TV shows like Will and Grace, people are never presented in the context of a family of origin that loves and cares for them. They aren’t presented as a family that has its struggles like everybody else’s families. I think that’s an important message of the film. It’s not the direct message obviously, but I think it’s important for people to see.

I think it’s also important to see that people want to love their children. For me, as a member of the LGBT community, sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in self-acceptance and societal rights that we forget that it’s also a process for the people who love us. They’re figuring out how to deal with it and how it impacts their lives. They want to love us, and they just need to figure out how to reconcile what they believe with this person who has just given them new information that they don’t understand.
Is there anything you thought the film left out?

There’s always more to say on every subject. The only place where the Dan and I disagreed was the cartoon vignette about the cause of homosexuality.

I understand it’s nice to have some comic relief in such an intense movie, but I think it oversimplifies the issue and could be misleading. I also have never been a fan of the argument that “we’re gay and we can’t help it, so accept us.” “We don’t choose to be black” has never worked for black people. Everyone doesn’t go, “Yay, black people are equal.”

I don’t think it’s necessarily an effective strategy, and I also think, so what? What if I woke up one day and chose to be a lesbian? Why would that be a problem?

So, in other words, what you’re saying is sexual orientation shouldn’t matter whether it’s thrust upon you by nature or whether you choose it?

Yeah. Why should that be the basis of whether I should be treated like a human being?

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