Tom Shepard’s internationally award-winning documentary Unsettled: Seeking refuge in America opens with screaming and yelling and it quickly becomes apparent that a crowd are turning violent towards a young gay African male. The sentiment that ‘love is love’ does not ring true in the 70 odd countries where it is illegal to be lesbian, gay or transgendered. In fact, in four of these countries, if you are anything but heteronormative it is likely to be a death sentence.
The documentary follows the story of four LGBTQ asylum seekers fleeing persecution and mortal danger to San Francisco and attempting to start their own lives in the shadow of what they needed to leave behind – including family members who are violent and see nothing wrong with persecuting their children often under the guise of religion and culture.
Subhi Nahas left Syria when, in 2012, Al Qaeda affiliated groups targeted and killed young gay men, causing him to flee to Lebanon and then later Turkey where even former friends turned ISIS members threatened to kill him. Partners from Angola, Cheyenne Adriano and Mari N’Timansieme, had to leave after a family member tried to poison their food fleeing to the US first on student visas and having to apply for asylum from within the US which has its own complexity. Junior Mayema’s mother preaches against homosexuality in the Democratic Republic of Congo where violence is often used against gay members of society, and when harassed by the police UN decided to expedite his application for asylum.
Shot over four years it is clear that they are not alone in their journey to settle in the US, yet it is very difficult. Refugee and asylum advocates assist them in trying to not only find their place in their new home but to also navigate the inevitable bureaucratic process of seeking asylum – including the transition from Obama to the Trump administration. Since 2016 only an estimated 30% of asylum applications are successful so for Cheyenne and Mari it is a particularly harrowing time. As Junior experiences, even with an asylum visa it’s still not easy navigating life in a new country especially faced with the possibility of homelessness.
Unsettled: Seeking refuge in America is a tale of constant struggle and survival, but it is also a tale of hope that is offered in a new land that – for now – allows them to stay true to themselves.
Following the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality in 2015 there has been a concerted campaign to curtail LGBTQI+ rights, notably under the guise of religious freedom. Daniel Karslake’s film For They Know Not What They Do is an insight into the way in which religion, such as the values of the Evangelical Christian American, deeply impact the culture and politics of the US around LGBTQI+ identity and sexuality.
Taking the title from ‘The Gospel According to Luke 23:34’, which is often referred to as the ‘Words of Forgiveness’ the documentary focuses on the story of individuals who have come out to families who are deeply religious and who share their stories of trying to navigate not only familial expectations but community expectations as to their own identity. Some, such as Ryan Robertson seek solace in controversial conversion therapy that proclaim to ‘cure’ through scripture any non-heteronormative identities. Others, such as Sarah McBride who became the first transgendered women elected to public office in Delaware, become strong transgender advocates and raise awareness around LGBTQI+ rights in what can be argued to be a very politically conservative country.
The impact of religious attitudes towards LGBTQI+ rights are evident where there exists the ‘No Promo Homo Laws’ in some states such as Arizona and Texas which prevents teachers from discussing anything to do with identity and sexuality that is not heteronormative. Other states aggressively passed legislation under the guise of protecting religious freedom as a constitutional right which conversely limits LGBTQI+ rights in allowing for discrimination, examples included bills debated such as the ‘bathroom bills’ in North Carolina allowing for ID checks before entering into a bathroom designated as either ‘male’ or ‘female’.
Using fear and discrimination to propel community discussion around transgender identities saw political advertisements freely played on television stations across the nation and it’s apparent that the fearmongering creates a palpable level of concern amongst communities as to their own safety. Indeed, the danger surrounding the LGBTQI+ community in the US is also explored with Vico Baez Febo’s experience of a hate crime in Florida as well as Elliot Porcher inflicting self-harm on himself.
For They Know Not What They Do also interviews family members who themselves were grappling with their children’s sense of identity and explores how it might challenge their own deeply held belief system. Interspersed with interviews from other human rights advocates – including religious figures seeking to denounce religious extremism cloaked as piousness – the film examines the increase in hate speech and discrimination since the controversial 2015 ruling.
For They Know Not What They Do is compelling watching, not just for the individual stories who offer forgiveness and hope and understanding but in order to understand the massive issues that they face in contemporary US society – where religion is used actively to discriminate and to create fear and mistrust.