"Abortion is murder, homosexuality is perversion!" yells a man on the street of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And while he looks like the typical crazy preacher whom no one takes seriously, his views resonate with the popular opinion of the town. The percentage of Oklahomans affiliated with Evangelical Protestantism, which widely condemns homosexuality and whose ministers preach of America's moral breakdown, is higher than any other state. With 2,000 churches, Tulsa goes under the nickname "the buckle of the Bible belt."
"Misfits is a personal film. I've gone through what the characters are going through. You have a lot of thoughts and doubts, before you choose to be open."
Coming out as gay in this religious community takes a lot of courage. The protagonists of Misfits, 17-year-old Larissa, 19-year-old Benny and 16-year old "D," can testify to that.
The three teenagers have struggled with both fear of being excluded and the evidence that those fears were well-founded, in the form of physical and mental abuse from family, friends and strangers. When Benny came out to his older brother, he punched him in the face. Larissa moved away from home, because her mother didn't accept that she had a girlfriend, and "D" stacks a knife in his boot before he goes out.
Misfits is a personal film. I've gone through what the characters are going through. You have a lot of thoughts and doubts, before you choose to be open," says Jannik Splidsboel.
"Unfortunately, homophobia is a growing factor. In Russia, just speaking about ‘different' sexualities can get you in prison, and in too many countries being a homosexual is punished by death. In that respect, being gay in Tulsa, Oklahoma, seems pretty harmless. But the state of Oklahoma has one of the highest suicide rates among teenagers in the US, and parents can still disown their son or daughter because of a different sexuality," Splidsboel says.
A Haven of Love and Support
The teenagers have one safe place. Squeezed in between two churches lies a tiny youth centre called Open Arms, which welcomes LGBT kids to come and discuss their feelings about sexuality, family, religion – and all other concerns that every teenager deals with.
"The only abnormal thing about our main characters is in fact that they are completely normal. They are, like most teenagers, full of identity problems, big dreams and small conflicts that seem irresolvable," says Splidsboel. "But on top of that, the kids in the film have one extra obstacle: They must defend their sexuality in an age where the hormones are blooming, and they really just want to jump into life, no matter what others think about their choice of a boy- or girlfriend."
For Benny, the guilt over being gay used to be overwhelming. "I felt like I was a big pile of sin that did something horrible," he says about the time he started hooking up with guys. Now, both he and his family have accepted him as he is, not least thanks to the support and the new group of friends he found at the youth centre.
Larissa also struggles with self-acceptance. She left home to avoid confrontations with her mother after coming out as a lesbian, but still struggles with the need of approval. "My mom's opinion doesn't matter to me," she claims, to which her girlfriend retorts, "Yes it does, or you wouldn't be talking about it."
As a consequence of her turbulent home life, she's fallen behind in school and is now working hard to get back on track in order to pass her final exams.
"Larissa, Benny, ‘D' and all the other teens shouldn't spend all that energy fighting for acceptance, when they could use it on so many other things," says Splidsboel. "By getting love and support in the youth centre, the kids find the courage to be themselves. I would like to pass on that same feeling to the audience."
Misfits, invited to Berlin Film Festival's Panorama Dokumente, is produced by Sara Stockmann for Sonntag Pictures.