24 June 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. This is just the first step by the Republican Party in removing the American people’s hard-fought rights. Next up on the Christian nationalist agenda by the MAGA republicans seems to be same-sex marriage and the further erosion of trans rights. On the day that Trump was elected in 2016, calls to suicide prevention lines were two and a half times the average rate, and between 1 am and 2 am, just before Trump was declared the winner, 660 calls were made to National Suicide Prevention Line. The Crisis Text Line saw a rise of four times, with 4,000 texts an hour. Common to both, were anxieties over LGBTQ rights, including fears around trans rights. A Facebook support group, as was widely reported at the time, claimed that there were eight suicides among trans youth as a direct response to Trump’s victory. In 2017, a leaked memo from Trump showed that trans people would be excluded from the military. In the same year, the Texas legislature passed the anti-trans “bathroom bill”. The latter saw a spike in calls from distressed trans youth and their families, to the Trevor Project, spiralling from 7.3 percent to 17.5 percent of all calls. The reported numbers are stark: in 2020, a study showed that 82 percent of trans individuals have had suicidal thoughts, while 40 percent have attempted suicide.
This is the backdrop to the documentary film, Mama Bears. In 2018, the director, Daresha Kyi, was commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to direct a short film, Trans In America: Texas Strong. The award-winning short documentary focuses on a mother, Kimberly Shappley, and her struggle to maintain her faith in the face of her young child’s, Kai’s, transgender identity. Mama Bears extends Kai’s story and introduces us to two more stories of LGBTQ lives in the contemporary US. The film’s title is taken from a Facebook Support Group for Christian mothers coming to terms with their children’s LGBTQ identities. The Mama Bears Facebook group, founded by Liz Dyer in 2014, provides a community of self-affirmation and unconditional love for LGBTQ children and youths. In 2022, the Mama Bears network consists of approximately 32,000 mothers with over 60 chapters across the US providing support, education, and empowerment for LGBTQ youth.
The documentary mainly centres around the stories of two women, both Mama Bears, Kimberly Shappley and Sara Cunningham. The third story is that of Tenita Lewis Artry and Tammi Terrell Morris, Pentecostal Christians. The focus is mainly on the voice and perspective of the daughter, Tammi Terrell Morris, a young African American lesbian, whose painful journey for acceptance from her family and her God is mirrored by the fact that her mother chooses to absent herself from the filming part way through (although we are assured of her mother’s continuing acceptance).
Mama Bears is an intimate, strikingly personal documentary about the impact of discrimination on the everyday lives of LGBTQ youths: Kimberley and Kai are forced to leave Texas after the bathroom bill has been passed, despite the fact that their family has roots there which go way back. Only a few members of the five living generations of Kimberley’s family have accepted, or tried to accept, Kai (two cousins and a brother), the others disowning her in the name of religion. The other member of the Mama Bear’s network is Sara Cunningham, whose story illuminates the path from non-acceptance to acceptance for her gay son, Parker. The fight for acceptance is shown to be as much a familial one as a societal one as demonstrated by these women and their children whose stories illuminate the tapestry of LGBTQ life in contemporary America. Having said this, it seems that the story of Tenita and Tammi is a late addition; it doesn’t quite fit with the stories of the other two, as Tenita is not a member of the Mama Bears network, which appears to be a predominately white network of Christian mothers. This perhaps tells us something about the general invisibility of the experiences of black and brown members of the LGBTQ community, who are, statistics show, most at risk of hate crimes and suicide. Having said this, Tammi’s story provides the most comprehensive narrative of growing up, coming out, and the need to conform to societal expectations. The contradiction between her relationship with her best friend at college and their roles as bible study leaders demonstrates the double lives that many are forced to live in order not to be ostracised by the community and wider society.
There are a number of films about LGBTQ identities in the US and elsewhere, a small number of which also concern trans identities. Mama Bears offers a different perspective in focussing in on the conflict between faith and family, when children come out as gay or trans to their parents. It offers hope for reconciliation between the two in so far as all the participants in the documentary manage to remain resolutely Christian and queer. The Mama Bears network offers support and love for all LGBTQ children, with mothers and fathers attending Pride Events and same-sex marriages, giving out free hugs to those that need them. The story of Ryan Robertson presents a cautionary tale of refusing to accept one’s child’s sexual and/or gender identity and the dangers of conversion therapy. This is especially important as in both the US and the UK we are seeing a resurgence of conversion therapy for gay and trans kids under the pretence of concern for their future. Perhaps the Mama Bears network can lead the way in providing a kinder and safer place for those whose identities situate them in conflict with family and state, if only we would listen to their voices and stories with compassion and care.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain