Carla Camps Santasusana, Jakob Fesca & Jacqueline Schöttler
Mama bears – the Documentary
The documentary mama bears was made by Emmy award-winning director Daresha Kyi and followed mothers of the mama bears movement for over six years. Filming began on 13 May 2017 (Instagram mamabearsdoc 20.06.2023) and specifically features mothers Sara Cunningham, Kimberley Shappley and Tammi Terrel Morris with their queer children (Instagram Crossroads, 16.05.2023). The other people involved in the production, including brief biographical introductions, can be viewed at mamabearsdoc.com. Within the production team there is a racial diversity as well as a queer person as impact producer that we want to emphasise.
The documentary accompanies the aforementioned people who have exchanged and networked via the Facebook group mama bears and have since been leading the fight for the rights of their queer children together with other members of the group (Instagram crossroads 16.05.2023). The mothers themselves grew up in conservative fundamentalist Christian families and continued to live this faith until they were confronted with the outings of their children. At first, they could not reconcile these outings with their faith. They sought advice and support in the Facebook group mama bears, where they could exchange with other believing mothers of queer children. This group was founded in 2014 by Liz Dyer, who states on the mama bears website that it was her dream to make the world a little safer and kinder and whose dream has now come true (Mama Bears 2019). Partly before that, partly through the exchange, the portrayed mothers learned to accept their children and since then they have actively decided to love their children just as they are. Many of these mothers, in addition to networking in the Facebook group, have become politically active and are now activists who fight for their children’s rights and/or support them in their fight for their rights. Mama bears now exist across the United States and there are information booths, networking, readings, etc. at local Pride Parades, for example, and activist walks along the parade. As an example, the mama bears were shown giving out free hugs with which they try to fill the gap that their own parents’ turning away from their queer children has created. The documentary shows the activists giving hugs to people of different ages in different settings on and around the pride parade and in a bar listening to various people and responsing to them with love and empathy, which is perceived as very positive by the people. In another scene, Sara Cunningham is shown at a wedding of two women where she takes on the role of mother to one of the brides because her own mother had distanced herself since her coming out and did not want to attend the wedding.
Apart from the families, the queer people portrayed say that, their families have turned away from them because they cannot reconcile their sexual or gender identities with their faith. Although the mama bears have experienced similar things, they continue to struggle and form an ever-growing community where faith is compatible with queerness. They have lost family members, friends and in some cases their church communities because they chose to accept and love their children as they are and refused the idea that their children’s gender or sexual identity changes anything for their religious lives. Kimberly Shappley and her daughter Kai, for example, were shown getting ready to go to church on Sunday. Mama bears enables new friendships and communities to be found and strengthened, where everyone can pursue their faith, be themselves and be loved in return.
Since Liz Dyer’s initiative, mama bears has evolved and there are now numerous Facebook groups, all of which can be found on the website. In these groups, mothers can be more specific and oriented towards the different needs of their children, e.g. there is a group for mama bears of autistic children (Double Rainbow) or for children under or over 18 (<18 #BeYou and >18 #BeTrue) (Mama Bears 2019). Also, several projects have developed out of the groups and activism, Mama Bears Safer Schools can be mentioned as an example. Those involved, who are not mentioned by name, have created a freely accessible flyer that gives schools five tips that can be used to create safer schools for LGBTQ+ children (Mama Bears 2019). For other contexts and especially for families, resources have been collected that recommend e.g. blogs or literature to find one’s own way to unite Christian faith and queerness (Mama Bears 2019).
Queerness and Christian faith
LGBTIQ-friendly (self-help) groups fortunately do exist. What is distinctive in the documentary as a specific feature of mama bears is that they portray fundamentalist Christian families trying to reconcile their faith with their love for their queer children. However, if one visits the mama bears website, at first glance one encounters an organization that does not seem to define itself by its faith. Only hidden in the Resources-section of the website we find two links to “Fully Inclusive Faith Communities” on the one hand and “LGBTQ+ Affirming Wedding Officiants” on the other. At first impression, one might think mama bears are trying to find allies without particularly emphasizing the issues of religion and belief.
In an internet research for mama bears and Christianity, we find another bear community that also identifies as mama bears (mamabearapologetics.com). They call themselves mamabears-apologetics and overtly advertise Christian values. They aim to reinforce children’s Christian faith in a “cultural war” we supposedly find ourselves in and want to prepare themselves for this so-called war, among other things, to encounter a non-Christian queer environment. They prepare their children for pride month, though, to reinforce beliefs such as that affects between people of the same sex might exist, but that “romantic love” was designed by God between a man and a woman. The mama bears-apologetics teach their children to distinguish between a biblical marriage of the God-created male-female pair and a civil marriage, which in their view is not biblical if the couple is of the same sex.
It is obvious that these two organizations are ideologically at different ends. They differ in the way they understand Christianity as queer inclusionary or not. It is not the place to analyse here how their argumentation works; it’s just striking how differently they emphasize Christian values and faith on their websites. We are left with the question: Why aren’t Liz Dyer’s queer-friendly mama bears putting the focus on faith more strongly? A list of LGBTIQ-friendly churches and one of officiants who marry same-sex couples are maintained. But the initial contradiction that parents experience between their faith and the queerness of their children is not mentioned to be loudly refuted in a second step highlighting their compatibility. Perhaps mama bears are thus reaching out to a larger community, as well as to parents who are not strictly Christian and who want to try to support their queer children. Or maybe they don’t enter a battle over queer interpretations of the Bible because that could run in favour of other, queer-exclusionary mama bears.
At this point, we do not want to give the impression that these are similar organizations that only differ ideologically. Especially in terms of physical and material consequences, queer mama bears and their families are particularly unprotected. The consequences of the state’s lack of human rights guarantee in the case of a trans child in the USA are shown in the following section.
Queerness and the state
On Independence Day 2022, Kai tweeted that her family was moving out of Texas (Shappley 2022). She wrote about Texas being “not safe for trans kids”. In the message, Kai also referred to the historic date. The 4th of July is associated by patriotic US citizens with values such as freedom and independence. Kai saw her own freedom in Texas restricted to such an extent that she had to leave the state. She wishes a happy Independence day “to everyone who gets to celebrate that”, implying that she could not celebrate this date.
Since leaving the state she was born in, Kai has described herself as a political refugee.
A year after the move, Kai tweeted that her family had moved to Connecticut in the north-west of the USA (Shappley 2023). She wrote that life there was more expensive than in Texas and set up a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the move.
Kai also noted that her first school in C. was again transphobic. She concluded that transphobia exists in liberal states as well and that it is not just a Republican state phenomenon.
Kai’s departure from Texas shows the dilemma faced by trans people in the USA. Moving is very expensive and not all trans people can afford it. It is important to remember that trans people are disproportionately affected by poverty. In a new state, they (or in Kai’s case, her mother) have to find a new job and a new place to live.
However, anti-trans laws and hostile attitudes in parts of society (for example, among fundamentalist Christians) make it increasingly difficult to live in republican states.
In order to ensure one’s own security and the free development of gender identity, it becomes necessary at some point to leave such states.
Moreover, Kai’s experiences at a Connecticut school show that liberal legislation does not necessarily improve the situation. Trans hostility can also come from the local school administration.
Since the release of the mama bears documentary, Kai has also embarked on a career as an actress. She guest starred in an episode of the Netflix series Babysitters Club, playing a trans girl. Her character arc closely resembles her own experience: a trans girl who is misgendered by adults around her.
She’s been the subject of the Emmy-winning “them.” documentary, and has been covered by Vice News and Time. Kai writes that she is planning more projects, but doesn’t want to give specific details. Stay tuned.
The documentary is available at https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/mama-bears/, but unfortunately not in Austria.
We hope that this forum contribution will motivate people to watch, research or support Mama Bears. It would be an enrichment to found similar groups and communities in Europe and Austria, or if they already exist, to give them the recognition and publicity they deserve.
crossroadsfestivalgraz (16. Mai 2023), Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/CsTa8aeMxmD/?igshid=NjFiZTE0ZDQ0ZQ%3D%3D (letzter Zugriff: 15.07.2023).
Kai Shappley HER/SHE 🍫 (4. Juli 2022), Twitter: https://twitter.com/KaiShappley/status/1543973244105015297 (letzter Zugriff: 15.07.2023).
Kai Shappley HER/SHE 🍫 (4. Juli 2023), Twitter: https://twitter.com/KaiShappley/status/1676192734195875841 (letzter Zugriff: 15.07.2023).
Mama Bears (2019): Mama Bears. https://www.realmamabears.org/ (letzter Zugriff: 15.07.2023).
Mama Bear Apologetics (2016): “Train yourself. Equip your kids.”. https://mamabearapologetics.com/ (letzter Zugriff: 15.07.2023).
mamabearsdoc (20. Juni 2023), Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/CtuLXo7rUBj/?igshid=NjFiZTE0ZDQ0ZQ%3D%3D (letzter Zugriff: 15.7.2023).
Jakob Fesca (no pronouns) has been studying International Gender Studies at Ruhr University Bochum since 2021. Jakob came to Karl Franzens University Graz for a semester abroad.
Jacqueline Schöttler (she/her) decided to pursue a double degree Master’s programme after completing her Bachelor’s degree in Childhood Pedagogy. She has been studying International Gender Studies at Ruhr-Universität-Bochum since October 2021 and started her semester abroad at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz in February 2023. This forum post was also written during this semester abroad. She combines her two focuses of study in her current job as a student assistant in the research project “Children’s well-being in socio-spatial contexts. Intersectional perspectives on children’s experiences in non-school learning places (WIKK*I)” at University of Vechta and TU Berlin.
Carla Camps Santasusana (she/her) is currently studying Gender Studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum. Her wage work is as a teacher of German as a foreign language in medical and dental courses. She is often in the water and likes to eat cake.