"I expect that married gay couples will be welcomed in congregations in 20 years and temple issues will be addressed after that." – Jennifer Blair of Twin Falls, Idaho
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A bold prediction, but one from someone who has a lot of experience exploring the intersection between LGBTQ issues and a infamous American religious group. Jennifer Blair is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and mother to an openly gay son. And for 15 months she has belonged to a pro-LGBT Facebook group for LDS mothers called Mama Dragons. The New Civil Rights Movement interviewed by telephone two of its members, one of whom is Blair.
Mama Dragons is a support group for women like Blair – largely traditional LDS wives and mothers – who are simply looking for the best way in which they can support their gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans children. But in their efforts to support their children they increasingly find themselves in deep conflict with what is often the only community and faith they have ever known. For this reason, Mama Dragons serves not only to help LGBTQ youth, but also to help provide a new network of support for women who find themselves feeling increasingly isolated.
"I cried for a solid week just to find women who understood what I was going through. Knowing that you have this team in your pocket that can replace the Mormon community that you know you might lose is really powerful," Blair told The New Civil Rights Movement.
Like many other LDS parents, Blair found herself torn between loving and supporting her son, and obeying the teachings of the Church she had been brought up in. These teachings, however, do not provide the type of unconditional love and acceptance that she knew her son would need when, at 16 years old, he came out.
"My son had come out and he wasn’t ready to be public and I felt very alone and confused," she told NCRM. "Finally I got desperate because I wanted to talk to a real person. So I went on Facebook and typed in 'gay Mormon.'"
Her search led her to a gay therapist named Daniel Parkinson, who introduced her to three other women with gay teens. Several weeks before Mama Dragons had already been formed as a Facebook group by these women. Another member of the group, Sarah Nicholson of Salt Lake City, Utah talked about the struggle that many of its members have had to endure.
"I’ve heard that some women are getting backlash from their church leaders just because they associate with the group," Nicholson told us. "These are great women and many of them are still active in the LDS church. They’re not trying to do anything against the Church; they are just trying to help others know that there are people out here that have this opinion that treating others equally and loving them as Christ would is far more important than expecting them to follow church rules."
However, not every member has been able to reconcile their relationship with the Church so easily. After joining the group and finding the unconditional support she needed, Blair began her journey of discovering what she actually believed about her faith.
"Having a gay son opened me up to the possibility that maybe some of the things I was taught weren't what they seemed to be," she said. "So I did research about the Church’s history and doctrine. I love my Mormon family and the Church and the culture but I no longer believe many of the things I was taught."
Her son eventually left the Mormon Church completely. Blair stated that her distancing herself from the Church and her son's thorough rejection of it mirrors the struggle that many LGBTQ Mormons and their families go through. Blair said most of the young people she encounters end up leaving the Church when they reach adulthood.
"It’s almost impossible for most people to navigate the intersection between being LDS and being LGBT," she said. "I know people who do it and they manage to do it in a healthy way but they’re definitely in the minority."
The LGBT community's relationship with the Mormon Church is deeply complicated, much like it is with most religious groups. The Mormon Church's efforts in helping pass the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in California certainly has not helped that relationship. The Church, however, has in recent years attempted to appear to take on a more reconciliatory tone with gays and lesbians. The Church agreed to support a non-discrimination bill in the State of Utah (where Mormons are the majority both demographically and politically) in exchange for "religious freedom" language being added to it's text. The effects of this so-called "compromise bill" have yet to be seen, and some in the LGBT community question the motives behind it.
The Church also set up a website called mormonsandgays.org. The tone of the website, although also reconciliatory, also reflects the Church's teachings that allowing oneself to be gay or lesbian is a sin. Essentially, the church tells young people that while they may identify as gay they must still repress that essential part of themselves. The Church's position can be read through several quotes found on the website:
The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.
Members of the Church who have same-sex attractions, but don’t act on them, can continue to enjoy full fellowship in the church, which includes holding the priesthood, carrying out callings, and attending the temple.
We believe that with an eternal perspective, a person’s attraction to the same sex can be addressed and borne as a mortal test. It should not be viewed as a permanent condition.
Though many would say that these stances are a vast improvement from the Church's treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, Blair felt that some of the well meaning guidance still falls short. In particular, she objects to the official LDS perspective that same-sex attraction (as they put it) is a kind of disorder.
"It’s not an addiction," she said. "It’s not a dangerous thing. It’s not bad for the kids who are going through it."
Unfortunately, many LDS parents do not share that perspective. Much of the volunteer work that Mama Dragons does has to do with LGBTQ youth who have been thrown out of their parents homes. Members of the group have had to consult with Parkinson on several projects that usually involve a teen or their parents in crisis. The suicide rate among LGBTQ youth is still alarmingly high. According to Blair, the number of youth in crisis she had to deal with spiked after the last General Conference of the LDS Church where Church Apostle L. Tom Perry referred to LGBTQ families as "counterfeit."
"The week after General Conference was pretty brutal," said Blair. "And probably about once a week I’m up until midnight or so texting with an individual who’s not sure they’re going to make it through the night."
Blair emphasized in the interview that she wanted LDS parents who respond poorly to their LGBTQ children to be understood and empathized with. She believes that most of these parents are sincere in how much they care for their children, but have a hard time understanding how they should react given how they themselves were raised and taught as children.
"Parents love their children but don’t know how to be loving," she said. "They think they’re being loving by setting strict guidelines and using the tough love approach. They don’t realize that that can actually be harmful."
According to her, it is the aim of many members of Mama Dragons to be a source of guidance for these parents who don't know any better.
"Parents just need to know how to navigate that leeway period until the kids are old enough to make their own choices and use their own agency," Blair said.
Nicholson opined that the problem with many parents points to a larger problem in the Church regarding the priorities of many of its members. She feels that in some cases following the Biblical commandment to be loving to other people means not always being submissive to the will of Church leaders.
"Many Church members are of the opinion that obedience to Church leaders should take priority over everything else, whereas many of us in the Mama Dragons believe that love comes first," she said. "In the New Testament, Christ is quoted as saying that loving one another is the first and greatest commandment, and for most Mama Dragons, that means that when we are forced to choose between love and obedience, unconditional love comes first, regardless of the consequences."
Nicholson does not have any LGBTQ children, but was supportive of her ex-husband when he came out and believes that all children should be supported and loved unconditionally by their families. She is known as someone who welcomes her home to LGBTQ youth who have been cast out by their own families, and has in the past invited youth to spend time with her family during holidays when they had no where else to go.
Nicholson also expressed the opinion that the kind of work Mama Dragons does can be used help create change in the Church from the bottom up. Blair agrees with this sentiment and, although she doesn't see change in the Church's teachings as her battle or her role to play, she feels that eventually members of the Church will recognize that there is nothing sinful about LGBTQ people or their relationships.
"I expect that married gay couples will be welcomed in congregations in 20 years and temple issues will be addressed after that," she said. "I think eventually Mormon culture will have to recognize that their relationship is just as valid as mine is with my husband. And once that happens I don’t think there will be any reason to keep them out of the temple. But that’s maybe based on hopefulness more than anything evidentiary."
Among the work that Mama Dragons does includes writing to members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, offering their homes to LGBTQ youth cast out by their families, educating other parents about how to best support their children, and raising money and support for pro-LGBTQ projects. The group had a hand in opening the Youth Futures Shelter for homeless teens in Ogden, Utah. They have also, on two occasions, attended the funerals of young gay Mormons who committed suicide.
Mama Dragons, which currently has 265 members, can be found on Facebook.
Top image by Emric Delton/Profile Studio Photography
Other images via Jennifer Blair
All images used with permission