When Religion Creates Dragons

(originally published at rationalfaiths.com)
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Last February I wrote my first piece for Rational Faiths called When it Comes to Equality, Which Side of History Are You On? I have been very proud of my writing for Rational Faiths as a whole, but there’s something about that piece that makes it my favorite; the one I’m most proud of. It explains my transition to becoming an LGBT ally and cites the substantial statistics and facts that ultimately led to my acceptance of LGBT people and my conclusion that, “If opposing homosexuality on all levels is ultimately the right path in God’s eyes and I’m wrong, I risk having loved too deeply and trying too hard to be empathetic and I will be punished accordingly. If, however, equal rights for homosexuals is actually in line with Christ’s will and I didn’t help my fellowman—I risk causing pain, suicide, distancing people from God, and depriving other people of the things in life I love best.” It was after reading this post that Wendy and Thomas Montgomery reached out to me and thanked me for my message. They are amazing parents to their all of their children, including their gay teenager, and have become ambassadors to create a safe community and acceptance of LGBT people among the Mormon community.
In my time knowing Wendy and Thomas, I have seen countless people call them brave and fearless and applaud them for their efforts to created awareness, a safe community, and unconditional love for LGBT people and allies. I absolutely agree that they are brave and fearless; but one day I realized that it’s nearly absurd that such words need to be used toward these dear people. No one should have to be “brave” or “fearless” just to survive in their religious community.
Wendy in particular is endlessly tenacious in her outpouring of love, awareness, and acceptance for the LGBT community. I started to see the reference to “Mama Dragon” 10386862_10202943607605561_1635876612226830540_nappear left and right in her comments and other comments of my friends. I had no idea what Mama Dragon meant at first, but I soon learned that several supportive, proactive mothers of gay Mormon children have banded together and been reborn as Mama Dragons. Why have these women branded themselves as dragons? What could possibly cause someone to have to identify with a ferocious, aggressive beast within their religious community? I decided to ask some of them to find out why:

Alyson Paul Deussen: Our experience has been one of rejection and loneliness from a group I always thought was supposed to walk by our side.
How does a young 13-year-old reconcile the fact that he is no longer welcome amongst his peers/leaders at church? We’ve experienced a suicide attempt, being told if he goes on a scout camp out, other parents won’t allow their boys to go. Or that he can attend overnight activities only if he sleeps elsewhere (away from other kids). When many leaders won’t reach out to him or include him in any activities at all, what is a parent to do? If these things don’t make a mothers heart ache I don’t know what does.
I have tried on many occasions to meet with my ward/stake leaders to increase awareness and acceptance over the past two years without much success. Unless these leaders are willing to reach out to the gay members in their wards with love and understanding we will continue to see our LGBT youth and families feel rejected and unwelcome in a place that should be a haven.
That fight for me will not end. I don’t want to see another person, family or child go down that road without endless love and support. For this reason this mama will fight like a dragon to ensure all members or non members feel love and kindness and not the pain and suffering we have felt.

Glenda Crump: Many people, including my Bishop and Stake President, say being gay is like being a drug addict…you can love the child but not accept that they are doing drugs. For me that theory does NOT work. I had a child who was a drug addict, the drugs tore away at who he was, and he was in a dark place. The drugs were a choice and a harmful one at that. My daughter did not have a choice to be born gay or not; it is the way her Heavenly Father created her and she is perfect in His eyes. There are a few options for our LGBT kids; they can choose to take their lives (which many of them do especially in the LDS Faith), they can marry someone of the opposite sex (most of which end in broken families and the leaders have now counseled against the attempt), or they can be alone–which is against everything our religion teaches and usually leads to depression and suicide anyway. Those are the only options the LDS church supports. My Bishop and Stake President called me in to discuss my daughter and how I felt about her choices. Because I refused to openly call my daughter a sinner and also refused to condemn her for being in a same sex relationship, they threatened to take away my temple recommend. My Stake President said negative things about Harry Reed and his support for gay rights. It was a hurtful, contentious meeting and he shamed me and made me feel like I was not worthy to be a Relief Society President. Less than a week later, I was released. It was a hurtful time in my life and in the life of all my children who were already struggling with the church. I have come to understand that though the Gospel is true, the church has a lot of faults because it is ran by men who are imperfect. At first I felt ashamed to let people know about my child, and I faced the long hard road mostly by myself. Now I am a Mama Dragon.

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Jen Blair: I watched conferences with hope that there would be positive instruction about this issue. Each session ended with nothing but condemnation for the politics surrounding this. The only message that we could find was that it was okay to BE gay as long as you didn’t really ACT gay. Allies to the community are clearly painted as adversaries to the gospel. As my son has come out publicly, we have had very little direct confrontation.  For the most part, we have simply become invisible. There is a palpable tension now.  Many members don’t really know how to relax around me any more. They don’t really know how to relate to the mother of a gay son.  This has been very difficult. A recent letter from a family member caused upset.  Instead of a letter expressing pure love, a collection of church quotes were used as well as a copy of Boyd K. Packer’s testimony and an expression of love for Elder Packer. I have gotten text messages including “I’m a one-on-one true friend, but not a public friend,” and “Don’t translate my public silence as judgment.”
I have lost closeness with many because I am unable to talk about the advocacy and education that I feel passionate about.  My relationship with specific family members will never be the same as they now openly question my parenting where they never had before.
Christy Cottle: When my son came out to me as gay at the age of 13, I realized that he had been sitting hearing from the pulpit and in classes for his entire life that he was an abomination. I cannot express the pain that this realization caused me. I had no idea where to turn for help and how to proceed forward. I was terrified for his safety both physically and emotionally. I knew we could not go to our Bishop or other leaders; I didn’t want them to tell me in their ignorance that my son was not whole and perfect the way he was born. We kept the news private within our family for a time. I started reaching out, looking for resources.  I wanted to find a book titled: How to Raise Your Gay Son in The LDS Church, but nothing like that existed. Everything that I found written by the leadership was vile and hateful towards those that are gay. I couldn’t and wouldn’t allow my son to ever be abused by the ignorance of the LDS leadership ever again. I grew continually more worried by the phone calls and texts that he sent me expressing the anguish he was experiencing during a lesson at church that was referring to gay people as an abomination. We decided that for the time being that it was safer for us to not attend regular meetings or associate with those that cannot be supportive of us raising our son in a gay-affirming household. This has brought much peace into our hearts as we have found other resources and support outside of the church. There are days that my heart yearns for fellowship with the group and religion that formed and influenced much of my life. It is tragic that the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole cannot provide that safe haven to many.

I am finding more and more that the general Mormon population think that “the gay issue” has been taken care of. That the church is loving and accepting of homosexual people and has a place for them. Sure they aren’t “allowed” to act on it, but it would seem that most are assuming that LGBT people are otherwise openly accepted in Mormonism. This truly could not be further from the truth for the majority LGBT people and their family members or friends who openly support them. Instead, the best-case scenarios commonly reflect Elder Oaks’s recommendation on how to treat LGBT family members or friends: ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval” (1). I honestly don’t know how LGBT people are to feel welcomed and loved if such restrictions are suggested in the way to “love” them. There’s about as much love and acceptance in that scenario as allowing a hungry mosquito to bite you for as long as you can tolerate it before shewing it away, and yet this does appear to be the best that most Mormons can muster.

At the end of the day, the church can claim “loving the sinner and hating the sin” all they want, but if there really were love for LGBT people in Mormonism, there would be no need for the Mama Dragons. In a few short months, more than 180 people have joined the “Mama Dragons” group on Facebook. In addition to the Mama Dragons, there are thousands of Mormons who have become fearless allies to both LGBT people and their families at great personal cost. It is so disheartening that to be an LGBT ally in Mormonism makes you an outlier. It is beyond rare to find wards that are openly accepting and supportive of gay children or teens. Recurring LDS support programs for gay people or families do not exist in any church-sponsored way, and it is incredibly uncommon to find a single fireside that reaches out with true love, civility, acceptance, and charity beyond that described by Elder Oaks above. The second anyone “comes out” or identifies as LGBT or is an openly LGBT ally–the most probable outcome is that friends are lost, tensions rise, confusion abounds, and relationships slip into ambiguity.
So what do Mama Dragons actually do? They come to the aid of anyone in need who is hurting and looking for resources and acceptance. Just this last week on national coming out day, Matt Whited came out on his wall on Facebook. He was immediately met with several negative responses, including this one from his Mormon Uncle:
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Matt was devastated and reached out to Wendy Montgomery through a private message. He let her know that there was no one in his own family who would defend him against such hurtful messages and asked her to share a message on his wall about how she loves her gay son unconditionally. She notified her friends and within hours his wall lit up with dozens of positive messages from Mama Dragons from across the nation. He felt deeply grateful for their support after such an arduously hard day. He said he wished he had his own Mama Dragon looking out for him. After confirming this story with Matt Whited and asking his permission to share it here, Wendy went on to tell me, “This is just the most recent example of MDs mobilizing in response to a need by our LGBT loved ones (whether they are related to us, or not). Experiences like this happen almost everyday on the Mama Dragon FB page. Sometimes we can help in person. Sometimes it’s through social media, texts, emails or phone calls.”
“We have attended funerals of gay teen suicide victims and mourned with their bereaved families. We have attended same-sex weddings and celebrated with the new couple. We have buoyed each other up when unjust things have happened to us – like having temple recommends taken away for marching with our children in a Pride Parade, having callings stripped for supporting our child’s right to marry who they love, losing close family relationships for loving and supporting our gay children, etc. We have met with some of the highest leaders in the LDS Church, asking for more visibility and promotion of the church-sponsored Mormons & Gays website, and increased compassion and inclusivity in their talks about LGBT people. LDS Apostle Elder Christofferson himself has met with me, thanked me for my efforts, and implored me to continue at all costs. We have written articles about our experiences that have helped to open the eyes and hearts of the people who read them. We work hard EVERY DAY to make things better for gay Mormons, especially the youth. They are our most vulnerable. And unfortunately, the most invisible.”

This isn’t just to make LGBT people comfortable at church. This is literally to save lives. The following study was done by Caitlyn Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project and San Francisco State University. Their research and conclusions concerning LGBT children raised in highly-religious families were peer-reviewed and published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

“Higher rates of family rejection were significantly associated with poorer health outcomes. On the basis of odds ratios, lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection. ” (2)

Utah has an estimated 5,000 homeless youths, about 40 percent of whom identify as LGBT people–50 percent of whom were raised in LDS families (3). What needs to be realized about the staggering nature of these statistics on homeless teens is that only 7% of teens in Utah identify as LGBT, so for them to make up 40% of the homeless youth in Utah is problematic beyond words.

It is clear that “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is pretty much the worst way to love someone. Instead we need to love the sinner (realizing we are all sinners) and only hate our own sin. There is no cause to judge or reject others for homosexuality when truly, its nature and purpose here on earth is beyond any of our comprehension. Everyone is free to come to their own personal conclusions on the sinful or nonsinful nature of homosexuality, but in no way is it anyone’s right to project limiting beliefs on others. My prayer is that one day there will be no need for mothers to have to turn into dragons to protect their children from their religious community. Until then, I’m glad that God has given these women the courage, talons, and fire needed to protect His LGBT sons and daughters from harm.

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1) http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/interview-oaks-wickman-same-gender-attraction
2) “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults”. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Caitlin Ryan, PhD, ACSW; David Heubner PhD, MPH; Rafael M. Diaz, PhD; Jorge Sanchez, BA.  Pediatrics Vol. 123 No. 1 January 1, 2009 . pp. 346 -352
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/123/1/346.full?ijkey=NrncY0H897lAU&keytype=ref&siteid=aapjournals
3) Standard-Examiner, Nancy Van Valkenburg, Oct 29 2013. http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/10/29/40-percent-homeless-utah-children-identified-lgbt

7 comments for “When Religion Creates Dragons

  1. Becky Coombs
    January 18, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    “It is clear that “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is pretty much the worst way to love someone. Instead we need to love the sinner (realizing we are all sinners) and only hate our own sin. There is no cause to judge or reject others for homosexuality when truly, its nature and purpose here on earth is beyond any of our comprehension. Everyone is free to come to their own personal conclusions on the sinful or nonsinful nature of homosexuality, but in no way is it anyone’s right to project limiting beliefs on others.”
    Wow. Just, WOW!

  2. Kenny Jimno
    January 18, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Hey my name is Kenny Jimno and I’m sending you this comment to let you know that as a Member of the Church and active if any of the Mama’s know any LGBT youth that need shelter i have plenty to share and i am willing to help.

    If there is any way possible for the Mama Dragons to begin a program to give a home to these youth i have room for three. Maybe y’all know of a foster program. could begining a foster program for the LGBT youth be something your group would be interested in?

  3. KENNY JIMNO
    January 18, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    I’d really like to help

  4. Lori Burkman
    January 18, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Fabulous to hear it Kenny! I see that you’re already friends with Wendy on facebook. We will definitely reach out if there is need in your area.

  5. January 19, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Lori – thanks for this article and for mentioning one of our studies. As your article underscores, the role of mothers, fathers and the extended family in supporting LGBT young people is incalculable. At the Family Acceptance Project, we studied how family and caregiver reactions to their LGBT children affect risk and well-being – so we also documented and measured how more than 50 supportive and accepting reactions that parents and families use to respond to their LGBT children relate to well-being. This research shows how these specific family accepting behaviors help protect against risk and promote self-esteem, overall health and wellness for LGBT young people. We published a guide to help LDS families to support their LGBT children and this is the first “Best Practice” resource for suicide prevention written for Mormon families that is included in the Best Practices Registry for Suicide Prevention (available in print copies and online). We are also developing other research-based family support materials for LDS and other families and we train on our work across the U.S. and in some other countries with LDS families and religious leaders. http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/publications

    • Lori Burkman
      January 19, 2015 at 10:51 pm

      SUCH great news to hear! I’m sorry it wasn’t all included here. I hope to do a new post soon that can be used as a resource for “what to do when your child comes out”. I will definitely look all of this over and see what I can do to help spread awareness of your more recent projects.

      Also, I love and respect your work so much Caitlin. I know it must be hard but please know that we support and love you!

  6. Marion Fust Sæternes
    January 28, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for this post Lori! And thank you Mama Dragons for being supportive outliers where our church is doing a less than well. I live in Scandinavia and expect problems are less severe here; but if I’m wrong and if there are LGBT-youth and persons suffering from our church culture or antiquated theology – I’d like to be a resource and a friend if I can.

Comments are closed.