Mama Bears | NewFest 2022

When Kimberly Shappley was pregnant, she was leading a ministry for pregnant women and their families, teaching “Christ-centered childbirth” and “Biblical parenthood.”* Her beliefs didn’t stop at the church door, either: she says she “just knew” that it was her “duty as a Christian woman as a mother to vote a straight ticket for the Republican party so that we can try to get this Christian nation back living by the Bible.” She also believed that LGBTQ people needed to be helped to “see the truth to save them from going to Hell.”

Then she gave birth to a child, Kai, who was identified as male at birth but began declaring around age three that she was a girl. Shappley responded by punishing Kai; she also tried prayer and researched the possibility of conversion therapy. But the timeouts and the spankings couldn’t make Kai back down, and when she said she wished she could go live with Jesus forever, Shappley realized that it was time to accept her trans daughter for who she was.

Sara Cunningham grew up with the church as the center of her life, and in the church in question, being gay was “the ultimate offense.” Then, at age 15, her son Parker came out as gay. Her response was to tell him to not be gay, and he replied “I’m trying not to be.” But to no avail, because it’s not a choice, and ultimately, Cunningham, like Shappley, chose her child over the faith she was raised in.

When Tammi Terrell Morris was growing up, she was never interested in the girly things—Barbies and fake nails and boy bands—that held such appeal for her girl cousins. Later, she realized that she was attracted to women. Her home and her church had no room for such feeling: she had been taught that it was impossible to live as a gay person and still be a Christian. So she prayed for God to take her feelings away, which predictably didn’t work. When she approached her parents with her problem, they said that she should simply not act on her desires, and for some time she tried to follow that advice, to the point of marrying a man and bearing two sons.  

The stories of these three women are the focus of Daresha Kyi’s Mama Bears, which takes its title from an organization of conservative Christian women who have LGBTQ children and support each other through social media and in-person meetings and activism. Although each story is unique (and Morris differs from the other two in that she is Black and they are white, and the membership of Mama Bears seems to be primarily white), they also have things in common, including the struggle to confront and reject long-held beliefs, and the isolation that follows when relatives and fellow church members cut them off, as one woman notes, “just when you need them the most.”

Well, that’s the problem with contingent love, which Parker Cunningham said he learned about early on—in the church he was raised in, even God’s love apparently had limits when it came to people like himself. The stories of these women can feel a bit like those of men who suddenly become aware of gender-based discrimination once they have a daughter—like did they ever talk to their wives? Or take notice of anyone other than themselves? The suggestion that you can only see the necessity of human rights for everyone when someone you care about is affected is a flawed premise, although perhaps, given the tribal nature of American society, I shouldn’t be surprised that that’s often how things work out.

And I don’t want to be too negative about these women—when they changed their minds, they acted on their new beliefs, and also accepted their lowered (or nonexistent) status in regard to family members and former friends. They poured some of their energy into activism, including Shappley’s efforts to defeat a “bathroom bill” in Texas that would have forced her daughter to use the boys’ bathroom at her school. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of zombie idea that you just know will rise up again, so, like everyone else fighting for minority rights, she’ll probably have to fight that battle more than once. | Sarah Boslaugh

* Quotes because those are her phrases, and I don’t know exactly what they mean, so I don’t want to risk paraphrasing.

Mama Bears will be screened in-person at the  Beatrice Theatre at the School for the Visual Arts in New York City on Oct. 21 and is available for remote streaming during the 34th Annual NewFest, Oct. 13-25. More information about film programs, special events, and passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.

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