Page 2 of 6Breathing Fire and Calming Hearts
By Carolyn Campbell
Photos by Niki Chan
Mama Dragons began with eight LDS women private messaging each other on Facebook. Co-founder Jill Hazard Rowe recalls that a woman in American Fork sought help for a student in a gay-straight alliance who was having issues. "She brought in a few of us to answer questions." They supported that student and the feed continued. "It became a nightly thing with us, sharing our sorrows and pain, not only about kids, but also about our church." It was a place to vent where the women felt truly safe, where their sisters had their backs. The thread of private messages became so long that they created the Mama Dragons Facebook page and added people. They continued to offer support for other LDS people navigating the waters of LGBTQ issues within their families and communities. Initially, the Facebook setting was "secret." Then they realized how much support is needed and that people are looking for help. Today, there are nearly 900 women worldwide. The group has expanded to include other faiths. "We respect everyone's spiritual journey," says Rowe. The name Mama Dragons originated when an Arizona mom decided that the term "mother bear" wasn't powerful enough. In Mama Dragon Story Project, she explains that, after her 13-year-old son came out as gay, "a whole new level of protection came over me. I now call myself a Mama Dragon. I could literally breathe fire if someone hurt my son."
Four years ago, the bottom of Lisa Glad's world suddenly dropped away. It was Dec. 22, the night before her big family Christmas party. She and her 20-year-old daughter, Patti, sat alone in a Lowe's parking lot. Patti suddenly said, "Mom, the thing with this girl tonight ... it's a date. I'm lesbian." Glad's mind rushed helplessly as she thought, "I don't know what to do with this." Aloud, she said, "I don't want to lose you. I love you. We will do whatever we need to do." She reassured Patti that she would not disown her, adding, "You are mine and you will always be mine." Glad survived the holidays because she didn't have time to talk to anyone. Then she contracted a bad case of the flu. "I welcomed it. I could hide in my room," she recalls. She made an appointment with a family friend who was also her family doctor and her parents' LDS bishop. "I went in to see him and just fell apart," she says. He reassured her, saying, "Your daughter was sent to you for a reason. Your job is to comfort her, keep her close and not do anything to push her away." Glad bore that message in mind years later when her youngest daughter, Kris, expressed that she wasn't transgender, but didn't feel female, either. Today, she identifies as asexual and gender-queer.
Glad is validated by reaching out as a Mama Dragon. "Our main focus is being allies to each other as mothers. By supporting each other, we can support our gay kids and everybody else's. Finding out that you have a gay kid can rock you to the core. It's my opinion that those parents are the ones who the Savior would reach out to the most." She has two equally strong testimonies—one of LDS Church teachings that she feels "are absolutely right" and the other that advocating and helping parents of LGBTQ children is the absolute right thing for her to do. "I've told my stake president about the conviction I have that I am called to this. If I had to choose between my activism and love for my kids versus the church, there is no question that my kids would win. I don't want it to come to that ultimatum." She's currently a nursery leader in her LDS ward. "I know there are certain things in older classes that I cannot teach." She supports her daughters' decision to leave the church because "negative things they have heard their whole lives have contributed to their anxiety and depression. Heavenly Father has reassured me that he will keep his arms around my girls. There are times when I want to leave the church, too. Then the spirit tells me I need to be there."
She attended the Mama Dragons second retreat held at a huge home in St. George that once belonged to a polygamist. "There were bedrooms with individual bathrooms all around the perimeter of the house." After she posted photos on Facebook, her daughter, Patti, asked her to send her a photo of the kitchen. Then she called her mom to say that she had been to that house, too, for a college seminar. "That is the same house where I told someone I was a lesbian for the first time," she said. That coincidence further brought home to Glad that "this work is what I need to be doing. Mama Dragons helps me reach out to moms to tell them that if they keep breathing and loving their kids that everything will be all right."
Jill Hazard Rowe
On Nov. 6, 2011, Jill Hazard Rowe's son, Hunter, came out as gay. Hearing his words, she began to cry. She mourned the loss of everything she imagined would happen in his life, including marriage and a mission. Rowe's own history in the LDS church included serving a mission, temple marriage, teaching seminary, serving as Relief Society president and working with Young Women. "I had many spiritual experiences and we raised our six children in the gospel. But when my son came out to me and my husband, I knew I needed to get rid of everything that I previously thought. I realized I was taught by my leaders, but had never taken it to God."
She learned that while being gay is hard, "being a gay Mormon is impossible. The sooner we as a faith community accept and love these kids, the sooner we will stop the suicide rate." She says that while "Hunter was happy to be in the family setting, he didn't connect with church and school. He was very much a loner." Then he began to dance in his senior year of high school. "He just fell in love with dance as a way to express himself." Today, Hunter dances and choreographs with a dance company in Denver. "I saw this light in his eyes after he came out to us. Through dance, he became a new person. He started to build confidence and accept that he has worth and meaning." Because of her strong spiritual experiences, she chooses to stay in the LDS Church at this time. "I walk in those doors every Sunday hoping to make a difference. My religion has boiled down to love more, judge less. I pray for the day when my son can walk into church and be embraced, have a calling and have his fellow Saints support him in that. I pray for the day when he chooses to marry and have a partner and children to raise. I hope they can be in the Mormon Church and be welcome. If this is Christ's church, he would want all of his children to sit in the pews."
A Mama Dragons board member, her passion is connecting with women and making sure they are not alone. She looks forward to attending the third annual Mama Dragons retreat, where women come from across the country. "We spend a week together, where we hike, talk and connect with each other. As you move along this journey, you become more settled. In the beginning, I cried for a month. I have humor now."
Jody England Hansen
Hansen says the thing she regrets most about the time when her 17-year-old son came out was that she initially made it all about her. "When he came out, I thought, 'wait a minute. This can't be true.' I wondered why I didn't know about this. I had no idea, even with friends and loved ones who are gay." Hansen is a ninth-generation Mormon. Her father was Eugene England, a well-known LDS writer who founded Dialogue, a quarterly printed and online "journal of Mormon thought." "The church had been the air that I breathe forever," she says. After her son came out, she had many days of pleading, praying and despairing. "I regretfully and painfully admit that I thought it would be best to try to keep him within what I thought could be a supportive structure of the church community—until I was finally willing to see how often he was hearing the messages of 'we love you, but ... you are inherently wrong, unnatural, unworthy, you will never be accepted by God, you need to change.'" She felt that these messages overwhelmed the gospel message "that God loves all of us, now, as we are, and we are to love one another." Today, her son is no longer involved in the church. She says, "One blessing of having a child who does not fit within our idea of tradition or culture is that you open up to see that every single path is individual and can lead to God."
For months, she pleaded with God to give her answers. One day, in a contemplative silence, she felt a prompting that said, "Ask a different question." In her mind, she asked God, "Is he yours?" She says that love flowed around over and through her. As she opened her eyes, she expected to see a tangible manifestation of the love that she felt. "We spend so much time and energy talking about what is going to happen after this life," she says. "The one sure thing for me is that this life is about loving each other. If we can't do that, nothing in the next life will make a difference."
For years, Jana Moffitt kept her worries that her son might be gay "deep down, in quiet, secret places." My fears about being Mormon and having a gay son were too much for me to handle," she recalls.
From the time he was about three years old, she noticed that Scott was different from his three older brothers, preferring to hang out with his sister rather than following the activities of the older boys. When he was around 13, Scott began spending a lot of time at home, in the basement.
His sister came to Moffitt, unnerved by pictures she found on the downstairs computer. "They were male physiques—body builders. You could tell these guys were gay," Moffitt says.
At that moment, her fears of her son being gay became an urgent reality. She questioned Scott, asking, "Is this who you are?" Two days later, he said he had known for a long time. "He was scared to death to be gay," she says.
An LDS bishop suggested therapy. Because Scott was scared to even sit in a waiting room for fear that someone would see him, Moffitt drove him to Provo therapists. "I sneaked him to Provo for years. My other kids didn't know. I made up stories about going to a piano recital or a workshop for school," she says of the nearly six years of therapy.
"The therapy didn't accomplish anything dramatic. He said it did help with his self esteem." Scott went on an LDS mission and returned eight months later. "It wasn't a good experience for him. But once he came home, he told his siblings he was gay. They love him and were all supportive," she says.
Scott found himself at the University of Utah, where he made friends who were in the arts and music fields that he also enjoyed. He was also involved in student government. Scott started telling a few friends, with whom he felt safe, that he was gay. He decided that he would come out after college.
"I could hardly wait for that time, so that I would be able to talk to somebody, to finally say that I have a gay son. I desperately needed someone who could understand my feelings," Moffitt says. A friend referred her to Mama Dragons. She says that they are still her best friends today.
She usually sees another Mama Dragon weekly, or at least twice a month. She is struggling to reconcile her acceptance of her son with the policies of the LDS Church. "I am mourning the loss of a religion I had dedicated my life to. All the things I was taught about the pre-existence and the celestial kingdom have had to change. I can't believe my son won't be with me wherever we are."
Today, she says Scott is "the happiest boy" as he prepares to attend graduate school at Duke University to pursue a career as a physician's assistant.