This past November, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a stunning new policy declaring gay Mormons in same-sex marriages to be apostates in risk of excommunication. The church also decided that the children of same-sex couples could not be blessed or baptized until they turned 18—and even then, only if they renounced their parents’ marriage. Immediately, a shock wave rippled throughout the sizable gay Mormon community. Wendy Montgomery, a Mormon mom who has a gay son and works with the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, believes that at least 32 gay Mormon youths have killed themselves since the announcement of the new policy.
Montgomery’s decision to go public with that number brought sudden interest to Mama Dragons, the support group she co-founded. Mama Dragons connects the mothers of gay Mormons, in the real world and virtually through Facebook. The group’s members have sheltered gay Mormons fleeing their homophobic families, invited LGBT Mormons into their homes when they feel depressed or suicidal, invited gay-friendly speakers to address Mormon communities, and even helped to plan funerals on behalf of Mormon moms whose gay children committed suicide. On Friday, I spoke with Diane Oviatt, a pediatric oncology nurse, and Hollie Hancock, a clinical mental health counselor—two founding members of the group—about their efforts to help gay Mormon youth.
How did Mama Dragons begin?
Oviatt: We started about three years ago as eight moms private-messaging each other on Facebook. We’d connected through Affirmation, an international LGBT Mormon support group. Eventually we created our own Facebook group, and we needed a name. One of our founding moms had written a blog post about her son coming out. She said she needed to be more than a mama bear because her son was extra vulnerable—he was really struggling. “I am a mama dragon,” she said. “I would breathe fire for my son.”
What was your reaction to the new policies?
Hancock: This was a shockwave, a blind side—it pulled the carpet out from under me, and so many people. I cried for a week. It was difficult, because every time I opened my door to welcome a new patient in, red puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks greeted me. I cried with my patients. That first week—I have never experienced anything like it as a therapist and hope I never do. I can’t imagine how painful it was for my patients.
I’ve been getting calls and messages from LGBT Mormons who’ve said: I’ve been excommunicated, I’ve been done with the church for 20 years, I thought I’d dealt with this, I thought I was OK—but the policy change ripped open the wounds anew. These people are experiencing the same trauma and emotion and hurt and pain that they felt with that very intersection of faith and sexuality.
Why do you think the church introduced these policies? And why now?
Oviatt: My opinion is that they didn’t want the rank-and-file members to get to know and love gay Mormons, to get to know and love these couples and their children and to see what amazing parents they are. There would be an uprising of your regular members turning into allies. This was a pre-emptive strike on the church’s part. I truly believe that the LGBT community having a place in our church and in our theology upends everything that our church has stood for forever. One man, one woman, and all that.
If that’s the case, why don’t you and your members just leave the church?
Oviatt: Here’s my point of view as a mom: I have a gay son and a gay brother who struggled his whole life. (He came out in the ’70s. It was really rough.) I’ve seen the damage firsthand. I’ve seen my own son have suicidal ideation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve contemplated walking away. Every time the church puts another dagger in your heart, you sit there and think, this is the time I’m going to finally walk away. You’re embarrassed to be part of an organization that treats people like this. But you know that saying—Mormonism doesn’t wash off easily. It’s a culture as well as a religion. Many of us have pioneer ancestors. It’s a hard thing to walk away from.
My son and I live in the Bay Area. We have nothing but inclusive, loving, caring leaders. My son couldn’t have had a better experience coming out. And yet, the doctrine is still so painful—there’s no place for us in the theology. But every time I think about walking away, I think about those teenage kids sitting in the pew with their family who aren’t being properly loved, embraced, affirmed. And I am a voice for change, a thorn in people’s sides. I stick around to educate, to speak up. Whenever I think I might leave, I wonder: Who will these kids have? Who will be there for them?
Hancock: Every time something surfaces that is harmful to the LDS LGBT community, it strikes a hot dagger in our hearts, as well. It pushes me to that crossroads—do I stay or do I go? I’ve had serious faith crises. But I stay connected and involved, for all those kids who are hearing awful things from the pulpit.
During Prop 8, I spoke with my bishop in tears and said, “This is not right.” He told me I needed to explain why to our congregation. “People need to know what you’re doing, the community you’re serving,” he told me. I was shocked that he gave me an open mic. After that, gay members of my congregation started pulling me aside and saying, thank you, I’m so glad you’re here. It’s those people for whom Diane and I stay.
Your group drew a hailstorm of media attention after Wendy Montgomery claimed that the new policy had spurred 32 suicides. How did she come up with that number?
Oviatt: Wendy works with the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. It’s a best-practices initiative that helps families with gay children. The project made a documentary film featuring Wendy and her family, and she quickly became the face of Mama Dragons. Since then, a lot of people have contacted her with their personal stories. She has been contacted numerous times since the new policy about a young gay family member who committed suicide, and she decided to start keeping track of the stories she heard. There’s an underground information circuit about the situation, because there’s so much shame and stigma around suicide, especially in Mormonism, which says suicide is akin to murder.
What has the reaction been to Montgomery’s report?
Oviatt: Within our community of activists, people are glad that we’ve pushed this issue to the forefront so we can start talking about it. There’s also a lot of concern within the LGBT Mormon community about the idea of suicide contagion, though, which we totally understand—it’s a double-edged sword. We don’t want to induce despair or make people feel like they’ll just be another statistic. We’re pushing the educational piece of it now. The Family Acceptance Project is disseminating information so families know how to prevent these things from happening.
Hancock: Many outside Mama Dragons have criticized us harshly for releasing these numbers. But I see it as a springboard to raise awareness of the bigger discussion that should be going on about suicide awareness and prevention. Nobody wanted to see the reality of what’s going on.
Oviatt: Some have also accused Mama Dragons of wanting the spotlight, rather than wanting to actually protect their children and make sure LGBT Mormon youth are safe and getting their needs met by proper therapists and resources and support groups. But truly, it’s not about us. It’s about helping our kids and educating and nurturing and supporting one another.
When you look at your precious kid, and you see that they don’t want to live because they don’t fit— Look, everything we’ve taught them their whole lives to want—marriage in the temple, children, the celestial kingdom up in heaven with your family—they think they can’t have because they’re gay. It’s no wonder these kids don’t want to stick around. It’s like the pain is too much. The shame: I’m ruining my celestial family by being gay. They suffer internal loathing even when they’ve had a good experience.
Even within supportive Mormon communities, in other words, the theology can still drive LGBT kids to depression?
Oviatt: Yes. The doctrine is just too painful for these kids. It’s heartbreaking. That’s why we need to support one another so much, why we need to mourn with one another. There’s a lot of grief, a lot of heartache. But we have to take matters into our own hands. We have to stop the bleeding in our own communities until the guys in Salt Lake come around—whatever century that might be.
This interview has been edited and condensed.