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The Mama Bear Story Project is a collection of portraits and autobiographical essays from members of Serendipitydodah for Moms – a private Facebook group for open minded Christian moms of LGBTQ kids.

Woodman, Deb

Here I sit, on the longest night of the year, a woman who is somewhere in her forties who tells herself she can still ignore that unfortunate little reality. It’s the last blaring delusion I allow myself.

I have two wonderful children and a husband of 25 years. I grew up in a strict conservative Christian family. I married my husband when we were both too young to understand how crazy we were to think that we were old enough to marry. I was only 19-years-old when we married and then we immediately moved out of state and started the great adventure of growing up together and building our own little world on our own terms.

I escaped from my family’s dysfunctional and spiritually, emotionally, physically and sexually abusive household (the Duggar family is not a freakish anomaly and hits way too close to my childhood reality). I was determined to create a stable environment, where love wasn’t something that I continually had to work so hard for. That’s a hard habit to break and it seems like a never ending process for me. My husband and I decided to strive for the perfect family environment that we always longed for. We are by no means perfect, but we continually aimed for unconditional love.

My husband is a keeper alright. His father walked out on his family when my husband was an infant. Despite the absence of a role model, Dan managed to become an amazing father to our children. His quiet strength never ceases to remind me that he will always be the love of my life. Plus, he somehow manages to put up with my goofy self.

We were blessed with two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. We worked hard and were fortunate enough to live in financial security. We had attained the American Dream. We raised our children in the south, in what is often jokingly referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt and attempted to give our children a strong foundation built on a loving God and a loving family. The God of love that I was denied knowing in my childhood.

When my youngest started school, I went back to college and attained a degree in psychology at a well known southern Baptist university. I began working in nonprofit mental health organizations as a crisis counselor and then a mental health social worker. It was in this atmosphere that my son, Zak became a staunch Republican. I, myself, had always been a socially liberal leaning independent, rocking the boat sometimes in my university classroom discussions and within our southern conservative church. While I was working with the underprivileged and becoming more aware of my growing social liberal views, my son was listening to Rush Limbaugh and growing in a different direction. There were times my son and I butted heads concerning his political beliefs. However, he was such a good Christian kid, so morally upstanding, what parent in their right mind would argue with his strict moral code and convictions. I supported immigration, social welfare, and gay rights, but I kept my mouth shut in our home to avoid arguments with my son and husband. I should have argued. I wish I had argued more and forced him to see things other than in black and white…moral or sinful. My son once called me a cultural relativist, as though it were the worst thing he could think of.

By the age of twelve Zak was blogging about abstract political and economic concepts that I couldn’t completely comprehend. My husband and I monitored his internet use and observed that he was being followed by well known conservative politicians and journalists who discussed with him intense opinions on economic policies and political philosophies. We would shake our heads and laugh and then tell him it was past his bedtime and to turn off his computer, that we knew he was a kid even if his readers had no idea. Outside of his political writings, he was a nervous kid. He struggled with bullies at school. Always, he had problems relating with his peers and felt more confident talking to adults about issues that most kids were oblivious to. Looking back, I knew he was different…but I could never put my finger on how or why. When a group of boys called him a fag, I told him that he should ignore them. They were ridiculous. I should have stood up for LGBT rights then, but I didn’t. He found friendships in church youth groups and video gamers, he loved hockey and political blogging. I was always so worried about internet porn and online predators, I never imagined that it would be his strict conservative internet connections that would become his greatest predators.

Skip forward a few years…we relocated back to our home state of Michigan when my husband got an offer for his dream job and my son was in high school. My mother was immediately diagnosed with breast cancer and then my father had open heart surgery. Having forgiven my family for past abuses and having had been away so long, I felt it was my responsibility to come full circle and take care of my aging parents. They sold their own home and moved to the same small town that we had settled in. They became a daily fixture in our household and we offered whatever means we had to assist them with their financial and physical needs. I put my career on the back burner and became a full time care giver to the people that had given me life. I told myself that I was doing the right thing. What I didn’t realize was I was slipping right back into those old emotionally abusive patterns that I now see were generations old. I was so eager to find love and acceptance from my parents. For the first time in years, I began silently suffering from nightmares, panic attacks, and struggling with self confidence and depression.

My son graduated from high school and accepted an academic scholarship to attend his first pick college, Hillsdale College, an extremely conservative college. If you’re a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity fan, you’ve heard it advertised, no doubt. All of the sudden he blossomed socially, he was academically successful, and he was making amazing social connections with high profile people who were promising him a future of his choosing. He had finally found his fit. For a while.

The summer before his sophomore year, I noticed a change in him. He seemed depressed and more anxious than I’d ever seen him, he was questioning his religious faith and his political beliefs. I just threw it out there one day while we sat talking in the car that there was nothing that could ever make me love him less or make me freak out, even if he told me he were gay, I wouldn’t freak out. I have no idea why I blurted that out, but he immediately responded that he thought he was bisexual but that he didn’t really want to discuss it. I just told him it was all going to be okay and to let me know what he decided. I actually thought that it was something to decide, what kind of car to buy or what his college major would be. I left it alone. Meanwhile, inside, I guess that I kind of was freaking out, worried about what this meant in the conservative environment he had surrounded himself with. I began researching peer reviewed articles concerning how to help LGBT youth in crisis. I felt so helpless with this secret. Three months later he came out to my husband and me as gay, confirmed to us immediately that this was not his choice and then asked me if I thought God saw him as an abomination. Up until that moment, I had not really concerned myself with what that means. Was it a sin? Was it even possible that this beautiful child that God had given me was somehow an abomination? I couldn’t see that being feasible. I said a little prayer that if I was going to err, I was going to err on the side of unconditional love and told my son no. I saw him only as my son and if I loved him unconditionally then surely his creator loved him even more.

He decided that he was living a lie and that he had no choice but to come out at his college, but wasn’t ready to come out to our other family members. He came out of the closet to us and my husband and I promptly moved into our own lonely closet. He said that he had chosen this college despite knowing their view of homosexuality, but that he felt that his sexuality didn’t define him. He could just put off pursuing any relationships until after he had graduated. But that he now needed to live honestly, even if he was still unready for a relationship. He knew of no other gays there. He was so naive in his 19-year-old skin. I was terrified. I began to notice all of the anti gay statements other family members used. I watched the news and it was as though all that I could see was how hateful the world was towards the LGBT community. What was this gay agenda that they kept talking about? Would my own child ever be free to love another human being the way I loved his father without facing judgement and hate at every turn? Would I ever be able to have grandchildren? If I did, would they too suffer at the hands of unloving Christians who deemed them to be created in deviance and immorality? Why couldn’t people see that homosexuality was about love and companionship, instead of defining it narrowly as a choice of sexual position? How could anyone define the beautiful and multifaceted person that was my child, the amazing and unique human that I loved under one narrow, socially constructed label? Every homophobic comment felt like a new cut that I couldn’t protect myself from. I suddenly had a glimpse of what it felt to be in Zak’s world. It was excruciating.

His life in college quickly turned into a nightmare. Word traveled fast at that small college. He was shunned by his peers, the college administration deemed him a problem and the dean of men told incoming freshmen not to associate themselves with him because he was unstable. Despite the fact that he had not yet experienced his first kiss, he was called out as a sexual deviant at public speaking events and in the classroom. One “well meaning” student even took it upon himself to corner him in the dorm bathroom and attempt to cast out his homosexual demons because he had suffered a panic attack which had caused a stress induced nose bleed, apparently proof that he was under the influence of Satan. Another fellow student, who was the college academic superstar and was in his previous friend group, urged my son to kill himself so there would be “one less gay soiling the world”. (The majority of this I found out after the fact while in counseling) In a few short months, I watched my son slowly slip away. My husband and I tried to convince him to transfer schools and threatened to pull our financial backing if he didn’t…he refused to be a quitter. He thought that he could change them, make them see things differently. All of this took place in the midst the harsh political climate surrounding the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.

My son was the only openly gay student in a college that openly condemned the LGBT community and referred to them in a college wide email as an abomination that they prayed would be abolished by God. Zak became a target for all of their homophobic pent up religious, righteous rage. He was tortured, he received numerous internet threats by email, on his blog, on Facebook. He finally confided to me during a panic attack, middle of the night phone call that he was feeling suicidal. I dropped everything, drove three hours to find him curled up in his car. I took him off campus for the weekend, tried to talk sense to him. Still he would not come home. I wish I had forced him to come home.

I got him into counseling where he was, but that entire tiny little town seemed controlled by the same insane mentality. Even the counselor insisted that it was best that he continue his education at that “wonderful college, with their classical educational tradition and limitless opportunities and social connections”. It was a living nightmare. I was in constant fear for his emotional and physical safety.

In the midst of it all, he was outed by a friend to my family on Facebook. Regardless of his emotional state, my mother insisted that he had asked for it, everything that he was going through was of his own making. He was reaping what he had sown. Sinful nature equals a life of sorrow. She continually announced at family gatherings that she was praying for Zak’s healing from his homosexuality, as if it were some infection that God could remove. My abusive brother claimed that it was my soft parenting that had caused him to become homosexual, that and the fact that my husband didn’t hunt or fish with him and pursue manly activities. He pointed to the fact that we raised a daughter who was a strong female that could shoot a rifle better than most men and had a black belt in martial arts. We hadn’t stuck to culturally appropriate gender norms in our family and it had emasculated our son and made him think ungodly thoughts. My sister stated that she loved him despite of his “lifestyle choice” but told me that she hoped that he wasn’t going to be “one of those gays that pushed it in other people’s faces”. What in the hell did that even mean?

It finally clicked one Easter Sunday, while we gathered with the family that I was born into and bowed our heads to bless our meal. My mother said the prayer, which she promptly twisted into a plea for God to cast out the homosexual inclinations in my son so that our family could know peace in His love. My mother actually stood there and attempted to pray away the gay! She had judged my son to be a sexual deviant, while my unrepentant sexually abusive brother (her son) stood in the same room nodding in earnest agreement. Something clicked that day. Something broke in me. Or perhaps, something already broken within me finally began to heal. I saw that I had somehow permitted an all too common false Christian narrative the power over my own self worth. I had given an outright lie way too much space in my mind. I silently looked up from the prayer that I was passively accepting and took in the faces of my my lifelong abuser and the people who had enabled that abuse, the people who were now mislabeling my own child as the deviant, and the chains that bound me finally began to crumble. The hypocrisy of it all made me want to vomit on the meal I had slaved over all afternoon in order to feed the people around me who were starving my soul of love. I wish that I could say that I cast those chains away in one fell swoop, but it doesn’t happen that simply. I’ve had to perform countless emotional surgeries on my own heart, removing each link of the chain. It’s been a painful and tedious process. The current political climate and the constant barrage of social discussions concerning our nation’s vapid rape culture certainly haven’t made it any easier.

Regardless, I saw that I had no choice but to untangle my parents and siblings from my life. Not just for my son’s sake but for my own. How could I expect my son to leave his toxic environment within that conservative college, while I remained immersed in my toxic family who refused to respect my boundaries and continually held me frozen in emotional blackmail. How could we survive amongst those that condemned my son’s sexuality yet condoned and secreted their own history of sexual child abuse. To this day, my mother blames our severed relationship on my intolerance of their religious opinions concerning my son’s sexuality. That pains me, but I know the truth.

When I attempted to seek guidance from the pastor of the church we attended at that time, I was told that it would be better if I sought a different pastor from a different church for that “sort of problem”, this pastor was too busy to deal with this politically problematic subject. I called other churches, I couldn’t find anywhere in our community that was open to discussing the subject. I could not locate a house of God where we were affirmed as a loving family, rather that merely tolerated. For the first time in my life, I was spiritually homeless. I had become a refugee of sorts. I felt like a wounded victim in a ditch that day, no Good Samaritan in site to stanch the bleeding in my soul. I haven’t been to church since.

Meanwhile, my son was on the same quest three hours away from me in the little town of Hillsdale, Michigan. Church and his strong belief in God had always been his refuge and source of strength throughout the storms of his young life. No Christian church in the community would accept him. They all had no place for the LGBT community, especially with the political atmosphere that was going on. He grew bitter against Christianity, I couldn’t really blame him. I was having my own crisis of faith.

Finally, summer break came and my son came home to us a shell of the young man who had gone off to college two years before. He was rail thin and hunched over, he looked to me like a prisoner of war from a documentary on WWII. My husband and I decided to find him a therapist close to home and grew determined that he would never return to Hillsdale. A few days later, my son woke me up at six o’clock in the morning confused, delusional, scared, and told me that he wanted to hurt himself. He had received more internet threats the evening before. We had no choice but to take him to the hospital for a psych evaluation. It was a horror that no amount of education could ever prepare me for. Having worked in the mental health field, I understood the lingo too well. I knew the side effects of the antipsychotics they put him on. I feared their tentative diagnoses. I had professionally worked closely with mentally ill teens admitted to psychiatric hospitals…it was so different to see my own son there. He spent days curled into a ball, crying and confused. He was afraid to eat the food because it was the same food service company as at the college. He thought they were stalking him. He clung to me at visitation times. His one friend from college, who would later become his boyfriend, visited him and stayed with us. Together we held him, combed his hair, stroked his curled up back. His hospital roommate’s mother became outraged. She told the nurse that her son would not be roommates with a homosexual. She threatened him, saying that gays were sexual predators. How could this be happening? Couldn’t she see that he was broken? That his 105 lbs, emaciated frame was incapable of being any kind of threat to her football player sized son? Was there anyplace safe for him? I slipped into social worker gear, advocated for him, I had to get him out of there. Then bringing his friend into our home, I realized that I had two broken kids to deal with. At the time, his friend had no one who truly accepted him within his own family. He was scared and angry and sad, and my son’s breakdown triggered his own grief and anguish.

My son was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. With medication, outpatient therapy, and unconditional love, we watched him slowly come back to us. My husband and I had a whole lot of learning to do that year. In all of our parenting research and planning, we had never considered how to handle having a gay son. I felt so inept, so tired, so broken. We’ve adjusted, we’ve grown, and we’re both better for it. That first year though, it was a a tough one.

All throughout this long haul, my teenage daughter has grown into this amazing, empathetic young woman. After witnessing her brother’s struggles, she started a gay-straight alliance in her small, rural high school. It didn’t gain her any popularity points as we live in a very conservative area, but she has been able to reach out to and give support to some kids who truly needed it. My daughter is amazing and kind and she’s so much smarter and braver than her mom could ever imagine being. Earlier this year, she told me that she thinks she might be bisexual but that she’s still figuring it all out. She isn’t ready to act on it or come out in any grand way. She said that she’s unsure of what she feels, she just didn’t want to shock me if someday she fell in love with a woman. Whatever happens, she knows she’s loved and accepted. I suppose I’ll eventually see where that path leads when she’s ready to walk it.

My son fell in love with the other student who had also survived the torture of Hillsdale College and had graduated the year before Zak came out there. Together, he and Mason have found healing and acceptance in new communities, and unconditional love inside our home. They’ve had their trials, their own separate issues to work through. I don’t know if their relationship will withstand the difficulties of living separated by miles, as they live in different cities, but I have faith that they are each capable of greatness, whether it be together or apart. They also both claim to be atheists now and avid libertarians. The atheist title breaks my heart a little, but I am confident that the one who created their hearts, intimately knows their hearts, understands their responses to the social abuses that they’ve suffered, and loves them unconditionally. Mason comes home to us each holiday from his new adventures of living and working in Washington DC. As I look around at our crazy, silly group of laughing kids, I feel blessed in being surrounded by beautiful hearts.

Zak returned to college. This time at a public university in a beautifully diverse community. It’s an hour away from his previous school, yet it might as well be on an entirely different planet. I’ve successfully resisted most urges to be a helicopter mom since he moved into his new apartment and that struggle was somewhat painful. It’s been scary, wondering if he’s truly okay now. He finally seems to be putting all of it behind him and is slowly moving forward. Other closeted LGBT people from his college have connected with him, and he has offered himself as a safe haven from the oppressive storms when needed. He’s still an introvert and he sometimes struggles with anxiety (I do too), but he’s come a heck of a long way.

My daughter has also spread her wings and moved off to college. She’s a beautiful force to be reckoned with. She’s smart, she’s kind, and I cannot be more proud as I watch her blaze her own unique path. I watch in awe, as she demonstrates to me on a daily basis what modern women are capable of in this ever changing world. Whatever path she travels, I will always be there to cheer her on and applaud her strength and courage.

We’ve all come a long way. I’m such a proud and thankful mama bear. I’m still learning every day to be a stronger woman and a better parent than I was yesterday. I still struggle with the old concepts of God and all the fears that the evangelical church that I was raised in instilled in my mind. Sometimes it seems overwhelming and it brings me to my knees. But I keep fighting to get back up, determined to do my part in making the world a kinder and safer place for kids like my own.

There was a time when I thought I had it all figured out…religion, philosophical perspectives, parenting styles, psychology…ha how silly of me! Maybe I will never have it all figured out. Maybe it doesn’t need to be figured out. I am increasingly convinced that the greatest gifts in life cannot be neatly packaged and labeled by society’s standards. My greatest gifts have come in the midst of chaos and are packaged in asymmetrical boxes decorated in rainbow ribbons, reminding me that real love is immeasurable, undefinable, and timeless.

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Serendipitydodah for Moms is a private Facebook group for moms of LGBTQ kids. Our official motto is “We Are Better Together” and our nickname is “Mama Bears” The group is secret so that only members can find it or see what is posted in the group. It was started in June 2014 and presently has more than 2,400 members. For more info email lizdyer55@gmail.com

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