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The Mama Bear Story Project is a collection of portraits and autobiographical essays from members of Serendipitydodah – Home of the Mama Bears

Our daughter Abby came out to us, unexpectedly, at the age of 16, and in that moment, I felt my tidy Christian world begin to unravel. In our Jesus-loving, evangelical-church-going family, this just didn’t seem possible. In the months and years that followed, I learned to make room for many things along the way, including questions that required stretching and expanding my old ways of thinking.

Most pressing on my heart was the dilemma of how to fit Abby’s sexual orientation within the context of my faith. I understood that Abby being gay wasn’t simply a phase or a choice, and I believed God didn’t love her any less because she was gay. But I had concerns about her future that were troublesome and unsettling to me. I wanted her to be happy and healthy, as any mother would, and also to flourish emotionally and spiritually.

Which is why I was saddened, but not surprised, when Abby stopped coming to church with us. My first instinct was to do everything in my power to drag her with us on Sundays—whether she liked it or not—but I could see that after coming out she felt less at home there (as we did too, over time.) She didn’t want to be part of a community where she wasn’t accepted for who she was, and as a result began seeking out a new group of friends, many of whom were also LGBTQ.

At first, I was a little panicky at the thought of Abby hanging out with mostly LGBTQ friends. The idea of a “gay community” was way outside my realm of experience or knowledge and I wanted to know everything I could about the people she spent time with, even the things that seemed silly or random on the surface. Like, why did some of her friends wear androgynous-looking clothes or cut their hair so short? She often rolled her eyes at my naivete, like an adult who finds a child amusing, but I was grateful hearing her perspective.

Underlying our conversations was my irrational fear that Abby would be pulled into relationships and experiences she wasn’t emotionally prepared to navigate. She was young in ways that seemed tender and impressionable. Sure, she had a driver’s license and a part-time job, but she was still balancing on that precarious edge between young woman and older girl—a ripe catch for someone who might influence her negatively. The notion of a gay community, lifestyle,
or culture, had always seemed a little dangerous in my imagination, and I feared it would suck her into its clutches.

Mind you, I had almost zero personal experience with actual gay people. I was a product of my times and culture, coming of age in the 80’s in conservative Christian circles. Knowing someone who was gay and out was about as common as knowing someone who had time traveled. Even as a teenager living in the San Francisco Bay Area, my understanding of gay culture was formed mostly from what I saw on TV of the annual Pride parade. No one in my church or friend circles talked openly about gay people. It was all taboo and hush-hush, and made for a lot of speculation, jokes and titillating gossip.

In my twenties I could count on one hand the number of gay people I knew personally. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties and early forties that I had friends who I knew to be gay and out. But old stereotypes from my past persisted, and when my newly-out daughter started spending more time with her LGBTQ friends and less time at church, my instinct was to circle the wagons in order to protect her from the dangers I feared would be awaiting her. I just wasn’t sure what those dangers were, exactly.

My paranoia seems so irrational to me now, but I felt like an outsider in her world. I didn’t know what was true and what was my own imagination. Fear of the unknown fueled my worry. I hated the thought of a chasm growing between my daughter. If I allowed myself to believe that in coming out, my daughter had become something other than the Abby I’d always known and loved, that she had become one of them, I knew I’d lose her. I couldn’t bear the thought of it.

Someone wise once said if you want to build a bridge you have to spend time on both sides you’re trying to connect. Obviously, separating myself from Abby’s growing new community of friends wasn’t going to help me cross my gulf of fear, so I decided to take baby steps toward it instead. As usual those steps were at first awkward and uncomfortable.

While my former conservative-Christian self couldn’t have ever imagined darkening the door of a lesbian bar, that’s exactly what I did one evening when Abby invited me to come and hear her sing at a club. Though not yet 21, she had been performing for a while at some of the local open mic nights. The customers at this particular club happened to be mostly lesbians—I said yes before I could chicken out. I was nervous and about as far out of my element as I could get. I’m sure everything about my sensible outfit and self-conscious demeanor screamed Heterosexual Christian Mom!—but despite my discomfort I actually managed to enjoyed myself.

Sitting at a table with a few of Abby’s friends, I mostly just listened as they laughed and talked about school, work, relationships—the usual stuff. They were sensitive to my newbie status in their world and graciously invited me into the conversation at various points. Gradually, I felt the tension in my body relax as an unexpected realization sunk in: I was among friends. No one acting inappropriately or out of control; just a handful of young women listening to music and having a few drinks with friends.

That evening proved to be a small but profound revelation that opened up my thinking about what an LGBTQ community looked like. As far as I could tell, it was like any group of young people, with the same desire for belonging and companionship you’d expect to see in any community. The more time I spent in those casual settings with Abby and her friends the more I learned to see them as people beyond just a label or category.

It’s difficult to admit that until Abby came out, I didn’t think much about the biases I’d been harboring about gay people since as far back as childhood. I never imagined the LGBTQ community could include kids like mine, from families like ours. Kids who were just trying to figure out their lives, find their path, make their parents proud. I watched Abby’s gay and non-gay friends alike go through similar life experiences: auditioning for their dream gigs, scraping
to make ends meet in college, struggling through break-ups, moving away from home, getting their first full-time jobs. The details varied but all of them were just young people trying to make the awkward leap into adulthood the best way they knew how.

The distinctions between “us” and “them” I once thought clearly defined became blurry. I saw that people are far more alike than we are different. One of my favorite lines from Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird is when Scout says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”I’ve tried to keep these words close to my heart as Abby has moved in and out of friendships and relationships with people I’ve grown to love. It’s hard to imagine I was once worried about her spending time with these LGBTQ “folks” I’ve sat across tables from, laughed with, cried with, and made room for their stories in my heart. My life is bigger and more beautiful because they are in it.

This story was excerpted from the book “Love Makes Room” by Staci Frenes and shared with the author’s permission. Staci’s book can be purchased here and wherever books are sold.

Serendipitydodah – Home of the Mama Bears is a private Facebook group for moms of LGBTQ kids. The official motto is “Better Together” and the members call themselves “Mama Bears”

The group is private so only members can see who is in the group and what is posted in the group. It was started in June 2014 and presently has more than 26,000 members. For more info about the Mama Bears organization visit our website at realmamabears.org 

This story can also be viewed on the Mama Bear Story Project Facebook page.