By C.J. Hirschfield
March 30, 2022
Last month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a letter calling on professionals, including teachers and doctors, to report parents who give their trans children gender-affirming care. And even though the ACLU says it’s not legally binding, it is just another in a long line of assaults on trans and LGBTQ rights in that state.
But look out, Abbott. Texas trans kindergartner Kai and her mom—actually, lots of moms like her—are uniting and fighting for the rights of their LGBTQ kids. And guess what? They’re all devout and conservative Christians whose Mama Bears network of private Facebook groups exist in every state, numbering over 30,000 members at last count.Daresha Kyi’s poignant and ultimately inspiring documentary Mama Bears (which just had its world premiere at 2022 SXSW Film Festival) introduces us to three moms of gay and trans kids (from Texas, Oklahoma and California), each of whom has undergone deep spiritual questioning and much pain as they grapple with the reality of their kid’s true selves. In two of the three families, the result is total acceptance and then advocacy through the Mama Bears group; the daughter of the third says that her mom still believes that homosexuality is a sin, but she holds out hope she’ll change. But in the meantime, she is there to support her proudly lesbian daughter in a number of ways.
We’re all used to anti-gay rhetoric by now, but many self-righteous Christian leaders and the communities they serve take it to a different level. “An abomination,” “A sin against God,” “A moral perversion.“
What if you’ve been raised as a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian woman whose entire life has been devoted to your church community, your friends and your own family, and suddenly you are confronted with hate, called the enemy and shunned because of your child’s lack of adherence to religious norms? And it’s not just about the moms; their kids who’ve been raised in religious families truly love God and want to do right, but can’t square that with their desire to live their truths.
Two out of the three kids—Tammi and Parker– were in denial, trying not to be gay, and staying deep in the closet. As Parker says to his mom on his 21st birthday, “I sucked it up for 20 years being your son; I need you to suck it up to be my mother.” And she does–not only embracing him after years of forcing him to deny his reality, but founding Free Mom Hugs, a national movement of mothers offering love, acceptance, and hugs to the LGBTQ community.
And then there’s the young, articulate and fearless Kai, who endured years of beatings at the hand of her religious mother. At age four she told her that she’d like to be with Jesus and never come back. This wakeup call was profound, and the extremely remorseful parent expresses it simply: “Do you want a dead son or a living trans daughter?”
When Kai is denied access to the girls’ room in her elementary school, and then locked out of the nurse’s restroom that served as an alternative, mom decides to move from their small Texas town to the more open-minded Austin, where Esther Kai (she named herself after the biblical queen who is known for her intelligence, courage and beauty) now attends a school that embraces her.
Mama Bears makes effective use of family photos and videos as well as social media clips—both negative and positive, to tell its stories.
The ever-growing Mama Bears network lets parents know that they’re not alone, we’re told. They join Pride parades, nationwide tours, and give testimony at state houses.
Their message? “You don’t need to throw out Jesus—Jesus is the reason we do this.”
Learn about Mama Bears.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Daresha Kyi is an Emmy Award–winning director who also writes and produces film and television in Spanish and English. She most recently directed a short documentary, Georgia Going Blue about the Georgia-based grassroots organizations working to fight voter suppression in Georgia and throughout the country. She is currently in post-production on Black Voters Matter, a feature documentary which chronicles Clif and April Albright’s and LaTosha Brown’s rise from aspiring acolytes to game changing civil rights leaders and the critical role they played in helping Georgia flip from red to blue in 2020 and 2021. In 2018 Daresha was commissioned by the ACLU to direct Trans in America: Texas Strong which garnered over 3.5 million views online (and can be viewed below), premiered at SXSW and went on to win the News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Documentary as well as two Webby Awards. In 2017 produced Dispatches from Cleveland and was co-director/producer of Chavela, a multiple award-winning Spanish language documentary about iconic, lesbian ranchera singer Chavela Vargas ranked the “Number One Latin American Documentary of the Decade” by CineArte magazine.
As a queer, politically progressive African American woman, I never imagined I’d have much in common with conservative, white, Christian women. The stances many took on social issues near and dear to my heart were often anathema to me and, to be honest, I considered such women my political adversaries — until I learned about the mama bears. I’m deeply intrigued by the journeys these women have taken from living as comfortable members of the not-so-silent-majority to becoming not just minorities, but even social outcasts. In the face of religious, familial, and social judgment and condemnation, they opt to do the hard, often painful work of learning to view the world through fresh eyes. It’s an amazing, heroic journey into the depths of the “dark night of the soul.” But man! When they emerge into the light, many become fierce warriors who fight tooth and nail for the rights of the very communities they once abhorred.
When we began filming in 2017, there were a little over 2,000 members in the mama bears’ private Facebook groups. Now they are over 30,000 strong! So many mothers have become such ferocious advocates for people they once scorned as unnatural “abominations” that you have to wonder what could possibly cause such radical transformation? Only love. Love for their LGBTQ+ children forces these mothers to challenge, dissect, and dismantle their core beliefs and even abandon their churches in search of deeper, more meaningful truths. Love shatters their illusions, expands their hearts, and leads them to embrace not only their own offspring and the entire LGBTQ+ community, but all marginalized people.
I believe I was chosen to tell this story not only because I am a versatile storyteller with numerous awards for my narrative and documentary films and television programs, but because I am a true believer in the all-encompassing power of love. In fact, I consider myself a “Warrior of Love” who believes it is my responsibility to do everything within my power to shift the balance in our world away from death, destruction, and hatred and toward stronger, deeper love. It is my deepest hope that MAMA BEARS will inspire viewers to greater acceptance through the examples set by these humble but powerful women and their all-consuming, soul shaking LOVE. It is a profound honor to use my art to amplify their message of love and inclusion and help spread the mama bears’ movement.
– Daresha Kyi, February 2022