SALVATION THROUGH SUPPORT
Christian mothers of LGBT children find reconciliation with their faith through Nashville Mama Bears
“If you’re still going to live in sin, you need to be quiet about it.”
That was the pronouncement from church leadership to Dawn Bennett regarding her daughter, Erica, upon hearing that she was dating another girl.
Christian mothers of LBGT children are often faced with a seemingly impossible dilemma: reject their child, or reject their faith. While there are congregations and pastors accepting of their parishioner’s sexual orientation regardless of whether or not doing so violates the institutionalized tenets of the larger church body, many do not.
Erica, who was 15 years old at the time, had confided to one of her friends in the youth group she had a girlfriend. Her friend, in turn, told the youth pastor. Rather than speaking to Erica’s parents about the situation — she was, after all, a minor — the church leaders chose to confront Erica with point-blank questions like, “Have you broken up with your girlfriend yet? Because that’s sinful and you’re going to lose your salvation.”
Thus began Dawn Bennett’s journey of making peace with the Christian church while being a mother to her gay child, a journey that along the way led her to a group for Christian mothers of LBGT children known as Nashville Mama Bears.
Erica was 18 months old when she and her family moved to the Nashville area. She spent her days on the baseball diamond, throwing around a white ball with red laces with the boys — she wasn’t old enough to play softball. She had braces on her teeth, and as she grew older, she’d line her pretty eyes with dark liner and let her chestnut hair hang loose around her face. She never met a stranger.
“She loves people,” Dawn Bennett says, smiling in a far-off way when she talks about her daughter. “She sincerely loves the human race. Babies and animals just flock, because that’s the kind of heart Erica has.”
Like many folks living in the Bible Belt, Erica went to church on Sundays with her family. Her father was an usher; her mother taught marriage classes; and her older brother was in the youth group.
Erica also went to church on Wednesday evenings, a special night to her because on Wednesday nights she wasn’t just a spectator in a pew. She was a part of something. Erica was a musician, and she played her bass guitar in the church’s praise-and-worship band.
But Erica also happened to like girls, and when the church leaders became aware of the fact, she was no longer allowed to play in the band on Wednesday nights.
“I don’t have band practice tonight.” “I’m not in the rotation.” “I don’t feel well.” These were the excuses she told her parents every Wednesday night for three weeks until one night, Erica broke down and told her parents everything.
“Please don’t make me go back there,” Erica pleaded.
Her parents already knew their daughter was a lesbian and were affirming in their support of her. Furious about their daughter’s treatment, they met with the senior pastor of the church, along with the youth pastor and his wife.
“This is completely unacceptable,” declared Dawn to the church leaders, who apologized for the hurt that had been caused to the family. Erica, however, would not be welcome back to play in the church’s praise-and-worship band.
The Bennetts walked out of the church they had been attending for the past several years and never walked back in.
"My entire life with Paul growing up has been fearful. I knew something was different.” The fear in Beth’s voice is real. It’s the same kind you hear from a person talking about a car crash they experienced — they’re through it, but they can’t un-feel what happened.
Beth grew up Southern Baptist. Anything with an alcohol label on it was off-limits, sex before marriage was a no-no. And being gay?
“Gay was absolutely wrong,” Beth says of what she was taught from an early age.
After Beth married, she and her husband — who happened to be a varsity athlete in football and baseball — had three children they loved with every shred of every bit of their being: two girls and one son named Paul.
Growing up in Florida and Georgia, Paul was introduced to sports at an early age. He played on a T-ball team — his father was the coach. They’d spend many evenings and afternoons tossing around the ball in the yard. They’d camp together, too. Man-stuff. But for Paul, the man-stuff didn’t come so naturally.
Some nights, after a T-ball game that didn’t go well, Paul would come home with his spirits and his head down. As he bowed his head to say his prayers at night, Beth and her husband would always make sure to look into the face of the child they loved and say to him, “If all the boys in the whole world were lined up, we’d still choose you.”
Come high school, Paul began to thrive, having found his niche in the school’s theater department. Beth was over-the-moon happy her son had finally found the place where he could be himself. In the back of her mind, however, a growing cloud of fears was beginning to form.
Perhaps it was the result of the mother’s intuition, but Beth began to wonder if her son might be gay. And if he was, how did that fit in with the Christian faith she believed in — the one that, ever since she was a little girl, had taught her that homosexuality was a sin?
“You watch everything,” Beth says as she remembers Paul’s childhood. “If he said a girl was pretty, my heart just leapt for joy. Because I thought, ‘He’s not [gay].’ Then he would do something and I’d think, ‘He is [gay]. He’s not. He is.’
“I never once thought, ‘I wish I didn’t have a gay son, or I wish him to be any different,’ ” Beth says quickly. “But I knew as a mom what he was going to experience, and it scared me to death.”
Following high school — with a year off in between — Paul auditioned as a vocalist and was accepted into the North Carolina School of the Arts. After graduation, he moved to New York City.
Beth and her husband had also moved by then, this time to the Middle Tennessee area.
Driving back from Whole Foods one Saturday, Beth got a call from her son in New York.
“Mom, is Dad there?”
“Yes, honey, he is.”
“Can you put him on speaker?”
Beth hit the speaker button.
“Mom and Dad, I’m gay.”
“We still love you,” Beth and her husband both said to their son. “We’re going to be with you. We’re not going anywhere.”
Beth’s husband leaned into the phone.
“If all the boys in the whole world were lined up … ”And Beth, her husband, and Paul finished together, “… we’d still choose you.”
In a sense, Beth’s fears were finally put at ease. Her son was indeed what she’d feared all along; he was gay. But what did that mean with relation to Christianity?
“I immediately began to look at things online,” Beth says. “And began to look at [Christian] books outside of the conservative Christian arena.”
Beth picked up a book on how to read the Bible differently. She looked at work from Rev. Dr. David Gushee, an author and Christian ethics professor at Mercer University, whose book Changing Our Mind speaks on inclusion of the LBGTQ community with relation to the Christian church. Slowly, Beth began to make peace with the Christian view of homosexuality she’d feared growing up, and the son she loved with all her heart.
More than six months had passed since the day Paul made his call home. Beth was sitting in her Sunday school class when the war that had been waging inside her — not understanding how loving someone could be grouped into the same category as adultery and stealing — finally reached the surface.
“I’m really struggling with this issue,” Beth said slowly to the group. “I don’t feel that the [homosexual] people that I’m meeting, that they’re the abomination that’s talked about in scripture. … God has definitely got his hand on this journey [I’m on]; I can feel it. … And our son is gay.”
Immediately, two older gentlemen in the Sunday school class whipped out their Bibles.
“Until your son repents,” they said to her, “until [your son] decides to come back to God, he [can’t] be in this church.”
Beth is quick to point out neither of these men were leaders of the church, only members of the Sunday school class, but the incident hurt like nothing else before. She cried as she and her husband walked out of the Sunday school they had attended for seven years.
“We never went back,” Beth says.
For the next two years, Beth and her husband did not attend church.
“We were very sad on Sundays,” Beth says.
The couple would sometimes tune into Atlanta-based Pastor Andy Stanley online, and Beth continued to read a variety of Christian literature. Then she happened to stumble across an online article about Linda Robertson, a woman in Seattle whose own son, Ryan, was gay and died of an accidental drug-overdose. Robertson had founded a private Facebook group called “Just Because They Breathe.” The group was geared toward conservative Christian mothers who had recently learned their children were gay.
“It became my church,” Beth says of the online group.
When Beth joined the “Just Because They Breathe” Facebook group in 2011, the group had roughly 100 members from across the United States, with some in other countries. Some of the stories shared in the group were similar to Beth’s.
“News got out [to my church community], ‘They’ve got a gay kid,’ ” Dawn Bennett recalls following her daughter Erica’s coming out. “And then it was questions about my parenting, questions about conversion therapy, and did I want to do right by my child and remove this sin from [her] life?”
The “Just Because They Breathe” Facebook group served as a safe place where mothers could process the new journey they were on without being judged on what their Christian stance was with regards to homosexuality. And also simply be encouraged to love their children — no questions asked.
Over the years, two other Facebook groups sprang from the “Just Because They Breathe” group: “FreedHearts” and “Serendipitydodah for Moms.” These groups also focused on connecting Christian mothers of LBGTQ children.
Along with these online groups came face-to-face meet-ups between Middle Tennessee women outside of these groups.
“I met one mom — she lives in Knoxville — we met at a Cracker Barrel halfway,” Beth says. “All we could do was sob and talk a lot. We kept looking at each other going, ‘I know, I know, I know.’ ”
The Nashville and Middle Tennessee area mothers began to congregate with one another on a regular basis, getting together for dinners and retreats.
It was a safe place to share their stories — some happy, some sad:
Kelly Holiday and her lesbian daughter Kelsey experiencing chants of “man-child” as Kelsey walked across the stage during her eighth-grade graduation. The taunts were so loud Kelly can remember little else of the day.
Heather Gee-Thomas and her lesbian daughter Shaw, who, when a friend of the family learned Shaw was gay and wanted to press the Christianity button, Heather kindly but firmly stood up for her daughter. “[Shaw’s] the exact same person she was before you knew [she’s gay],” Heather said to the friend. “There’s nothing different about her, except now you know that she is attracted to girls. She’s the same quality human being that she always was.”
Monica Maday, who is a transgender woman with a gay child. “This is what I’ve always wanted in my entire life,” Monica says of the group, “is to have real friends.”
The women have deemed themselves the “Nashville Mama Bears,” and frequent Nashville-area gay clubs wearing “Free Mama Bear Hugs” T-shirts, offering hugs to club patrons. The response from the patrons is extremely positive, especially for some club-goers whose own parents are not supportive of their gay lifestyles.
“Without that group,” Kelly says, “I would never be able to go into a gay club and offer free hugs. I would never be able to march in a PRIDE parade.”
“We’ve become best friends,” Beth says. “We’ve experienced the death of their husbands [with] some of [the moms]. … We share pictures of our gay children going to prom. … We walk through life together. Talk about a support group … people that automatically love our children.”
The Nashville Mama Bears not only have a positive and heart-warming effect on each other’s life, but the love they radiate has a way of rubbing off on others as well. Heather recalls an uplifting interaction she once had with a friend on social media, someone she’s known since childhood.
“He is a very conservative country boy,” Heather says of a Facebook friend of hers in the Nashville area. “I went to middle school with him. … He said, ‘I’ve just been reading your [Facebook] posts [pertaining to your support of your daughter Shaw] for years. And I see a parent will do anything for their child, and it’s changed my heart.’
“We’re changing hearts one at a time,” Heather says. “That’s all you can do.”
A year and a half ago, Erica — now almost 20 years old and living on the East Coast — got on a plane and headed home to see her mom, Dawn.
“Mom, we gotta talk,” she said after arriving at her mother’s home.
Dawn looked up from the dishwasher to see her daughter, Erica, standing in front of her, water welling up in the corners of her eyes.
“I need a hug first,” Erica said.
Dawn wrapped her arms around her daughter.
Erica took a breath.
“I’ve transitioned female to male,” Erica said in one breath. “I use he/him pronouns, I love you so much, I hope that you’ll continue to respect me and not throw me out and I love you and I want to continue to love you, but I hope that you can respect my decision and that’s all. And I go by Logan and I hope that you can respect my choices.’
A smile began to appear on Dawn’s face.
“Do you remember? …” Dawn started.
And Dawn told her son Logan about when he was little, and how he used to play Barbies with his sister, how he wanted to be the boy doll and be called Logan.
“So am I surprised?” Dawn said. “No.”
And she continued, the steadiness in her voice remaining steady and growing stronger with every word.
“For the first 20 years of your life I raised you as my daughter Erica. Erica was standing up and Logan was sitting down. Now that you are a grown adult and you get to choose how to live out the rest of your days, Erica will sit down and Logan will stand up.”
“You are my child,” Dawn said without hesitation. “I love you completely.”