The "Mama Bears" LGBTQ-focused documentary makes its Chicago broadcast premiere Friday, June 23 at 8 p.m. on PBS' Independent Lens program and will be available afterward on the PBS app. The documentary features the stories of Kimberly Shappley, Sara Cunningham and Tammi Terrell Morris, who all share their journeys toward full LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Shappley and Cunningham (founder of the Free Mom Hugs movement) are formerly conservative white Christian mothers and members of a network of women who call themselves Mama Bears, while Morris is a Black lesbian who has had to reconcile her identity with her Christian faith.
Emmy Award-winning director Daresha Kyi takes viewers into the lives of these women over several years. For Shappley (who has a transgender daughter named Kai) and Cunningham (who has a now-adult gay son named Parker), that meant connecting via private Facebook support groups, and later, as they rose in prominence, to fighting for the rights of their and other people's LGBTQ+ children.
"When I first learned about the Mama Bears, I felt instantly compelled to tell the stories of these amazing, fierce women who have been transformed by love for their children," said Kyi in a press release. "From the beginning, my hope was that by sharing their journeys, the film would bridge seemingly insurmountable divides between conservative Christians and the queer community and help bring healing to LGBTQ+ people who may have been rejected by religious family members. With the film's broadcast on Independent Lens, I'm excited for it to reach even larger audiences and find the people who need its message of hope the most."
Cunningham, who had initially rejected her son's gay identity, rose to prominence when she pinned a homemade button to her sundress that read Free Mom Hugs and went to the Oklahoma City Pride in 2015. She said the experience of receiving love in the form of those hugs from LGBTQ+ people and hearing some of their horror stories prompted her work toward expanding outreach for those who needed a safe place to stay in the Oklahoma City area.
"The Free Mom Hugs National Organization was born from a post I made that went viral, when out of frustration as a same-sex wedding officiant, and parents refusing to attend their children's weddings; I said, 'If your parents won't come to your same sex wedding. Call me. I'll be there. I'll be your biggest fan. I'll even bring the bubbles.'" said Cunningham. "My post and sentiment rang true for thousands of parents and allies who began emailing us wanting to do the same thing in their city and state. It was after the 2016 election, and so many parents of LGBTQ+ kids were fearful of the future and needed to do something.
"Free Mom Hugs became that outlet, and we started getting chapter leaders in every state. And the movement continues to grow with the most amazing volunteers alongside us. We even have people in other countries inspired by Free Mom Hugs doing the same. Our chapter leaders are the embodiment of our mission statement: To empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation."
Shappley's journey toward acceptance of her daughter's gender identity and later her advocacy started where many parents of trans children begin, when Kai's school district superintendent forced her to use the boy's bathroom or the nurse's office when she began kindergarten.
"We have seven years of legislative experience," said Shappley. "Kai's testimony that went viral was the first time she testified alone. She had been sitting on my lap to testify with me since the first Texas bathroom bill. We have had to move multiple times for safety reasons and finally we have left Texas, but [we are] not able to relax fully as we watch the upcoming presidential election knowing we may have to leave the U.S. as it won't be safe for us under a conservative presidency."
Cunningham said she began this documentary journey as the Free Mom Hugs movement had just begun to take off. She added that this was also the time when Kyi heard about the Mama Bears and reached out to her.
"We were setting out on the very first Free Mom Hugs tour, destination, the Stonewall Inn in New York City," said Cunningham. "It so happened that Daresha was living in New York City, and met us at Stonewall to get some footage. She then traveled to Oklahoma City to meet and interview our family and those involved in the Free Mom Hugs movement. As the movement went viral, Daresha would meet up with us in different locations and events and the story grew and grew."
"Daresha reached out to me after she read an article about my family in HuffPost," said Shappley. "The mini doc she created before the full-length Mama Bears documentary featured only my family and it won an Emmy. That footage is incorporated into the Mama Bears doc."
Cunningham said that telling her story was important to "change hearts and minds" in families, churches and also legislators. She added that "this makes an idea into a reality … and that films in particular find a way right into your heart and mind … It is an incredible resource to erase fear and ignorance. And provides what we call the power of love and education."
For Shappley, "it was the hope that it would help people understand and hopefully change hearts and minds. I didn't see examples of Christians loving their kids until I found the Mama Bears, which was hard to find because it was a secret group. That's why I have been open, honest and public with our journey."
Both Cunningham and Shappley want other parents of LGBTQ+ children to know they are not alone. Cunningham told Windy City Times that when Parker came out "I felt like I was the only mom with a gay kid in Oklahoma" and when she found the Mama Bears that all changed.
"We all know the power of the misinformation we have been given about our LGBTQ+ kids, but we also have something inside of us determined to learn about and love our children," said Cunningham. "To see other people abandon their long held teachings and do their own research was encouraging and empowering. We all identify with the mother in the film who talks about her gay son and says, 'him being gay has made me a better person.' And we know that if you don't love and support your children where they are, you will suffer without them."
Shappley told Windy City Times that, "I hope other parents and their families see themselves in my story (or another Mama Bear's story) and it helps them feel encouraged and validated. Oftentimes, when parents accept their queer kid they lose their friends, family and community. These parents need support from us. Especially parents of trans kids as we are specifically being targeted."
As for the future, including the recent onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ bills being introduced with some becoming laws in GOP-controlled states, Cunningham wants everyone who cares about full equality for the LGBTQ+ community to "level up in their advocacy" while Shappley states she wants people to "do something" to fight back.
"There's a movement coming for our children, and those who want to love and support them," said Cunningham. "Doctors, teachers and even parents are being punished across the country for simply supporting LGBTQ+ children. We must change the narrative, and get people involved to speak up and speak out in ways they haven't had to before. This is why we are so thrilled to have our very first Free Mom Hugs Conference in September."
"Even within the LGB community, the T is misunderstood and invalidated," said Shappley. "I hope people learn and then do something to help trans kids and their families. There are more states where being transgender is banned than states offering sanctuary to families like mine. We are political refugees, Texans who live in Connecticut. People seem to be turning a blind eye to just how bad it is for families like mine in America right now."
Shappley also told Windy City Times that Kai has written a middle grade novel about being a trans tween in Texas and politics called Joy to the World, and appeared as a guest-star on an episode of the Netflix show Babysitter's Club.
See mamabearsdoc.com .
The documentary can also be found on the PBS app pbs.org/show/independent-lens/ .