Atlanta filmmaker profiles LGBTQ advocates in 'Mama Bears' documentary
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Daresha Kyi about her new documentary, which tells the story of a group of mothers whose children challenged their views on what it means to be gay or trans.
A new documentary tells the story of a group of mothers whose children challenged their views on what it means to be gay or trans. These mothers went on to become "Mama Bears" — advocates for LGBTQ people, especially those whose parents have disowned them for who they are. Daresha Kyi of Atlanta is the director of this documentary called Mama Bears. She spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: So what made you want to take on this subject in a documentary?
Daresha Kyi: I read about the Mama Bears through an article on Kimberly and Kai and their fight for kind of use the girls' bathroom in Pearland, Texas.
Peter Biello: You're talking about Kimberly Shappley, whose daughter Kai is trans.
Daresha Kyi: Yes. And Kimberly mentioned that she had found the strength to go from being a Tea Party Republican to an LGBTQ activist and ally through the Mama Bears, through the support of the Mama Bears. For me, that process is heroic because I know — I knew instinctively that these women, when they would take that journey, they might lose family, they might lose friends, they definitely are going to lose their congregation or their church community. And so they literally go through the dark night of the soul and then they come out and they are bad — bad to the bone.
Peter Biello: And Kimberly Shappley is one of the three moms profiled, and she says she lost a lot of family over her embrace of her trans daughter. But she also gained some family, a chosen family. And that's a thread through this film: that you gain a community even when you lose so much. And what you gain in that community is in part, the Mama Bears.
Daresha Kyi: There is this concept that runs through the film of chosen family. These are the people who love you, even though they're not blood. These are the people who stand by you and stand up for you. And so the Mama Bears create their own family with each other and with the LGBTQ community and with any allies who stand with them.
Peter Biello: And one of the moms here, Sarah Cunningham, she goes on tour essentially and starts giving out "free mom hugs" — the hugs that she wishes she had given her son Parker, who came out as gay, and she resisted the fact that Parker was gay. And so she goes on tour. ... How did you feel filming these scenes [in which she's giving out hugs]?
Daresha Kyi: Well, Sarah was the first person that I actually filmed with. The first thing we filmed was the — her and her friend Laura Beth at the Home for Hope in Philly when they were feeding the LGBTQ homeless or unhoused people in the shelter. And I once I met her, I just knew that her story was probably one I was really going to focus on. So that was the first thing we shot. And then the next day they were going to Stonewall Inn to give out hugs. So I was really excited about filming with them.
Peter Biello: The people you interviewed for this film were all Christian and to varying degrees, struggling with either being part of the LGBTQ community or having a loved one, a child who is part of that community and wrestling with their faith, which told them that being part of that community is wrong, is in the wrong path and there's something wrong with you. What did you learn from these people about the nature of that struggle between two things that are so essential to what it means to have an identity, right? Your religion and also your sexual orientation, your community?
Daresha Kyi: You know, when I first started the film, I had some ideas about who this community was and how these people thought and and what motivated them, and I really couldn't understand. I could not wrap my head around some of the things that parents do. Like, how do you kick your kid out of the house because they're gay? How do you write them out of the will, all these very harmful things? How do you put them in conversion therapy, which psychiatrists have said is very harmful, right? And so I just didn't understand that a lot of these parents are operating from what they think is love. If you believe, as many evangelical conservative Christians do, that there is a place called hell and that homosexuality or, you know, any — pick someone on the spectrum of the LGBTQ community — if you're any one of those, you are committing one of the worst sins possible, a mortal sin. And it's going to condemn you to hell for all eternity. So if that's what you believe and you see your child headed down this pathway, then it's your job as a parent to stop them, to do everything you can to save their soul. Those are really high stakes, you know what I mean? They really don't get any higher than saving someone's soul. So if that's what you're operating from, then it's going to motivate you to do the kind of things that these parents do. So learning that and understanding that mindset gave me a lot more compassion and understanding for this particular community. The other thing that was really helpful was talking to a gay man and he told me, "You know, it took me 20 years" — or I don't know how many years he said — but "it took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality. Why would I expect my parents to come to terms with it overnight?"
Peter Biello: Is there an organized religion that folks like Kimberly and and Sarah can go now, that are openly welcoming of of LGBTQ folks?
Daresha Kyi: There is a movement within Christian churches to become more affirming. I can't tell you exactly where people can go. I can tell you that on the Mama Bear's website, which is realmamabears.org, there are a lot of resources and some of those are churches, but there's also health, mental health resources. There's also financial — just all kinds of resources for the LGBTQ+ community. And when we get the money to revamp our website as part of our impact campaign, we will have a lot more resources and we will have videos that touch on different aspects that are not in the film. For example, we will have a — videos from clergy. There are no clergy in the film, but I did interview about 12 different pastors who were evangelical or conservative Christians who became affirming.