Methodological & Philosophical Background

The stewardship and watch-care over a child is one of the most precious and sacred responsibilities of life. The value and importance of the nurture, love, and vigilant protection of children is something that (potentially) unites parents across virtually every religious and political persuasion (as illustrated by this fun video).

What exactly “protection” means, however, and what “love” looks like is where these diverse parents diverge profoundly – with thoughtful, well-intentioned, and hugely committed parents reaching very different conclusions about what children need to become healthy and happy.

The conversation today. If that’s true, it’s a sharp contrast to today’s prevailing conversation about vulnerable youth who identify as gay or who experience same-sex attraction. While that conversation includes a great deal of commentary about love, strangely enough, the many fundamentally different ways that love could manifest are seldom acknowledged. Instead of (a) considering the contrasting worldviews, narratives, and assumptions under-girding these different attempts to show love, and rather than (b) tracing out the implications of these different approaches for long-term well-being, society today is in the middle of a very different kind of conversation.

Any observer of the broader, public conversation today about gay/SSA youth would have to conclude that the issues at hand are (or should be) fairly simple and obvious to anyone involved: Are you loving…or not?  Are you compassionate…or not?  Are you educated about LGBTQIA issues…or not?

From this vantage point, the truth is fairly settled about many things – including the best way to ensure the well-being of these youth and what healthy parental love looks like in that circumstance. But what about those parents who have a very different understanding of what love looks like in that same circumstance?

Prevailing wisdom about those Mormons. Like other traditions attempting to maintain their commitment to historic Judeo-Christian teachings, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been subject to relentless scrutiny over the last decade or so for its failure to fully embrace the view of love (and identity and sexuality and choice and change and marriage and God) promoted by those who have embraced gay rights as a new manifestation of the civil rights movement. This has included extensive evaluation and critical deconstruction of Mormon teachings and policies regarding sexuality, marriage, and family.

Out of that examination has come a conclusion so widely accepted that it’s hardly questioned anymore in larger society: this Mormon community is hurting gay teens and contributing directly to their despair. 

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that many have stopped even asking whether or not this is true (and for whom it may or may not apply). Indeed, dominant understandings of gay teens and what they need to be happy have become so widely adopted that for many they are no longer taken to be narratives at all –functioning instead as an undisputed reality. In practice, this means there is less and less space to consider different options and possibilities in the larger, collective conversation. Like other issues presented as undisputed consensuses, the one question worth discussing is how do we do more of what we already know is so important and urgent? 

Hypotheses ignored. The central premise of this paper is that this conclusion is alarmingly premature, given the fact that far less examination has gone to the narrative, worldview, and assumptions of many of the progressive organizations aligned with the gay rights movement, and the subtle, but significant role they might play (especially over time) in the same despair and hopelessness being experienced by many who identify as SSA/gay.

In our rush to attribute the pain of gay youth solely to orthodox religious dogmas, we have overlooked other ideologies and dogmas at play – thus discounting other strong and plausible possibilities which still merit full deliberation and consideration (at least if we are committed to a no-stones-unturned conversation about depression and suicide). My overarching intent here is to bring direct attention to one such possibility hardly considered in the public discourse about sexuality and mental health so far.

Mama Dragon narratives. Few groups have pursued a more direct and intensive campaign to influence the conversation about Mormon youth facing these questions as have the Mama Dragons. Since its inception as a Facebook group in 2014, this network of mothers whose children identify as LGBTQIA has grown in strength, size, and assertiveness. Speaking as the curator of the “Mama Dragon Story Project,” Kimberly Anderson writes that these mothers’ “stories needed to be shared with a much broader audience. Collectively their voices should be trumpeted from the tallest buildings. Proclaimed so loudly.”

That’s just what has happened over recent years. From atop (Facebook) walls, these stories have reached many millions online, including many sympathetic Latter-day Saints. Over time, these mothers have been successful in influencing many other parents and families in how they think about and approach questions of love, choice, acceptance, sexuality and faith.

While the broader message of supporting vulnerable youth is crucial and timely, there are many details needing greater attention. More often than not, however, the message these mothers share is presented (and experienced) as heartbreakingly obvious and urgent – with little to no need for further critical scrutiny. Indeed, how could efforts to help vulnerable youth not be embraced and celebrated? Why would anyone possibly be concerned with such an effort? And why would we not all simply join in supporting their work?

Perhaps these are some of the reasons so little critical, public analysis has gone to the approaches taken by organizations like the Mama Dragons. As a result, many of their conclusions have largely gone unquestioned – with a de facto credibility arising from a pervasive silence from those with any hesitation about their approach.

One reason those with concerns stay silent is that, as many active members have told me, it’s hard to articulate how or what exactly is unsettling or “off” about the sweeping changes happening in relation to sexual norms in society. Speaking of the Mama Dragons, in particular, multiple (openly gay) individuals and their parents have shared with me reservations about the tactics and approach they have advocated, even while hardly knowing what to say about it or how to respond.

This has fueled some of my own curiosity regarding what exactly about their approach is prompting reservation? In order to gain more clarity on this point, I turned toward a set of public essays, interviews, and presentations by the Mama Dragons – hoping to investigate more directly the impact of their approach as as reflected in their own words and narratives.[1]

Narrative psychology. The power of narrative to captivate, orient, guide, and shape has been increasingly appreciated in psychological research. Narrative theorists[2] argue that the impulse to interpret or “make sense” of one’s life is inherent and universal to all human experience. Rather than mere “perception” or momentary judgments, human beings are understood to be continually interpreting, “narrating,” and making sense of their experience as they navigate surrounding circumstances – reflecting a kind of never-ending practice that is lived and continuously accomplished moment by moment.[3]

In this way, the focus of narrative investigation is not just experience, but how diverse human beings interpret experience in unique ways.  Julian Rappaport at the University of Illinois has argued that individuals do not create their own personal story “whole cloth” out of nothing, but instead draw on dominant narratives available in the broader collective. And Dan McAdams at Northwestern University has written about “a sense in which a life story is jointly authored, both by the person whose story it is and the culture(s) within which the story is embedded.”[4]

Surrounded as we all are by so many outside factors and influences, the diverse array of outcomes is stunning.  In particular: different people end up having different experiences (with different people encountered in their lives), which influences choices to construct very different narratives out of the same raw material of feeling and sensation – leading to very different life paths and trajectories. As reflected in the main body of 45 themes, these accounts showcase a particularly vivid and intense socialization which appears to be sparked (and catalyzed) by the adoption and embrace of this new narrative.  In other words, more than human beings only “telling stories,” it’s clear that stories are something individuals live out in many nuanced and profound ways.[5]

If that’s true, then maybe we should pay some more attention to it all? Through different qualitative methods, it’s possible to glimpse (and begin documenting) the subtle micro-evolutions which take place as different narratives shape life in profound, but often hard-to-detect ways. In the absence of such exploration, these narratives and interpretive patterns operate in the background, beneath our awareness, having a hidden influence that can be significant and powerful– maybe even more powerful because it is hidden.[6]

Once raised for more public deliberation, however, these patterns can be openly explored. In this way, we can better (collectively) decide on their fairness, truthfulness, and worth – especially in comparison to other narratives and interpretive frameworks at play – judging them on their merits in terms of how they play out in the lives of families and the youth whose well-being is most at stake.

A different kind of conversation. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that no such clear comparison is taking place currently. Indeed, not only is that not happening, but the very opposite continues to be the norm: profound mischaracterizations of divergent views held on these matters, as well as the presumed contrast between the various positions.[7] Rather than turning serious attention to this contorted conversational context (and considering the intense and conflicting emotionality giving rise to it), these interpretive patterns have widely been taken for granted as a simple reflection of “reality.” On many levels, this interpretive framework arguably goes on to influence huge, life-altering decisions and spark new paths of socialization in many directions. All of this, I will argue, centers around the adoption of a narrative about which people are hardly aware.

But what if they were aware?

Once again, the benefits which such clarity might offer individuals and families (especially within the Mormon diaspora) are what motivates this analysis. In what follows, I will make the case as to why a closer examination of these narrative patterns and their subsequent influence over day-to-day decisions reveals profound implications for individuals and families involved.

No other way.  My primary concern, to repeat, is that these influences and outcomes are almost never experienced as the result and consequence of a particular interpretive frame.  Rather, they are experienced as an objective reality that, as so many of these women assert, gave them “no other option” but to do what they have done. As is vividly clear in so many of these accounts, these women felt very little choice in the way events unfolded for their own sons, daughters, and families, with circumstances overcoming them, as two women said, like an “earthquake” (51) or “bomb” (64).

In a conversation dominated by soundbites, the length of this analysis reflects my own attempt to take these questions very seriously. Like my other previous narrative analyses, these take real space to do right. [8] Specifically, the bulk of this exploration centers around 45 narrative themes identified across accounts. These represent patterns evidence across multiple Mama Dragon essays (if not all). Obviously,  no single theme represents all mothers’ experience, which are diverse in many meaningful ways – nor is there such a thing as a monolithic “Mama Dragons narrative.” That being said, these broad-brushstroke themes come up often enough across accounts to shine a light on them and invite discussion.

I am not a neutral observer and do not pretend to be. My views on dialogue and Mormonism are well known by those who know my other work, and I write from that standpoint.[9] With limited resources, I chose to pursue this project independently. As a result, what follows represents my own conclusions and interpretations, and nothing more.[10] Therefore, I am under no illusion that most Mama Dragons will take anything I have to say any more seriously than an active Latter-day Saint is typically willing to hear out critical inquiry about their faith. In both cases, we reflect a larger societal tendency to stop listening carefully to anyone who might press or stretch us, applying labels like “anti-Mormon” or “TBM apologist” that reaffirm just how much they ought to be ignored.

That is unfortunate, but understandable. Even so, I feel confident that many mothers who are so sincerely and fervently committed to their children’s lasting well-being will at least hear out the concerns and questions raised here.

Many, of course, will not. My experience is that more and more people (across the political spectrum) have lost virtually all curiosity and uncertainty in their interactions with the world, manifest in the growing public disinterest in open and honest dialogue.

Others will undoubtedly reach different conclusions about the meaning of themes and larger takeaways. To those who find this analysis unsettling, trust that my deepest intent is to point toward an ultimate settling and a collective decrease of suffering far more sustainable than we currently have, both for the youth in question and the many layers of people who love them.  I believe we have a collective responsibility to ensure all possibilities are being considered to support these youth and families (and not only possibilities that are popular).

More than to the Mama Dragon-identifying mothers themselves, I address this monograph to the many people who have listened to their message and been impacted in some way. My primary audience is the mother or father who are, today, beginning to look to this group for guidance and comfort in their own family’s situation.

Before making life-changing decisions and perhaps embracing new understandings of deeply important questions, I hope you will hear out another perspective. At the very least, this will allow your choice moving forward to be one more informed and conscious of where this narrative might lead you and your family.



[1] There are many other ways, of course, with a similar analysis possible for many other groups. It’s also worth pointing out that it is popular these days to say that the only one with a “right” to share his or her story is the person living it – treating narrative as if it were personal property on which only the owners can tread. As reflected here, these accounts are very much not merely personal – and shared with an explicit intent to influence the larger narrative. When it comes to research ethics, it is clear that narratives released in the public domain do not share the same restrictions as personal narratives shared individually.

[2] Bruner, J. (1997). A narrative model of self-construction. In J. G. Snodgrass, & R. L. Thompson (Eds.), The self across psychology: Self-recognition, self-awareness, and the self concept (pp. 145-161). New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

De Rivera, J., & Sarbin, T. R. (Eds.). (1998). Believed-in imaginings: The narrative construction of reality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[3] (T. Schwandt, personal communication, 2006). While coming in diverse forms, all narratives are characterized by a temporal ordering of events associated with change of some kind [Hydén, L. (1997). Illness and narrative. Sociology of Health & Illness, 19(1), 48–69]. Naturally, these interpretive choices and adjustments take place in the flow of previous interpretations and predispose those that follow. Furthermore, individual interpretations do not exist in isolation—but instead, link to other interpretations in web-like frameworks such as a story or narrative.

[4] Dan was an inspiration to me in graduate school and Julian was a mentor figure in graduate school, and celebrated as one of the fathers of community psychology. Citations: (1) Rappaport, J. (1998). The art of social change: Community narratives as resources for individual and collective identity. In X. B. Arriaga & S. Oskamp (Eds.), Addressing community problems: Psychological research and interventions (pp. 225-246). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (2) McAdams, D. M. (1999), Personal narratives and the life story. In L. Pervin & O. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 478-500). New York: Guilford Press – this quote on pages 488-489

[5] More than a “subjective overlay” or “perception” of experience, narratives have an existential quality to them. In addition to telling stories, for instance, individuals are understood to be living them out in tangible ways (Fay, 1996, p. 178). Kleinman (1988) notes that “personal narrative does not merely reflect…experience, but rather it contributes to the experience” (p. 49). In this way, narratives have been argued to reflect “the preferred mode for understanding how human intentions and desires get translated into human actions and how those actions play out over time” (McAdams,1999, p. 480) – even once proposed as a “root metaphor” for psychology as a whole (Sarbin, 1986).  [Citations: Fay, B. (1996). Contemporary philosophy of social science: A multicultural approach. Boston: Blackwell Publishing; Kleinman, A. (1988). The illness narratives: Suffering, healing, and the human condition. New York: Basic Books; McAdams, D. P. (1999). Personal narratives and the life story. In L. Pervin & O. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 478-500). New York: Guilford Press; Sarbin, T. R. (2017). The narrative as a root metaphor for psychology. In Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct. Ed. Theodore R. Sarbin. New York: Praeger, 1986. 3-21].

[6] As Jeff Bennion pointed out to me once, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” This is true of language and narrative as well, which is all around us. Thus the late David Foster Wallace once wrote: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

[7] Misrepresenting LGBT/Religious Conservative Disagreements: Pleading for an Honest Conversation about What (Really) Divides Us

[8] My two other full narrative analyses are similar lengths: (1) In 2007: “Prozac Saved My Life” Vs. “Prozac Ruined My Life”: Investigating the Adoption, Constitution and Maintenance of Distinct Interpretations associated with Depression and its Medical Treatment (2) In 2014: Once Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore: What’s Killing Romance in America – and What to Do about It

[9] Especially historically, researchers have tried to invoke an aura of neutrality or objectivity that enhanced their authority. Post-modern thinkers have criticized these assumptions as positing a “view from nowhere” and called on researchers to acknowledge their own biases and standpoints. From this vantage point, legitimate analysis does not depend upon nor presume neutrality or perfect objectivity as the source of respectability – indeed, it denies that it is even possible. Rather than attempting to “shelf” our values, this approach suggests that we acknowledge them openly, with a transparency that allows other kinds of natural checks and balances to take place. In that spirit, I acknowledge my standpoint as one of concern that the current and past rhetoric of this conversation has led to despair and learned hopelessness. I have written of this concern in the past after hearing alarmingly simplistic and emotional public statements on suicide (statements which elicited critique from other LGBT leaders such as Kendall Wilcox, whom I respect as an “equal opportunity challenger”). Thus, it would be accurate to describe this paper as reflecting my own interpretations of these mothers’ interpretations – my own arguments about the Mama Dragon arguments, and my own narrative about the Mama Dragon narrative(s).

[10] On matters so highly sensitive and publicly contested, I’ve written about the importance of research transparency, especially in cases involving personal interest. Like many people, I have my own strong feelings about matters of mental health, sexuality and spirituality. These views naturally and inescapably inform everything in this analysis. With greater support, I would have preferred to involve more collaborators in the process. That simply wasn’t possible here, given resource limitations. As it stands, I have received input from diverse voices prior to posting publicly – and welcome other interpretations and open disagreement on the conclusions I have reached.