Why I Believe the Mama Dragon Approach Is Ultimately Hurting Teens & Families (Despite Earnest Intentions Otherwise)

I imagine I am sitting on the pew in Sacrament Meeting with my amazing, cherished family snuggled in all around me. My ten-year-old with his suspenders is laying on my lap while I scratch his back. My beautiful 14-year old daughter is drawing in an art book, my older boys are sitting looking a little bored, but all dressed smartly. My handsome, gentle husband is waiting on the stand to speak on High Council Sunday. And I am full of peace. They aren’t perfect, but they are so very good.

Then, out of nowhere, the ground around my sweetness begins to shake violently. It’s cracking and rolling and hurting everyone. I see blood. I hear their screaming cries. I know this is utter devastation happening. It’s a 9.0 – the worst imaginable terror. In the midst of the horror, in a split second of stillness, I realize that everyone around me is subdued – calmly taking the sacrament. My family is torn to pieces, and all the while these families around us: whose kids play with my kids, whose teenagers have eaten a million meals at my counter – they are all utterly untouched.  I am shocked…devastated…speechless. How could this happen? How can my family be cut and bleeding, every part of their lives turned on itself by the shaking? And yet everyone else seems unscathed. Like nothing happened at all. (51)

So begins the story of an “Unknown Mama”[1] in a series of publicly available essays sharing the convictions and experiences of a group that calls themselves the Mama Dragons.

Given the intensity of their advocacy, this group of mothers have become hard not to notice online (especially within the Mormon diaspora).  For their relentless efforts to advocate for Mormon youth newly identifying as gay, they have been lauded by many quarters of society[2] – most recently at a concert venue in Utah.

Even many active members of the LDS Church have begun to applaud their efforts.  How could they not celebrate efforts to minister to depressed and homeless youth who have often felt like outcasts?

No question, the importance of reaching out to the “hands that hang down” is a perennial and always-urgent call to any Christian. Such outreach to the vulnerable, the depressed and the homeless is crucial, as is reminding these youth that they are precious and worth it and that their lives can be beautiful. Anyone who gets their hands dirty directly supporting those in a crisis place deserves commendation, and the Mama Dragons have clearly done a lot of that.

Even so, these aspirations of providing support are something that most thoughtful human beings care about, and are not aims unique to one group. What is unique to the Mama Dragons is the ideology that goes along with these efforts – a worldview that has received little serious scrutiny amidst all the plaudits. As a result, I believe many parents, families, and teens have adopted their understandings of sexuality and faith with little awareness of where they ultimately may lead.

Thanks to their own vigorous outreach efforts, the scope, reach and influence of this organization continues to grow.[3] Many take this for granted as a good thing: surely it would be positive to see many thousands more mothers join their ranks and expand their influence?

Before that happens, I believe it is time to pause and re-examine the fundamental approach this group has taken (and by implication, other groups allied with them).[4] Drawing on an analysis of their own words and accounts in publicly available essays and interviews, I point out patterns across their collective stories that deserve more careful attention.[5] Given the immense (indeed, infinite) value of the lives at stake, I would argue this kind of scrutiny is both necessary and urgent.

That being said, I sure wish it didn’t have to be me proposing it! No one likes to raise painful possibilities, let alone to individuals threatening to breathe fire on their enemies! This was difficult to write, and is difficult to share. I would much rather be writing about dialogue, mindfulness, and other pleasantries with universal appeal. I’ve never received a penny for my writing about LGBT-religious conservative dialogue, and have been personally harassed many times and called names for doing so. So like my Dehlin piece last year, I pursued this only out of an inescapable sense that I needed to do it.

As I’ve written about often before, my core conviction is that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree about most everything facing society today. Rather than a duel of angels and demons, these are deeply challenging and complex questions that lead diverse, caring people to very different conclusions. How exactly these equally thoughtful people reach these different conclusions is one of the questions that endlessly fascinates me – and motivates this project.

Even so, some might wonder, how could you dare directly question someone else’s story (or many people’s stories) – especially of a group that has felt beleaguered and outnumbered (within Mormonism, at least)? There is a popular sense in which an individual’s account of their own story cannot be questioned – and ought to somehow be widely accepted at face value as inviolate in its legitimacy and incontestable in its validity.

I don’t believe that – and neither do most qualitative and narrative researchers in the world.[6]  While individuals have undeniable access to unique insight from life details that only they themselves know, it’s also true that there hundreds of ways that similar circumstances could be interpreted differently. If so, why not have a conversation about that?

While admittedly expecting to be profoundly and widely misunderstood in my inquiry, I will still make a few disclaimers from the outset:
(1) To investigate and explore narratives is not to suggest someone’s experience is wholly “subjective” or invalid – nothing of the sort. As detailed extensively elsewhere in the monographall human experience is shaped by immersive interpretations: mine, yours…all of us. That so little attention is typically given to this potentially consequential (narrative) aspect of human experience is what has motivated so much of my work, originally first with mental health narratives.

In all this work, what I see is informed by my own background of an entire life as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  My experiences as a husband and father, and a man who identifies as largely politically conservative, also shape what I see. Lastly, I have a number of people close to me who have taken their lives through suicide, including a dear friend who identified as gay and Mormon. I have many other friends who span the “North Star – Affirmation” continuum, respectively, and have seen the courage and faith of their lives.  I acknowledge all this openly as a way to be clear about the standpoint from which I write.

(2) What follows in this review admittedly represents a challenge to the approach the Mama Dragons have taken and the set of interpretations they have promoted to hundreds of thousands online. I acknowledge that openly, realizing that thoughts will not be easy for many of these parents to hear.

I recognize that the questions at the heart of this public deliberation are exceedingly sensitive matters – reflecting the deepest of personal suffering, the highest of human hopes, and the most intense of human feelings and experiences. Little wonder we all feel so much passion.

I’m convinced some of this could bind and unite us together profoundly, if the terms of public conversation were different. I know the sweetness of holding my own boys in my arms and the profound pain of seeing loves ones in excruciating pain. The depth of these emotions – whether love, fear or pain – shape us all in personal and intimate ways we cannot always predict. None of what I raise below is intended to question the beauty of that love or the intensity of that pain.

(3) Lastly, I have great respect and deep affection for many openly gay individuals in my life: Wendy, Eric, Adrienne, Nathan, John, Michael, Tyler, Tracy, Arthur, Toffer and many others. I have not only witnessed real love in their lives and relationships, I have been blessed by it.  I find real happiness, hopes and goodness in their lives – and have been taught by beautiful insights they have shared with me.  Though we share the deepest of disagreements (from identity to God), we have also experienced an affection and connection that has made my life far better.

Given all this, to raise tough questions about an ideology is not a dismissal of individual feelings or experience. Indeed, it might be rightly understood as taking their reality seriously: enough to ask honest questions about it!

More to the point, my analysis says nothing about people’s integrity, character, or level of faith (or love) – pertaining instead to narrative, interpretation, and arguments. As will be clear, my questions center on the approach the Mama Dragons have taken – not their intent, hopes, or love for their children. These women’s stories evince real faith, real courage, and real love. And no one disputes that these mothers are seeking the best for their children – as is evident throughout their accounts.[7]

The interesting (and little explored) question at issue here is whether the methods, narratives, actions, and tactics adopted by this group are actually achieving what they really want (especially over the long-term):  the true and lasting well-being, happiness, peace, and joy of these precious children.

Illustrated largely by their own stories and words, I will make the case for why I believe the mindset, methods, rhetoric, and assumptions adopted by this group are ultimately leading to many inadvertent consequences for some of the individuals they aspire to help. My primary hope in doing so is that we might more easily (and productively) explore the competing methods and mindsets at play right now between people who share the very same, rock-solid intent:  the happiness of these youth.

That’s definitely not the conversation we’re having right now in our communities. Rather than talking about some of the many interesting questions we could be exploring together, I am consistently amazed by the seemingly endless cycles of misrepresentation and accusation toward Those People who are, of course, simply not loving (enough), not faithful (enough), not open (enough), not pure (enough), not educated (enough), etc.

Like many of my colleagues in the dialogue and deliberation field, I long for the day when we can get back to a conversation about competing ideas, with even a hint of curiosity and uncertainly at play – and staying uncomfortably open to the possibility that we (all) have something to learn.

I’ve lived that conversation for 10 years.  It’s changed my life profoundly for the better.[8] Everything I do aims at creating conditions where a more open and honest conversation can take place. In cases where the discussion has become so deformed by hostility, accusation and powerful ideologies, there is a time for conversational correctives. That’s, in part, what this inquiry aspires to be.

Some will be challenged by what they read below, especially parents immersed in similar experiences. To my mind, if we have any shot whatsoever at a more productive LGBT/religious conservative conversation, that sort of stretching is not optional (on all sides).

I also expect others may also experience relief in reading this as well.  Regardless of where you find yourself, know that I write with as much sensitivity and consideration I can bring to bear about a subject that has involved so much pain, for so many, which is where so many of these stories really begin.

What you’ve just read is intended as more of a preface to the larger monograph, as follows:

  • To understand more of the background thinking behind this inquiry, visit this page:  Methodology & Philosophy
  • The real meat of the monograph centers around a series of themes that stood out across these mothers’ accounts: 45 Narrative Themes – Tracing a Gradual Socialization. While presenting and illustrating these themes, I occasionally ask some direct questions about their meaning and origins.
  • Many other insights, questions and proposals also came up for me in reviewing these themes.  These broader points and ideas can be accessed here: Larger Reflections, Discussion & Proposals
  • I close this monograph citing a fictionalized excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce that reprises some of these same issues. This brief vignette encapsulates some of my own thoughts and concerns well.  If there’s only one thing you have time to read, start here: Coda from C.S. Lewis: Insights on God and Mothering

Each of these pieces collectively illustrate a conclusion that will not be popular with many, but which I deeply believe will one day be widely acknowledged as the truth.  In simple form:

(1) Narratives shape all of our lives, in countless ways. Despite this, we give them remarkably little attention, and mostly take them to be unquestioned “reality.” When this happens, the influence of particular narratives is even greater, since it remains hidden.

(2) Compared to the orthodox Mormon narrative of sexuality, which has been surfaced and deconstructed relentlessly, other narratives about what Mormons believe about sexuality have received little to no substantial attention. As a result, they operate in the background, profoundly shaping both public conversation and important individual and family choices.

(3) When one such narrative (embodied in the public commentary of the Mama Dragon community of mothers) is surfaced and explored, there is clear evidence of a subtle and profound narrative influence over time in (a) delimiting options in front of people –prioritizing certain options, while minimizing others (b) inviting people along a certain kind of socialization involving both unique choices and the progressive evolution of additional interpretations (c) and ultimately landing many individuals at a place far removed from where they were before (and out of which that earlier standpoint is interpreted as remarkably benighted).

(4) This socialization over time, by and large, is proposed as happening without participants being consciously aware of the pervasive narrative influence itself. Thus, they often express feel like they had  little to no choice or option to do otherwise than what they have done. In this way, I’m arguing that their freedom has been limited and their choices restricted, including a freedom to consider other ways to respond with integrity when confronted with the same circumstances involving the same details of sexuality and faith.

(5) As a result, I conclude that parents and teens who would otherwise have chosen another path are in many cases being shepherded along another kind of straight and narrow road that ends up being uniquely painful for them (and their families), because it is a poor fit for their deepest values and convictions. In particular, I illustrate the process by which some families are being slowly estranged from their previously precious faith community (and convictions), by an overarching narrative-they-don’t-even-recognize-as-a-narrative. Connecting the unfolding despair and anger to this constraining narrative socialization is a central thrust of the analysis.

(6) Along the way, I also point out a number of ways that many conclusions reached about Mormonism (as reflected in public essays) are an unfair and inaccurate reflection of what Mormons actually believe and teach. In many cases, they seem to represent stark mischaracterizations – no doubt, informed by the powerful and intense emotions accompanying this distinct socialization.

(7) In the end, I call for more willingness to represent disagreements fairly (in a way recognizable to both sides) and invite those who ally with the Mama Dragons to take more responsibility for the role their own collective narrative plays in profoundly shaping the evolving choices and outcomes of those in your community.  I also encourage those who experience dissonance from a fundamentally poor fit with the set of interpretations espoused by the Mama Dragons to join the effort to do more to help parents and teens seeking to figure this out in the context of ongoing faith in the teachings of living prophets.

That’s pretty much it! Many more detail in the links above.



[1] I was particularly touched by this mother’s story, among a collection of moving essays posted in a Facebook group called the “Mama Dragon Story Project.”  I have met some of these women in person, and been struck by their passion and the integrity to what they believe. But given the power of this woman’s anonymous writing, in particular, I hope to meet her someday.

[2] One enthusiastic Daily Herald reporter hailed a story about a Mama Dragon as a “compelling story of support, love and acceptance.” She went on to say, “If you haven’t heard of the Mama Dragons, there is a good chance you will — soon.” Another online poster characterizes them in heroic terms, “the women and men warriors out there in Mama Dragons and Dragon Dads are doing an admirable work…at their own cost and at peril to their church membership. They are finally raising a fist to an institution that encourages them to make choices against their own children, in the name of God. These folks (to their credit) are finding their own truth, with no help from their ‘loving’ religious community.”

[3] The creator of the Mama Dragon Story Project writes, “We have reached nearly one-million people on Facebook in the past 60 days.” According to one estimate in 2016, there were approximately eight-hundred Mama Dragons worldwide, a number that has snowballed since its founding.  One mother involved in its founding said, “I never thought it would grow so huge.” The same enthusiastic Daily Herald reporter stated, “The group is growing exponentially on a daily basis.”

[4] Clearly, the Mama Dragons are only a potent microcosm of many similar organizations within Mormonism and beyond.

[5] My inquiry has centered on identifying themes, patterns, and interesting meta-stories across 67 essays (publicly available on the Mama Dragon Story Project Facebook page). Content from each of these essays is identified by a numerical tag at the end.  Just as Kimberly Anderson has hoped, these essays are in the public domain as information open to collective scrutiny. Also reviewed were published interviews and newspaper stories (cited by hyperlinks), as well as several online presentations (cited by timecodes and hyperlinks).

[6] In addition to effectively function to silence the sincere questioning and concern of others, the idea that narrative somehow establishes truth reflects a naïve understanding of narrative and the inescapable interpretative feature of all human experience.  From that vantage point, each person’s story reflects not just someone’s experience, but also their particular interpretation of that experience. To adequately study narratives, then, is to give an account of not only patterns of experience, but also of the implicit patterns in interpretation (most often via the language applied to those experiences). [see Methodology & Philosophy for much more]

[7] These are individuals who have earnestly done their best to navigate an admittedly difficult, confusing situation. As two mothers remarked: “I’ve done my very best to be a good mom.” (11) / “I love my son. Oh, how I love my son. To say that I always did what was best for him is an understatement. But I tried. Boy did I try.” (59)

[8] See: Is it possible for people who disagree about identity, sexuality & God to have vibrant, endearing (and ENJOYABLE) relationships? /Eating Hummus With the ‘Enemy’: From Aversion to Affection (with Tracy Hollister) / Village Square Utah Inaugural Event – Sexual Orientation and Faith Conflicts – Highlights Version /A Living Room Conversation – Highlights /A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference).



Note:  I reserve the right to limit commentary. I will (eventually) post any comment that is attempting to engage the actual arguments here, including strong critiques and frustrations. But no name-calling or personal tirades will be published. And I will limit my responses to comments through the holiday season – assuming anyone honestly considering this will need some time to absorb what is here.

While I will not have the time to respond to all inquiries, I am especially interested in hearing from people who may have found something beneficial from this inquiry. In the future, I’m also open to engaging those willing to sit with their discomfort enough to really hear what I’m saying…even if you do not agree.

4 Comments Why I Believe the Mama Dragon Approach Is Ultimately Hurting Teens & Families (Despite Earnest Intentions Otherwise)

  1. Melanie Delton December 15, 2017 at 1:46 am

    The Mama Dragons are a diverse group of women to generally characterize them in any way is in my opinion an error in judgement. The Mama Dragon story project is one small project a few of the mothers have participated in. It has gotten a lot of press however the Mama dragons exist because there was a need that the faith community did not provide. A need for support. I have seen it time and time again. A Mormon mother who feels she has no earthly place to turn for support for understanding. A place to ask questions, a safe place where she can go to try to understand what her child is experiencing. Perhaps her child is suicidal, depressed or has already attempted suicide. She feels desperate to help her child and is afraid of saying or doing the thing that will actually worsen the situation. I am a mama dragon, I admit women to our group their stories are overwhelmingly sacred and I am honored to take part in a community that provides support for these women. I have heard many who are quick to criticize and I accept that as being part of the package. We have been a controversial group and I understand that outsiders may not get how impactful this group is in the lives of our children. Those who have not walked in our shoes may never understand. I don’t mind that, I don’t require their approval. The life of my child is validation enough. My own child was depressed and suicidal when I joined this group. I am forever indebted to the women who took me by the hand and loved and guided me through this process. A process that 47 years of living as an active faithful LDS woman had NOT prepared me for. My child is alive and thriving today and I will continue to serve in this community for as long as they will have me. Each time I meet a mom who is desperate, sad, angry, hurt and alone I remember how that felt. Words can’t express how important I feel what we do is in the lives of so many kids. We are not infallible but we are doing our best. Many mamas are fierce advocates in the public sphere but for me this group exists to support women. Women who can in turn support their kids in or out of the church it matters not to me. They deserve to have lives that are led by ethics and values that lead to happiness and fulfillment which can be found in or out of the church.

  2. Jen Blair December 15, 2017 at 6:05 pm

    You ask a set of questions in Part 3 of this, but there isn’t a comment section to answer them…. so I thought I might attempt to answer them here:

    – – – —
    Years into this path now, do your convictions about all of this remain the same?
    Honestly, yes. I have worked with hundreds of LGBTQ Mormon teens and I have spent intensive time with the research from the Family Acceptance Project and I can see what a huge difference unconditional love and support makes.

    And has this path led to the outcomes you were truly hoping for – for your family and your child?
    We are all still a work in progress so I don’t believe that we are finished yet. But currently, I couldn’t be happier with the situation for our personal family.

    Is this what you imagine God really wanted and envisioned for your family?
    Yep. Because I haven’t taken a step without intensely talking with Him about it. Even the parts that have been difficult.

    Do you still feel that way? Would you say the same now?
    As I read my essay it is interesting how I have continued to grow and evolve. And I was struck by the same thoughts when I was writing it and trying to look back at the earliest years. I am grateful that I am not the same person that I was at 30 or 35 or 40. I am grateful for the continual prayerful growth that is afforded me.
    In retrospect, can you conclude that your life is better and richer than before you lived out this new path?
    Yes. But it would be dishonest to not admit there have been challenges as well. Particularly social challenges since we live in rural town in Idaho.

    Can you look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you and your family have more true joy and peace now than before?
    I believe so. It is possible that we are just delusional now and we aren’t REALLY happy like we were before. But it feels like the opposite. Of course, I can’t really speak for all the members of my family. Only to what I can see. I can also add that we feel much more love and much more open to the opportunity to serve and work with those who we might have considered dangerous before.

    And most importantly, when it comes to your children, are the approaches you are pursuing achieving the outcomes you most want for them?
    Yep. I want them to really embrace agency and do what they believe they should. They are all doing well in school. They have positive friendships (and have lost valuable friendships) and they all have a beautiful bond with each other. I want my children to build their own relationship with the divine that is separate from all other connections and interpretations. It was difficult for me to learn how to look to God first instead of Deseret Book or lds dot org to find answers to my difficult questions. I’m hoping that they will be able to learn to look to God first in their youth.

    I might just be one of the lucky ones. My kids are okay. There are lots of LGBTQ children that are deeply struggling (like you mention) and when we get to know them, we begin to see patterns. In my own experience, none of their problems can be pointed toward having parents who supported them and loved them in ways proven to be affirming. Many of them begin self-harming behaviors and using addictive substances long before anyone else even suspects their sexuality or gender identity. Many of them wrestle with the concepts of a God who hates them in spite of what their parents are telling them. Many of them are fully grown and are just struggling with life like their cishet counterparts.

    It think you would be hard pressed to find an LGBTQ child that was suffering because of the actions supported by the Mama Dragons. Although some of the Mama Dragons participate in actions that cause their children to suffer.

    1. jzhess January 8, 2018 at 4:31 pm

      Thank you, Jen. I find hearing more of your personal experiences – from this present vantage point – especially helpful. I appreciate your attempt to understand and move a productive discussion along. I’d like to think about what you’ve raised and get back to you here soon.

  3. Garry Berg December 15, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    Bravo! What a truly needed writing. You put into words, so perfectly, many of my concerns and beliefs. I, have witnessed dear friends testimonies and faith in the Church waver because of a childs SSA. We all need to have faith in an All Knowing God who will bless us, not only with eternal life, but a more fulfilling life while on earth, no matter our experiences in life, if we will endure to the best of our abilities. Thank you so much.


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