When Wendy VonSosen’s son came out to her as gay at the age of 13, she told him she loved him and said they would figure it out together.
But as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, VonSosen found herself conflicted as she tried to process her son's revelation.
“I had no resources at all about what to do from a religious perspective,” VonSosen told NBC News. “This was not something that I expected to happen, and so I really couldn’t find anything or anybody to talk to.”
It was through chance that VonSosen first became aware of Mama Dragons, a Facebook group for Mormon mothers of LGBTQ children. After reaching out to one of the group’s members, VonSosen joined the group.
Formed in January 2014 by Gina Crivello, Mama Dragons started as a small online community of Mormon mothers looking to support one another in their respective journeys with their LGBTQ children. While the group’s roots originate in Mormonism, Mama Dragons is open to mothers of all faiths and beliefs and has since grown to more than 1,700 members across the U.S. and 18 other countries.
Since joining the group two years ago, VonSosen is now president-elect of Mama Dragons and hopes to share what she has learned in her own journey to help other mothers in theirs.
“I’ve learned so much by being a part of Mama Dragons, and I really hope to be able to make a change, reach more moms like me who didn’t know where to turn, so they can get the resources and support they need,” VonSosen said.
As an online community, a range of subjects are discussed in the Facebook group and its forum, from mothers sharing prom photos of their children to counseling one another through more tragic events like depression and suicide. The group is meant to be a safe space where mothers can get the support and encouragement they may not be getting in other communities they belong to, and links to resources like The Trevor Project are also included.
On a regional level, many members are active in their local gay pride events, and this year Mama Dragons is preparing to set up hugging booths at pride events across the country, where Mama Dragons' volunteers will offer free hugs to those attending pride celebrations.
Lisa Dame has been with the group since close to the beginning of its formation, and she now serves as a board member and administrator behind the Facebook group. She has also been a volunteer at past pride events and said the experience has always been very uplifting.
She shared the story of two young women she encountered at last year’s Utah Pride Festival. The two women had recently graduated from Brigham Young University where they had both been closeted, and sought out the Mama Dragons and their hugging booth specifically because neither of their parents were supportive of their plans to marry one another.
“I hugged both of those girls and just rejoiced with them and celebrated with them and their beautiful relationship,” Dame said. “They both said it’s so great to have a mom be so happy for us.”
Dame’s own daughter came out to her as a lesbian at the age of 27, though Dame said she suspected her daughter was gay much earlier. Dame admitted that before her daughter came out, she struggled with a feeling of loss for the life she had once hoped her daughter would have.
“I really wanted her to be married in the temple and have the typical Mormon life experience,” Dame said. “It was painful knowing this wasn’t going to be what happened for her.”
But Dame worked through her own feelings so that she could offer the support she knew her daughter would need once her daughter felt comfortable coming out.
“I just felt so strongly I just wanted her to be happy being her,” Dame said. “Her coming out and being who she is was by far the more important thing than her following a religion or meeting these criteria of that religion.”
Lisa Dame’s daughter, Erin Dame, said she feels very lucky to have felt the support of her parents in her coming out, but she noted the process of finding self-acceptance has still been a challenge.
“It has taken a great deal of work and patience to confront and change limiting and damaging beliefs about homosexuality instilled within me throughout my experience as a Mormon,” Erin Dame said. “Without support from families, this journey can easily become overwhelming or impossible. Mama Dragons provides such a valuable way to connect LGBTQIA individuals with this essential type of acceptance and love."
Lisa Dame said at times she has had to correct misconceptions held by members of her church about the LGBTQ community. A recent poll showed that since 2014, opposition to same-sex marriage among Mormons has dropped 15 percentage points, though at 53 percent a majority still oppose it.
“I have been in a couple church meetings where I have been vocal, and I have had people not be rude, but definitely give some pushback,” she said. “I’m happy to get in conversations with people … just helping them to see things in a better perspective.”
For VonSosen, she hopes as president-elect that Mama Dragons will continue to grow so that more mothers can find the group and get the support they need.
“We’re hoping to extend our social media reach so we can reach more moms as we’re growing and helping to organize, so when we do get those moms, we’ll have the resources that they need so that they can support their kids to be healthy and happy," VanSosen said.