Moms willing to risk losing friends, family, and faith communities to keep their kids safe, “Mama Bears” on INDEPENDENT LENS – June 20 at 10 pm

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Filmmaker Daresha Kyi Presents an Intimate, Thought-Provoking Exploration of Faith, Self-Acceptance, and LGBTQ+ Life in Conservative Christian Communities

Spread across the country and connected through private Facebook support groups, a network of women call themselves “mama bears,” because of the ferocity with which they fight for the rights of their LGBTQ+ children. Though many of these mothers may have grown up as fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, they are now risking losing friends, families, and faith communities to champion their kids—even if it challenges their belief systems.

Woman and older son at site of Matthew Shepard's death.
Sara and Parker at the site of Matthew Shepard’s death.
Credit: Amy Bench

From Emmy® Award-winning director Daresha Kyi, “Mama Bears” makes its broadcast debut on INDEPENDENT LENS, June 20, 2023, at 10:00 p.m. and also will be available to stream on the PBS App.

“Mama Bears” follows the journeys taken by Kimberly Shappley and Sara Cunningham, two mama bears whose profound love for their LGBTQ+ children has turned them into advocates for the queer community. Shappley shares her story of wrestling with the conservative Christian beliefs and values she grew up with while raising her young transgender daughter, Kai. Reconciling her faith with Kai’s identity leads Kimberly to navigate new territory during the controversial bathroom bill legislation introduced in Texas.

Similarly, Cunningham opens up about connecting with and finding support from other mothers of LGBTQ+ children through the mama bears’ private Facebook group.

Mother and late teen child on sofa
Tammi and her girlfriend Shadae on the couch.
Credit: Amy Bench

Through her son’s journey to come out, Cunningham begins to reconcile her own conservative Christian beliefs and eventually creates Free Mom Hugs, a nonprofit and movement that brings groups of fellow mama bears to Pride Parades and events across the country every year to offer hugs.

At the heart of the film is the story of Tammi Terrell Morris, a young African American lesbian whose struggle for self-acceptance exemplifies why the mama bears are so vital. The documentary shows how Morris battled with her identity for years, walked away from the church to explore her sexuality, and then later denounced her lifestyle within the LGBTQ+ community. She ultimately comes to embrace her authentic self and embarks on a journey to become an LGBTQ+ advocate within the church.

Through these stories and others from the mama bears’ Facebook group, the documentary illuminates the unequivocal power of unconditional love in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. The mama bears’ movement continues to surge, as their Facebook network lists membership at tens of thousands of members.

“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. 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,” said filmmaker Daresha Kyi. “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.”

woman waving at marchers in a Pride parade.
Sara waving at marchers during Atlanta Pride.
Credit: Cameron Mitchell

“Mama Bears” received co-production support from ITVS through its Open Call funding initiative, which supports projects through completion for broadcast on public television.

Visit the “Mama Bears” page on INDEPENDENT LENS for more information about the film.