Kimberly Shappley and her transgender daughter Kai are featured in the documentary Mama Bears, which premiered this week on PBS.

Documentary ‘Mama Bears’ highlights the efforts of once-conservative Christian mamas to protect their LGBTQ kids

MELISSA WHITLER | Dallas Voice Editorial Intern

The full-length documentary Mama Bears premiered on PBS this week and is now available to stream on the PBS app. The film follows the story of a few “Mama Bears,” a group of mothers that grew up conservative Christians but who are now challenging their communities and their faith to support their LGBTQ children.

Documentary director Daresha Kyi first came across the organization through a Facebook post and learned that there were chapters all across the country, composed of conservative Christians who had overcome what they were taught to speak out on behalf of LGBTQ rights. Kyi said she wanted to document these families because of all the anti-LGBTQ legislation that was being introduced and hoped the film would be a conversation starter.

When Kyi first started reaching out online to see who would be interested in participating in the documentary, she said she got an overwhelming number of responses. Even those who did not wish to have their lives told so publicly told Kyi, “Thank you for sharing our stories.”

There was such a strong connection between all these women, who, because of their Christian backgrounds, found testimonial to be really important. For them, sharing your journey is irrefutable, Kyi said. There were similarities across all the responses, as the mothers had overcome isolation in rural communities where it felt like their children were the only ones.

Yet LGBTQ people exist everywhere and deserve to feel supported and loved.

Kyi said she originally began the project with one idea about who these communities were, but quickly found she was wrong. Rather than operating from a place of hatred, these conservative Christians were basing their actions on what they had learned from their churches, and they were coming from a place of wanting to help.

Kyi said she found that, for people who really believed in the existence of Satan and hell, the motivating factor was doing whatever they could to keep their child from going to hell. The process of transformation away from this harm was a long journey filled with risk and pain, and Kyi said she discovered the importance of allowing grace and compassion for parents to take their own journey.

Kimberly Shappley is one of the mothers who has undergone this journey. Her daughter, Kai, came out eight years ago when she was only four years old. The family was living in Texas when the bathroom bill was first introduced here, just before Kai started kindergarten.

Shappley remembers that time as being a blur, as the family went from a normal, quiet life to being heavily involved in Texas politics. Many people were telling Shappley that her story would be impactful, so when Kyi reached out, Shappley agreed.

She said she remembers feeling very numb at first, just going through the motions, but working with the film crew actually helped bring peace. Kai really connected with the crew, and, her mother says, she was born for this. Her first book, Joy, to the World, came out this past May, and, since the release, Kai has done lots of personal interviews by herself.

As can be seen in the film, fighting in Texas for LGBTQ rights has created a strong community. In addition to Mama Bears meet-ups, people have been coming together in Austin to protest legislation. These mothers support each other through the difficulties they and their kids face.

Shappley recalls a moment from the film when well-known trans advocate Monica Roberts sat with her at the dining table and offered her encouragement. She still needs that encouragement every day, Shappley says, with how much worse things have gotten.

Since the recording of the documentary, the family has had to leave Texas so that Kai could continue to receive support after trans health care bans were passed. Shappley stays in contact with her chosen family who still remain in the state, but, she said, she misses the community. The move has been an adjustment for the whole family, but Kai keeps in touch with her friends from back home, and Kimberly continues her work as a nurse seeing her Texas patients through telemedicine.

Yet Kai is still not guaranteed safety.

Shappley continues to make plans in case the family has to flee the U.S. altogether, as anti-trans legislation has already been filed at the federal level. As it turns out, the northern states are not the safe haven they were once thought to be.

When leaving Texas, the family first settled in New Haven, Conn. As soon as they got there, they found out about lawsuits against schools for transphobia. Kai did not receive the support she needed there, and she faced horrific bullying and transphobia.

So the family had to move again and were getting settled at their new home. Shappley says she would have had Kai “go stealth” from the beginning if she had known how bad things would get. But with things as they are, she wants Kai to tell her story and be herself, and leave the worrying to her mother.

Mama Bears is a film about unconditional love, and it highlights families who are doing what they can to support their LGBTQ children. Kyi said she hopes it will continue to educate people on how harmful conservative rhetoric is and how high the stakes are.

During one screening, Kyi recalled, she met a woman who had a non-binary grandchild. The woman had been having trouble understanding and accepting her grandchild, but after the film, she said that she gets it and has since joined her local Mama Bears group.

Shappley said that the documentary really captured heart of the story, and she hopes it will continue to reach people with LGBTQ kids who don’t know what to do.