The nation’s LGBTQ citizens have enjoyed some splendid advances in the past few years. Corporations, schools, cities, and entire states have fully recognized equality as a core American value. Yet, there is one institution that remains unreasonably immovable: the church—or more specifically, fundamentalist Christian denominations (See: Mike Pence). In order to justify their brutal practice of shunning and condemning LGBTQ people, fundamentalist Christian churches must first ignore or deny the very foundation of Jesus’ teachings about love and acceptance. The ensuing damage that this denial produces is immense.
Not all Christian churches remain unaffirming, of course, and more are joining the enlightened camp every day. But a few major denominations cling to their views of LGBTQ folk as unwelcome, unclean, unholy sinners. Or worse.
How common is LGBTQ denunciation? Isn’t it just found in only the most extreme Bible-thumping, snake-handling churches? No. In February of this year, the United Methodist Church—generally viewed as a moderate, middle-of-the-road denomination—voted at its General Conference to retain its existing church policy that states “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
So what? Don’t attend those old dinosaur churches, you say? Fine, but what happens to an LGBTQ child born into, say, a devout Southern Baptist family? Do their spirits survive? Do their bodies?
Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that that child will not live a happy and full productive life. Toxic and dangerous relationships, a lack of self-care, homelessness, substance abuse, and even suicide often step in first.
Fortunately, there are people who are laboring to prevent the psychological damage from this kind of cruelty. “One of the first people I worked with was a gay college student,” stated Susan Cottrell. “When he came out to his deeply religious family, his parents collected his belongs, placed them in the front yard, and set the pile on fire.”
What did Cottrell do to help the young man? She became his Mama Bear.
Cottrell is an author and motivational speaker on the subject of loving LGBTQ children and adults within Christian traditions. She is also one of the leaders in the Mama Bear movement, an international group of mothers of LGBTQ children. These wonderful moms meet every day in secret online support groups. Together, they help one another grapple with their faith, answer questions, and learn how to best support their kids.
Cotrell is a slight woman with a big heart who also has a master’s degree in theology. She has appeared on 20/20, Nightline, and Good Morning America to address the disparity between the teachings of Christ and the glaring lack of LGBTQ acceptance seen in some denominations. Notably, she is the founder of FreedHearts.org, a nonprofit agency dedicated to “freeing hearts to love and be loved.”
Formerly from The Woodlands and now living in Austin, Cottrell travels around the country helping kids, families, and churches practice true Christian love for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer children, friends, and associates. It’s a heavy lift, but this mother of five is moving mountains.
“FreedHearts.org reaches the parents of the most at-risk LGBTQ children,” Cottrell continues. “Through our vibrant Mama Bear community, we assist Christian parents to fully understand their children, reconcile faith issues, and keep their families happy, healthy, and intact.”
“We also help free the hearts of LGBTQ people to heal the shame imposed by condemnation and abandonment, as well as mend internalized homophobia,” states Cottrell.
A Mile in Her Shoes
Cottrell became a Mama Bear out of necessity. When she married her husband, Rob, she couldn’t wait to start a family. Both of her parents died when she was a child, and Cottrell finally saw a chance to heal the pain and loneliness she knew all too well. She’d survived growing up without a family, but now she could build one.
The couple had their first child and decided they now needed “community.” They found it in a local evangelical Christian church, and they became very active members. Nearly 20 years flew by, and four more children arrived.
“Annie was 20 years old and away at college when the phone call came. Annie said, ‘Mom, I’m attracted to girls,’” Cottrell remembers, drawing a deep breath.
“I went to Bible study that night and shared this with my closest friends, thinking they would offer wisdom. Instead, they went right to the rules. ‘That’s wrong. You can’t accept it,’ they said.
“I thought, ‘What does that mean? I can’t accept my daughter?’” Cottrell fights back tears at the memory. “I was being asked to choose between the two most important parts of my life—my church, or my child. I chose my child.
“We left the church, and today, eight years later, there are still members who do not speak to me,” she states firmly.
Real Love Accepts People as They Are, with Room for Who They May Become
When Annie came out as lesbian, the family began a journey to find out what the Bible really says about LGBTQ people—and what it does not say. “God kept moving us forward—toward love, toward freedom, toward peace,” Cottrell states.
The journey proved to be of great value. Cottrell’s youngest daughter, Hannah, came out soon after Annie. The couple was grateful they had embraced this path. What they learned would make a difference not only in the lives of their own kids, but also in the lives of parents and children around the country.
“LGBTQ people have been bullied, shamed, abandoned, and rejected by teachings that the church considers ‘loving,’ and the results are often tragic. [The biblical scholarship] on this is not nearly as clear as many Christians tend to believe. We all need to follow God’s lead, even when we still have questions. And above all else, we must love. Real loves accepts people as they are, with room for who they may become,” Cottrell concludes.
Change Is in the Air
“My mom was always very loving,” Annie Cottrell reflects, “but over the past few years, that has gone to a level that I didn’t know was possible. Her compassion for anyone who is oppressed or hurting or marginalized has increased.
“In these difficult and divisive times, I think her profoundly powerful and simple message of love is needed more than ever,” the young woman emphasizes.
Susan Cottrell’s daughter looks forward to finding a wife one day, and it’s clear that she carries her mother’s big heart.
“I’ve watched my mom pour herself into getting to know and support the LGBTQ community. She’s serious about it—her reasons behind it, and the love that comes from it. What I see my mom doing is expanding the capacities of others to love, expanding boundaries of self, and expanding knowledge and understanding of one another. To me, that is the very definition of evolution,” she concludes.
There are thousands of families who have changed their views about fundamentalist Christian beliefs regarding the LGBTQ community, and more join every day.
“We have become prominent voices for parents of LGBTQ children. We connect every day with parents and LGBTQ people who tell us that the books or talks have saved their lives. It is at once humbling and thrilling,” Susan Cottrell says.
Today, Cottrell’s journey is something she would not trade for the world. What first looked dark and hopeless turned out to be her greatest blessing.
“Both Rob and I have fallen more in love—with God, each other, our children, and people in general. We are fully affirming because of Jesus, because of our faith, because of Scripture, not in spite of it!” Cottrell concludes, her eyes sparkling.
This article appears in the May 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.