SALT LAKE CITY — When Alyson Paul Deussen, a devout Mormon, learned three years ago that her son Stockton was gay, she thought he might be going through a phase.
“So I probably, in hindsight, didn’t do the right thing,” she said. “I kind of just tried to let it play out. And ultimately it led to him trying to overdose on pills and ended up in the hospital.”
Deussen said that was a wake-up call. She searched for guidance in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered 11 miles away, in Salt Lake City. But she felt it treated the topic of same-sex relations as taboo.
“I didn’t have any place to turn,” she said. “I felt very lost. I felt very lonely. It was a real struggle for me. It was a struggle for our family.”
So she started to search online, where she found a Facebook group of other Mormon mothers with gay children. They call themselves Mama Dragons, after a verse in the Mosiah section of the Book of Mormon referring to a people who fought “like dragons” for their children. Since the group formed last year, it has grown into hundreds of members around the world.
“They all expressed the same concern,” Deussen said, “that I thought I was the only mom … with an LGBT child and doing it alone.”
The Mama Dragons offer one another support, friendship, and advice on how to help their gay loved ones navigate their path to adulthood. Some of them have met in person too. They have also opened their homes to gay Mormons who are shunned by their families and are sometimes suicidal.
“There’s a lot of kids in crisis because of the struggle that they are feeling with being gay and reconciling with either their families or their religion,” Deussen explained.
The Mama Dragons hope to change the narrative for LGBT youth in the church. But in their efforts, they are at times finding themselves in deep conflict with its teachings. The church has a history of excommunicating openly gay members and even encouraging them to go through controversial conversion therapy aimed at making them straight. Recently, it set up a website on the issue.
The website states, “[Same-sex] attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.” It adds, “With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints declined to comment further on its views of same-sex relations.
Stockton, now 16, said that since he has come out, many church members have stopped talking to him and excluded him from events.
“We have Scout camp annually, and some moms said, 'If he goes, I don’t want my child to go, because what if he’s going to do something?’ … It’s hurtful,” he said.
Deussen said this hurts her too. “I break down when my son tells me why he can’t have friends … What’s so wrong with him that they don’t want to be his friend?” she said. “I break down when he tells me his friends say, ‘You can hang out with me, but if my parents find out you’re gay, I can’t hang out with you anymore.’”
The church teaches that a main pillar of the faith is family, which is built on marriage between a man and a woman. Church leader Elder D. Todd Christofferson calls this “central to God’s plan.”
“So homosexual behavior is contrary to those doctrines — has been, always will be and can never be anything but transgression,” he said in a video posted online. Tom Christofferson, his youngest brother, is gay. Tom Christofferson said that despite such words, his older brother has always welcomed him, even when the church has not.
“I don’t know that the doctrine necessarily is going to change or change quickly,” he said. But he added, “I know that it is an active conversation among senior leaders in the church of ‘How can we do this better? How can we make sure that love is the way we are leading on this and that we are doing the best we can?’”
The church has campaigned against same-sex marriage, and on Friday, it announced that the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States does not change its doctrine. In a statement, the church said, “While showing respect for those who think differently, the church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice.”
Though the church supported a Utah law approved in March that protects the LGBT community from discrimination, Deussen and other Mama Dragons want the leadership to do more, faster. “There needs to be a dialogue,” she said, “and because that dialogue hasn’t happened, it’s uncomfortable.”
At the Utah gay and lesbian pride festival in early June, Deussen marched with her son for the first time. She said she still attends church every Sunday — even though Stockton does not — partly because she wants to be part of this dialogue.
“It’s a struggle,” she said. “I’m not going to lie … but I also believe this is not the end all, be all. I believe in a heavenly father, a higher being. I believe he has a plan for all of us, and that includes our LGBT brothers and sisters.”