When Jake Abhau’s son, Jon, came out as gay at age 13, he was stunned, for many reasons — not the least of which was the family’s adherence to the Mormon faith.
His shock, though, was very quickly overtaken by the fiercely defensive love that Abhau had for his son.
“In the Church [of Latter Day Saints], if you’re LGBT, you have to be celibate — you can be gay, but you can’t act on it. And I knew how high-risk that had to make a person for suicide and depression,” Jake tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “And I felt, OK, I think the church has this one wrong. I’d never thought about it to the depths that I was suddenly thinking about it.”
That culture clash, recalls Jake, who had been raised as Mormon since he was 9 years old, shook him and his wife, Meg, to the core. And suddenly, as they found themselves feeling like outsiders in their church and in their religious, tightly knit community in Scottsdale, Ariz., they began to question their place in it.
“I almost had to defend my decisions about how to parent and love my own child, as they didn’t always line up with the church,” the dad recalls. “What other father has to defend who his son will have sex with and marry when he’s only 13?”
Being unable to speak openly and honestly with their peers, who had once been their closest confidants, left them feeling “isolated and alone.” So Meg reacted by forming a support group that she called Mama Dragons. (She had written a coming-out letter of sorts to their congregation, in which she explained that “Mama Bear” didn’t feel like a strong enough term for how defensive she felt of Jon, and that it was more akin to a fire-breathing dragon.) And soon, Jake and the handful of other compassionate Mormon fathers of LGBT kids began lamenting that they didn’t have a group of their own. “We felt just as protective, but we were different,” he says.
So Jake answered the call. He created a private Facebook group called Dragon Dads, reaching out to people through a big, already-existing online community of gay Mormons — young people who had just come out, and men who had spent years in the closet married to women, and were just now embracing their true selves.
“There really wasn’t anything for dads. And our needs were special,” Jake says, explaining that he and other dads he knew were basically looking for something that could emulate water cooler culture at their offices — where dads can talk (and brag) about their kids and what they did over the weekend. “If Jon goes on his first date with another boy, I can’t say that [in my world],” he explains. “But I wanted to be able to share like they were sharing.”
The group started very small, with three dads and then five, from places including Utah, Washington, California, and Arizona. It grew to 30 men in the first year, and now four years in, it’s 125 strong and trying to expand further — beyond only Mormon dads to any who share the commonality of “coming from a religious-right institution where being gay is seen as wrong.”
To that end of reaching others, Dragon Dads member Brett Davis had fun coming up with a descriptor that pokes fun at stereotypes: “It’s OK to be a beer-drinking, football-loving, Jeep-driving dad who loves his gay kid.” (The beer, Jake explains, was added in to attract non-Mormons, as Mormons do not drink alcohol.)
The group has also created a public Facebook page to provide an easier way for dads to locate the private group (which remains private to protect the kids, many of whom are not out, but which can be joined by sending a direct message through the public page), and just this month, it worked with Facebook’s “community voices” team to create an inspiring video about Dragon Dads, in which Jake and his family are prominently featured.
“Being a dad is everything,” Jake says in the video, explaining that while he and Meg always thought they’d have more kids, Jon wound up being their only child — their “miracle baby.”
Facebook commenters have been sharing supportive comments about the video and the group in general. “Well done! It is too late for me and my dad, but I know that my dad really struggled with this so I hope other dads can benefit from this group and your experience,” wrote one man. “In this life, everyone can fail you, but your family should always be there. I hope some parents learn from you, and make their kids feel supported and loved. It is really hard to feel alone in your own house with your own family.”
Another noted that he was amazed to see his comment had received a heartfelt response from Jake. “I didn’t expect a response much less for a complete stranger to have such compassion where my own dad…just wow!!! My faith in humanity just went a hell of a lot up,” he wrote. “If more parents were like these moms and dads, whether it be of LGBTQ kids or otherwise, there would be so much less pain, confusion and hatred in the world. So in awe right now.”
Of course, not everyone has been supportive of the Dragon Dads. Jake shares a story about a time he received some angry words of criticism from a fellow dad; they came after the Dragon Dads got word that the father, in Idaho, had kicked his college-age son out of the house on Christmas morning after the son had revealed that he was gay. The son walked through the snow to his grandparents’ house, learned his father had cut him off financially, and reached out on the online network of LGBTQ-supportive Mormons for help.
“By the end of the day, we raised money for his tuition, car, and rent through a GoFundMe page, just using the network we’d created,” Jake recalls. Though it prompted an angry note from the boy’s father suggesting the Dragon Dads mind their own business, “I would do that every time,” Jake says.
In the years since starting the Dragon Dads and becoming more and more involved in the LGBTQ community, Jake and Meg — who work together as consultants in the field of dentistry — have left their church, a result of witnessing “poor leadership” and because “we also understood that our values no longer aligned with church ideology on social issues, and it was too difficult to attend meetings where we felt unwelcomed.” Jon, who has graduated from high school, has also stopped going to church.
In the end, feeling forced to choose between his church and his son, Jake says it was a no-brainer — although he’s asked all the time how he was able to have such fortitude in the face of so much religious criticism and pressure. To that, he says, “The answer is, ‘What is wrong with everybody else?’”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
- ‘There are no stepdads in our family — only a dad that has stepped up’
- ‘My job is to love her’: Rory Feek says daughter’s coming out challenged his faith
- Why it’s important for girls to see their dads do housework