‘Mama Bears’ documentary filmmakers, transgender rights activists hold press conference at Texas Capitol

Sage Dunlap, Life and Arts reporter

On March 14, in conjunction with the SXSW world premiere of the documentary “Mama Bears,” director Daresha Kyi took to the Texas Capitol south steps — along with Texas state representatives and transgender rights activists — to speak out against Texas legislation that equates gender-affirming care with child abuse.

“Mama Bears” documents the story of two conservative, Christian mothers — Kimberly Shappley and Sara Cunningham — as they transform their own fundamentalist belief systems through the love of their LGBTQ+ children and the online Mama Bears support group, which offers educational resources and community to parents of LGBTQ+ youth. In light of Texas’s SB 1646, which would categorize parents allowing their children to get gender-affirming therapy as child abuse, the film’s theme of unconditional love and empathy left a powerful impact on SXSW audiences, garnering an overwhelmingly positive response.

The press conference kicked off with a speech from Texas Representative Erin Zwiener, who launched the first LGBTQ+ caucus in the Texas legislature alongside Representative Jessica González, who spoke later in the event. Both representatives shared their experiences as LGBTQ+ lawmakers in a conservative state, as well as informing the public on the rapid increase of anti-transgender bills in Texas. Transgender rights advocates joined the crowd at the capitol, passing out decorated signs and flags displaying empowering messages and sharing shocking statistics about transgender rights.

Liz Dyer, the founder of the Mama Bears organization, and Sarah Cunningham, the founder of the organization Free Mom Hugs, stepped up to the mic together to speak about their respective organizations and experiences as mothers of LGBTQ+ children. Cunningham vocalized a call to action, compelling allies to let others know where they stand on transgender rights issues.

“We have seen the power of fear and ignorance, and we have seen the power of love and education,” Cunningham said.

Director Daresha Kyi shared her inspiration for “Mama Bears” — Kimberly Shappley’s fight for her daughter Kai to be allowed to use the girls’ restroom at school. Kimberly and Kai both spoke to the crowd, expressing the severity of Texas legislation deeming gender-affirming care child abuse.

 “People I know personally … have been getting calls from (Child Protective Services),” Shappley said. “This is really happening, and we are asking you to do something.”

Other speakers included GLAAD director Alex Schmider, Equality Texas Executive Director Ricardo Martinez, Human Rights Campaign State Director Rebecca Marques and Emmett Schelling from Transgender Education Network of Texas. Discussing their organizations’ contributions to the fight for transgender equality, the advocates called for attendees to take action and encourage others to donate to trans protection funds. 

“Hate can only go so far,” Martinez said. “The moms who are part of this movie are an example of what love and sharing your story can do to change the hearts and minds of so many people across the country.”