FreedHearts helps conservative Christian parents of LGBTQ children reconcile love and faith.

By Cecily Sailer

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As a senior in college, Annie Beebe-Tron decided it was time to finally tell her parents that she was bisexual. She called them on the phone, nervous to speak the words, but hopeful her mom and dad would respond with love. 

Annie grew up in evangelical Christian churches that labeled homosexuality a sin, which is why Annie struggled for years to accept the reality herself. “I was afraid it was really a core failure,” Annie said. “I definitely had nights of really late driving, where it felt like I wasn’t even present in my own body.”

Though Susan and Rob had spent 20 years raising their five children in a conservative Christian faith, the choice for them was clear. “We love our children, period,” Susan said. “Theology is not going to disrupt that.”

After seeing the reactions of several friends when she shared Annie’s news, Susan realized she and Rob could not continue worshipping at a church that refused to welcome the entire family. 

Rob said they stopped showing up on Sundays. No one called to check on them, and the couple knew their friendships were over. But there was more to grapple with, like their belief in God, the meaning of faith, and their duty as parents. 

Trying to make sense of it, Susan threw herself into Biblical studies, enrolled in a seminary program, and earned a Master of Arts degree in theological studies. 

Annie Beebe-Tron sits with their parents, Susan and Rob Cottrell, on the rooftop of the apartment building in Seattle where they all live. Annie and their partner, Edward, join Susan and Rob for dinner often, since they live so close by. [Photo by Jordan Nicholson]

Three years after Annie’s announcement, in 2013, Susan began blogging about the experience, describing how she deepened her relationship with God after examining her faith more deeply. 

“I knew if we had this situation, there were many others who did too,” Susan said. “I ended up creating resources because we had to find our own way. The need was huge.”

Parents began reaching out to Susan and Rob, and soon they established the nonprofit FreedHearts, which now hosts dozens of online support groups on Facebook for thousands of parents worldwide who struggle with faith-based ideology and acceptance. 

“The parents in the groups begin to see that there is a broader spectrum of faith out there than they ever thought,” said Gayle Evers, a chaplain who provides volunteer support for several FreedHearts Facebook groups. 

Gayle watches the online groups for recurring questions and comments, responding with context, reading material, and therapeutic resources. She also keeps an eye out for signs that teens may be in danger, since the possibility of self-harm among LGBTQ teens is considerable, particularly when parents are disapproving of their child’s sexuality.

According to The Trevor Project, which runs a national support line for queer youth, LGBTQ teens who come from highly rejecting families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide compared to LGBT peers who report no or low levels of rejection. 

By sharing resources and connecting parents through FreedHearts, Susan and Rob see the potential to preserve safe, loving homes for LGBTQ teens, and keep them out of harm’s way.

Tammie Jarnagan and her son Matthew Babione sit together on a bench in Fayetteville, Arkansas, not far from where Matthew grew up. Tammie thought for many years that Matthew might be gay, and she struggled to accept her son’s sexuality. Tammie found FreedHearts while seeking answers online, and slowly began to see things differently. “I learned that my baby is exactly who God made him to be,” Tammie says. [Photo by Brandon Watts]

Tammie Jarnagan came to FreedHearts about a year after forcibly outing her 15-year-old son Matthew Babione, who is now 25. 

“I didn’t know until I got home from school,” Matthew said. “She left a note stating what she found” a note to Matthew from a friend that alluded to cute boys. ”She said that it was wrong, and just compared it to every other sin. I felt nauseated when I saw that note. And then we had conversations that were not productive.”

They weren’t actually conversations, Tammie said. “It was me freaking out, crying, yelling, screaming. I remember telling him, ‘You’re gonna go to hell.’ I later apologized for that, and luckily he forgave me. But it was bad. It was very bad. I have come a long way.”

Having grown up in fundamentalist, conservative Christian churches in Arkansas, and raising her own children in the First Christian and Baptist churches, there was little room in Tammie’s faith for what she knew about her son.

When she started googling “Christian mom with a gay kid,” she “kept coming across sites that said it wasn’t a sin to be gay, and thought, ‘Oh that’s ridiculous.’” But one day she relented. She clicked on Susan Cottrell’s blog, started reading, and emailed Susan that night. Susan responded the following day, inviting Tammie to join FreedHearts. 

“I slowly started learning,” Tammie says. “I learned that my baby is exactly who God made him to be.”

For Tammie, the learning process included researching the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek. “I learned the word homosexual wasn’t even in the Bible until the 1940s, that there are six scriptures against homosexuality, but 42 that say it’s okay to have slaves. And 25 that say Matthew and I are both going to hell because we’re left-handed. So, you know, I realized the Bible was put together by people with different views, and it’s been translated 100 different times.”

Left: Tammie Jarnagan at a 2019 Pride parade in Fayetteville, Arkansas, along with two friends. Right: Susan Cottrell and her daughter Annie Beebe-Tron (whose last name is a combination of her partner’s last name and her mother’s maiden name) standing outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in 2013, the day the court heard legal arguments in the case that would legalize gay marriage. [photos provided by the families]

In the years since Tammie joined FreedHearts, she’s regained her trust with Matthew, and the two remain very close, living just 30 miles away from one another in Arkansas. 

With another FreedHearts mom, Tammie started her own group called Northwest Arkansas Mamabear Hugs. She and other moms wear “Free Mom Hugs” T-shirts when they go to LGBTQ events, offering hugs and high-fives to anyone who needs some love. 

For Annie, it’s hard to believe their own coming-out story could inspire what FreedHearts has become. They’ve now settled into adulthood, and continue to explore a more open approach to spirituality, sexuality, and gender.

In recent years, Annie began using nonbinary gender pronouns, and now talks about the possibility of parenthood with their partner, Edward, who’s studied and embraced Buddhism.

Annie and Edward live together in an apartment in the same building Susan and Rob call home — and the unofficial headquarters of FreedHearts.

Typically, it’s parents who boast with pride for their children, but now Annie is the one expressing pride for her parents and all the work they’ve done to encourage allyship with the LGBTQ community.

“It feels like the greatest form of advocacy one could ask for,” Annie says. “It’s really nice as a queer person to have someone advocating on your behalf. Talking with parents who are struggling with acceptance can be really hard for me emotionally. So having someone advocate for you, having your parents advocate for you, it’s just incredibly touching.”

Top Photo: Annie Beebe-Tron, with their parents Rob and Susan Cottrell, on the rooftop of their apartment building in Seattle, Washington. [Photo by Jordan Nicholson]