Fifty years after the Stonewall uprising, these Facebook groups are helping LGBTQ individuals pave the way for a more inclusive future — all while thriving now
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A group of bonded mothers in Utah started the Mama Dragons Facebook group in 2014 to “support, educate and empower mothers of LGBTQ children.”
Wendy VonSosen, president of the organization, tells PEOPLE their efforts — including community education, regional groups and private subgroups on Facebook — help mothers become “the best possible advocates for their kids.”
“Our former president, Julie Packer, was quietly supportive of her gay son Tyson,” says VonSosen. “After she joined Mama Dragons, she learned how to fiercely support him in a way that showed him how proud she was of him.”
Tragically, Tyson died by suicide shortly thereafter — and the moms showed up for her. “When I lost my son to suicide, the women in this group supported and loved me in a way I had never imagined,” Packer wrote in an emotional blog post on Jan. 2. “When you are surrounded by other moms who share similar experiences (tragedies, successes, joys, laughter, frustration and tears), the love and support is a sacred thing.”
Packer also wrote about the big impact Mama Dragons had on her mother-son connection with Tyson.
“As he watched me find my voice he felt the full power of my love and support,” said Packer. “If I had not discovered Mama Dragons, I might have had so many more regrets. I feel so lucky and blessed that I found this group in time to grow and progress so that he saw and felt it.”
Packer added, “It is my dream that all moms who need us will find us. Let us embrace, love and support you. Our dream is that every mother of every LGBTQ child will come to understand that her child is perfect and that these same Mamas will find their own strength to breathe fire for them.”
This year, Mama Dragons celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in June as the “catalyst for the Gay Rights movement.”
“As the mother of a gay son who is an incredible drag performer, I’m so grateful to those individuals who were present that night 50 years ago, who fought back against political, social and economic marginalization and violence so that my son can live his life with less fear,” VonSosen told PEOPLE. “While progress has been made over the past 50 years, we still have work to do to replace violence with peace and acceptance, especially for transgender people of color.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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“This group is for people at the intersection of the African-American, female and LGBTQ+ experiences,” says Marquita Thomas, who runs the Black Lesbians group on Facebook. “It is a necessary online space of community building for black LGBTQ+ women to address the lack of safe spaces for lesbians as a whole and the lack of inclusion in many LGBTQ+ spaces.”
Thomas tells PEOPLE the group helps members “express their frustrations around their own unique experiences and our current political climate as well as seek support.”
Members are also finding new ways to affect change. “One woman became so empowered in the group, she ran for her state’s House of Representatives,” she says.
For Thomas, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in June reminded “us that the fight is far from over.”
“We need to do more in our own communities as well as demand federal support for all LGBTQ people by way of the Equality Act,” she adds.
Thomas’ goal is to “strengthen our efforts, especially for the most vulnerable of us: trans women of color, who were the cornerstones of the Stonewall riots.”
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“Pride Portraits provides visibility, representation and humanization to the LGBTQIA+ community through photography and storytelling,” says founder Eric Edward Schell. “Each person who is photographed for the campaign also has the opportunity to make a statement so we can tell our narratives our way.”
Looking back on all the portraits he’s taken, Schell tells PEOPLE he was most impacted by “an 18-year-old man named Dylan who wanted to share his voice as a beacon of light for others who were diagnosed with HIV.”
“He lost his life a month after we met,” adds Schell, “but his narrative is forever memorialized through Pride Portraits.”
In June, Schell spoke about his passion for activism at the Stonewall Inn — the iconic New York City bar where a 1969 police raid led to the modern gay rights movement — during Facebook’s Pride celebration.
“Stonewall 50 to me is a wake-up call to the work that still needs to be done,” he tells PEOPLE. “Our movement was started by trans women of color and 50 years later they are still being murdered at an alarming rate, simply for existing as their true selves.”
“Our movement has shifted and queer people of color and trans people are tired of being silenced and are demanding a seat at the table,” he adds, “if not a seat at the head of the table.”
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Non-Binary Gender Pride
“Non-Binary Gender Pride is designed to create a safe space for the exploration and questioning of gender,” says founder Lindsey Pembrooke. “This allows our members to be able to talk openly about how they are experiencing gender among others that are also outside of the gender binary. [We are] primarily a support group for folks who are either non-binary or think they might be.”
The group is open to allies, too. “While we are not a general interest group, we also cater to individuals seeking to support a specific non-binary person in their life (child, significant other, parent, best friend),” says Pembrooke. “By allowing select cis people in a non-binary person’s support network to gain knowledge, this serves to directly support another non-binary person.”
Central to Non-Binary Gender Pride’s mission is saving lives. “Transgender/Non-Binary people have a 41% attempted suicide rate that is over 50% for adolescents designated male at birth, and close to 70% of our group is under the age of 24,” Pembrooke tells PEOPLE, citing statistics from a 2014 study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute. “It is a common occurrence to hear people who have joined the group not knowing any other non-binary people in their area. For them, this is the first time they get to say out loud what they are feeling and experiencing to someone that can relate to them.”
“That feeling of not being alone, that having a sense of belonging to a community is a good deterrent to the feelings of hopelessness that can lead to suicide or self-harm,” Pembrooke adds. “Not as good as the unconditional acceptance by family and school, but still good.”
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“Our group provides a space for New York-based LGBTQ+ climbers and serves as a bridge to other LGBTQ+ climbing groups across the U.S.,” Julian Paul Andrews, the president of CRUX Climbing, tells PEOPLE. “Our members can share triumphs and struggles with others who understand and empathize with what they’re going through. Through climbing, people have found courage, acceptance, love and emotional support.”
Andrews says the 50th anniversary of Stonewall was “a time to learn from the acts of activism that birthed the freedoms that LGBTQ people in the U.S. enjoy today,” he says. “It’s an inspiration to push for equality, visibility and accurate representation. And it represents hope that we can institute the kinds of changes that will be felt for the next generation.”
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“I create and share art to uplift and inspire my community, and to remind people that we need to train ourselves to be deliberately exposed to positive messaging, to counteract the volume of negativity with which we are involuntarily bombarded,” says Agnes Barton-Sabo, a.k.a. Betty Turbo. “By celebrating LGBTQIA+ pop culture figures in my work, I highlight moments of connection, visibility and recognition and look for access points to conversations about our identities and how we understand the world.”
The published illustrator says “the feedback I receive from sharing and discussing this work, as well as its inspiration, reveals deep feelings of community and camaraderie, showing so many ways we are linked to each other.”
While celebrating Pride and Stonewall 50 this year, Barton-Sabo was reminded “that we need to look closely at history and pay attention to what felt ‘impossible,’ and what it looked like to refuse to conform or settle for how things were.”
“It’s not just about this one moment in time, but also about looking at the entire lives of these pioneers for whom we are grateful, and the different ways they dedicated themselves to working for the good of their community, and how they came together for collective action,” adds Barton-Sabo. “It’s on us to pick up their stories and their work and keep pushing them forward.”
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