When Claudia Bradshaw’s son Braden came out to her in 1998 she went through a process familiar to mothers across the country, and especially in Utah.
“I was stunned, and it was one of those days where you’re thinking, ‘Oh my hell, this is really bad,’” she remembers.
And just like many mothers still loved her son and wanted to learn all she could about his orientation. Then a temple ordinance worker for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in conservative Southern Utah, Bradshaw drove from her small town of Bloomington Hills to Las Vegas to find gay-related books and called her son almost daily to ask him questions. Wanting to help, Braden loaned her a copy of the book Prayers for Bobby, the diary of a gay man who committed suicide, which Bradshaw says Braden had almost done at one point. The book’s entries, filled with “self-hate” made her cry but helped her to “crawl inside his skin to understand what he went through.”
“I was so ignorant about it. I probably bugged him but he was so sweet to help me,” she says now.
But Claudia Bradshaw is not like many moms with gay children living in small, conservative towns in other ways. While many of them come to accept and understand their children’s orientation they don’t all start chapters of Parents Family and Friends of Gays and Lesbians – which is just what Bradshaw did after quitting her temple job and, eventually the LDS Church.
“It became such a painful place for me to be because I sat there and thought, ‘My son isn’t accepted there anymore,’” she said. “And I saw all these little children, and we know it’s about ten percent who will be gay and I thought about how they just sit in church and feel dirty.”
She calls the past ten years leading Southern Utah’s PFLAG chapter “a sweet journey.”
“I just started having the meetings,” she said. “I listened to all these stories over the years. There are wonderful people who are considered disposable and I don’t know anyone who is disposable.”
At first, the meetings were sparsely attended. But today, Bradshaw says she gets “very good attendance” from not only parents with gay children but members of the local gay community.
One of the PFLAG mothers is Jeanne Adams who, like Bradshaw, said she wanted to learn more about homosexuality after her daughter Joielle came out to her eight years ago.
“The meetings are huge,” she says. “Claudia’s had between 20 and 30 people each time I’ve been there,” including regulars and members of the gay community, who, Adams adds, often outnumber the parents. Through discussions with the group and the speakers Bradshaw sometimes invites, Adams said that she has not only gotten to know about the issues that effect gay people’s lives, she’s also befriended several of them.
“I think what’s been the most poignant for me is hearing other people’s stories and what they’ve gone through and how they have faced situations in their own lives,” she said. “It’s just been a remarkable thing. Years ago when they were first doing the gay marriages in San Francisco I remember the mayor [Gavin Newsom] made a comment. He said, “I felt I had to give this issue a human face. And that’s what PFLAG dos. You see that we are much more the same than we are different, and certainly we can bridge that gap if we open our minds and hearts.”
Through her involvement with PFLAG Adams says she was able to do just that with a daughter whom she already loved deeply.
“Last year she was coming down [from Salt Lake City] to visit us over the same weekend that we were having pride day in Springdale,” she remembers. “My husband and I asked her, ‘Is that something we can do with you?’ and she said, ‘Oh mom you have no idea how much it would mean to me if you would attend this.’ So having very little idea of what it was we attended that with her, and certainly it has meant a lot to her to have supportive parents.”
Along with running the PFLAG chapter, Bradshaw has also spoken about gay rights at a number of schools, including Southern Utah University and Dixie State College. She has also spoken in favor of gay marriage at a luncheon for the state democratic party (“In southern Utah that is the maximum sin,” she jokes). The Southern Utah Pride Association, Inc. has even named an award in her honor, the Claudia Bradshaw Humanitarian Award, which is given annually to a member of the southern Utah gay community who goes “above and beyond in bringing support” to other gay people in the area.
Ultimately she calls her decade of work with local gays and their families a profound life change.
“I’m doing something I never thought I would be doing. I thought I’d be working in the temple ‘til I was 90 and keeled over but this is way sweeter,” she says.
Southern Utah’s PFLAG chapter meets on the third Tuesday of every month at Claudia Bradshaw’s house. For more information or directions call 673-3356.