When Aimee Keppinger's 16-year-old daughter came out as transgender in February, Keppinger said she was fearful because of the state where they live.
Keppinger and her blended family have lived for years in Texas, where several anti-LGBTQ legislative bills were proposed in the 2023 session of the Texas Legislature, according to the advocacy organization Equality Texas. Among those were bills banning care for transgender children, restricting transgender athletes in college sports, and restricting "sexually oriented performances," all of which were signed into law, according to the Texas Tribune.
The Lone Star State is now one of more than dozen states that has banned or is considering a ban on gender-affirming youth care.
"My initial outward reaction was, 'I love you, no matter what.' My inward reaction was being a little bit scared, to be honest," Keppinger told "Good Morning America" of her response when her eldest child Niyah, who is biracial, came out. "We live in Texas, which is already not always a safe place for the LGBTQ community and we live in a small town where she's struggled with being one of the only Black people in our community."
Adding to her struggle, Keppinger said, was the fact that she didn't know other local parents with children in the LGBTQ community.
The morning after Niyah came out, Keppinger said she went online searching for support groups who could provide more information and guidance to her and her family.
Since then, she has since joined private Facebook groups including Support Network for Parents of Trans Kids and Mama Dragons, a nonprofit that offers support groups, resources and parenting classes specifically for mothers of LGBTQ children. Keppinger said although these groups have thousands of members, they have been a welcoming online network.
"I know people my age that are adults, people that I've grown up with that are in the LGBTQ community, but kids? No, I haven't really been surrounded by parents with children in the LGBTQ community," Keppinger told "GMA." "It's all new to me and reading those experiences, it just feels like it gives me the fuel I need to keep fighting for my kid in a state that is fighting against my kid."
The number of children who identify as LGBTQIA+ in the U.S. has been growing. A 2020 report from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimated nearly 2 million children between the ages of 13 and 17 across the U.S. are LGBT youth.
With the rise in LGBTQ youth and increased advocacy, several parents, including mom Heather Diaz, told "GMA" they've seen a corresponding rise in online support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ youth offering community, support and most importantly, a safe space.
Six years ago, Diaz didn't know how to respond when her eldest child, Eli, came out as nonbinary, and then her second child, Max, came out as a transgender boy about seven months later.
Diaz, now 48, had been raised in what she described as a "pretty conservative evangelical [Christian] background," and so had her husband Joel.
Everything Diaz and her husband were familiar with suddenly went out the window, and she didn't know where to turn to for support.
"I was kind of floundering a little, looking for support," Diaz told "Good Morning America" from her home in San Diego. "It was a time of trying to figure out 'How do we feel about this? How do we incorporate our faith?' All those big questions … what we've been taught versus what our heart is feeling."
Diaz said a close friend, who also had a trans son, suggested she look into a private Facebook group called Mama Bears, and invited her to join the group on the social media platform.
Mama Bears was founded in June 2014 by Liz Dyer, who told "GMA" she was inspired to do so after her own personal experience with her children, one of whom came out as gay in 2007.
"I was starting to realize that my gay son didn't have the same rights that my straight son did, or that I had, or that my husband had, and I was beginning to realize that he had a lot of obstacles to overcome just because of his sexual orientation -- and I wanted to do something to change that. I wanted to make the world a kinder, safer, more inclusive place for my son and other LGBTQ people to live," Dyer told "GMA."
Mama Bears, now a limited liability company run by Dyer in Fort Worth, Texas, has since grown to nearly 38,000 members with eight more groups and over 60 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. It grew even more in 2020 after the hit show "Schitt's Creek" mentioned the group in its "Best Wishes, Warmest Regards: A Schitt's Creek Farewell" documentary special. According to Dyer, members largely self-lead their own groups and plan their own social events, coming together to provide mutual support based on their geographic location.
"We produce content, we support families with LGBTQ members, we try to empower them so that they can join our fight, to make the world a better place for LGBTQ people to live and thrive," Dyer said of the Mama Bears mission today.
More research is needed to determine if online support groups do indeed benefit parents and families of LGBTQ youth but a 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggested that "parents may grow more accepting as they observe youth receiving support and acceptance from peers and significant others. Specific experiences, such as counseling, support groups for parents, or learning more about LGBT communities, may decrease parental rejection and increase support."
Diaz said joining Mama Bears in 2017 has been life-changing for her.
"For me, personally, I don't think I would be where I am today if I didn't have that group of moms," Diaz said. "Finding this group, it's like seeing yourself by the hundreds. It's really amazing to be able to talk to other moms that are in the same boat because unless you're there, unless you're in it, people around you really don't understand what you're going through."
Other "mama bears," according to Diaz, didn't judge or reprimand her, and instead of just sharing supportive messages, they were "hugely helpful" in helping her family navigate various challenges and new experiences.
"When my kids were in school, there was a lot of bullying, and I know that when things were going on, I could get ideas of how to handle it," Diaz said. "Other moms were like, 'OK, this happened and this is what we did.'"
"And when my son decided to transition, all that comes with that is just overwhelming and a lot of other moms that have been there, done that are right there. 'This is what we did. This is where we went.' Even moms here in San Diego [were] how we got the names of different people to go, to start processes for him to do this," Diaz added.
The year Diaz joined Mama Bears was the same year another mom, Ginger Chun, started looking for a supportive group after her child came out as transgender.
Chun, who also lives in Texas with her family, told "GMA" she and her husband had been "supportive, but not well informed," so when she learned about the Transgender Education Network of Texas – also known as TENT – she decided to get involved.
"At the time, we were not aware that we knew any transgender people. We just didn't know anybody. So, it was a big learning process for us," Chun said. "It is nice when you can go Google information or read a book, but what really helps families understand, and help people understand the community, is getting to know people."
Chun's involvement with TENT eventually inspired her to return to school to earn a master's degree in social work. She now works full-time as TENT's education and family engagement manager.
"My child has basically changed my trajectory, and I would say that most families with a transgender or gender-expansive kiddo would say the same thing," Chun said. "Because they're just amazing kiddos."
Through connecting with the local LGBTQ and transgender community in Texas and telling her own story, Chun said her world has expanded immensely.
"By telling my story, I learned a lot more about the community and understanding gender identity at a time when I knew just the basics," she said. "Also, meeting more and more people in the community helped our family in general become more comfortable and understanding of our [transgender] family member's process."
As more anti-LGBTQ laws have been proposed, TENT has evolved to connect, educate and train local community members and families to advocate and lobby lawmakers in support of the LGBTQ community.
"This last six months has really been focused on supporting families who have been facing, basically unprecedented attacks on their trans youth here in Texas," Chun said.
"We also will show up at the legislature and provide safe spaces. We bring in counselors and therapists," Chun added. "If there are new families that have reached out to us, we try to connect them with other families that are already actively involved in the community … really having the families support each other and just connecting them so they can do that."
For Keppinger, another way she has connected with and talked to other parents navigating the challenges of parenting an LGBTQ child has been through Mama Dragons.
"Mama Dragons is like a warm hug, which is funny to say about an online support group," Keppinger said. "[There are] so many vulnerable posts and the comments and the interaction are just love. I mean, even if somebody says something wrong, or they use an incorrect term or something like that, the correction is loving, and you don't find that on Facebook often."
As Keppinger and her family begin to help Niyah navigate new territory, she said she still has a hopeful outlook, despite the rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation in her home state.
"Reading the posts and seeing the experiences that others have had, it's so freeing for me, especially coming from a place of living in Texas," Keppinger said.
"I am just ever the optimist. Those [anti-LGBTQ] voices are very loud but … I do not believe that they are the majority," she added. "You hear on the news, chatter of unacceptance, but when you're local and you're at that personal level, I've just found that it's not always that."