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Forget Joe the Plumber. Never mind Joe 6-pack. This election, says one Provo mom of two gay children, has spawned yet another political icon: "Mother bears who defend their cubs."
Millie Watts, who has six kids total, rallied Mormon mothers and their gay and straight, LDS and non-LDS, allies for a candlelight vigil Sunday night in protest of California's Proposition 8. If it passes Tuesday, the ballot measure would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in the Golden State.
More than 600 people attended the vigil at Salt Lake City's Library Square, despite drizzling rain. A satellite event in St. George drew 100-plus.
Watts greeted the Salt Lake crowd with tears.
"I am so touched that you would be here," she said. "This is what happens when people in California say mean things about our gay kids. The mothers come out of the closet."
Watts organized the event after a four-hour lunch with some friends, who also are LDS and mothers of gay children. She said she has felt "disappointment and betrayal" from the actions taken by the LDS Church to get Prop. 8 passed. The campaign, she said, is "dividing families."
Billie Christiansen traveled from Kaysville to attend the rally with her husband and two daughters. Her 22-year-old, gay son, Alex Lewis, moved to San Francisco last month, but she wanted to be there to support him and other LDS families who are struggling to accept gay children.
Even at age 3, she sensed her child was gay. As an LDS mom, she believed being gay was "wrong," and she tried to change him. When he wanted to play with his sister's Barbies, Christiansen signed him up for soccer. When he tried to help her bake cookies, she rounded up fishing poles.
"I was hard on him. I had so much guilt," she said, but later, her worldview shifted, after he formally came out at age 18. "We're so grateful that we've accepted him now. We knew there wasn't a finer person. He didn't choose [to be gay]."
But the conflict was part of the reason she quit attending LDS services. Her daughter, 21-year-old Tiffany Lewis, still practices the faith, and she voiced whole-hearted support for her brother.
"Everyone should have equal rights," she said holding a candle in opposition of Prop. 8. "You can't help who you love. People deserve to be together."
Linda Barney, part of Watts' band of Mormon moms who spoke at the event, said her heart "reaches out to young Californians, teens who are not out of the closet who are alone ... listening to hateful [rhetoric]."
"They need to hear from us," she said. "They need to know there are people with loving hearts."
Salt Lake City resident Erik Steffensen, who is gay, was impressed by the large turnout. His mother, Kathryn Steffensen, spoke at the rally.
"To realize you're part of more people than you see in your daily life, that we do have allies in the straight community," he said, "is really meaningful." firstname.lastname@example.org