*Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Liz Dyer would be appearing at UWF's Coming Out Day event.
National Coming Out Day next week will honor the bravery of LGBTQ+ individuals who decide to come out and live openly.
And you can bet a bunch of Mama Bears will be there to show their support at the University of West Florida's Coming Out Day on Tuesday, Oct. 11.
Liz Dyer, founder of Mama Bears, created Mama Bears the group as an outlet for online community and in-person advocacy for parents of LGBTQ+ children.
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Dyer founded the organization after she saw her gay son did not have the same protections as her straight son. She began connecting with other families of LGBTQ+ children to help parents, especially moms, and created the Mama Bears Facebook group for members to affirm and celebrate their own kids.
"We want to make sure that we're really helping parents be well informed, educated and have the right information," Dyer said. "Because the more that families feel like they are well informed and knowledgeable, then the more confidence they have to advocate for their kids and for the LGBTQ community at large."
Dyer, a Texas resident, started the group started in 2014 with 150 moms. Today, there are more than 35,500 members with more than 60 local chapters in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The members offer programs such as Mama Bears to the Rescue, which connects people with small acts of kindness like sending letters or phone calls; Momma Bear Holiday Hugs, which provide messages of love, hope and affirmation to LGBTQ+ people during the holiday season; and the Mama Bear Blanket Project, which delivers no-sew handmade blankets to LGBTQ+ teens and adults who need support and encouragement.
They also have the Mama Bear Giving Circle, a community of monthly donors who award grants to nonprofits working to make the world a safer and more inclusive place for LGBTQ+ people. The Giving Circle puts 90% of the funds toward nonprofits who support the LGBTQ+ community and the rest stays with Mama the Bears to help continue their own work.
Florida Mama Bears member Susan Wright learned her daughter was a lesbian when her daughter was 16, and joined the group to figure out the best ways to support her child. Wright has seen the group as a place where many parents are still processing that their children are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
"I want to let students know that there's mamas who are here to support and love them, even if their own mamas aren't there yet," Wright said. "We're just there to be moms giving out hugs and giving out love and giving out support."
Missy Nicholson, who is also part of the Florida Mama Bears chapter, found out about the Facebook group through a TV show. Her son, Jacob, came out around the same time as the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. Finding the Facebook group and seeing the unconditional love and support moms have to their children and even to completely strangers was amazing to watch, she said.
Since joining the group, Nicholson said she has become more informed about topics such as use of pronouns and gender neutral bathrooms. She hopes to go to the UWF event to meet other Mama Bears and spread her unconditional love to others in the community.
Her time in the group has allowed her to find more ways to support and love her son, to become a better ally for the LGBTQ+ community and to help children feel more welcomed in coming out.
"It's nice to be involved in that group and the resource of that camaraderie, knowing you have a place where you can go and really ask any question, whether it may be politically correct or not," Nicholson said. "This group understands where you're coming from, and will be there to share their experiences and give you some guidance and support along the way."
The Coming Out Day event will take place at the UWF campus at 11000 University Parkway. UWF will have festivities running from noon to 2 p.m. with music, food, a live art project and a run-through coming out banner. From 6 to 8:30 p.m., there will be film screening of "Paris is Burning," a post-screening conversation and UWF Coming Out Day art.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Florida Mama Bears to support LGBTQ students at UWF Coming Out Day