Mylinda and Matthew Mason in the mid-1990s, during much happier and less complicated times. Photos: Cayce Clifford

An Anti-Gay Crusader and Her Gay Son Were Making It Work. Then Came Trump.

A portrait of a modern family undone by the political zeitgeist

He may have been just 16, a sheltered bookworm from a conservative evangelical family, but when it came to public speaking, Matthew Mason had the poise of a veteran statesman. Captured on video addressing an appreciative crowd at a 2007 anti-abortion banquet at Chico State, he wears a black suit and wire-rimmed glasses. He paces the stage with practiced confidence, hitting his marks, making good eye contact, nailing his jokes, and then pausing with an easy grin to wait for the applause to subside. He has a story to tell, and he delivers it flawlessly.

It begins in 1990, when an 18-year-old former runaway realized she’d become pregnant for the third time. The young woman had already had one abortion and given birth to one child. Knowing she couldn’t handle another infant, she visited a local clinic to terminate the pregnancy. She avoided the protesters perennially camped outside, ignoring their shrill cries (“Mommy, please don’t kill me!”). But as she lay on the examination table, the teenager began to have doubts. She asked for a look at the ultrasound screen, and the technician reluctantly agreed. The ghostlike image stirred something in her. Even at less than eight weeks, she thought she could see the embryo’s hands, its spine, its feet.

In Matthew’s telling, the procedure was about to begin when the young woman declared she had changed her mind. “No!” the doctor supposedly replied. “It’s too late to back out!” Rising defiantly from the table, she put on her clothes and walked out.

By the time Matthew’s speech approaches its climax, the audience surely knows what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful.

Later that day, though, she found herself driving past the clinic again. The activists were still there. She parked, hopped out, and approached the group. “Thanks for being out here,” she said, going on to explain her plight. A woman of 29 with teased hair and a red sweater took her hands. “I may not have all the answers you need,” she replied, “but I do know the One who does.” The two of them prayed together, and when they were finished, the anti-abortion activist made a commitment: If the girl had any doubts about being able to care for the baby, she would adopt the child and raise it as her own.

The baby boy was born seven and a half months later, at 10:34 p.m. on November 21, Thanksgiving eve.

By the time Matthew’s speech approaches its climax, the audience surely knows what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. You see, he tells them, he wouldn’t even be standing there, talking to them at this minute, if not for that teenage girl’s brave choice: “The choice to give her baby life, the choice to give me life.” It nearly brings down the house.

Matthew today, at 29. He is studying to become a nurse practitioner.

Mylinda Mason showed me the video in her tidy, book-filled study in central Modesto, California, in a modest three-bedroom house she likes to call the Patriotic Cottage. For decades, she has devoted herself not only to the anti-abortion cause but to anti-gay activism as well, and in recent years, she has been a thorn in the side of the local Republican Party, which she considers too moderate on social issues. She adopted Matthew the day he was born and began trundling him off to abortion-rights rallies years before he could talk, much less hoist a placard. The speech at Chico State was just one of scores he gave over the years, but it was especially memorable. Mylinda proudly recalled how the evening’s headliner, Ryan Dobson (son of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson), began his own speech by saying that her boy, her Matthew, sure was a hard act to follow.

She said she didn’t think much of the somewhat theatrical mannerisms that crept into Matthew’s performance toward the end of his address — a hint of the movie musicals, like The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with which he’d long been obsessed.

But after another of Matthew’s speaking engagements a year or so later, she was approached by an older woman. “What are you doing about his femininity?” the person demanded. Mylinda wondered what she meant. “Don’t you see it?” the woman hissed. “His gayness.”

I learned of the Mason family last summer in connection with a “straight pride” rally in Modesto, which began drawing national attention shortly after its announcement in mid-July. Co-organized by Mylinda Mason and Don Grundmann, a church acquaintance and comrade in far-right political circles, the event was billed as a celebration not only of heterosexuality but also, as the flyer put it, of “Heterosexuality; Masculinity — Femininity; Babies — Born and Unborn; Western Civilization; Our Wonderful Country; Christianity [and] Life!”

The organizers announced they were expecting some 500 participants to congregate in the city’s beloved Graceada Park, the site of numerous gay pride events over the years, but as news of the group’s plans filtered out — including word that the local Proud Boys chapter was expected — a diverse coalition of residents quickly mobilized to deny the group a city permit. Among the leaders of the opposition was a gay man in his mid-twenties who’d been tutored in political organizing since childhood: Mylinda’s now-estranged adoptive son, Matthew.

In a wildly improbable plot twist, among the first people to raise the alarm about the would-be straight pride rally was a woman named Kristi Ah You. A former teen runaway, she had turned her life around and become the Republican city councilmember for District 3, where Graceada Park is located. Kristi is Matthew’s birth mother.

I learned of the Mason family last summer in connection with a “straight pride” rally in Modesto, which began drawing national attention shortly after its announcement in mid-July.

So the Stanislaus County Straight Pride Event was more than just a garden variety culture-war flashpoint; like a classical Greek tragedy, updated and staged in modern dress, it was a bitter family drama that laid bare and personalized the crisis and dysfunction of the society as a whole. For anyone hoping to dissect the ways in which the vexed and chaotic politics of the moment had divided Americans, splintering our most intimate relationships and crashing through the invisible barricades of etiquette and comity that had long acted as a thin cushion between the personal and the political, the Masons would seem to offer a perfect case study — a painful and long-gestating family drama that would blossom into the stuff of newspaper headlines, viral videos, and eager calls from the booking team at Dr. Phil.

Left to right: the FPA Women’s Health Center in Modesto, where Matthew’s birth mother first met Mylinda; a protestor outside the local Planned Parenthood.

The Patriotic Cottage is easy to spot. It’s the small ranch-style house with the neatly landscaped garden out front, the working fountain, the array of bird feeders, and the 15 or so little American flags lining the walkway.

When we’d spoken on the phone, Mylinda had politely declined to participate in my story, but one day in early November, I showed up on her doorstep anyway, hoping to change her mind. A compact woman with high eyebrows, heavily mascaraed eyes, and a strong chin, she’d cheerfully invited me in and offered me a tour of the place. Eventually, she agreed to participate.

Inside, the cottage was floridly ornamented with needlepoint Bible quotes and inspirational sayings, a profusion of candy in dishes, works of edgy political art by MAGA painter Jon McNaughton and others, National Rifle Association swag, collectible plates, Americana-themed throw pillows, and a scale replica of the Liberty Bell. If it contained a single unoccupied surface or a bare expanse of wall space, I didn’t spot it. Some juxtapositions were jarring: A mirrored shelf bore a printed quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) beside a Confederate flag coffee mug sporting the motto “Southern by the Grace of God,” despite the fact that no one in the family is really Southern. An entire bookshelf in the bathroom was devoted to the literary output of radio host Michael Savage. On the refrigerator door, old family photos and Bible passages written out in a graceful hand on Post-its were displayed alongside images of dismembered fetuses.

Although Thanksgiving was still more than three weeks away, the large dining room table was already set for the holiday. Figurines of pilgrims, male and female, decorative gourds, and artificial foliage surrounded an old-timey model pickup truck filled with pumpkin-shaped candy corn.

“I redo this room each month,” Mylinda explained, handing me a cup of coffee.

Later, she showed me Matthew’s childhood bedroom, with his framed awards from the California ProLife Youth Oratory Competition and the Yesterday’s Books Summer Reading Club, a collection of lava lamps, and a list of daily chores. Except for the recent addition of a Trump-Pence 2020 sign, Mylinda told me, the room was essentially untouched since the family’s falling out.

Matthew never spent a day in what Mylinda calls “government schools.” By the time he was ready for kindergarten, she had already pulled her other two sons out of the system. Not only did forcing energetic little boys to sit behind a desk all day constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” as she put it, but government education ends in tyranny, she said, as the Founders well knew.

Instead, she taught Matthew herself, focusing on literature, history, and religion and turning to a local co-op for math and science. In the sitting room, several walls are given over to the family’s library, with sections devoted to theology, biography, and history. Matthew was allowed to read any book he wanted, provided it was in the family collection. TV was forbidden, Matthew says, although conservative talk radio blared throughout the day. As for music, classical and some gospel were acceptable, but anything contemporary, including Christian rock, was deemed off-limits due to its use of syncopation.

Providing for the education of her boys and protesting regularly at the local “abortuary” were hardly Mylinda’s only responsibilities in those years. One day in April 1996, her husband, Ron Mason, a corrections officer, was driving back from nearby Oakdale when a pickup broadsided his car. He was nearly killed. After Ron spent several weeks in intensive care without regaining consciousness, doctors began talking about removing him from life support. Mylinda told them no. “I’m pro-life,” she explained. “If God takes him, I’m good with that. But pulling the plug? I am not good with that. I can’t do that.’”

To everyone’s amazement, Ron pulled through, though a full recovery took years. It wasn’t easy holding everything together after Ron’s accident. She had to dress his wounds with fresh gauze, clothe him, feed him, teach him to talk again, everything, all while raising her two older sons and Matthew largely on her own.

Mylinda in the living room of her home, which she calls the Patriotic Cottage.

“That’s when I became the person that you see now,” Mylinda told me. “Because before that, I believed it here.” She placed her hand on her heart. “But I didn’t have to walk it. That made me walk it.”

Shortly after adolescence, Matthew took an interest in a book that was not in the family’s home library, the novel Wicked by Gregory Macguire, the imagined backstory of the two witches, good and evil, who feature in The Wizard of Oz. Mylinda said no.

“I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz,” Matthew recalled over dinner at an Applebee’s in Manteca. Now 29, he is pursuing his bachelor’s in kinesiology at California State University, Stanislaus, in nearby Turlock with the goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. He wore jeans and a colorful striped tank top that showed his soft, narrow shoulders. His hair, still floppy, hung around his ears. His beard was trimmed into a sparse goatee, and his youthful earnestness seemed to have given way to a wry sense of humor.

He said he’d eventually been mystified that his parents had missed the signs of his emerging sexuality. “They were very open to letting me bake and do girly shit,” he said. “Looking back, I’m like, ‘Mylinda, really? Really? You were surprised?’” He lifts one skeptical eyebrow. “And she’s like, ‘I just thought you were special and sensitive.’”

Although Ron eventually recovered and began a new career as a real estate agent, he’d undergone a personality shift, from stalwart family patriarch to a quieter, more easygoing figure, happy to stay in the background while his wife set the tone. During the afternoon and evening I spent at the Patriotic Cottage, he was welcoming but wary, speaking only a few words.

Mylinda had always been a strict parent, but managing the family on her own seemed to bring out an authoritarian streak. Painful spankings, sometimes administered with a long glue-gun stick (the kind popular with scrapbookers), were routine. And the spankings would generally continue until the boy stopped crying or trying to wriggle free. “Once the child becomes compliant, then you’re done,” Matthew remembered, flashing a sardonic smile. Asked if he now considered the treatment to be abuse, he replied, “Oh, definitely.”

“When I said to my kid, ‘Pick that up,’ they picked it up,” Mylinda told me. “It’s called first-time obedience. They learn that when they’re like six months old.”

For Matthew, coming to terms with his sexual orientation was a long process, made infinitely more complicated by Mylinda’s anti-gay activism. She’d spent years picketing Pride events and rainbow proms, carrying signs warning attendees of the death and damnation that surely awaited them. Often, Matthew had been at her side, secretly longing to bolt from the group of protesters and hit the dance floor himself.

Once, when he was 14 or 15, a counterprotester got in his face. “You’re gay,” she said, somehow intuiting the truth just by looking at him. “Why are you doing this?”

“I am not,” Matthew replied.

“Denial,” the woman said bluntly.

It was around that time that Matthew gained access to the internet in order to take online high school courses. Eventually, he began blogging on Xanga, where at one point, a piece about his birth story became one of the most-read posts. While he never opened up about his sexual preference on the platform, he did encounter other LGBTQ people, confirming his hunch that they were far from the degenerate fiends he’d been taught to fear.

He didn’t come out to his parents until he was 19. He’d been staying with his brother Josh after an argument with Mylinda. When he left a browser open on a gay-oriented website, his brother had alerted Mylinda and Ron. Eventually, Matthew leveled with them. “You cannot be gay,” Mylinda told him. “I know you can act gay, Matthew, we all know that. But God doesn’t make those.” As long as he persisted in “practicing homosexuality,” he was told, he’d no longer be welcome to live at home.

He declined and moved out. “After a few days of living an honest life, I was just not going to put on a charade,” he said.

Initially, Mylinda mostly kept the news to herself. But there was one person who she felt deserved to know where things stood: Matthew’s birth mother, Kristi.

Matthew’s childhood bedroom. Except for the recent addition of a Trump-Pence 2020 sign (not pictured), the room has barely changed since Matthew moved out.

When Kristi had first gotten to know the Masons during her pregnancy, she had been floored by the family’s wholesome character. Having been “rescued” at the age of 12 from a Compton truck stop by two nuns and a priest, she’d long felt she was, “protected by the hand of God,” she said. Meeting the Masons, then, seemed like another manifestation of divine grace. “They’re baking pies and cookies, and there’s no TV in the house, and it’s just like, middle-American awesomeness,” she recalled over lunch not far from the funeral home where she is now a managing partner. She wore her long blond hair in bangs and was wearing a conservative business suit, a skirt and heels. Breezy and affable with a world-weary humor, she warmly recalled how despite having been “one of those rowdy people, just running around and creating chaos in my life and the lives of others,” the Masons had embraced her, treating her as a member of the family and cheerfully overlooking her penchant for high heels, bad language, fast food, and smoking. (Not all of the chaos was her doing; she later discovered a medication she’d been prescribed for epilepsy had been interfering with her birth control.)

After the adoption, Kristi gradually turned her life around, eventually earning a degree in mortuary science and working her way up to become the county’s chief deputy coroner. Over the years, even as she’d begun to wonder about Mylinda’s penchant for severe corporal punishment and her far-right political views, she’d been careful to keep a respectful distance. After all, she’d given up Matthew willingly, fully agreeing that she would have no involvement with the boy thereafter. It wouldn’t be right to meddle.

Still, Modesto is a city of about 215,000, and over the years, Kristi sometimes ran into the Masons. Once, when Matthew was about 12, she’d spotted him at a community event in Graceada Park selling flags. Despite temperatures near 100 degrees, he was wearing dress pants hiked up Pee-wee Herman-style and a button-down shirt. Even then, his mannerisms read to Kristi as gay. When she got an out-of-the-blue call from Mylinda years later, she knew immediately what it was about. “My response probably wasn’t very kind,” she recalled, “but I was like, ‘Okay, either Matthew is dead or he’s gay. Which one is it?’”

One day in January 2009, Matthew and Kristi really met for the first time since his birth. Over coffee at a local Starbucks, he told her about his achievements in debate and public speaking and the paralegal certificate he had recently obtained from Oak Brook College, an online Christian law school. On the subject of his sexuality, she made sure he knew she accepted him no matter what. Concerned about his living arrangements, she hooked him up with a transitional shelter. As for what she recalls as Mylinda’s request that she convince him to begin therapy in an effort to become straight, she declined. “Meeting the son I gave up for adoption and trying to talk him into going to some weird program to reprogram him was not at the top of my list of things to do at all,” she told me. (Mylinda denies ever advocating conversion therapy, recalling instead that she wanted him to see if a hormone imbalance was the cause of his homosexuality.)

By that time, Matthew had moved on anyway. “I’d undergone a complete overhaul of my spiritual identity, religious identity, my political identity, my social identity,” he recalled. “And yeah, I was just like, ‘Hard pass.’”

Despite the yawning political gap that opened up between Matthew and his parents after he came out, despite their deep disagreement over whether homosexuality is an orientation or an abomination against God, they somehow remained on friendly terms. “Throughout the entire Obama presidency, we were okay,” Matthew said.

Kristi Ah You, Matthew’s birth mother and now a city council member in Modesto.

Once, when he introduced a boyfriend to Mylinda after a chance encounter at the mall, she was cordial. When another boyfriend turned out to have a violent temper, Matthew spent a few days living at the Patriotic Cottage. Eventually, after he returned to the boyfriend, Mylinda and Kristi teamed up, two moms on a mission, knocked on the man’s door and delivered a warning. “I think we scared the daylights out of him,” Kristi said.

In 2011, Mylinda, who’d long been active in the Republican Party, decided to run for a seat on the Modesto school board. Given her reputation as an ardent homeschooler and anti-gay activist, it was a long-shot candidacy. But Matthew, who had since given up his legal training for classes at Paul Mitchell beauty school, did her hair throughout the campaign. “I didn’t vote for her,” Matthew said, “but I gave her advice. I stuck by her.”

That is, until Mylinda began countering accusations of homophobia by pointing out that she couldn’t possibly hate gays because she had a gay son she adored.

“She dragged me into it,” Matthew said. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘I am not your political chip, and if you ever do that again, I am going to call you out publicly and forcefully.’ Which is, of course, what happened with Straight Pride.”

“She has that ostentatious style, and she’s outgoing and extroverted, so yeah, if she wasn’t such an asshole to people that she didn’t agree with, the gay community would love her.”

Mylinda lost the race, though she admitted to me that she’d achieved her main goal, drawing attention to a proposed state law mandating that public school students learn about the historical contributions of LGBTQ individuals. “I had interviews until I couldn’t see straight,” she said. The bill passed anyway.

Though Matthew wasn’t allowed to bring friends to the Patriotic Cottage or spend the night, he regularly stopped by to visit. He told his mother that if only she could temper her hateful rhetoric, his friends would embrace her, Mylinda recalled, “because I’m such a — what was the word? A diva, I think.”

“She is a diva because she’s so focused on her own wants and needs and is highly prone to theatrics,” Matthew explained. “She has that ostentatious style, and she’s outgoing and extroverted, so yeah, if she wasn’t such an asshole to people that she didn’t agree with, the gay community would love her.”

As the 2016 presidential campaign began to heat up in 2015, Mylinda found herself drawn to Donald Trump. She researched his background, read his books, dug up his old interviews on YouTube, watched every campaign rally, and attended a few in person. “I spent at least two hours a day studying Donald J. Trump,” she told me. “I did my due diligence.”

She readily acknowledged that Trump “hadn’t really been known as a stalwart conservative and definitely not a Christian.” Even so, she said, “throughout history, God’s used a lot of people that had a sinful past. Every man is born sinful and in need of a relationship with God. Donald Trump is just as likely to be cleansed from his sin as I am. And I think what he’s doing for America is awesome.”

Matthew, meanwhile, was horrified. As a child, he’d regularly accompanied his mother to the voting booth when she cast her ballot. She often said that one must always vote for the most moral candidate. Now, he believed she’d violated that rule. “I just lost all respect for her as a human and a Christian,” he said.

Matthew as a teenage abortion protestor.

And he made his views clear, firing off a series of texts calling out her hypocrisy.

“He was indoctrinated by his friends,” Mylinda concluded. “They have their little circle, if you will, the homosexual community, and obviously, they all hate Trump. Before that, he was absolutely fine. Even though we disagreed, he would still take me out for lunch every birthday, and we’d sit and hold hands.”

That ended with the election. Matthew opted not to spend Thanksgiving with his family that year — the first time he’d done so since he’d arrived from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day more than two decades before. In this, the Mason family was not alone. According to a study by two UCLA economists, Americans as a whole were considerably less inclined that year to visit with relatives of different political views. “Nationwide, 34 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects,” they concluded.

In the weeks and months that followed, Matthew and his parents went their separate ways and eventually stopped communicating. Nobody saw the point.

The minute Kristi learned of the proposed Straight Pride event last summer, she knew it represented one of the greatest challenges the city would face since her election to the city council in 2015: a volatile mixture of constitutionally protected speech and toxic far-right politics colliding right in the heart of her district, likely in the blinding glare of the national media spotlight. Though Mylinda and her co-organizer, Don, had made an effort to spin their event as an innocuous celebration of male-female relationships, their interview with the Modesto Bee, in which they expressed hope that the Proud Boys and antifa would show up, was alarming. “I had to look these things up,” Kristi recalled.

And then there was the website for the group, called the National Straight Pride Coalition (NSPC), with its avowed goal of defending children “from being destroyed by the inherent malevolency/evil of the Homosexual/Sodomy Movement.” It quoted a Proud Boys’ motto (“The West is the Best”) and defined whiteness as “the mass majority biological racial component of the developers of western civilization.” Finally, it claimed that the fundamental values of life were “under a massive coordinated War equivalent attack by those who seek to destroy them for the purpose of establishing their own replacement religious belief system of Humanism/Satanism as the dominant and unassailable cultural and societal paradigm of a permanently enslaved humanity.”

“Our police chief had photos to show us different types of weapons that people bring to these rallies,” Kristi recalled. “We were like, this could really bring out the crazies, huh?”

In other words, it sounded not only divisive, bigoted, and hateful but totally unhinged. (The site was later updated.)

And a few days later, when a man later discovered to be inspired by a fascistic 19th-century manifesto opened fire at a food festival in nearby Gilroy, it sounded dangerous.

“Our police chief had photos to show us different types of weapons that people bring to these rallies,” Kristi recalled. “We were like, this could really bring out the crazies, huh?”

Matthew helped organize a candlelight vigil in front of the council chambers just prior to the special council meeting at which the permit would be debated. “In the middle of summer at 5:30 in the afternoon, candles probably weren’t the best idea,” he allowed. Even so, the gathering drew media attention and helped guarantee an overwhelming turnout for the public comment period.

The mayor had reduced the allotted time per statement from three minutes to two, the better to accommodate the 40-odd residents who’d signed up to be heard. Mylinda wasn’t among them. She didn’t want the attention on herself. “I thought it would be better if men went and spoke,” she explained.

It wasn’t better. Don’s time at the podium came early in the session. His neatly combed hair and gray three-piece suit gave him the severe look of a fire-and-brimstone country preacher, which only heightened the effect of what came next: his declaration, a slip of the tongue, that NSPC was “a totally peaceful racist group.” At that, the gallery erupted in guffaws. “I was laughing like a wounded seal,” Matthew recalled. Kristi covered her face with her hand, bursting into giggles and swiveling her chair around until she could regain her composure. Clips of the remark from at least three angles soon found their way to social media and made national news.

“Poor Don,” Mylinda said later. “He was mortified.”

Matthew fared better when he got his turn to speak. He mentioned Gilroy, El Paso, and Charlottesville. Then he got personal. “The people that are organizing this event are white supremacists,” he insisted. “I know them.” Mylinda, he said, “celebrates the western civilization of the United States but ignores the horrors of genocide, slavery, colonialism, and segregation that the U.S. is built upon. I have personally heard her use hateful, harmful rhetoric when describing the LGBT-plus community and non-Christian religious communities.” As for Don, he called him a “radical right-wing fascist from the Bay Area who is attempting to use Modesto as a launching ground for his political and cultural campaign of hate.” (Although Mylinda and Don both insist they are not white supremacists, Mylinda is nonetheless adamant that “white Caucasian males established this nation, it’s that simple. We can’t celebrate that? Yeah, think again.”)

The comment period continued as, one after another, residents rose to offer their views on the rally, its potential impact on the community, and the climate of hostility that seemed to have settled over the area and the country at large. Aside from one supporter of the event — a retired pizza-store owner who sounded sincerely anguished to be viewed as a racist and homophobe when all he really wanted to do, he said, was testify to his conservative Chrisitan faith — the speakers were overwhelmingly opposed to granting the permit. Don wasn’t there to hear it, having bolted for the door just after his speech.

What’s interesting about listening to Mylinda and Matthew talk about one another is the sense of grudging respect they have maintained despite everything.

As tense as the meeting was, it could have been worse. “The SWAT team was literally in the room behind us,” Kristi told me, “just waiting for somebody to come pull out a gun.”

Although the council eventually passed a resolution supporting inclusion and diversity, it nonetheless concluded that the city had no legal grounds to deny a permit. The officials did, however, remind the organizers of the necessity of obtaining liability insurance. With all the media attention, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that insurers declined to get involved. The NSPC quickly pivoted away from Graceada Park, booking a private venue for the rally on August 24. But halfway through the event, the owner of the space thought better of the idea and kicked them out. Eventually, the group — about 50 people — made their way downtown to Planned Parenthood, where they were met by a few hundred counterprotesters.

In Mylinda’s kitchen, family photos hang alongside Bible quotes and pictures of aborted fetuses.

Mylinda showed up but kept her distance from the fray. Asked by a local news crew whether the event was racist, she cited the presence of Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a far-right commentator, who has associated with neo-Nazis and denounced the civil rights movement. Peterson is “as black as you get,” she noted, adding, “the only thing white about him are his teeth.”

Kristi drove by the scene once or twice to see what was happening, but otherwise, she steered clear, spending the day worrying and praying for calm. The local police showed up in force, some of them on horseback, and watched as the two sides mingled on the same narrow patch of sidewalk. That left it to volunteer safety monitors, including Matthew, wearing a bright orange vest, to try to keep things under control. When one straight pride supporter waded into a knot of counterprotesters, seemingly hoping to provoke an altercation — and was hit with a water bottle and a camera — Matthew stepped in and shielded the man, keeping the crowd calm.

Even Mylinda’s comrades were impressed, congratulating her after the fact. “They’re calling me, like, ‘My gosh, your son is amazing! He took charge out there!’” she recalled. “Of course. He’s been doing this with me since he was four days old.”

What’s interesting about listening to Mylinda and Matthew talk about one another is the sense of grudging respect they have maintained despite everything. There’s a good-humored affection in the way Matthew rolls his eyes when discussing some of his mother’s more outrageous antics. And Mylinda’s feelings for Matthew remain tender. “Matthew and I had a special bond,” she told me. “My other boys were getting older, and they didn’t need me as much, so there was a lot of time early on when it was just Matt and me.”

Four days before she met Kristi out in front of the clinic back in 1990, Mylinda told me, she’d suffered a miscarriage. Still feeling weak, she’d almost stayed home that day. But at the last minute, some force gave her the strength to get out there and join her fellow pro-lifers in protest. Maybe God had put her there at that moment — and put Kristi there, too. Maybe He’d wanted her to raise Matthew.

“Nobody would believe me,” she told me toward the end of our interview, her eyes growing misty, “but I used to sit with that little boy, and in my heart, I actually felt like this must have been much what it was like to raise Jesus for Mary. I know that sounds crazy and over the top, but I felt that way because there was so much joy and so much happiness in that little boy.”

Hearing this, I couldn’t help wondering if they might put aside their differences for an hour or two and reestablish that bond, the one they’d maintained for years after Matthew had come out, before the intrusion of presidential politics. Maybe we could all sit down together — Kristi, too. It sure would provide a heartwarming conclusion to my story, I suggested. Mylinda shook her head. “If I want to do that, I’ll go with Dr. Phil, thanks.”

Several times during our conversations, Mylinda brought up a famous Bible story, the judgment of Solomon. It’s the one about two women who gave birth around the same time. When one child died, both women claimed the other baby as their own. Asked to resolve the dispute, Solomon asked for a knife and declared he’d cut the child in half so they could each have a share. “One woman said, ‘All good by me!’” Mylinda told me, “and the other woman threw herself on the baby and said, ‘No. She can have him.’”

The way Mylinda reads the tale, it’s obvious that she’s the good mother. “That’s me,” she said. “Kristi can have the baby. She can have her relationship with Matthew. She can live a sinful life. She can agree with his lifestyle. Because she’s her own person. But I’m my own person, and I serve the Living God. And you know what? The Sodomites can have my son. He was saved once, physically. I want him saved twice: spiritually. I want my son to live forever.”

There is, of course, another way of applying the Biblical story to the contemporary saga of the Mason clan. In this interpretation, Mylinda, however unwittingly, has more in common with the other mother, the one so eager to possess a child that she would sooner sacrifice him than grant him an independent identity. After losing her own child to a miscarriage, she’d offered to adopt a newborn days later, dedicated herself to his upbringing, and raised him as her own. Her devotion was admirable, heroic even, but in the long run, it turned out to be provisional, tightly conditioned on his lifelong willingness to be the son she wanted him to be, even if doing so meant living a lie. Even if it would mean — to Matthew, at least — splitting himself in two.

The last time Matthew and Mylinda met face to face was amid the chaos of the Straight Pride protest outside Planned Parenthood.

Matthew had spent much of the counterprotest chanting and playing a cowbell. But when he spotted one of the Straight Pride activists wading into the crowd with two little children, he decided to step in. “I could see that the kids were not comfortable with the situation,” he said. Matthew approached the protester. “Hey, I get that you have your opinions, but this is not a safe place for your kids,” he said. “Can you please take them out of here?” The man refused.

Matthew made his way over to Mylinda. The two of them had barely spoken since the election of Donald Trump.

He pointed out that the NSPC had framed their rally around the protection of children. “That man should not have those little kids out here,” he said urging her, as a co-organizer of the event, to step in. He didn’t mention his childhood, the countless rallies he himself had attended as a kid, shouting slogans he barely understood, doing battle on the front lines of America’s bitterest culture wars.

She refused. “There’s 38 cops here,” she said. “You need to go tell them.” He did as she suggested, and the police shooed the man and the children away from the action.

A few months later, Matthew and his boyfriend spent Thanksgiving at home, dining on turkey and all the usual trimmings with a handful of friends. Mylinda and Ron did the same.

Matthew and Kristi today.

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

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