About Sara Cunningham, founder of Free Mom Hugs:
Sara Cunningham is an author, activist, and founder of the non-profit organization Free Mom Hugs. Her journey is a surprising one that began in conservative Oklahoma, when her son, Parker, came out as gay.
As a woman of faith, Sara wrestled with the news until she began to study, research and reconcile the two worlds. This journey resulted in her book How We Sleep at Night. She found herself on a journey “from the church to the Pride parade,” falling in love with the LGBTQIA+ community.
Free Mom Hugs is now a movement across the country and the world. Sara goes Beyond the Hug to educate and advocate organizations of all types including schools and businesses striving for safe and protected spaces. She has appeared, many times with her son Parker, on the Today show and The RuPaul Show and spoke at the 2019 GLAAD Awards. She also has been featured in many national publications including The Washington Post, Woman’s Day magazine and People magazine. Sara is currently in partnership with Jamie Lee Curtis, who has purchased the rights to her book and will release a movie based on her story.
What advice would you like to tell parents?
Allow your children to show you who they are. Provide a safe space and the vocabulary to express themselves. Surround yourself with people who look different than you. Celebrate your children or you'll suffer without them.
What advice would you like to tell kids?
You are a gift from God to the world. Embrace it.
What’s one life lesson everyone should be taught in school?
The "Celebrate me" System: Imagine everyone has a yellow post-it note on their forehead with the words "celebrate me." Practice THAT for the rest of your life.
Where did you get the idea for Free Mom Hugs, like the very first aha moment where you knew this was something the world needed?
At the 2015 Oklahoma City Pride Festival. It was Saturday, the 20th of June. I made a homemade button with the words “Free Mom Hugs” and pinned it to my sundress. I stood at the festival and offered anyone who made eye contact with me a free hug. The very first hug went to a beautiful girl, we embraced and she whispered in my ear “it’s been four years since I got a hug from my mom because I’m a lesbian.” I must’ve given hundreds of hugs that day, with each one came a similar story. I went home that day covered from head to toe with glitter, but I also had real horror stories ringing in my ear.
Why did you think it was a good idea and why did you think it would work?
I saw a need in the LGBTQIA+ Community, those who have been separated from their families, alienated from their church homes, and many parts of society simply because of who they are. Add to this, knowing what I put my own child through when I was frozen in my fear and ignorance and the journey to not only accept my son but to celebrate him and the beautiful dynamic he brings to our family. I wanted the same for the community and their families. There's a mom out there like me then who needs a mom like me now. Until every home is affirming, Free Mom Hugs is what the world needs to become a safer, kinder, more loving place for the LGBTQIA+ Community.
How did it go from an idea to a real thing?
The idea phase was making the button and showing up and giving hugs. Then we had a FMH banner made and walked in the 2016 parade. Even after making a FMH social media page I was just making it up as I went. I am FULL of good ideas. The pivotal point came when we were planning our very first Transgender Valentines Banquet, an acquaintance wanted to donate $500 dollars to help with the expenses. Up until this time I had never asked for or raised this much money. FIVE HUNDRED dollars! I was so excited! BUT they would only donate to a non-profit. So I went to my friends Pastor Neal and Dean Coffman — together they ran a nonprofit — Expressions Community Center on the strip. We worked on several projects together (they ordained me) so they knew me. I told them about the situation and they invited me to umbrella under their nonprofit.
That’s when it became REAL in my mind. We had everything in order, our non-profit status, bank account, even the Federal ID number. Guess what? They never sent the money. Said it was tied up in the sale of property. We never got that money. I can laugh about it now but I was sure sore about it then. The banquet went off without a hitch — thankfully OKC Pride stepped up and saved the day. In 2018 we became our own nonprofit and guess what? We’ve got just a hair more than $500 in the bank. ;)
What was your first wedding/event?
First Wedding - 2016. Natchez, Mississippi. Jill and Denise. We met in 2015 when my husband and I were on vacation in Virginia Beach and we all just happened to stay at the same hotel. We met over dinner and became friends and stayed in contact through social media. Jill and Denise had been together 28 years prior to the marriage equality act being passed. They were the first same sex couple to be married at the local community center. They made front page news. When the local reporter asked Jill why they wanted to get married, Jill replied, “I thought it was about time to make an honest woman out of her!” They were the first wedding I officiated for, in fact they are the reason I got ordained. First Event - 2015. National Coming Out Day hosted by a local college. The event was in a public park near the campus. There were about 15 or 20 students. Led by a teacher who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The teacher spoke words of encouragement and instructed us to gather and stand in a circle. One by one they shared their stories. Most were positive, some made me cry hot tears.
During our time together, I noticed a young man standing close enough to hear the circle conversations but far enough away so he didn’t appear to be “with" the group circle. Curious, I approached him. His skin was dark and he wore a hoodie with the hood pulled well over his head. I asked him if he was okay, and asked if I could stand with him. He agreed, we listened to the circle conversation until it was over and then he shared his story. He’s gay and terrified. Both he and his sister are from Pakistan. They are here on student visas, living on campus as full time students. This is his last semester. When he’s done he’ll have to return to his family home in Pakistan. The problem is, both his parents and his sister suspect him to be gay. The bigger problem is, in Pakistan gay people get killed. His sister has made it very clear she’ll turn him in if she has reason to believe he’s ‘acting’ on it here. Together we found a private support group off campus and through the efforts of our local equality center found a way for him to stay here. His sister returned to Pakistan. He’s surrounded with people who celebrate him. We see each other on Thanksgiving and he’ll call every now and then. He is a very happy man. Crisis averted.
What is your favorite Free Mom Hugs story?
The obvious one is when families reunite and healing takes place. Though a special memory comes to mind, it’s from the very first FMH Transgender Valentines Banquet. This is a free event especially for our Transgender friends and family. A time to honor the Transgender community and show appreciation to those that love and support them. The goal of the banquet is to celebrate and build the community and make some great memories. A young African American transgender man, he was in college at the time and he rode the city bus across town to attend the event. It was his first time ‘out’ as his authentic self. I was so impressed with him. We became fast friends. He struggled to keep a job while in college and ended up homeless. A local housing agency helped him get into a low-income apartment but still he struggled getting work and had trouble getting the medicine he needed to stay in transition. His neighbors started harassing him and it became unsafe for him to stay in the apartment. On the brink of becoming homeless, some extended family members from out of state offered to let him stay with them until he got on his feet. FMH bought him a bus ticket and he and I stayed in contact. A few years later he planned to fly back to Oklahoma City and surprise us by showing up our 3rd annual Transgender Banquet. He missed his flight, feeling discouraged he bought a lottery ticket and won $10,000! It was enough for top surgery! I’m happy to report he’s SO HANDSOME AND THRIVING.
What are your hopes for the future of Free Mom Hugs?
We currently have chapters in all 50 states and we consistently get requests from other countries such as Italy, New Zealand and Canada who want to start a chapter because there is such a need. We are currently working with a consultant to help us with visioning and strategic planning. But we want to expand our reach so our stories can be told not only in the United States but around the world. We will continue to show up at Pride Parades but we also want to create programs and events to celebrate the LGBTQ community and educate people about local, state and national advocacy work.
What’s the best feedback, compliment or the like that you’ve gotten about Free Mom Hugs?
1) Recently, from an 18-year-old Transgender kid struggling to survive Covid, in isolation at home with unsupportive parents. “I’m surviving with the hope to meet you one day to say thank you face to face.” 2) Hours after speaking at major corporations, I often receive emails from employees. One stays with me. A man who had been with the company for five years shared with me that since my presentation his workplace has become the safest place for him to be his authentic self. He said because of this, his work productivity increased along with his salary. He then sent Free Mom Hugs a generous donation equivalent to the salary increase. 3) 2018 Tulsa Pride: From the CEO of the Tulsa Equality Center. He’s part of the community, otherwise I don’t know if it would mean as much to me. At a local event he introduced me this way: “Folks, meet Sara Cunningham, the Founder of Free Mom Hugs — she put Oklahoma on the map and made it cool to love your gay kids.”
Why is Free Mom Hugs such a vital organization?
Because ultimately we are about unconditional love.
What else do you want people to share with people about Free Mom Hugs?
Go to freemomhugs.org to find your state chapter — get plugged in and that will keep you in the loop of everything happening where you are. This is your call to action: If you can show up - show up. If you can pray for us - do that. If you can give financially - GIVE.
If you could speak to parents who don’t or feel like they can’t support their LGBTQ kids, what words of support do you have for them?
Dear Parent, It’s okay to search this matter out. We have so much information out now, no matter where you stand historically, scientifically or even scripturally on the issue of homosexuality. The only other choice is to remain in fear and ignorance of it. Your child is entrusting you with the most tender and intimate part of their lives. Welcome and celebrate this beautiful expression of human sexuality, as they are a gift from God.