Guest Blogger Spencer Shoup

Chosen family. This is a common phrase inside the queer community that holds glowing hope and agonizing death in the same breath. It means that a queer person has somehow broken from their birth family because of their sexuality or gender, and are doing the work to build a new family that loves and accepts them as they are. Glowing hope and agonizing sadness.
This is the beauty and the magic of Free Mom Hugs. They offer belonging, and parental love and support for those who don’t have it. A little bit of chosen family.

The Journey to Find Myself

The journey into my sexual and gender identity turned out to be a search for community as much as a search for myself. If I could remove the discouraging experiences I had with religion, or parents, or the culture around me I can see that internally I was always settled about my sexuality and gender, even as a child. My young mind didn’t have the framework or the language to express how I was feeling, but internally I always knew who I was. I was in sixth grade when a girl in my class took my breath away when she dared to speak to me. I just stood there, paralyzed by her beauty, mouth hanging open like a hooked fish. Even though I couldn’t verbalize or define my crush back then, my feelings were clear.

And even though it was never said outright, I knew instinctively that I needed to keep my sexuality a secret. My fears were confirmed one summer at a christian music festival where Jennifer Knapp was supposed to play. Before her set, a man came on stage and awkwardly excused her absence even though everyone knew she was being suddenly and completely boycotted by the christian world for coming out as gay. I felt completely alone and scared in that crowd of people. Scared because deep down I knew I was like Jennifer. I knew I was gay, and in that moment I discovered I had to keep my sexuality a secret or risk being thrown out of community like Jennifer was. My church community and my family were my whole world, but Jennifer’s cancelled concert taught me that my belonging would be immediately revoked if I came out.

For years I stayed afraid and in the closet. I knew I was gay, and I also trusted my faith leaders and my parents spiritual authority in my life. How could I possibly know better than they did? They believed the bible did not allow for gay relationships, and I believed them. I was in a near constant state of guilt and confusion; constantly managing my ‘sinful desires for women’ in a devastating cycle of deeply recognizing myself as gay, and then plunging back into guilt when the conflicting doctrine of my church floated through my brain.

My People

I stayed in the closet from seventh grade until after I graduated college. I deeply understood my sexuality, and I also deeply believed that the bible said being gay is wrong. This conflict led me to seek out answers and comradery at the second to last Exodus Conference that existed in the summer of 2012. Exodus International was an ex-gay umbrella group that officially dissolved in 2013, understanding that they had been wrong about queer people and the bible, and that they had done damage to the queer community. I am thankful for their closing, and I am also strangely thankful that I attended Exodus. While the teachings of Exodus were erroneous and harmful to people, this was also the first time I was able to meet other gay christians and not hide either my christian or my gay side. When we were just hanging out together, talking or playing frisbee, I felt at peace and at home. These were my people.

Through my trip to Exodus, I met some people from another ex-gay ministry called Living Hope and decided to become part of their community. They were (and still are) online based, and created community through chat threads and a yearly retreat in Texas. The other gay christians at Living Hope were my first true gay friends, even though we all believed our sexuality was sinful and deeply flawed. When we were together, it was almost like we could let those terrible, conflicting thoughts sink to the bottom of our minds like sediment. For a few moments, the swirling clouds of doubt that consumed my mind were quiet and we could just exist together, fully as who we were. I was able to talk about my feelings and experiences with people who deeply understood me, without having to explain anything.

For a while, the people at Living Hope gave me some much needed community with other gay Christians like myself. Over time though, I began to see more and more things that troubled me. Gender was taught as a performative act which was somehow both rooted in our American culture, but also considered biblical and correct. For instance, the men in the group were encouraged to walk without moving their hips too much, and on one retreat, the men all learned to play football. While the men were learning sports, the women were given partner dancing lessons; taught and lead by men of course.

It was a strange experience because it was clear that very few of us actually wanted to do the assigned exercise. In a way, it was like we sympathized with each other, knowing how hard it was for some of us to participate in our assigned task. We went along with the activity, but I got the feeling that no one was really taking it seriously. Our love for one another ran deep; like underground streams of connection that even we couldn’t define or articulate. An unspoken kinship. Queer siblings trying to find our way out of the threatening and oppressive culture we’d grown up in.

As I passed my time with Living Hope, I began to learn more about their theological interpretation of scripture and I found that I didn’t agree with them. I gave about a year of my life to Living Hope and then was unceremoniously blocked from the group when I started posting about my theological disagreements with their interpretations of gender and sexuality. I was invited back only if I would apologize and recant my earlier statements.

Saying Goodbye

I never got to say goodbye to my first group of gay friends, and I haven’t spoken with them since the summer of 2014. I still miss them deeply, and grieve for the ones still part of that community. I hope every day for them to find peace within themselves.
My time with, and ultimately my removal from this strange ex-gay community experience taught me two things: I was ready to come out as gay without any qualifications, and I desperately needed community. I was willing to ignore and tolerate a weak, ex-gay theology that couldn’t even hold water within its own theories over my own intelligent, thinking brain. Even when we trust ourselves, risking relationships and community is terrifying.

Free Mom Hugs Welcomes You

This is where the beauty and the magic of Free Mom Hugs come in. They offer genuine love, belonging and celebration for queer people. Even though leaving a known community for the unknown world is terrifying, it is completely worth it. There are wonderful people out here waiting to welcome another queer sibling in to the family.


Sara Cunningham talks with the boys at Gay Talk 2.0

The Gay Talk 2.0 Podcast airs every Monday, with three friends, Tom, Nick and Chris, who love to sit around a table with cocktails, giving their often times hilarious perspectives on the latest news and current events and how they impact the LGBTQ+ community. It is always an interesting and enjoyable show where the friends discuss “The Dish”, where they discuss the latest news, and anything that pertains to their guest(s). They also have a segment where they discuss a Gay Talk Term for the week, which can go from educational to outrageous! They also have a wonderful segment called, On This Day in Gay History is a part of the program where they educate themselves and others on events, achievements and historic moments in LGBTQ+ history. The three friends don’t shy away from any topic, so Sara was able to be her free- spirited self as she sat down with her friends at Gay Talk 2.0 for Pride Month.

What a Year it has Been

Free Mom Hugs founder Sara Cunningham

Sara had visited with our fabulous friends a year ago, and my, what a year it has been. Who knew we would be navigating a pandemic instead of going to Pride celebrations this year? The non-profit has adjusted, and become more virtual in its mission and message. And also created a Virtual Free Mom Hugs Tour as a replacement for their annual cross -country Tour. It was a tremendous success, in the most important of ways: people felt loved and supported.

What Else is New?

Sara’s favorite things!

The boys also ask Sara all about the great things happening in her life, and in the life of the Free Mom Hugs.Free Mom Hugs has recently been blessed with the support of Barefoot Wines. Their Pride Packaging on their select wines and spritzers, not only celebrate the LGBTQ+ community but proceeds from those sales will go to the non-profit and to our programs to educate and advocate. We are so grateful for this ongoing partnership, and for the consistent and passionate allyship of Barefoot Wines.

We are Making a Movie!

Sara Cunningham with actress Jamie Lee Curtis

Sara’s memoir, How We Sleep at Night, caught the eye and attention of actress and activist, Jamie Lee Curtis who has plans to star and direct in a film based on Sara’s story. Sara and Jamie Lee connected on a personal level, and believe this film will be a much needed resource for many families who need to see a family like theirs. As a conservative, Christian mother, when Sara’s son Parker came out as gay, she had quite a lonely and isolating journey educating herself on human sexuality, science and theology, to get to the point where she could go from the church to the pride parade. The church nor her family had helpful information on how to be supportive of a gay child. And Sara believes this film will be just what many families will need to see. She has said many times, “What I wouldn’t give to have the resources available today that I needed as a conservative mother. There’s a mother like me then, who needs a mother like me now.”

The conversation is encouraging and uplifting, for parents needing help understanding and celebrating their LGBTQ+ kids. And also gives hope to those kids who may have unsupportive parents, that with time and resources,  may come around just like Sara did.

And of course, everyone had to celebrate the biggest news which was the landmark SCOTUS decision to make it illegal to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace. Such wonderful news for so many of our families, and all of our volunteers at Free Mom Hugs. We can celebrate and continue the work of making the world a kinder, safer place for our LGBTQ+ family and friends.


Laron Chapman is a writer, producer and director from Free Mom Hugs home state of Oklahoma. His film, You People, won Best Oklahoma Film at the 2018 DeadCenter Film Festival. We are grateful for his story and to have him as a our guest blogger.

Two strikes. No, that is not a sports reference. Unless by sports you mean voguing and strutting in my 6-inch stilettos to Lady Gaga’s latest album “Chromatica.” No, I am referring to something more personal, more sobering than that. From the day I was able to form my own thoughts and words about the world around me (and by extension, my place in it), I have been taught that my life experience will come with a unique set of challenges. These challenges would be bestowed upon me through no fault of my own, merely an unfortunate byproduct of existence. My name is Laron Chapman and I am a double minority (black and gay). My pronouns are He/Him/His.

Two strikes. Those are the words proverbially branded on my forehead. This idea that before I am able to make any contribution to society, before I am able to prove the naysayers in my life wrong, I am already perceived as a threat, the source of a crude joke, or a sinful pervert. Walks into a convenient store, followed around by the cashier (CHECK!). Politely opens the door for an elderly White woman, she freezes, clutches her purse (CHECK! CHECK!). Walks hand-in-hand in public with my Caucasian boyfriend, passing looks of judgment and disgust by bystanders (CHECK! CHECK! CHECK!) Turns on the TV only to find there are seldom positive images of queer or POC persons (CHECK! CHECK! CHECK! CHECK!) Pulled over by a police officer, fears that my name will be the next hashtag (I could go on, but I don’t want to exhaust you).

Something Beautiful Happened

One can imagine how these experiences could erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Sometimes this negative messaging is so powerful that it convinces us that we only have two ways out of this nightmare: 1. To live an inauthentic life or 2. To live no life at all. I’m disheartened to admit that I have attempted both of these options. Then one day something beautiful happened.

For many years I made self-deprecating comments about myself and the respective communities I was a part of. It earned me a certain status around my cis-White male and female friends and offered me a false sense of security and self-importance. So long as it was me degrading my identities, nobody else would have a need or urge to. I saw it as taking away their power to harm me. I was severely misguided.

This illusion was broken one night when a friend of mine, visibly uncomfortable by my comments said to me: “Do you really think that low of yourself or do you think it makes you more appealing to others?” It was a sobering, “AHA!” moment. She explained that my comments were offensive not just to her but to myself and that I did not need to belittle myself to feel accepted by others. She said she loved me as I am and that I wasn’t cursed to be black or gay, but rather “gifted” to have a point of view tailored to my own experience.

The God Moment

For me, this was a God moment. A moment of transformation of mind, body, and spirit. I could literally feel years of pain and shame lifting off my shoulders. She was right. It was a gift to live life through the unique lens I was afforded. It gave me a voice, a perspective, a purpose. No longer would I view myself as inferior or impure. I was uniquely and deliberately designed and my life was to be used as a vessel of change, a beacon of love, and a person of value.

If you’ve turned on the news at all the last 4 years, you’ve probably been discouraged by the onslaught of hate, greed, and collective trauma our nation is facing on a sociopolitical level. It is a painful reminder of how fragile our hard fought freedoms are and why it is of paramount importance for us to remain diligent and pragmatic to secure them. This means voting for leaders who are on the right side of history, this means speaking out against injustice, and this means educating ourselves about (and supporting) marginalized communities to dismantle the systemic obstacles they are faced with.

It took me years to love myself and to realize what matters most in life, which is the love and compassion we share with everyone around us. And, of course, the love and grace we show ourselves. One of my biggest influences in my life, the late film critic Roger Ebert stated “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.” These are principles that have governed my life.

We Matter

Laron Chapman and Free Mom Hugs Founder, Sara Cunningham

So, as I attended my third “Black Lives Matter” protest last week, Pride Month crept up on me and I had to take a moment to reflect on the compounded burden I was carrying. This brings me to strike three; Even during our trials, we have to remember to celebrate one another, to lift each other up, to acknowledge our progress, and to never forget to live our lives authentically, with dignity, and pride—because WE MATTER! Living out loud is the best revenge.

Happy LGBTQ Pride to all my friends and allies. Now, back to Gaga.


Special guest blogger: Spencer Shoup. You may recall Spencer’s story from one of Sara’s snail mail videos. She shared a letter and artwork from a young man sharing how important Sara’s videos have been as they have traveled the transiton journey with unsupportive parents. Spencer later joined us for our Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour giving us even more insight and understanding into the need for acceptance from family members. We are so grateful to be able to share Spencer’s voice with you all.

The first pride was a riot. How many of us have seen that phrase circulating facebook and had no idea what it actually meant? *Raises hand* I know I sure didn’t. I’ve heard the stories of the gays, and the queens and the dykes fighting back against the police at Stonewall, setting off the revolution that would bring more freedom and rights to Queer people. Still, I had no idea how brutal, messy, dangerous and controversial those riots really were until this week.

The Stonewall Inn

The actual, true events that sparked the Gay Liberation Movement on the night of June 28th, 1969  at the Stonewall Inn are shrouded in myth. According to Jim Fouratt, when police arrived that night for a routine raid based on the appropriate dress statute, the patrons there experienced “an ‘internal rebellion,’ one in which ‘internalized homophobia flew away.’” Martin Boyce, in an interview with the New York Times remembers being gay in New York like this: “The routine police stops, regular attempts at entrapment and raids of establishments frequented by gays all contributed to an atmosphere in which being gay meant feeling hunted. ‘We all had our lists in our heads of friends who were beaten, maimed, thrown out of their house, informed on by the cops — tragic stories,’ he said. ‘But there was nothing you could do about it.’”

Something inside the gays and the queens and the dykes present that night broke. They had been beaten, raped and harassed just for being themselves too many times. These actions against them were perpetrated by the police. It was lawful. Finally, inside them rose the question, why are we putting up with this?

Why are we putting up with this?

Sylvia Rivera recalls, “I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. Everything just clicked.” The police had arrived at the Stonewall, as usual, to collect their payoff for ignoring violations of the appropriate dress statute, among other unjust laws meant to burden queer people. Customers were moved out of the bar and across the street. The following is an account of what Ms. Rivera remembers:

“And everybody like, ‘All right, we got to do our thing. We’re gonna go for it.’ When they ushered us out, they very nicely put you out the door. Then you’re standing across the street in Sheridan Square park. But why? Everybody’s looking at each other. ‘But why do we have to keep on constantly putting up with this?’ And the nickels, the dimes, the pennies, and the quarters started flying.”

The customers of the Stonewall threw change to symbolize the payoff that the police were collecting. Until the night of June 28th, 1969 “the people hanging out outside the bar would scatter at the police’s arrival. ‘We always listened to them, we always broke up,’ Mr. Boyce said.

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Without a doubt, the freedoms we have today as Queer people would not exist without the brave patrons at the Stonewall Inn that night. The cultural status quo, enshrined into law by a powerful majority, kept queens and dykes and gays in secret, mob run bars. It allowed butch lesbians to be jailed for wearing men’s clothing. The status quo in America said that our people should not exist; were not allowed to exist. The customers at the Stonewall decided to finally disagree out loud.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

While I do not believe that protest is the only answer to injustice, I know that our entire country owes a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and rose up together against powerful forces. From the Boston Tea Party, to the Civil War; the Suffragette movement to the Stonewall Inn, our fore runners fought for every American’s right to be represented, free, counted and proud. I am deeply grateful for the sacrifices made for me by these brave citizens.

This pride month especially, in the midst of another bout of unrest in our America, I recognize the uneven ground our citizens stand on, and I work and hope for a better future for every person.