We are thrilled to be intoducing our new Executive Director, Karrie Fletcher to the our Free Mom Hugs family. Karrie is going to bring some amazing talents and experience to the organization. She has had a successful career in the University setting, and also working for other LGBTQ+ non-profits including The Reformation Project. Her story was featured on social media in connection to the Documentary Pray Away. She was able to share her personal and courageous story as a gay Christian who attempted to “pray the gay away”. She has since become a fully, out LGBTQ+, person and continues to advocate for the community we all hold dear. We can’t wait to see what the future holds with Karrie on our team.
My name is Karrie Fletcher and I am the new Executive Director of Free Mom Hugs. I was born and raised in Oklahoma but I have lived in the Dallas, Texas area for the past 21 years. I came out as a gay Christian in 2016 after spending 14 years trying to change my sexuality. Since that time, my passion has been advocating for the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church and in society. In 2017, I participated in The Reformation Project Leadership Cohort which focuses on leadership training and skill development for advancing the LGBTQ inclusion in the church. I have led several initiatives in the Dallas area for the LGBTQIA+ community including the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of The Reformation Project, bible studies, social events, served as a moderator for a pastor’s panel discussion on becoming affirming and was on a panel discussion to share my story of being involved in the “ex-gay” ministry movement.
During the time I was trying to change my sexuality, I was in counseling for many years, was prayed over and prayed for incessantly, and I sought God on a deep, intimate level. I read every book I could get my hands on regarding how to be “ex-gay” so that I could live a straight life. I have been a Christian since I was 12 years old and like many people, all I ever heard growing up was that being gay was the “worst” sin and that God hated people who were gay. For many years, I could not reconcile the fact that I was gay with being a Christian. I came across several testimonies of people who claimed to have changed their sexuality through their faith. So, I wanted to seek out that change. I wanted to be right with God and I believed at the time that I could not do that if I was gay.
I read about a large world-wide ministry for people who wanted to “change their sexual orientation through a relationship with Jesus Christ.” I attended conferences, read their resources, and heard testimonies of several people who had changed from being gay to straight. I embraced the idea that I was somehow broken and needed to be healed. I consistently worked through my issues hoping at the end of each season I would be straight. I grew personally during this time and my relationship with God was stronger than ever. I even attended seminary with the anticipation of getting into “ex-gay” ministry after graduation. I spent a short time training as a volunteer leader at a local ministry, but I didn’t have peace being there. Something was stirring in me that I didn’t understand and I made the decision to not go back. It would take another 3 years for me to process what was going on within me and for my heart (and mind) to open to the idea that I was still gay. But more importantly during this time of processing, was the complete acceptance of God’s unconditional love for me.
I understand this is a highly controversial and emotionally charged topic for all of us. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have walked this out like many others have through many years of loneliness, confusion, shame, frustration, despair and a lot of prayer. I wouldn’t be telling a complete story if I simply came out as gay without sharing the journey I’ve been on as a Christian. My relationship with God is something I’m not willing to give up. And my sexuality is something that did not change after many years of trying to make that happen. This is how I am wired to love. I’m a Christian who happens to be gay.
The first time I heard Sara’s story was at the Gay Christian Network (now Q Christian Fellowship) Conference in Houston. Sara shared her story about being the parent of a gay son. Over the next few years, I got to know Sara through mutual friends and watched the Free Mom Hugs organization evolve into a national movement. I joined the Free Mom Hugs board of directors in February of 2020 and enjoyed working with the team on the virtual tour in May of this year.
My Favorite Things
My favorite things include traveling, reading, snow skiing, working out, exploring new places, studying all things related to the Enneagram, and spending time with my fiancé Mandy, my chocolate lab named Jax and my adopted cat, Sydney. My hope for Free Mom Hugs is that we can expand our reach around the world as we show love and acceptance for the LGBTQIA+ community. I believe Free Mom Hugs changes lives through the power of stories and a simple hug. I’m so excited to be involved in this movement and I can’t wait to see how these stories and a lot of hugs can impact the world.
We know so many parents, students and teachers are struggling right now with what to make of the 2020 school year. We want to send all of you virtual hugs for the challenges ahead. There is so much stress equated with the opening of schools, the decisions to be virtual or in person, health and safety, masks or no masks. The list goes on and on for the things that can be anxiety producing in this unique school year.
But anxiety is not unique to the LGBTQIA+ student. The first day of school, in normal circumstances is filled with insecurity, trepidation, sleepless nights and upset stomachs. For students who are “out”, they know already who they will have to battle when they return. Fellow students they have been bullied from in the past, or online, will be around every corner, or in every zoom. They also know which teachers are supportive and safe, and which ones are not. They may be having to figure out which bathrooms they are allowed to use, or if its easier and safer to just hold it until they get home.
Parker Cunningham Remembers
The public school system, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was a unique environment for an LGBTQIA+ kid like me. In some ways, the system was progressing. Some schools were allowing GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) groups to meet, where you could generally “exist” as a gay or lesbian student or teacher but the overall terrain was still very uncharted. Many of us experienced, and continue to experience, rejection, abuse and other forms of bullying from our families, our churches, our teachers and our peers. School was one of the few places I could just breathe. There were a few educators in my life who provided safe spaces for me to be me, to share my authentic self with the world, all sides of it. They accepted me when my own family was not yet ready to.
The terrain is still rocky for LGBTQIA+ students but I am hopeful because of the teachers I had who affirmed me, because of school staff that knows the power of a rainbow button or a sticker, because of my brother who is now an educator and an ally, because of my trans friend who keeps applying for teaching jobs so trans kids can see themselves in every facet of this world; We can teach each other to save each other. They have all taught me that. – Parker Cunningham
The Power of a Rainbow
LGBTQIA+ students are always looking for hints, clues, and pathways to safe spaces and safe people. These hints are nuggets found on classroom doors, desks, and posters on walls. When a student sees a rainbow sticker on a classroom door as they enter, they breathe a little deeper when they walk in.
Rainbow pencils and pens in a coffee mug on a teacher’s desk will drop tense shoulders down an inch or so. Casual Fridays when staff can wear jeans and their favorite Pride, unicorn, or Free Mom Hug shirt will make a typically quiet student utter a few trembling words or may even deliver a crooked and reserved smile, but a smile nonetheless. The rainbow, for the LGBTQIA+ student can be a life-jacket, a security blanket, or the feeling of a hug without even receiving one.
Teachers are Superheroes
Our very own board member, Jan Pezant is a superhero educator, and knows even in the youngest of students, the power of an understanding, non-judgmental adult.
“Fifth grade can be a difficult time for a child to navigate changes in their bodies and feelings they are experiencing. Peer pressure and the desire to conform can be intense. I have had several students during my 19 years of teaching that I suspected would be in the LGBTQ+ community, but one particular student comes to mind. He was so confident in who he was at an early age. He was not afraid to be himself even if it was different than his fellow classmates. I told him often that he was awesome and I loved his fearless spirit. I knew that it wouldn’t always be easy and he may be hurting and scared behind the brave face he put on for others. I would find ways to cheer him on without bringing attention to something he wasn’t r ready share with myself, others or maybe not even with himself yet. Giving him permission to be who he was, and to feel that me and my classroom were a safe place, was in my opinion, vital.”
Jan’s acceptance, love and even celebration was the example that other students and teachers followed. And we know not only changed that one student’s life, but the ripple effect of such love is immeasurable.
We Thank You
Teachers, you are faced with what may likely be the most challenging year of your career. We, at Free Mom Hugs, value the role you play and the sacrifices you are making. We are aware that many of you may be the most affirming adult an LGBTQIA+ child may have in their life. Home may not be safe, affirming or remotely celebratory of their authentic selves. But you are.
So, in the midst of all that the world is asking of you right now, we thank you for your decisions to be aware of your students, and have that little rainbow flag next to the stapler on your desk. And the fact that you give a wink behind your rainbow face mask to that student that needs to know you know what they aren’t ready to tell anyone yet. We are grateful that you ask for and respect your students’ pronouns, and offer to share your own, or even wear a pronoun button with your name tag.
We thank you for talking about LGBTQIA+ icons and historical figures, and the impact they make on the world. Because you know, like we know, LGBTQIA+ kids need to know, they are loved, they belong, and that the world needs their contribution. We are striving to make the world a kinder, safer place for LGBTQIA+ kids. And we know you are in the fight with us. You are truly on the front lines. And we couldn’t do it without you.
Please let us know how we can support you better. Feel free to contact us if you need resources in your area for a student, or materials from our website to help understand and educate yourself or fellow educators. If your school has a GSA and you would like us to zoom in for a visit of support or sharing stories, we are ready and willing. We are in this together. Until we can hug again…
I am so excited to get to share my story, the behind the scenes look, of my involvement with Free Mom Hugs. This movement, and these people, have altered my life in more ways to count. And my experience over the past 4 years has been more life-changing than most people get to experience in a lifetime. Some of you may see my name more than my face as the person who has answered emails, ran our social media sites, and has had the honor of being Sara Cunningham’s right- hand person. But how I got here is a whole other story.
Married to Jesus
I spent the majority of my adult life in ministry. I was a Chaplain and counselor at a private Christian school, a youth pastor, worship leader, and a full-time, married to Jesus, ministry workaholic, while I battled the lie that my sexuality was not just a sin, but the worst of sins. My 20’s and 30’s were spent battling the storms of recurring temptation, whether by prayer and fasting, casting out of demons, countless books, seminars, and videos, and finally enlisting myself as a 25 year -old into the dangerous and deadly practice of Conversion Therapy.
For those of you who do not know, Conversion Therapy is premised on the false notion that your sexuality or gender identity is a mental illness that should be cured. Conversion therapists use a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic, or physically painful stimuli to make their patients associate negative responses to their identities and thus be revolted by themselves enough to change. The American Psychiatric determined in 1973 that homosexuality was not a mental illness, but a normal variant of human nature. If you want to hear my personal story you can listen to this interview.
Praying the Gay Away
My experiences varied from the regular Sunday, after church, going to the front of the church for prayer, to regular special prayer sessions in church leaders homes where I would sit in a chair in the middle of a circle while members would lay hands on me and “cast out” all the things from my family history. The list was long likes/dislikes, personality, my parents sins, movies I watched, records I listened to, sports I played, to the clothes I wore, all the things these people saw that were to blame for me being gay. My favorite Eddie Bauer flannel shirts and hiking boots had to be burned. My Stevie Nicks albums had to be thrown in the dumpster. I went to great lengths, including self-harm and induced vomiting to rid myself of this grossness inside of me that would keep me from ever being successful in ministry or pleasing to God.
I eventually was fired from ministry during a scandal in my church in which anyone who “dealt” with being gay was to be eradicated from the community. So, even though I was in Conversion Therapy to “fix” my same-sex attraction, I had shared with staff and counselors of this “thorn in my flesh” and when the time came to clean the church of a “spirit of perversion” that had taken hold, I had to go. I was devastated. I spent many years battling depression, suicide attempts, and reconciling whether I could be gay and a Christian or if I had to pick one, and only one. Since I had lost everything in my faith and ministry work, I came to the conclusion, that I couldn’t escape that I was gay anymore. In 2008, I officially came out of the closet. But I certainly wasn’t going to go to any Pride parades or gay bars. My internalized homophobia was still a strong force that kept me from doing any of the “gay things” I had been told for so long were evil.
Who is This Lady?
In 2016, I came across a book called How We Sleep at Night, written by Sara Cunningham. And heard that this woman was in Oklahoma City and known as the Hugging Lady. I was planning a fundraiser for a food pantry at a local, open and affirming church, Church of the Open Arms, and thought that a Hugging Lady might be a good addition to our big event. So, I contacted Sara and of course she agreed to have a table set up with books and buttons that said Free Mom Hugs on them. I watched in awe as people were drawn to her like a magnet, and she listened and interacted to each person as if they were the only one there.
I can assure you now, that is how Sara really is.
As the event got underway, I snuck out to have my own one on one time with Sara. Let me just say, if you haven’t had Sara hold your face in her hands, look into your eyes and tell you how wonderful you are, and that nothing is wrong with you, you need to, I would prescribe it to ever single LGBTQ+ person I know. It was in those moments that I knew, I had met her for a reason. It was also in those moments I offered something to her that would change my life forever.
Sara mentioned her group of moms, called Free Mom Hugs and how she was needing help with organizing and running the Facebook page. Well, I had been running my own social media business, but was also recovering from the grief after the death of a dear friend and soul mate. I jumped at the chance and offered to help her run her Facebook page and get her set up with Instagram and Twitter, too. We instantly connected and could read each other’s minds, finish each other’s sentences and knew something divine was going on here. I became Sara’s unofficial assistant, and we worked in tandem spreading the Free Mom Hugs message to those who needed it. Eventually we would make Free Mom Hugs an official 501c3 non-profit, create a board, mission statement and share resources to faith, business and civic leaders here in Oklahoma. Sara became the face of the movement, and a mother to many. She inspired a flood of other mothers, fathers, friends and family to do the same.
The Post Heard Around the World
July 2018 was the beginning of the Free Mom Hugs movement taking hold of a nation. Sara, known for officiating same sex weddings, had grown weary and frustrated for all the couples enduring the pain of rejection when parents and family refused to come to what is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives, their wedding. After seeing the pain on another Bride’s face when her mother didn’t show up to her special day, Sara made a post about being a Stand-In:
“If your biological mom won’t come to your same-sex wedding, call me. I’ll be there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles.”
The post went viral, and Sara had to look up what viral meant. But I knew exactly what it meant, and we went into warp speed. Thousands of emails were pouring in. (Yes, at one point, I was getting 50 emails per hour). All from people saying, they wanted to offer to be a ‘Stand In’ in their area. People couldn’t believe parents could actually reject their children in this way. It was the most amazing outpouring of universal love, one after the other. As I stayed up, night after night, personally reading each message and responding to each story of personal connection, I began to realize how much I was being healed, and loved on at the same time. My internalized homophobia was getting washed away by this flood of not only acceptance, but celebration. The message was consistent, there’s nothing wrong with you. And thousands of strangers around the country and across the world agreed.
Can We Talk About Hugs?
One of the messages I acquired in my experience with the church and my sexuality, was that I was dangerous. The “spirit” inside of me causing me to stumble, was also dangerous to those around me, like a spiritual virus I could spread. This left me on constant guard of any sensations on my body of being touched. I became someone overly cautious of who hugged me, and who I hugged back. Honestly, those feelings still linger today. That gay people are dangerous for your kids. My fear and obsession that someone would think I could be a pedophile led me to constantly exist in fear of myself and keep a distance with anyone I may accidentally hurt because of what existed inside of me.
For the Love of Mama Bears
Enter the mama bears, so many mama bears who began to show me that I deserved to be hugged, there was nothing wrong with someone hugging me, or me hugging someone else. I cannot describe the monumental emotional healing that has come from the countless hugs I have received over the past four years. I am convinced with each hug, a lie had to leave. And I became more and more free to be myself, and that was a good thing. And when you see a good thing, you have to share a good thing, right? As we were getting a flood of emails from moms asking to be a part of the movement, I was also able to refer and connect them to this amazing group of women in the private, online Facebook group, The Real Mama Bears. This group is where Sara found her safe place to process and grow, when there were 250 members. The group has grown to over 10,000 moms, and they continue to be the moms who step in when others step out. I often think of how my life would be different had I had a group of moms surround me and support me like this 30 years ago. But the good news is, they surround me with love all day, every day.
Free Mom Hugs Tour
I have been so lucky to help plan and orchestrate all of the Free Mom Hugs Tours. I cannot explain the power these cross-country road trips have. The tours are typically 10 cities, with a Mother’s Day destination of an historical site for the LGBTQIA+ communities. They spread love to every LGBTQIA+ person who sees or hears about them and they educate and empower parents and allies to continue to fight for a kinder, safer world for their friends and family. In 2019, I was fortunate enough to join Sara on the Tour of Hope to San Francisco and the Castro in honor of Harvey Milk. I was with Sara for speaking engagements, sharing my experience with Conversion Therapy as we work to bring awareness and get this dangerous and deadly practice banned in the United States. After each speaking engagement, I was welcomed with so much love, and grief for what I had gone through. It made me realize even more how wrong it all was. And how I never deserved what I, and so many, have gone through.
I have been with Sara and Free Mom Hugs through some amazing moments. We all had high expectations for what the year 2020 was going to be. A Tour to Washington DC during an election year, Jamie Lee Curtis and the release of the movie based on Sara’s memoir, the Mama Bear Documentary was going to come out, and our amazing 50 Chapters were ready for a Pride Season like no other.
Well, as you know, 2020 surprised us all. And as Executive Director, the pressure was on me to figure out how we could adjust ourselves when our name and mission are all based on in-person events and physical touch. And then I realized our mission (…to empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation…) didn’t have to change at all. Just our delivery had to be altered. We began making plans for our first Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour! It was such a challenge, but we had the most amazing team that made the weeklong event an incredible experience. And kept us all connected when we were are feeling the pain of social distance and quarantines. We are now busy scheduling zoom meetings, and keeping Sara busy with interviews, podcasts, zoom education and sensitivity trainings. And of course, still keeping us all connected and feeling the love on our social media channels. We are truly one big family and we are better together.
Change Is In The Air
It has truly been the best season of my life to have been a part of Free Mom Hugs during the first, formative years. We have had some breathtaking highs, and some devastating lows, but we have survived them all because our foundation is LOVE. I have been so lucky to have seen and been a part of numerous Pride parades, building chapters in every state, getting to know these outstanding humans, meeting celebrities and seeing joy radiate from folks who meet Sara. I have been given the gift to sit next to Sara and hear her on numerous interviews, podcasts and Skype calls from India to Australia, Germany to Canada. I’ve been able to connect LGBTQ+ folks to the resources they need for help. And to direct moms and parents to the support groups that are literally saving families, and saving lives. I’ve seen the country from the passenger seat of Jeep, driven by a woman with her hair on fire. And I have found love.
I know my heart was waiting to be healed so I was ready to be me and receive it. As Executive Director, I have grown so much, with the support of the most selfless board of directors. And with their continued support, I am handing the Executive Director reigns over to the wonderful, Karrie Fletcher, to take the organization to even greater heights, and farther reach. I will still be fully devoted to my Free Mom Hugs family as their Program Director and Social Media Manager. And of course, stay with my first love, being Sara’s assistant. I couldn’t feel prouder to be a part of an organization that has been on the forefront of social change and equality. And the healing of hearts, families and souls. I am an example of the power of Free Mom Hugs and will forever be grateful.