Getting to Know You

A lot of you know me as Sara Cunningham’s son, the “Parker” from “the book”, or the LGBTQIA+ Advocate for Free Mom Hugs. You might NOT know that I’m an artist and a musician, that I’m a cancer (Gemini rising) or that I’ve got a chiweenie named Oprah with no front teeth. But on this special day, I’d like to share a little more about my coming out experience and my journey to becoming a professional hugger.

After all, it’s National Coming Out Day and I’ve got a confession to make…

My name is Parker Cunningham and I am your brother now!

Parker performing at Norman Pride

Burying the Truth

In elementary school, I wrote a poem in my Bugs Bunny journal. It was short and sweet. “The tiles are gray / and I am gay”. I remember becoming overwrought with anxiety and trying to bury the entire journal in the trash so that no eyes would ever see that one page and know my secret. My mom intercepted the mission. I remember her being quite upset as I explained myself to the best of my understanding. We had recently joined a church. We were “plugged in” and building relationships with people there. She told me to not think about such things, to focus on school, and it seemed like a reasonable request.

It was my first attempt at coming out, the first ripple of so many waves. This was the same year of the Matthew Shepard murder. I was aware, even at 9 years old, that it was not safe for me to be my authentic self.

Young Parker

Flash forward to high school. My family saw me changing. I was grounded more often than I wasn’t. I left my skin at the door. My church saw me changing, becoming the things we’d prayed away, embracing the things about myself that I couldn’t seem to change. Every single person I knew seemed to be embarking on this harrowing journey of “what to do about Parker.”

I wish I would have had the words, then, “You stand BY me.”

I am so grateful to the unknowingly affirming parents of my friends and the educators who accepted me and extended a safe place for me; to all the adults who made me feel appreciated, unquestionably deserving of happiness and who showed me that the “me” I couldn’t be at home was so special and so valuable.

Growing Up and Coming Out

No More Secrets

One evening, it came over me like an illness. If I didn’t get it out, I would surely die. I hopped into my dad’s van when he was on his way out and blurted, “I’m gay.” There was a moment of silence before he replied, “Well, I love you…but let’s not tell your mom til after the holidays?”. He was calm and collected, probably more prepared for the conversation than I was.

Because I’m no good with time or secrets, I lasted until just before Thanksgiving. I found myself shuffling into the side room where my mom was up late working on stuff. This was me facing my biggest fear, my best friend, the closest woman to God “himself”, the person who was watching out for the same bolt of holy lightning to strike me as I was. I broke down, overflowed and told her everything. The next couple hours were like the ringing after a bomb, full of sound but inaudible at the same time. We pleaded with each other for understanding. I packed a bag. We went to bed angry and lost.

We barely spoke in the following months. Every surface in our home felt like sharp glass and we were getting used to the sensation.

The Ultimatum

By 22, I had I formed the kind of “two lives” one creates out of survival. I needed to be myself but I also needed my family to make it in this world. Someone eventually walked into the life I had outside of my home, we loved each other and I saw a life with someone who would never ask me to check myself at the door. That gave me the courage to claim my own truth. I gave my mother an ultimatum to either support me and walk with me or to watch me live my life at a distance.

That affirmation of my own truth began the repaving of a path I thought was beyond repair.

Parker is joined by his parents at their first Pride Parade

Better Together

We got educated together.

We learned about each other, even the things we had to unteach ourselves.

We began to dismantle our closets and build our own special table where we could support one another.

That table kept getting larger and larger.

My mom began to meet people from my community, people who loved me as their own when even my church and my family wasn’t ready to. They were beautiful and colorful and their arms were wide open. I wasn’t sure what to think the first time my mom brought up “giving free hugs” at a Pride parade but the outcome, as you all know, is history.

You Gotta Give Them Hope

For every night of sleep we both lost, for every prayer we said for me to be “healed”, for every time I came tumbling out of the closet, there are THOUSANDS of kids like me who’s lives could be changed by something like a hug, a kind word or simply knowing there’s a person out there who wants them to thrive.

Parker Cunningham and his mom, Sara

The creation of, the growth and the ongoing work of Free Mom Hugs gives me hope for the people in my community as well as the allies that support them. As the LGBTQIA+ Advocate for Free Mom Hugs, I have been able to share with school groups and different church fellowships, tell my story on the road, hug across the country, make some funny videos, meet some incredible people and watch this movement flourish.

Doing it all alongside my mom is something I’ll never take for granted.

Whether you came out of the closet years ago, whether you’re just now getting used to the view from the outside or whether remaining inside the closet is the safest choice for you at this time, know that the table we are continuously assembling will always have a seat for you, whenever you are ready.


October is LBGTQ History month, and it also holds a life-changing holiday, National Coming Out Day. This holiday was first celebrated in the US in 1988, and was created as a form of activism. The belief that the more people see LGBTQ+ people in their families and in society, the less likely they will discriminate against them. It has also become a landmark day to commemorate courage and bravery, and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and let them know, they no longer need to keep their authentic selves a secret.

Sara Cunningham and Liz Dyer

If there were ever two women who celebrated the LGBTQ+ community, it is Free Mom Hugs founder, Sara Cunningham and  creator of Serendipity, Home of the Real Mama Bears private, online Facebook group, Liz Dyer. They have created some simple steps on how to be a safe parent or ally to come out to. They also created a video where they share advice from their own experience and from the experiences of so many others, all with hopes of helping you be better prepared when you are trusted with your child’s truth.

Free Mom Hugs Post It Board at OKC Pride 2019

It’s Not a Phase

Liz – Don’t ignore it or express doubt or say it’s probably just a phase – No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you are about the news, show interest and encourage your child to share with you. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they have come out to others and how it went, and who else they would like to come out to. Don’t express doubt or say it’s probably just a phase. It’s true that over time people may gain new understandings of themselves, but even if in the future your kid identifies in a different way, that doesn’t diminish or negate how they identified previously.

Instead, it indicates that your child is continuing to work at understanding themselves and that they have a desire to live authentically, and that is something for parents to celebrate and be proud of.

Living Your Truth

Sara – Don’t ask them to stay in the closet –It’s true that it can take a minute for many parents to adjust to their new reality. Parents may initially feel afraid about what others will say or do when our kids come out, but we need to help our kids speak their truth and live authentically. Living in the closet and hiding who they are is damaging to their health and well- being. Our kids should never have to check themselves at the door and hide who they are to make other people feel comfortable. That’s a heavy burden we don’t want our kids to carry.

Artwork: The Naked Pastor

No More Shame

Liz – Don’t use religion to shame them – If your family is religious, chances are your LGBTQ+ kid is already carrying some shame about being LGBTQ+. We can’t forget, shame is what causes so many LGBTQ+ people to experience depression, anxiety, self- loathing and suicidal ideation. Emphasize to your child that they can be a person of faith and LGBTQ+. With a little bit of research and study, most religious families are discovering that non -affirming theology is based on a mis-interpretations of an ancient language.

Kathy Baldock “Untangling This Mess”

The Power of Love and Education

Our friend and author, Kathy Baldock has done all the research historically, biblically, and scientifically to explain how certain passages and terms need to be reexamined and have been mis used to create the belief that homosexuality is a sin. Her book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, has enlightened countless folks from parents and clergy, to teachers and physicians. As Sara Cunningham has said many times, “There’s too much information available now to stay in fear and ignorance.”

Unconditional Love

Sara – Do tell them you love them unconditionally and thank them for trusting you. – Our kids are coming to us in a very vulnerable state when they come out to us. Go overboard and let them know that you love them just as they are and maybe a little bit more because they have been so brave. Let them know that you are honored they trusted you to come to with this important and personal information.

Jan and David Pezant, and son Garrett

Even When You Think You Are Ready…

Our very own National Board member, Jan Pezant, has been a devoted mama bear for years thanks to her beautiful son Garrett. She and her husband, David have been pilars of support in the Oklahoma LGBTQ+ community and have a unique story to tell about their experience.

We thought we were prepared for our son to come out, but we were wrong.

David and I had many conversations late at night, lying in bed, discussing how we would handle it if or when our son would come out. We spoke to clergy and friends of faith, we prayed, we read what we could find on the subject, and we were in a good place of affirming and unconditional love. We actively worked to make sure our home was safe and he felt safe and open to discussion.

When he was sixteen years old, he asked to speak with us. When he told us he was gay, we were ready to show acceptance and love as his parents. What we weren’t prepared for was what he said next. “If I can’t stay, I have a bag packed and a place to stay. I don’t want to leave, but I am prepared if I have to.” WOW! We didn’t see that coming. We asked him why he thought we would make him leave our home. He said, “I thought you would probably let me stay, but I know people who were kicked out of their homes and I needed to be ready if the same thing happened to me.”

The take away from this is, until it is safe for everyone to come out it is not really safe for anyone to come out. We must work as humans, as an organization, as a community and as a world to make coming out safe for ALL..

Next step: Resources, Resources and Resources

We have seen and heard many times how important having authentic relationships between parents and their LGBTQ+ children is and how it can literally be life-saving. A report from The Trevor Project shows that LGBTQ+ youth who report having at least one supportive adult were 40% less likely to have a suicide attempt. As we approach National Coming Out Day, October 11, we encourage you to remember to be that safe place your child needs, as they are on their own journey of discovery, fear and bravery. This is when they need you most of all.

Being and accepting adult is suicide prevention.


We at Free Mom Hugs have deliberately made the shift in our language to talk about CELEBRATING the LGBTQ+ community. We realized that affirming their identity wasn’t enough, and it didn’t express how wonderful it is to have an LGBTQ+ child. We see our childrens’ sexuality and gender expression as a gift, and as such, deserves excitement and joy at the news. We also realize, that with all of our different cultures, that may not come as naturally for others. And that’s where we hope we can help the most. “We have seen the power of love and education.”

We Are Better Together

Here are some final thoughts from Liz and Sara as you begin this new, life-long journey of discovery into the amazing gift of being the parent of an LGBTQ+ child.
Liz – Do tell them you want to support them and ask them what they need – Let them know that you want to do what you can to make sure they have the resources they need to be free to live their truth. Ask them what they think they need to be the best, most healthy and whole version of themselves.

Sara – Do seek out resources and support for yourself – This is a new reality and at first, a lot of parents are afraid and feel very alone. It’s important that parents get support and resources for themselves.  Today there are many organizations that offer good resources and ways to connect with other families who have LGBTQ+ kids. The Mama Bears Facebook groups and Free Mom Hugs Chapters are great places to find support and resources.

For more info about our organizations visit our websites at realmamabears.org and freemomhugs.org