Guest Blogger

Bisexual Health Awareness Month

Amber Jensen, Free Mom Hugs Oklahoma Co-Leader shares a story of hope about coming out and owning her identity.

Guest Blogger, Amber Jensen, Free Mom Hugs Oklahoma Chapter Co-Leader.

I’ve never written about my bisexuality. In a world that doesn’t always recognize bisexuality as a normal part of being an authentic, healthy, and complete adult human, my coming-out story is one of hope.

It was the summer of 1995. I was 14 years old and living in Woodward, Oklahoma. I had just (4 months before) moved in with my Momma and Daddy from the abusive situation I grew up in with my birth father. My world was changing so quickly, I felt I couldn’t keep up. 

I wanted to be a good kid and earn this gift that life had given me, living with my Momma. My parents valued hard work and earning your keep. So on the first opportunity I had, I applied for a job at the McDonald’s. I was happily surprised when they hired me during the interview. Work was different than I was used to and it was a lot to learn. But I adapted quickly, and became a valued member of the crew. I was exposed to people and situations I had never even considered.

One of the people I worked with, a young woman with brown skin, black hair, a beautiful smile, and an athletic build was the first to take me under her wing. She showed me quicker ways of doing things while still getting it done the right way. During slow times, she and I talked and laughed together. I knew I liked boys, so I thought I must not be gay. I had been taught growing up that being gay was a sin and that it was wrong. But I liked boys, so I thought I must just like her work ethic and her sense of humor, right?

Outside of home, I was about to enter my freshman year of High School. Since 5th Grade, I had played cornet and trumpet and I planned to continue. I usually sat in the first chair of the brass section in the band. I loved music so much. Band camp came around in August. The High School band included all of 9th through 12th grade band students, as well as a select few 8th-graders. I had been one of those 8th-graders the year before, so I already knew a lot of the band members.

In my new, mostly secular life (excluding Sundays, when we went to church), I found that mainstream pop was really good. Sandi Patti, Amy Grant, and Point of Grace were about as edgy as I had been allowed to listen to up to that point. I borrowed CDs from friends and fell in love with the lyrical, sometimes sexualized songs by Mariah Carey. Alanis Morrisette’s self-titled album “Jagged Little Pill” was also a favorite and had just been released. I enjoyed her strong female-focused lyrics too. Up until that point, I hadn’t known any women who were allowed to be outspoken or enjoy their sexuality. But I liked it.

These realizations about myself made me doubt that I was fully straight. In my head, I said I was “mostly straight.” This helped me stay away from describing myself as gay, which I still believed was wrong. This new interest wasn’t just in celebrities, I also liked a few ladies around town. I hated that I had doubts about who I was. I never disclosed this to anyone. How would I even broach the subject in my small town? I would be an outcast, gossiped about, and treated poorly by everyone I knew if I ever said anything. So I just kept quiet and pretended all the girls I liked was admiration because of something they could do, rather than liking them romantically.

In 1996, I was working on an old 1977 Ford Crown Victoria LTD with my daddy. He required his daughters to learn how to fix cars and change tires before he allowed them to get a driver’s license. So in the hours we spent in the garage, we talked a lot. He was asking who I liked or hoped to date, and as I cleaned that carburetor, I accidentally said “Mariah Carey”. I finally admitted to my dad that I liked girls in addition to boys. My dad was a kind, generous, loving man and he evolved with time. But at that time, he told me not to worry and said it’s just a phase and it will pass. Of course he told my momma, so a sense of understanding was there that I was out to my parents, and they still loved me, so I would be ok.

In the summer of 1997, I changed jobs from McDonald’s to the local grocery store called United Supermarkets. After having worked there for a while, the manager trusted me. One slow business day, he asked me to clean out the office. While doing this, I found a Newsweek magazine that was a couple years old. The lady that was working up front by the office saw me looking at it. The cover had a picture of 3 people looking embarrassed, head down, eyes empty and sad.

The headline read, “BISEXUALITY. Not gay. Not straight. A New Sexual Identity Emerges.” 

Something clicked for me and I knew this was me. Right then, intruding into my thoughts, the lady working nearby piped up, “I know, sick right? It’s disgusting to be gay, but confused if you’re gay? Sad! Why would anyone say they’re bisexual? Make up your mind and commit to it!”

I played it off, but all the shame inside me roared to my face, making my cheeks flush. I continued working and went home that night to tell my dad that I had been mistaken. “I just think Mariah Carey is beautiful. It must be the fancy cameras and professional magazine makers!” He didn’t seem to notice how hard my heart was pumping blood through my ears or that I was stuttering a little bit.

Years passed, and I made it through high school without ever telling anyone my “dirty” secret. I pushed down the idea that any woman would find me attractive anyway. I graduated high school pretending to be straight – something I regret. I went to college, slept with men, but never found one that I really liked. In my second year of college though, I bumped into an old band buddy that I knew from Honor Band. She was still blonde, still beautiful, and seemed to really like me. We dated exclusively for 8 months. It was so freeing to be with her. We were in a small college town, but it was small enough that we could go to Walmart holding hands and skipping through the store and nobody would think anything other than we were best friends.

Time passed though and I met a man. I loved that he wore an Army uniform. I loved his heart, his kind spirit, and his joie de vivre. Being with him felt safe, healthy, and right. We dated for 13 years before we married in 2013. We had a small ceremony with just our moms and a big wedding on our first anniversary.

Amber and Brian Jensen

In 2016, I became active in politics, even ran for office, and became heavy into activism. Women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights were what drove me forward. I wanted society to change and that meant speaking up for those who couldn’t.

In 2017, at the urging of my activist friends, I finally went to my first Pride festival. Everyone was nonjudgmental. I felt safe. My husband went with me. We drove the 3 hours to OKC and stayed all weekend. That’s when I met Sara Cunningham and got involved with Free Mom Hugs. The idea that people could and would accept me more than I accepted myself blew my mind. I wanted to be involved, and give people the support I couldn’t find in those early years.

Amber, Free Mom Hugs Oklahoma Chapter Co-Leader

It was also at that Pride that I knew I could accept who I am and love myself. I needed to come out as Bisexual and Polyamorous. I spoke with my spouse, and he understood and accepted me for who I am. He understood that I can have love for more than one person and not diminish my love for another. He even served as cameraman for a Pride-themed photoshoot.

Some 22 years after that day in the grocery store office, on July 4th, 2019, I finally came out to my Momma. I sat at her kitchen table and read aloud the letter I had typed out and printed so I wouldn’t lose my nerve. I wasn’t sure if she would be more concerned with the fact that I liked women too, or the fact that I had already had healthy discussions with my spouse and may bring home a girlfriend in addition to him and me. 

I worried for no reason. She was fabulous. She normalized it immediately, and said, “I don’t care who you have sex with, I just want you healthy and happy. Just be responsible. But if you’re gonna just sit there, get up and take out the trash, would ya?”

Many people don’t have the support I have. As I turn 40 in a couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about my life and I realize how lucky I am to have such a wonderful, supportive family. I know that many will lose their family over a revelation like mine. That is why my activism and dedication to Free Mom Hugs continues.

If you find yourself coming out and need support, just know that there are moms all over the world that love and accept you for who you are.

And I’m one of them. I’ve been there. You will get through this.

Amber Jensen, March 23, 2021
Feature

 A YEAR IN REVIEW. Actually it’s 7 years. 

In 2014 my youngest son came out to me. He said, “Mom I met someone, and I need you to be okay about it.” I didn’t take the news well. I said some things and acted in ways that I regret. When he came out of his closet, I went into mine. That journey took us from the church to the pride parade. It was my first (intentional) interaction with the gay community, I fell in love. This was also the same time I self-published my book “How We Sleep at Night. A Mother’s Memoir” The story about our journey from the church to the Pride Parade. *Note FMH is not mentioned in my book as it was not on my radar.  

I would spend the next year building relationships with local groups that served the community, getting educated on things like the history of human sexuality, science, and learning about Scriptures that have been misinterpreted, misused and misunderstood causing great harm and devastation to the LGBTQIA+ community and their families. I was also learning about laws that effect the community. Currently in the state of Oklahoma, conversion therapy is still legal, sought out and paid for. My straight son has more rights than my gay son. Parker can be denied housing, health care and even refused service from a restaurant all because of who he is. No mother should have to worry about these things for her children.  

In 2015, I made a homemade “Free Mom Hugs” button, stood at the Oklahoma City Pride Festival and with anyone who made eye contact with me I would offer a free mom hug. The first hug went to a young girl who whispered in my ear “it’s been 4 years since I got a hug from my mom.” As we embraced, I whispered back, “Well, I’m a mom, here’s a hug. And I’m not letting go until you do.” Little did we know that connection, that hug, would “spark” a movement. That night I went home covered from head to toe with glitter, and real horror stories ringing in my ear, keeping me awake.

Homemade Free Mom Hugs button

Shortly thereafter, I surrounded myself with moms with stories like mine, dads and allies, whose only goal was to be a loving presence in the lives of LGBTQ+ people who have been rejected from family, alienated from their church homes and many parts of society. We started out with a small group of mom’s, dad’s, friends and allies showing up at local Pride festivals, helping with local events throughout the year and even creating some of our own, gathering and offering affirming resources for parents. If we met or heard about someone in need, we did our best to fill it. This could mean something as simple providing a meal or a city bus pass. Other times it meant finding safe housing or a plane ticket to a safe family member. I have learned that the key to serving is when you see a need, ask yourself “Is this my burden?” If you have what it takes to fill the need and it brings joy to give it, then yes, it’s your burden. Whatever the need, we would do our best to fill it. Anything to support the LGBTQIA+ community and encourage their parents to have authentic relationships with their children. Imagine if every household were affirming. The world would be a better place for everyone!

OKC Pride 2018

Before too long I was getting invitations to speak at local colleges, companies, and churches. Beautiful same-sex couples began asking if I would officiate their wedding, all of these opportunities presented themselves to me while I worked a full-time job. It was all so wonderful and it about killed me. These were the days that led up to me becoming a founder of a non-profit organization. I would hear of other folks around the country who had their own “spark” moments that urged them to get involved. These “sparks” would eventually lead to the fire behind our 50 state chapters and 100,000+ Free Mom Hugs volunteers across the country and even around the world.

That spark is at the forefront of everything that we do at FMH and guess what? Everybody knows you can’t light a fire without a spark. 

In 2018 after seeing same sex couples devastated when their parents refused to acknowledge the relationship and wouldn’t attend the most special day of their lives, I made a social media post:

“If your biological mom won’t attend your same-sex wedding call me, I’ll be your biggest fan; I’ll even bring the bubbles.”

That social media post went viral and Free Mom Hugs became a movement overnight. Some even said we put my home state of Oklahoma on the map. At that time, we were receiving up to 50 emails per hour!  People from all over the world said, “I’ll stand in too!” From that point on, I was known as the “Stand in Mom.”  What this moment of going “viral” showed me was that people wanted to DO something. And I believe FMH became the platform to do it! We began seeing results within the community and their families that were lasting and empowering. And I realized, I wasn’t the only mom with my hair on fire for LGBTQ+ kids.

Being a Stand-In mom for this beautiful couple.

As wonderful as this national attention was, it created a real problem. The “cat was out of the bag” so to speak, before we were ready. Overnight we had to create the National non-profit Free Mom Hugs, with our organic beginnings, lots of heart, but with little experience. We had amazing women jumping at the chance to start a Free Mom Hugs chapter in their state. Willing to devote their time, passion and money to multiply the movement and change the social norms in their area. WE WOULD NOT BE WHERE WE ARE TODAY WITHOUT THEM! We began building the infrastructure, forming the National Board of Directors, setting guardrails in place for the state chapters and created the Free Mom Hugs mission statement:

Free Mom Hugs Northern California

“Empowering the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education, and conversation. And yes, we still give hugs.” 

The year 2019 was an amazing year for us! With national and international attention, we were on the Today Show and RuPaul, featured in magazines and podcasts, traveled the country on the Free Mom Hugs Tour and even caught the eye of Jamie Lee Curtis. Yes, Jamie Lee Curtis. I’ll never forget the day she sent me a message and I thought I was being catfished. But the real Jamie Lee came to visit me and my family in Oklahoma City. She eventually purchased the rights to my memoir and decided to make a movie about my journey. She remains a tremendous and faithful follower, friend, and supporter of Free Mom Hugs.

Jamie Lee Curtis visits OKC

The year 2020 was HARD for us, but a gift as well. On Friday the 13th of March, we felt the plug get pulled on all our plans for what we thought would be the best year for Free Mom Hugs. We were nervous that a non-profit based on physical touch may not survive. But we realized our mission didn’t have to change at all and we were forced to think outside of the box. In doing so, we created alternatives to our in-person events and continued to encourage the LGBTQ+ communities and their families through virtual events, care packages, zoom meetings and webinars, and our social media presence. And during this time, we have been able to get our infrastructure in place for how big this movement can be in 2021 and 2022. I literally cannot wait to hug again!

Free Mom Hugs Care Packages

We have the most dedicated National Board of honest and experienced people who all have their own “spark” and reason for their devotion. We also have loyal followers who have not only helped us survive a pandemic, but provided ways for us to thrive. We are so fortunate to now have 3 paid staff members, myself included. In March of 2020, a generous donation made it possible for me to quit my job of 20 years and focus full time on Free Mom Hugs! Currently, our minds and eyes are focused on The Equality Act, and creating a kinder, safer place, full of dignity and respect for all our LGBTQ+ family. Our chapters are doing the work locally in their states to educate and advocate for equality and to be that beautiful example of how we love our children.

Free Mom Hugs Michigan

Today, the FMH Logo is recognizable worldwide. We have a National Board and staff dedicated to the mission of FMH and chapters in every state with a vision to expanding internationally. We also have the Mama Bears Documentary set to come out, as well as the movie based on my memoir, How We Sleep At Night, that will star Jamie Lee Curtis and will air on The Lifetime Channel. Even though some of the days are hard and full of learning experiences, I still can’t believe how lucky I am to be on this amazing journey with all of you! We truly are better together!

Today my new business cards arrived in the mail. 

FREE MOM HUGS

SARA CUNNINGHAM 

Founder, Chief Inspiration Officer. 

Pinch Me.

Guest Blogger

Guest Blogger Ethan Avanzino

I did not grow up “gay”.  
My attraction to men hasn’t changed; only the terminology used to describe my attraction. For the first twenty-something years of my life, that word was “straight”; however, post-transition, that word is “gay”.  
For those not following – The first twenty-something years of my life, I presented myself to the world as the gender the doctor told my parents I was – “female”. I transitioned to male six years ago.


I did not grow up with the mindset to be afraid of who I loved.

I did not grow up conscious that who I love could potentially cause someone to harm me or a partner.  
I did not grow up knowing that when I wish to hold my husband’s hand, I need to be aware of my environment.  
I did not grow up thinking that one day my love would be considered “political” or even “a choice” by some.  
I transitioned into it. And am still transitioning into it.  

Ethan and David Avanzino


I have cried imagining the pain and bigotry those who came before me and those I walk beside have experienced. I have cried thinking about my great Uncle, born in 1929, who would bring a “friend” to family get togethers and fled to San Francisco for his own safety. I have cried thinking about how far we’ve come… and how far we have to go.

 
But I refuse to transition my mindset.

I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to hide my husband under the guise of “my friend”. I refuse to withhold signs of affection for the sake of others comfort. I refuse to be anything but who I am. I’ll be aware – but I won’t be afraid…
Because I hope that one day young LGBTQ+ people will grow up not needing to be conscious of the things I’m now having to be because of my transition. I hope they’ll grow up innocent and fearless of who they are and who they love – and ‘coming out’ will be just as eventful as telling someone their favorite color. I hope that gender identity and sexual orientation will not be up for debate on whether or not they should be protected classes.

Wedding Day

  
And the only way to continue the change is to be visible, to set an example, to hold his hand in public, to tell the world – Yes, I am gay. This is who I love. Yes, I am trans. This is who I am. I am human.

I came into the world the same way you did, my blood is the same color as yours, and I will leave this world the same way you will.  

I’m incredibly fortunate to be with a man that believes in being visible too. Who isn’t afraid to hold my hand in the heart of Texas (where we met) or Arkansas (where we live now). Who believes in bringing awareness, educating, and sharing knowledge. Who has his own story of bravery, courage, and strength that is now woven into mine.


March 31st is Transgender Day of Visibility.  


The only way to bring visibility is to step out of the closet, away from the shadows, and to be a light.
#transdayofvisibility #transgenderdayofvisibility #tdov #transisbeautiful

Owners Ethan and David Avanzino at Wanderoo Lodge

We, at Free Mom Hugs, are grateful for Ethan sharing his journey to help bring about understanding regarding our transgender family we hold so dear. Representation and visibility make a tremendous difference in how far and fast we can make progress in restoring dignity and respect for all human beings.

Ethan and his husband David, recently purchased the former historic Joy Motel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and now run the inclusive outdoor adventure lodge, Wanderoo and Gravel Bar. They continue to make the world a kinder, safer place for all.

For a list of resources and organizations that support and serve the transgender community and their families, head to our website: freemomhugs.org.

Free Mom Hugs: “We empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation. And yes, we still give hugs.”

Feature

Those magic moments when you first saw the impact of Free Mom Hugs and what those moments meant in the life of an LGBTQ+ person or how it affected you as an ally.

Our board members spent a wonderful evening via zoom with Joan Garry, Non-Profit Consulting as we revisited what Free Mom Hugs means to us and why we became involved in this beautiful movement. As we shared stories, it became apparent that each of us had experienced a moment or “spark” that motivated us to become a part of this organization.

Oklahoma City Pride 2018

One of those friends included founding board member, Jan Pezant who shared the emotions involved in her first Pride experience. The LBGTQ+ community tends to seek out the Free Mom Hugs table(s) intentionally in search of connection and that special “family” who will be excited to see them. In fact, we have been known to cause “traffic jams” in front of the Free Mom Hugs tents with so many people just wanting to be around each other and get a hugs.

“There was a feeling of urgency… that these kids needed us. They came to the Free Mom Hugs table looking for unconditional love. I felt so strongly that I couldn’t leave that table until all the kids had gone home. I stayed at the Pride Festival all day unable to leave.  I couldn’t bear the thought of one person coming to get a hug and us not being there. From that moment on, at every Pride event, I wanted to be there early to help set up the table. And stay until the very end as we packed up.”  – Jan

Jan Pezant hugging son Garrett at Edmond Pride 2019

Board member and former Georgia state chapter leader, Erin Ritter talked about her experience seeing Sara’s viral post about being a Stand In mom for LGBTQ+ couples who didn’t have supportive family members. Moved and inspired by it, she reached out to Free Mom Hugs to inquire about how to be a chapter leader. A year later, she was contacted by a young woman needing help with a surprise proposal at Atlanta Pride. Both Sara and Erin were able to be a part of the beautiful surprise that was a magnificent expression of love and how we celebrate all love. Erin, is known for the phrase, The Hug is the Moment. That’s the spark for her. That’s when you know a human connection has been made and that two people walk away from that hug forever changed. 

Surprise proposal at Atlanta Pride 2019

Dr. Jonathan Drummond, board member and long-time supporter of Free Mom Hugs, has always been devoted to the organic nature of Sara’s mission and of the organization. “Ideally, moms provide unconditional love. But in reality, many moms (and dads) are incapable of providing unconditional love to their child.” We step in when their family or friends choose to step out. It’s crucial for LGBTQ+ kids to know that even if their family rejects them, there is an entire community of people who not only affirm them, but also celebrate them!  

For myself, a member of the LGBTQ+ community who came out late in life because of religious abuse, my spark came just standing back and watching Sara hug at a fundraiser. People stood in line for a moment with her while she would hold people’s hands, look them in the eye with love and understanding, and hug them until they let go. Just observing this chipped away at my own shame and internalized homophobia. It really is tremendous what a hug can say even when no words are exchanged. It provides healing with a simple, unconditional embrace. 

Katrina Kalb and Sara Cunningham at a Jen Hatmaker event in OKC.

That’s what occurs at the Free Mom Hugs tent at any given Pride Festival or event. If you were to stand at a distance and observe, you would see a collection of folks needing hugs. You would hear kids giggling, and saying, “I’m so happy!” You would also hear heart breaking stories from people confessing that they hadn’t been hugged by their mom in years. Many kids and adults will circle back for another hug before they have to leave. Michigan chapter leader, Jill Lash has heard many queer youth say they have to “de-pride” themselves before they go home. This may be their one time a year to be their full, authentic and free selves. And Free Mom Hugs gives them that unconditional love to take with them as they go back home to a non-affirming environment. Sara Cunningham’s phrase “Our children should not have to check themselves at the door of their own home” is such a compass for parents of LGBTQ+ kids to live by. Home should be the safest place of all. 

LGBTQ+ Youth at Norman Pride 2019

But for so many, home is as rejecting and cruel as the outside world. This is why the Free Mom Hugs movement is so powerful and spreading so rapidly. There is truly a need for safe family.  While we wish we didn’t have to be that, we certainly take that role as an honor and a privilege.

We all get to show parents and LGBTQ+ persons that they deserve nothing but love, happiness and freedom. 

With 50 chapters and over 100,000 volunteers and numerous social media followers all play an important part in creating a community where LGBTQ+ folks can find refuge. We would not be where we are today as a national non-profit organization were it not for those of you who also had that “spark” moment. It may have been a social media post or seeing our hugs in action at a Pride parade. Maybe you have seen founder Sara Cunningham speak and you just knew you had to do something. That was your spark! If you have a “spark” moment, we would love to hear from you. Send us your story to [email protected]

We can’t wait for Pride 2021 when we can continue to light those Free Mom Hugs sparks and start a raging fire of unconditional love across the country and around the world.

Join us at www.freemomhugs.org