We are beyond excited about the release of the Mama Bears Doc. Our dear friend, and Emmy Award winner director, Daresha Kyi has been working diligently on this project for over 5 years. She and her team have traveled with us on the Free Mom Hugs tours across country, and have come to Pride events, to gather pieces of founder Sara Cunningham’s story. 

As a conservative mom in middle America, Sara shares a similar story with other mom’s who are featured in the documentary. Each mom shares their own process of reconciling their Christian faith with their child’s sexuality or gender identity. The project started over 5 years ago and included numerous COVID related delays. But this amazing film will finally premiere at SXSW Film Festival March 13 in Austin, Texas. 

In the beginning.

Daresha and her crew joined Sara and Laura Beth Buchleiter on the very first Free Mom Hugs Tour to the Stonewall Inn in New York City. There, they captured amazing footage and some heartbreaking stories from LGBTQ+ kids facing rejection from their families. But seeing hope in those who have so much love, they cared for with those who lost their biological families by choosing to live as their authentic selves. 

Laura Beth, Matthew Vines and Sara Cunningham. Free Mom Hugs Tour 2017

The second Free Mom Hugs Tour was a journey full of emotions for Sara and her son Parker, as they traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to the site of Matthew Shepard’s brutal attack and where the first hate-crime legislation was birthed. The film crew traveled along with sensitivity and grace, as mother and son came face to face with their worst fears: a mother’s fear of having a gay son attacked for his sexuality and as a gay man, whose greatest fear is what happened to Matthew. 

Parker Cunningham on the Free Mom Hugs Tour to Laramie, Wyoming

The Mama Bears Doc team also traveled to west Texas to be a part and witness Sara’s first stand-in wedding. Marlee and Tabatha were getting married in their family’s home town of Spearman, TX, and Tabatha’s mom was not accepting of the marriage at that time. Sara gladly stood in for Tabatha’s mom in a bittersweet moment, grateful to be able to be a loving support, but knowing and wishing her mom would be there for her child’s happiest of days. 

Sara being a Stand In for Tabatha on her wedding day.

Pre-COVID, Daresha joined us for many Pride events as well including OKC Pride, Edmond Pride, Dallas Pride and Atlanta Pride. We loved having her with us in Oklahoma as we continue to be amazed at the progress being made in our conservative state for LGBTQ rights. Dallas Pride included interviews with Liz Dyer and members of the 30,000 strong Mama Bears. 

Mama Bears with Liz Dyer at Dallas Pride

Daresha also documented the turbulent and beautiful journey of Kai Shappley and her mama Kimberly. Kim has advocated for her transgender daughter Kai in the most treacherous of states and seasons in our country’s history. Their story is also depicted in the Mama Bears Doc. 

Emmy Award win for Daresha Kyi.

When the pandemic began in 2020, we all were worried that Free Mom Hugs and a documentary may not survive what was coming. But we rallied with a virtual tour, and like a true friend Daresha joined one of our panels and gave long-lasting advice and encouragement to our LGBTQ+ communities and their families. 

Director Daresha Kyi Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour 2020

We waited as we navigated the twists and turns of life in a recurring pandemic, but the time has finally come. And the message couldn’t be more important to share with the world. We hope audiences around the country will feel as moved as we have by the movement of love and understanding by the amazing women we call Mama Bears. May we learn from them and may we continue to strive to be like them. 

For details on SXSW, tickets and events, please go to their website. Sara and Parker will be there and would love to see you!

Have Jeep! Will Travel!

Guest Blogger

During the month of February, Free Mom Hugs will be celebrating LGBTQ+ love and all the ways we have been a part of those who are living and loving freely. Founder, Sara Cunningham went viral for offering to be a “stand in mom” for LGBTQ+ weddings for couples who may not have supportive family. She has also played a part in many love stories over the years helping families reconcile and heal their relationships. She has often been an officiant for weddings for couples who want to celebrate their love with a ceremony. In the past 6 years at Free Mom Hugs, we have seen love win time and time again. We have also inspired many others to be a become officiants, be a “stand in parent” and to pursue authentic love and companionship like we all deserve.

Every wedding Sara officiates, she gifts the couple with a rock from her own garden with a heart painted on it to remind them that
Love Wins.

Guest blogger Karrie Fletcher, Executive Director of Free Mom Hugs, has an incredible journey as someone who tried desperately to change her sexuality in order to align with her faith. But she finally found her own freedom as her authentic self and now helps others find comfort in their own truth. She has worked with Matthew Vines at the Reformation Project, Kathy Baldock at Canyonwalker Connections and the Human Rights Campaign, paving the way for others to love themselves and open the door to find long-lasting love. Karrie and her wife Mandy were married on a beach in October 2021 in front of family and friends in Key West, Florida. In our first blog of the month, Karrie shares about her journey with a close friend who went from conversion therapy to a wedding in New York City with Sara acting as a “stand in” mom.

Karrie and Mandy’s wedding day

In the spring of 2003, I was well on my way to becoming straight. Or so I thought. The previous year, I made the decision to start the journey to become straight after finding the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International and their leaders who claimed they had “changed from gay to straight through their relationship with Jesus Christ.” I shared my testimony with the church I was attending and I had declared that God had changed me from gay to straight. I was applying to graduate school at a local seminary to prepare for what I believed to be a future helping others who wanted to change their sexuality too. I thought I had found it – freedom from homosexuality and my future in ministry. 

It was during this time that I met Hayley. Like me, Hayley had just gone through a hurtful and devastating breakup with her ex-girlfriend and she was looking for what she thought might be a better way. Hayley heard that I had “left the gay lifestyle” and wanted to talk to me about that journey. We talked on the phone and I shared my story about how I no longer considered myself gay. I told her about my negative experiences in relationships and how the leaders of the “ex-gay” movement were right – lesbian relationships were nothing but emotional dependicies. I encouraged her to attend an Exodus conference and learn what she could about “leaving the lifestyle.”  We both agreed that God must have something better for her.

The conversation with Hayley that day would turn out to be one of many we would have over the next 14 years as we both tried to change our sexuality. Over the years, we spent many hours talking through email, text, and messenger as we turned into modern day pen pals. We talked about our childhoods, God, relationships, and what we were learning along the way. We talked about hard things. We both understood each other in a way that no one else in our lives could understand. And we talked about the dream we both had of getting married one day to a godly man and having kids. But the journey was excruciatingly painful at times as we talked about the loneliness, isolation and ultimately the frustration we both felt as we tried to date men. Many years into our journey, we both admitted to each other that we were still attracted to women

When I came out as a gay Christian in 2016, I shared this news with Hayley. She was happy for me but couldn’t imagine being at peace in a relationship with a woman herself. She feared the rejection of God and her family and couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them. We stayed in touch and Hayley eventually opened her heart to the idea that God could still love her even if she identified as gay.  

In May of 2019, I met my future wife Mandy at a meeting for The Reformation Project chapter in Dallas, Texas. That same month, Hayley went on a date with Amber who would become someone very special in her life as well. It was exciting for both of us as we encouraged each other through the start of our new dating relationships. Both of us had been single for nearly two decades!  

Karrie and Mandy Fletcher-Rollins

In a serendipitous turn of events, Hayley and I found ourselves in New York City at the end of last year. Hayley shared with me the incredible news that she and Amber were getting married in Central Park on December 30th. As it turned out, Free Mom Hugs was invited to New York City on behalf of Barefoot Wine to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Founder Sara Cunningham was asked to bring in the new year with a live toast on the main stage with Barefoot Bubbly and to share about the work of Free Mom Hugs.

Karrie, Sara and Mandy in Times Square New Years Eve 2022

When Sara found out about the wedding and that it would only include the officiant and photographer, she immediately offered to be a stand in mom. Things were coming together for what would become a full circle moment for mine and Hayley’s friendship after 18 years of singleness. 

Sara standing in for Haley and Amber in Central Park

On December 30, 2021 at 12:30pm, I stood in Central Park watching the person I had encouraged to go through conversation therapy all those years ago marry the love of her life. With my wife of 3 months standing by my side, I held their wedding rings as I reflected on the journey Hayley and I took together. The journey from a life of loneliness to a life of companionship. And you know what? LOVE. JUST. WON.  

Love Wins in Central Park