Events

We welcome another beautiful blog from Julie Smith Turner, our Free Mom Hugs South Carolina Chapter leader. She had a powerful visit with Sara and Parker on the Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour stop in Columbia.

We had Sara and Parker for less than 24 hours over Memorial Day weekend
but I knew we wanted to offer a variety of events while they were here.

First, I wanted to do something especially for the local LGBTQ community.
So I reached out to our local LGBTQ community center to see if we could
pull together a small event in a known safe space. The result was a Friday
evening meet and greet with light refreshments at the Harriet Hancock
LGBT Center.
It was the first time the center had hosted an event since they
moved to virtual services for COVID. It was so fun and emotional. We
were joined by the center’s namesake, longtime local activist Harriet
Hancock and also Mandy Carter, an LGBTQ and civil rights activist from North
Carolina.

Harriet Hancock LGBT Center

With the event ending early in the evening, we impulsively headed
out to the city’s new Pride bar and caught the tail end of a rousing drag
show. With the bar packed for the show, we gave out lots of hugs and
stickers!
Sara and Parker had to hit the road for Atlanta by 1pm on Saturday, so we
planned the second event for 10:30am Saturday morning. The concept was
to feature several local speakers along with Sara and Parker to educate
about the local LGBTQ community and to increase awareness of Free Mom
Hugs. The event was hosted in our city’s award-winning Richland Library in the
main auditorium.

Parker Cunningham speaking at Richland Library, Columbia, SC.

The public event featured Katharine Allen, Director of Research for Historic Columbia
who talked about the LGBTQ
Columbia History Initiative
which launched in 2019. She shared an insightful
presentation of photos, personal recollections and excerpts from LGBTQ
media drawn from their interactive project which documented the
stories of the LGBTQ+ community through the creation and dissemination
of oral histories, historic site interpretation, and archival collections. Next,
Harriet spoke to the group of about 50 attendees about how and why the
LGBTQ community became established in Columbia since the
first public Pride march on the state capital in 1990. Mandy, who served as
Harriet’s mentor in establishing the city’s first Pride march, also shared her
experiences and hopes as an activist in the south. And the last part of the evening
Parker and Sara both shared their stories with the group.

Our amazing friends in Columbia, South Carolina


What was the best part of Sara (and Parker’s) visit?
Selfishly, the best part was being able to meet Sara and Parker. I have been
involved with Free Mom Hugs for about three years, so I’ve only seen them
and spoken to them virtually. After they spoke Saturday morning, I
noticed that Sara’s original handwritten Free Mom Hugs button was still on
the podium, so I picked it up. In my hand I held the plastic button that
drove this national groundswell. It was a physical reminder to me that with
enthusiasm, love and persistence one person can truly do great things that
matter.

The button that sparked a movement!

I missed them the second they walked away. But that was
tempered by what we had experienced together in Columbia. We had these
amazing events where people came and we all laughed and cried. It was a few
moments of pure joy in a rough stretch of history. I was proud that those who came
had the opportunity to learn about people and groups in our community who had
been working for LGBTQ South Carolinians over the years and that we were
able to shine a spotlight on Historic Columbia’s powerful LGBTQ history
project.

The tour mattered for so many reasons. We can’t always get people out to
local Pride events so this was a wonderful way to introduce Sara, the
LGBTQ community and our nonprofit to the general public. It happened
during a tough time in the south as hateful legislation dominated and
trampled LGBTQ rights and swayed public perception. But I was
equally proud to show off my hometown to Sara and Parker. We have done
— and will continue to do amazing work here — and Free Mom Hugs will be part of it.

The work continues!

If you would like to join us, or support future tours and other Free Mom Hugs programs, please head to our website! We have resources, ways to connect to chapters, and options to support our work financially.

Events

We are excited to share a blog from our Georgia Chapter Leader, Kelli Blundell who tells us about her experience as a Tour stop for the Don’t Hide Your Pride Free Mom Hugs Tour.

Our first day started at The Village Church where Sara and Parker were interviewed by Pastor Ray Waters and teaching Pastor Stan Mitchell.  Parker even sang two songs.  The church and its congregation welcomed us with open arms and is one of the most supportive and affirming churches we have ever attended.  After church, we were all invited to Pastor Ray and wife Jane Waters’ house, where we had lunch and continued lively and meaningful fellowship which was full of love and acceptance. We told each other our stories and we laughed, cried, and then laughed until we cried. 

Parker, Sara and our Free Mom Hugs Georgia chapter at The Village Church.

That evening, we went to Lips Atlanta for dinner and a drag show.  Sara and Parker were able to speak about the Free Mom Hug organization sharing our mission.  We enjoyed food, music, each other’s company and of course, QUEENS!  Lips Atlanta has always welcomed the Georgia Chapter with open arms and has supported us from the very beginning.  

Volunteers hugging at LIPS Atlanta!

 On our second day, the Georgia chapter went to Highland Bakery to have brunch with Sara and Parker.  Everyone was encouraged to come by to introduce themselves.  Highland Bakery is LGBTQ owned and affirming. We were so grateful to be able to spend time there together again. For most it, we were sad to have to say goodbye to Sara and Parker.

Parker and Jane Waters at Highland Bakery

The next day Sara and Parker set off to Savannah for the last night in Georgia. Kelli, one of our chapter leaders and Shaun, a volunteer with us left for Savannah as well to continue the tour. In Savannah we went to the Starland Yards where a table set up with two Savannah area leaders and plenty of volunteers. People were curious and stopped by the table to mingle. Sara and Parker were the most gracious guests and enjoyed speaking to everyone to spread our message. 

Our amazing Georgia volunteers!

We left Starland Yards and headed to Club One, the only gay club in Savannah. When we arrived, there were very few people and not a lot going on. But that didn’t stop Sara from reaching out to those who were there to talk to them and make a connection. When Terry, the karaoke goddess arrived, we SANG! We all sang Don’t Stop Believing by Journey! We were AWESOME! We left that place a little better for having just been there. 

Don’t Stop Believing!

Here are a couple of questions we asked our volunteers about their time with Sara and Parker:

What was the best part of your visit?

How do you even begin to pick a “best part?”  The highlight for sure was just getting to spend time with Sara and Parker talking about why the Free Mom Hug organization is so dear to all of us.  We were able to talk about our “why” and Sara validated all of our feelings.  She was able to see how important we thought this mission is to all of us. She made us feel like we are an important part of making an impact for change in Georgia.  And I will tell you—getting to hear Parker sing was pretty special too! – LeeAnn

My favorite part was the lifetime connection I feel like I made with a lot of very special people and especially Sara and Parker. They are so genuine and loving that you can just feel the love ooze off them. You just can’t help but fall in love with them both. My new BFF, Parker, and I bonded over silliness and mirth. I will always cherish the time we had. – Kelli 

The best part about Sara and Parker’s visit was that we were able to come together to empower and show so much love to many different people. I was honestly star struck. This whole experience has filled my heart with joy. I can truly say that the best part is the organization as a whole.  I definitely stand taller, show up and show out more now than I ever have before. – Kati

How did you feel when they left?

Oh my—there were so many emotions!  It was such an honor to have the opportunity to meet Sara and Parker.  We were inspired to do our best to support as many people as possible.  We were enthusiastic about representing Free Mom Hugs and planning our calendar for June Pride month—with new leadership in place and growing our membership.  It was bittersweet when Sara and Parker left—but several of our members went with her to Savannah to continue the tour.  We learned so much and are excited to keep the momentum going. – LeeAnn

When we were leaving Club One, our Uber was about 15 minutes out and Sara and Parker insisted on staying with us until it arrived. That extra 15 minutes really solidified the love I had formed in such a short time for these two humans. It was so bittersweet to part with them. On one hand I was sad that it would be a while before I would get to see them again. One the other hand, I knew they were going to continue their journey and spreading more love to the leaders, volunteers and the community we love. Plus, I get to look forward to the next time we meet. – Kelli

When they left I wish I would had more time with them. Their visit opened my mind a little more and the fire within me to share hugs and uplifting messages grew. I am so honored to be a part of this big presence. – Kati

Changing the world one hug at a time!

Why is the Free Mom Hugs Tour important?

For our chapter, the tour is so important because we got to witness firsthand the importance of the Free Mom Hugs organization.  We were contacted by a young man who told us a bit of his story about not feeling accepted.  He drove all the way from another state and was welcomed by all his new “moms”.  There were laughs, tears and lots of loving conversation that bonded us together.  I don’t think he realized he would end up with so many of us loving and supporting him.  What a great feeling!  This tour really embraced the FMH mission of “empowering the world to embrace the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education, and conversation.”  We are so honored to be able to do just that. 

Overall, the FMH Tour is important to connect the chapters, the leaders, the volunteers, and the community to the bigger picture. It helps to ignite the already smoldering fire in the hearts of those that love this organization. It helps us feel like we’re all in this together. From the planning, to watching the tour happen through other’s pictures, videos, and stories on the individual chapter’s pages. We’re in this together and we’re all important, every single one of us. 

This was our 5th annual Free Mom Hugs tour across America. To support future tours or our programs and initiatives at the state level, you can become a monthly donor or provide a one-time gift. Any dollar amount you want to give helps us further the mission of Free Mom Hugs.

donate today!

Guest Blogger

We welcome our guest blogger, Sunshine West, who will give us a behind the scenes look at one person’s experience with the Free Mom Hugs Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour.

The Free Mom Hugs family gathered in Knoxville, Tn today in a queer owned coffee shop full of pop culture memorabilia and rainbows. I didn’t consider that there may be protesters outside, but when I walked up to the door there were two young men sitting by the entrance, bibles open. Before I could decide how to feel about their presence, I noticed a mom talking to the boys, and in the next moment another mom was welcoming me with rainbow stickers and pronoun pins. The next thing I know, I’m in line to buy a lemonade from a nice queer lady. I didn’t know anyone at the event so I decided to sit with someone new. I ended up meeting Allison, who was at her first Free Mom Hugs event. We had a great time getting to know one another. 

Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour Stop, Knoxville, TN.

Sara told her story and then a couple other people talked about their community, and next was told the best engagement story I’ve ever heard. It all felt like a family reunion where I was meeting a bunch of distant cousins. Mundane and simple, yet the air was flecked with gold, and time stood still as we all laughed and celebrated our community together. 

Sara speaking at South Press Coffee House in Knoxville, TN.

Here, I don’t have to defend my existence. 

Here, I don’t have to hide any part of me. 

Here, I feel safe to be myself. 

Here, I feel valued and loved for who I am. 

Sunshine West

Press Release

Grant Thornton names Free Mom Hugs as its new Purple Paladin

Nonprofit strives to create allies who support the LGBTQIA+ community

CHICAGO, June 1, 2022—Grant Thornton LLP, one of America’s largest accounting, tax and advisory firms, has named Free Mom Hugs to its Purple Paladin program, which helps emerging nonprofit organizations move from “start-up to unstoppable.” As part of the program, Grant Thornton provides funding, business advice and volunteer support, while also helping nonprofits raise awareness of their work and mission. 

With chapters in all 50 states and initiatives across the globe, Free Mom Hugs is on a mission to create allies who support the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation. 

In addition to a library of resources, the organization provides opportunities to demonstrate allyship by participating in local events around the country such as pride parades, holiday gatherings and advocacy activities. 

Further, Grant Thornton is currently helping Free Mom Hugs develop an ‘allyship hub’ on its website, providing resources so people can become better allies to the LGBTQIA+ community ― at home, work and school.

“Somewhere out there someone needs us.”

Sara Cunningham founded Free Mom Hugs, after embarking on a long journey towards acceptance of her son, Parker, after he came out as gay. Her regret for the pain that it caused led her on a mission to ensure other children wouldn’t go through the suffering her son endured when she didn’t immediately accept him. 

To show her support for Parker and others, Cunningham began by attending a pride parade wearing a homemade “Free Mom Hugs” button. She stood on the street with open arms and hugged individuals who weren’t accepted by their parents. Her first hug was with a young woman who said it had been four years since she’d been hugged by her mom. Devasted by this, Cunningham vowed to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community loudly and proudly.

“Somewhere out there someone needs us,” said Cunningham. “We’re here to help people simply show up. And not just moms ― dads, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends ― anyone who is looking for a way to demonstrate their allyship and support the community. We provide those opportunities and are a loving presence that shows up where needed and when others don’t.”

Grant Thornton CEO Brad Preber echoes Cunningham’s sentiment: “Free Mom Hugs is an organization that is helping build a better world by changing lives, one hug at a time. At Grant Thornton, we share Free Mom Hugs’ vision for a more respectful, enriched community where all individuals are safe, loved and accepted. It’s simple: We all become stronger when all of our voices are heard.”

Grant Thornton named Free Mom Hugs to its Purple Paladin program in consultation with summer interns at the firm, who researched and proposed worthwhile organizations to support.

Grant Thornton accepts nominations of nonprofits for its Purple Paladin program at www.grantthornton/purplepaladins.com.

To learn more about Free Mom Hugs, visit www.grantthornton.com/PurplePaladins. To donate, visit www.freemomhugs.org.

Free Mom Hugs joins 11 other nonprofits that Grant Thornton previously selected as Purple Paladins: WeaveTales, Warrior Reunion Foundation, Go Team Therapy Dogs, Find Your Anchor, Foster Nation, Hope in a Box, Weird Enough Productions, Invisible Hands Deliver, Pal Experiences, Sneakers for Soldiers and Coming Up Rosies. 

  • WeaveTales is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps refugees of all kinds share their stories via books, exhibits, films and other channels. To learn more, visit www.weavetales.org.  
  • Warrior Reunion Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that reconnects combat veterans and their families via life-changing reunion experiences. All events are provided at no cost to those who attend. To learn more, visit www.warriorreunionfoundation.org
  • Go Team Therapy Dogs is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that produces well-trained therapy dogs and places them at disaster sites, hospitals, and other places where they can offer comfort and care. To learn more, visit www.goteamdogs.org
  • Find Your Anchor is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. To help people who are struggling to find hope, the organization creates and distributes boxes of curated items known as “anchors.” To learn more, visit www.findyouranchor.us
  • Foster Nation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps former foster youth overcome the challenges associated with ‘aging out’ of the foster-care system. To learn more, visit www.fosternation.org
  • Hope in a Box is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides educators with literature, detailed curriculums and coaching to improve classroom environments for LGBTQIA+ students. To learn more, visit www.hopeinabox.org.
  • Weird Enough Productions is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that develops free, interactive online content designed to combat media misrepresentations of minority communities. The organization is best known for its hallmark comic book series, “The UnCommons.” To learn more, visit www.weirdenough.com.
  • Invisible Hands Deliver is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that taps more than 12,000 volunteers to deliver groceries, prescriptions, and other necessities to people vulnerable to COVID-19 and facing hunger insecurity — including the elderly, disabled and immunocompromised. To learn more, visit www.invisiblehandsdeliver.org.
  • Pal Experiences is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps people with non-visible disabilities — such as autism — have more inclusive experiences at museums, entertainment venues and sporting events. To learn more, visit www.palexperiences.org.
  • Sneakers for Soldiers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides properly-fitted athletic shoes to deployed combat troops in all branches of the military. To learn more, visit www.sneakersforsoldiers.org.
  • Coming Up Rosies is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides “smile kits” to hospitals so children — particularly those suffering from hair loss — can engage in therapeutic art activities to create custom head scarves, neck scarves and superhero capes based on their own unique designs. To learn more, visit www.cominguprosies.com.

Grant Thornton’s Purple Paladins program derives its name from the word paladin, a champion of a cause. Grant Thornton and its professionals have donated more than $650,000 for Purple Paladin nonprofits, and more than 450 Grant Thornton professionals have volunteered support to the firm’s Purple Paladins.

To learn more about Purple Paladins, or to nominate a nonprofit for potential support, visit Grant Thornton’s website: www.grantthornton.com/PurplePaladins.

About Grant Thornton LLP

Grant Thornton LLP (Grant Thornton) is one of America’s largest audit, tax and advisory firms — and the U.S. member firm of the Grant Thornton International Ltd global network. We go beyond the expected to make business more personal and build trust into every result. With revenues of $1.97 billion and 51 offices nationwide, Grant Thornton is a community of more than 9,000 problem solvers who value relationships and are ready to help public and private organizations of all sizes and industries create more confident futures. Because, for us, how we serve matters as much as what we do. 

“Grant Thornton” refers to Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd (GTIL). GTIL and the member firms are not a worldwide partnership. Services are delivered by the member firms. GTIL and its member firms are not agents of, and do not obligate, one another and are not liable for one another’s acts or omissions.

Press Release

Free Mom Hugs Founder Embarks on 2022 “Don’t Hide Your Pride” Tour

Tour will visit eight states and end in Orlando, FL with stops to the Pulse Memorial and Disney’s Animal Kingdom for Gay Days.

OKLAHOMA CITY—When Sara Cunningham pinned a “Free Mom Hugs” button on her sundress before Oklahoma City Pride in 2016, she had no way of knowing she was writing a mission statement for mothers of gay kids everywhere or giving birth to a movement of acceptance. It never crossed her mind that Jamie Lee Curtis one day would offer to direct and star in a movie about her life. That day, Sara Cunningham was just there to support her son, Parker. 

Now, Sara Cunningham is the founder of Free Mom Hugs, a nonprofit organization with chapters in all fifty states, and she and Parker are embarking on a tour across the South to kick off Pride month and support 2SLGBTQIA+ people in their continued fight for visibility and equality. The fifth annual Free Mom Hugs Tour will begin in the Cunninghams’ hometown of Oklahoma City before stopping in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The tour will conclude in Orlando, including attending Gay Days at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Thursday June 2. Sara and Parker also will attend Orlando’s Rainbow Run, which passes through the memorial to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. The theme of this year’s ride is “Don’t Hide Your Pride,” which is a response to Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” bill and others of its kind being considered across the country.

“This is for our allies and the community alike, as our voices are more important than ever in this political climate where our LGBTQ+ children are having laws created against their health and well-being,” Sara says. “It’s time for the world we live in to reflect what 75 percent of Americans want: Equality for all.”

The agenda at each tour stop will vary. Sara and her son Parker will be having meet and greet events, sharing the Free Mom Hugs story, volunteering their services at LGBTQ+ youth homeless shelters, empowering brunches with chapter leaders and volunteers, speaking engagements at local, affirming churches and attending fundraisers for local LGBTQ+ non-profits. Free Mom Hugs also will partner with the Human Rights Campaign throughout the Tour to offer training sessions to help volunteers advocate more effectively for their families. 

“It’s time for our allies to let their families, neighbors, colleagues, and places of worship know you not only love, support, and celebrate the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, but that you demand equal protections for our gay, bi, queer, and transgender friends and family,” Sara says. “And we want to support the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in finding and using their voices to share their stories with anyone who will listen.”

Free Mom Hugs is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Its mission statement is to empower the world to celebrate the 2SLGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education, and conversation. More information is available at https://freemomhugs.org

March 31 is Transgender Day of Visibility

We are always thrilled any time we get to share the stories of our amazing chapter leaders. As moms of LGBTQ+ kiddos, they know better than anyone what it’s like to raise beautiful humans, while fighting for others to see them the same way they do. They are passionate and powerful, and are a priceless resource for anyone new to the journey. Especially during this time in our country’s history, this fight can be exhausting, discouraging and hopeless. But when you find other moms just like you, there’s an instant bond and source of encouragement and hope. At Free Mom Hugs, we understand the power of stories. They educate, celebrate and yes, even help to advocate. May you be inspired to do all three.

My name is Lynn. I live in northwest Iowa. I became involved with Free Mom Hugs in the early part of 2019. That also happened to be the year my son came out as gay. He was nine years old at the time. The following year he began to question his gender identity. By the end of fourth grade, he came out as transgender. Around the same time, COVID shut down our schools. He would not return to in-person classes again until January of 2022. During this time at home, he began his transition. On his 12th birthday in 2021, we surprised him with a legal name change. We also sold our home and moved across town over that year. This changed our school assignment due to the boundaries. Iowa is an open enroll state. This meant he had the option to open enroll at a middle school with kids he had gone to elementary school with or make a fresh start at the new school. He decided on a fresh start where he wouldn’t most likely know no one. He started at his new school in January and quickly found a group of accepting friends. He does occasionally get misgendered or overhears hateful comments. His new friends are quick to correct others that misgender him. He has already become the leader of the 6th grade GSA. 

My son came out to our close family shortly after coming out to us as gay. He did the same thing when coming out as transgender. We followed his lead on letting the rest of the family know. Once his name was legally changed, he was ready for our distant family to know. We reached out and let distant family members know. Shortly after that, our Christmas cards went out and he signed his new name. 

Most of our family has been very supportive. However, a few non-supportive family members have been a challenge. Shortly after Christmas cards went out, I got a message from my husband’s grandmother. “I don’t have a grandson! I have always had and always will have a granddaughter! You are sick. You both need help for encouraging this!” She went on deadnaming him and telling me how awful we were as parents. Ironically, up until that point, she was always so proud of our job as parents because her grandson was excelling at school, involved in extracurricular activities, receiving awards, and volunteering every week. While I left the door open and offered to answer questions, there has been no contact since that conversation.

My mother used the excuse of “well my whole life I’ve called known him as….” when deadnaming or misgendering him. For several months we spent a good portion of our visits correcting her. We had a conversation as to why her continuing to do these things was harmful to him. I also noticed my son being completely exhausted and withdrawn after the visits. Now the visits don’t happen as often. While it’s difficult not having my mom around as much, it’s more important that my son feel safe, valued, and respected. 

While there is no one size fits all approach, my tip for non-supportive family members is to follow your child’s lead as much as possible. But I would also say, pay very close attention to your child’s mood and demeanor during and after a visit with a non-supportive family member. Are they enduring those visits to keep the peace? Is it a safe situation for them? Have open conversations with your child and ask if they want to be around that family member. Set and enforce boundaries where and when needed. It’s so important that we remind them that love doesn’t continually disrespect boundaries.  

I actually began advocating at my son’s school before he ever attended. At the time he planned to remain in virtual classes through graduation. In 2019 at our very first Free Mom Hug’s meeting it was brought up that though many middle schoolers wanted GSAs in the schools, they had been unable to get them started. In the summer of 2021, a local Pride group for youth started. During one of the first meetings, several children and parents spoke about how there were no GSAs in the middle schools. When I learned this was still an issue, I decided it was time to do some advocating. I emailed every counselor at every middle school in our city. I also reached out to Iowa Safe Schools for advice and clarification of laws regarding GSAs. The counselors at just one school were excited about getting a GSA started. We emailed several times over the summer. One school did not reply at all, and the other said they needed special permission from their principal. I then reached out to the Director of Equity for our school district. I informed her of the situation in our middle schools. She then sent clarification to our middle schools regarding starting GSAs and reminded them no special permission was needed. Though I had no idea at the time, this would benefit my son later. The school he now attends was the school that was eager to get one started. By the time he enrolled in January, there was already a GSA! 

Having already connected with the counselors at that middle school, I reached out to them for a tour when he decided to return to in-person classes. I also wanted clear guidance on what things would be like for him as a transgender student. We were assured his pronouns would be used. He would receive an exemption for dressing out in PE. The staff bathrooms were offered for him to use. This was acceptable to him, but I don’t believe he uses the restroom at school at all. In reaching out to the ACLU I have since learned that this is common for transgender students. I also learned the law allows him to use the restroom that matches his gender identity. If the time comes that he would like to use the boy’s bathroom at school, I will fiercely advocate for that. I will first contact the school. If I encounter pushback without resolution, I will reach out to the ACLU, Iowa Safe Schools, and take it to the school board. Living in a state that has recently passed transphobic legislation, this would be a very public battle. That’s a battle I would never expose him to without him voicing a desire for a change.

There was a time shortly after coming out as gay that my son told me he thought he was transgender. Since he had never voiced discomfort with his gender identity that I could recall, I was confused. We discussed different gender identities. He decided maybe he was nonbinary. I should have just listened and supported him. Yes, he was only 10, but he was well aware of what he was feeling. In hindsight, he began questioning his gender identity around three or four. 

Tips for those just starting this journey: 

Listen to your child. 

Find a SAFE support system! Not only for yourself but also for your kiddo. This could be friends, family, or therapists. It could be all of those people.

Educate yourself on sexuality and gender identity.

Educate yourself on advocacy resources and laws. If you don’t already know, find out who your legislators are so you can send emails when needed. Learn who is responsible for laws and rules at the state level, city level, and in your school district. Learn the process for changing the rules and laws. It’s much easier to advocate when you are knowledgeable about how to make a change.  

Join support groups. I joined some on Facebook thinking I would probably not participate very much. While I don’t post much, those groups have been an amazing resource for advocacy information. It’s also fantastic to see the positivity and love.

We are so grateful for stories like these. We would love to hear from you if you have a similar story. If you need resources as you navigate this journey, please know we are here to help. You are not alone.

Free Mom Hugs mission is to Empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation. And yes, we still give hugs.

We are always thrilled any time we get to share the stories of our amazing chapter leaders. As moms of LGBTQ+ kiddos, they know better than anyone what it’s like to raise beautiful humans while fighting for others to see them the same way they do. They are passionate and powerful, and are a priceless resource for anyone new to the journey. Especially in this time in our countries history, that fight can get exhausting, discouraging and hopeless. But when you find other moms just like you, there’s an instant bond and source for encouragement and hope. At Free Mom Hugs, we know the power of stories. They educate, celebrate and yes, even help to advocate. May you be inspired to do all three.

I’m Karen Orsulak from Knoxville, TN.  I have been a member of Free Mom Hugs for three years.  I have been a Tennessee state co-leader for a little over a year. 

Karen Orsulak, Free Mom Hugs Tennessee Chapter Leader

My daughter, Genevieve, age 19, identified as gay starting at age 11.  She lived this way until age 18, when she official told my husband and I that she was transgender.  We always suspected she was transgender since she was three years old, but she needed to be the one to tell us.  

Genevieve also knew the unfortunate laws in TN.  Regardless of how much support as parents we had, she could not start transition until age 18.  

Genevieve started hormones on March 16, 2021!! She legally changed her name on August 18, 2021. She met with Dr. Harrison Lee in NYC on Monday, March 14, 2022 for a consultation for facial feminization surgery!!

Genevieve.

As for family and friends….as parents we made a decision when she came out as gay, that people were with us or against us.  If someone did not fully accept Genevieve for who she truly is, then we cut ties.  We refuse to allow anyone to be a part of our lives who do not love and accept her. When she came out as transgender, the same was very true.  We have only had to cut ties with one very close set of friends, but our daughter comes first—ALWAYS! Our elderly parents, accept Genevieve and love her just the same!

Genevieve came out during the second semester her Senior year of high school.  We had her as a virtual student, due to COVID.  When it came to graduation, this was her first public appearance as herself!  She was excited and terrified! We asked the school to call her Genevieve when she walked the stage and they did! 

Graduation Day!

What would I have done differently….EDUCATION for myself when she was younger!  This is key!  I could have learned so much more during her youth.  This might have helped her process and helped her live her authentic self much earlier.  This may have prevented her mental health concerns as she struggled too.  

Genevieve

I would describe Genevieve as determined, authentic, outspoken and advocate.

One word to describe the Trans community—AUTHENTIC!! 

We are so grateful for stories like these. We would love to hear from you if you have a similar story. If you need resources as you navigate this journey, please know we are here to help. You are not alone.

The mission of Free Mom Hugs is to empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation. And yes, we still give hugs.

Newsroom

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
Feature

October is LGBTQ history month, and we are so excited for another month to celebrate our LGBTQ family and friends. 

We know that without those courageous allies and activists from our past, we would not have the freedom and avenues to advocate for the changes we seek today. We are also aware that we (YOU and us) are making history. Together, we are making the world an even kinder and safer place for so many to be able to be free to be their authentic selves. 

And some day, Free Mom Hugs, and all the volunteers, will be a movement the world will talk about as making an impact in the lives of so many. We have been able to change the course of many relationships, businesses, schools, churches and policies that affect the LGBTQ communities. All because of you.

We think often of those LGBTQ historical sites and have taken three of our four Free Mom Hugs tours to those significant locations. The first tour’s destination was Stonewall, New York. The birthplace of the Stonewall Riots, that began a movement of equal rights and treatment of gay and transgender persons, who had been at the center of discrimination and violence for years. It was at Stonewall that the LGBTQ community said, “enough is enough!” and began to fight for themselves, along with many other devoted and courageous allies. 

Sara at the Stonewall Inn 2017

The second Free Mom Hugs Tour was to Laramie, Wyoming. This trip was to visit the site of Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder. This devastating crime was traumatic not only for the LGBTQ+ community, but also for the parents and family who love them and feared for their safety. Matthew Shepard’s case brought awareness to the severity of the discrimination and fear many in the LGBTQ community face, but it also brought about the first hate crime legislation that to set into place protections against such violent attacks. Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard continues to educate and advocate as a fierce mama bear for so many. 

Sara and Parker Free Mom Hugs Tour to Laramie Wyoming 2018

Free Mom Hugs went to San Francisco, California on our third cross country tour. We arrived in the Castro District for Mother’s Day and we were instantly transported back in time to the Harvey Milk era and sacrifices made there for the right to be fully yourself. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in California. He was bold in his beliefs in the power of coming out to change the stigma and perceptions the public had about LGBTQ people. He worked with Gilbert Baker to create a symbol of Pride for the LGBTQ community to help folks be more visible and proud of who they are. This symbol still unites the queer communities and serves as a sign of safety and support for businesses and allies alike. And of course, it is in our logo of a mama bear hugging her rainbow cub. 

Sara and Katrina in The Castro for the Tour of Hope 2019

Just like so many other significant and important locations to the story of LGBTQ persons, we hold Oklahoma City dear to our hearts as the birthplace of Free Mom Hugs. It was here that Sara began her journey from the church to the pride parade with a homemade button that read Free Mom Hugs. With a few friends and stories of rejection, she embarked on a mission to help those who needed someone to stand in as a loving, supportive parent. And for many, the hug at Pride gave those a few moments of love and comfort that last long after the hug ends. We started out with a few parents donating money to buy young adults buy items to help such a bus pass, gas card, a plane ticket to a safe family member or a warm hotel room out of the Oklahoma cold. With a stronger foundation of support, that small group became a National Non-Profit with chapters all over the country and a logo recognized worldwide. We spoke often of our mission using the metaphor that we are “pulling kids out of the river and setting them on safe dry land.” As the movement exploded, we realized what we really needed to do was to stop the kids from being tossed in the river in the first place. And this is where we adjusted our mission to focus on education and advocacy work. 

Walking with Free Mom Hugs Oklahoma at OKC Pride 2019

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

So as we move through LGBTQ History Month, know that we are continuing the work to celebrate and empower those who will continue to make history long after the Free Mom Hugs movement is gone. Because ultimately, we would love to have a world where Free Mom Hugs is no longer needed. A place where families and communities have complete understanding of the beauty and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community makes to society. A place where they are seen as a gift to the world.

Are you ready to make history? Join us at freemomhugs.org