On Saturday, May 22, 2021, we celebrated the birthday of LGBTQ icon, Harvey Milk with our first annual Free Mom Hugs Pride Ride event. All across the country, our chapters took to the streets to create Pride Ride caravans in their cities to show love to our LGBTQ+ family and friends. They created signs, decorated their cars, and with music playing and bubbles flying, they brought joy and smiles around the country.

Pride Rides became our alternative to Pride events during the pandemic of 2020 giving hope to our chapter leaders and friends. Even though we were not allowed to hug, we could still share the movement of Free Mom Hugs from a safe, social distance. After seeing how much our leaders loved this new way to show their advocacy and unconditional love, we didn’t see a reason to end them.  So, for our first Free Mom Hug national event, we decided to celebrate the beginning of Pride Season with one big birthday party.

With over 30 Pride Rides scheduled, the event brought many of our volunteers and Chapter Leaders together for the first time in over a year. Everyone had the most amazing, uplifting time spreading love and joy down city streets, past cafe’s, around parks and through local neighborhoods. We even had Pride Rides going through Hollywood, California and The Castro in San Fransisco, where celebrations were happening to honor their hometown hero, Harvey Milk. Denise is San Francisco told us,

“My foot was shaking on the brake at one point as I lead our team. I was so full of adrenaline and love and happy feelings!”

Our SanFrancisco leader, Denise in The Castro District

There were countless stories of people smiling, cheering, clapping, even jumping in line with the caravans to follow  them to the end. One story out of Bakersfield, CA came from our Chapter leader Kelly who said,

California Leader, Kelly with her son at the Bakersfield Pride Ride.

“We had a beautiful lesbian couple see us, make a u-turn and follow us all the way to the end. They told us their mom’s weren’t accepting and we hugged them and they cried. It was just as I remembered it – so magical to give someone something they’ve been wanting for so long.”

Sara Cunningham with Norman Mayor Breea Clark

In Norman, Oklahoma, Founder Sara Cunningham was able to participate, bringing the Free Mom Hugs Jeep, with Parker, and Executive Director Karrie Fletcher. They also grabbed special guest, Mayor Breea Clark, to ride along who brought LGBTQ+ protections to the first city in our home state of Oklahoma. They had a great time driving through historic Norman and around The University of Oklahoma campus.

One thing that we weren’t expecting, was the sheer joy of our volunteers to get to see each other again and feel a sense of purpose after a tough year of limited activities. Many reported to National after the event how much their souls needed this day. Some even referred to it as a family reunion.

“I just have to say that  today’s event gave me sense of purpose I haven’t felt in a really long time.The kids there were amazing. My cup runneth over.” – Maggie

” I had several tearful, grateful moments throughout when I thought about us ALL doing this at the same time throughout the US. It was overwhelming.” – Shelley

“My Phoenix team was so excited when they realized that not only were there so many happening, but we were all starting around the same time!” – Shannon

Shannon with Sara and our Arizona chapter

“One of the best things was finally meeting some of my new volunteers in person. We have been chatting on Facebook but to give that hug and be instant friends was amazing. We ended up doing our route twice because we had so much fun! Can’t wait to do it again. I love you and can’t believe I get to be a part of such an amazing group.” – Kara

“I’m so humbled to have been a part of today and so proud of how beautifully receptive my town was.” – Jennifer

We are thrilled at the response we received from around the country. We had caravans with over 30 cars, and caravans with as little as 1 car showing the LGBTQIA+ community they are loved and celebrated with Pride! The  hashtag #FreeMomHugsPrideRide  helped us document this amazing event on social media. Do a quick search and you’ll find joy in all the incredible pictures and videos.

Our chapter leaders have been faithful to stay connected through a very difficult and challenging year. Founder Sara Cunningham is grateful that so many fierce mama bears are sharing the vision and the mission of Free Mom Hugs. Her heart would be to join every event. But since that isn’t possible, we created “Flat Sara’s” to send in Pride Ride Care Packages to our leaders!

Free Mom Hugs continues to grow across the country and we are even being recognized around the world. We really are making a difference in the lives and families of LGBTQIA+ persons. We are making the world a kinder, safer place for all.

To join the work we are doing, check out our website to donate or get involved as a volunteer:  freemomhugs.org

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

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA — When the word hugs is part of an organization’s mission statement, how does it continue to do the good work of helping parents accept their LGBTQIA+ children—and help LGBTQIA+ people accept themselves? This is the question that has come up again and again for Free Mom Hugs since March 2020, as its most public-facing activity—offering its eponymous free mom hugs at Pride events all over the country—has become unsafe since the onset of COVID-19. 

“Our goal has always been to encourage the LGBTQIA+ community we serve and send a message to the world they are worth celebrating,” said Sara Cunningham, founder of Free Mom Hugs. “This has been even more critical during the pandemic, when many people have felt so isolated. We had to get creative in our outreach efforts to continue to support the community we love so much.” 

But like so many in the pandemic era, Free Mom Hugs has adapted. This May 22, to celebrate the birthday of famed San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk—one of the first openly gay elected officials in American history—Free Mom Hugs will stage a new kind of event in 13 American states. Members of the nonprofit’s chapters in Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, California, Arkansas, Vermont, Tennessee, Virginia, New Jersey, and Oklahoma will decorate cars for socially distanced “Pride Rides” that will support and celebrate the LGBTQ community. 

“This is a way for our volunteers to engage in a COVID safe way and still show love and support to the community,” said Karrie Fletcher, Executive Director of Free Mom Hugs. “We’ve had Pride Rides in California and Kentucky in the past that have been successful.” 

Pride Rides will begin simultaneously across the country at 3 p.m. Eastern (noon Pacific) and will last approximately one hour. Zoom interviews with Free Mom Hugs founder Sara Cunningham as well as local leaders will be available in advance.

Lesbian Day of Visibility

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Created in 2008, this day showcases women-loving-women, providing a platform for lesbian role models to speak out on the issues facing female-identified sexual minorities. This day, alongside other queer celebration days, is still and integral part of moving forwards to create an intersectional society where all are treated equally and fairly.” queer events.ca

At Free Mom Hugs, we celebrate our lesbian contributors to the movements that bring about visibility and equality across the country. We have been fortunate enough to have two lesbians on staff who get to be their true selves at work, at home and socially. Myself (Katrina Kalb) and our Executive Director Karrie Fletcher, are both in the lesbian community and are lucky to be working behind the scenes to help make the lifesaving mission of Free Mom Hugs spread around the world. We have the full support from our Founder, Sara Cunningham and all of the proud parents, allies and friends who are a part of the Free Mom Hugs family. We also know that we are standing on the backs of so many lesbians who came before us. Without their contributions and sacrifice, we know we would not be here today. And we know the weight of responsibility we carry for the young lesbians who will follow behind us on our paths. We hope we can clear the way even more for them so they can contribute their talents and gifts to the world without any hindrances placed on them because of their gender or sexuality.

Karrie Fletcher is our new Executive Director at Free Mom Hugs and making waves getting the movement to spread even further and literally change the world.

“I came out as a lesbian in 2016 after spending many years trying to change my sexuality because of my Christian faith. I now find myself 5 years later leading a non-profit organization that advocates for the equality and inclusion of the LGBTQ community. My experience at Free Mom Hugs allows me the opportunity to hear the incredible stories of parents coming to terms with their child’s sexuality and their own journey of acceptance. My mom also came from a place of not accepting me as a lesbian years ago to a place where she now loves my fiance Mandy as her own child. Unfortunately, many people in our community don’t have that same experience. We also hear many stories from our community whose parents reject them and those they love. This is why the work of Free Mom Hugs is so important and why I’m so proud to be a part of it. We show up when other parents won’t.”

Karrie Fletcher Executive Director Free Mom Hugs

Katrina Kalb, founding board member, and current Program Director and Social Media Manager at Free Mom Hugs

“I can honestly say that without Free Mom Hugs, I would not be in a place today where I am not only comfortable calling myself a lesbian. But I am actually proud to identify as such, and to be in the same family with some absolutely amazing women. It wasn’t that long ago that the word “lesbian” was a bad word, and a part of something I tried to pray away. I was taught by the church that even saying the word gave that “spirit” power in my life. Then as I came out, my journey led me to a place of being comfortable calling myself a gay woman, but lesbian was still uncomfortable and complicated to own. With time, being behind the scenes of the Free Mom Hugs movement all the activism, awareness, and yes, all the hugs has transformed me. Now, I see the beauty, power and holiness of this family of women, and can proudly claim to be a lesbian, in America, working for a world changing nonprofit that is paving the way for equality for ALL women.”

Katrina and Sara on the Free Mom Hugs Tour 2019

Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist. She was a self-described Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet who dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, and homophobia.

Audre Lorde

Ellen Kahn, Senior Director of Programs and Partnerships and the Human Rights Campaign

“I am in awe of the breadth and depth of diversity within the LGBTQ+ community, and the way in which we each claim and express our unique identities.  I came out as a lesbian in my teens, and built my activist muscles during the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that took far too many members of our community.  It makes me very proud to be carrying on that activism 35 years later, still an out lesbian–and mother of two, and still working to remove the barriers to inclusive healthcare, and to end anti-LGBT bias and stigma. Doing this work with folks across the LGBTQ spectrum—queer, bi, pan, cis, trans, nonbinary, and so many more, is a sign of progress and strengthens our movement.  The contributions of all of us, including lesbians, will pave the way for the next generation of LGBTQ folks to live their best lives.” 

Ellen Kahn, Time to Thrive, Human Rights Campaign

Anne Kroneneberg is an American political and LGBT rights activist. She is best known for being Harvey Milk’s campaign manager during his historic San Francisco Board of Supervisors campaign in 1977 and his aide while he held office.

Anne Kronenberg campaigning with Harvey Milk

Allie Shinn, Executive Director Freedom Oklahoma

“When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, finding the term “lesbian” was the deepest breath of fresh air. For the first time, I had a full identity that aided me in expressing myself, both to me and to the world. I felt whole. I felt seen. I felt home. I’ve been an activist for as long as I can remember. I was born with so much fight and no where to put it but into the world that I believe with my whole heart can and must be better. This calling is lifelong but there are clear seasons to how I approach the work. We are always learning, growing, becoming more whole, imagining and reimagining the world we hope to build. Coming out as a lesbian created the most palatable shift to date. People in this movement, lesbians, queer friends, bi, pan, cis, trans, non binary folks have gently led me over and over to this truth: the work that matters the most is the work to which we bring our whole selves. It hurts more to work in that way, but it matters more too. I am a lesbian and I am an activist. Those identities can never be divorced from one another. For me, they mean the same thing. Today with my community I celebrate lesbians, those who are out and those who are not. I celebrate too every single beautiful member of my LGBTQ2S+ community. We’re a movement, all of us together. Thank you for welcoming me home.”

Allie Shinn at OKC Pride 2019

Angela Davis is an America politic activist, philosopher, academic and author. She is the author of over ten books on class, feminism, race and the US prison system.

Angela Davis

Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago, IL, is the first openly lesbian, African-America woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the United States. As a former federal prosecutor, and political outsider, she won her election by a landslide, stating “We are going to transform our city. No one person, no one leader, even if it is a woman, can change the city alone.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

There are so many amazing lesbians in our history. We encourage you to spend some time and get to know their stories and be inspired by them. The freedoms we enjoy now, we owe to their fight and representation throughout history. Their example of courage will be the path for young people to follow as they create their own stories and impact on the world. Thank a Lesbian, today!

We are so excited to announce our new merchandise store on our website! During the Covid Pandemic, we were forced to consolidate and sell a limited selection of Free Mom Hugs gear. Sara and Katrina were busy every T-Shirt Tuesday fulfilling and delivering merchandise orders to the local Post Office and UPS. And while we were thrilled to be able to provide limited items during this time, we are ecstatic to offer an expanded selection just in time for Pride 2021!

Sara packing up T-shirts in the Free Mom Hugs office

The message and movement started with a plastic, handmade button. As you might know, founder Sara Cunningham pinned that button to her sundress when she attended her second OKC Pride. For her first Pride event, she went with intentions to pray for the folks in attendance. But she instantly fell in love with this “spirit filled” community and asked God’s forgiveness for being so mislead in her assumptions. From that moment on, she knew she wanted to hug everyone! There were so many stories of rejection that day but also stories of joy from receiving hugs. She knew in those moments that there was a need and she had the arms to meet those needs. One of her first encounters was from a young lesbian woman who stated that she hadn’t received a hug from her mom in 4 years. Sara’s response was:

“I’m a mom. I have arms. And I won’t let go until you do.”

Sara covered head to toe in glitter, and her homemade button

That was the “spark” that led Sara and her friends to start Free Mom Hugs. Soon, buttons and banners followed and then a wheel cover for the Jeep. The official Free Mom Hugs logo was created and the power of the slogan on our T-shirts began to explode.

San Fransisco Tour of Hope 2019

The T-shirts we wear is our billboard of unconditional love. When someone wears a FMH t-shirt, they are saying very proudly that they are safe and love the LGBTQ+ community. The wearer either has a child they love or they are a passionate ally willing to stand up for those who have been rejected. In return, for those in the LGBTQ+ family, when they see one of our shirts they instantly see a safe haven and open arms if they need a safe place to land.

Free Mom Hugs SoCal

At Pride events, our shirts identify us as a force. When people wear them to the grocery store or on an airplane, they make for great conversations. They bring joy and show LGBTQ+ persons that there are people who love them and celebrate them. We are proud of them and even just for a moment, they get the chance to feel the pride of a loving and supportive parent.

Free Mom Hugs Oklahoma City Pride 2019

Our shirts have also been our main fundraiser for the organization over the years. We believe that we would not be a National non-profit organization without our first fundraisers which involved the sale of our t-shirts. Local businesses in our home state of Oklahoma sponsored our shirts for Pride events including the Free Mom Hugs tour. The movement began to spread from city to city and state to state.

Through the highs and lows of the past couple of years, our t-shirts have been the consistent way to spread Free Mom Hugs love. Even in 2020, when we lost our in person events and our ability to hug, we were able to create a virtual tour and Pride 2020 shirts…even if it was with in their Jammie bottoms zoom calls! We’ve heard stories of teachers wearing their shirts and nurses sporting them as well. Even a pandemic can’t stop the power of Free Mom Hugs t-shirts!

Parker in our Virtual Tour 2020 Tshirt

It’s perfect timing now as we come out of the pandemic and gradually get back into in person events to unveil our new merchandise collection. We are all about visibility, education, and conversation and our shirts bring about all three components of our mission.

Your purchase does so much more than just support the organization. You are helping make the world a kinder, safer place by spreading unconditional love. Visit freemomhugs.org to see all the great things we are doing and to get your own Free Mom Hugs gear to wear!

Founder Sara Cunningham

Bisexual Health Awareness Month

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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

Sara Cunningham’s Anniversary

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 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.

I Did Not Grow Up Gay

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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.”

The Spark

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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

The Equality Act 2021

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The Equality Act is federal legislation that will protect our LGBTQ+ loved ones from discrimination in nearly all areas of life. Everyone deserves a fair chance to experience the freedoms provided for all citizens to enjoy life without fear of harassment or discrimination based on their existence.

The Equality Act would provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, including in employment, housing, credit, education, health care, federally funded programs and jury service.

The Act would amend existing civil rights law(s) to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics. Free Mom Hugs believes that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is something to celebrate and not a flaw, sin to be corrected or healed. We believe that at the core of all faiths, discrimination would not be a welcomed practice. But we have seen the power of fear and ignorance in how our LGBTQ+ family and friends are treated in their churches, schools, work places and in their own homes. It will take all of us to bring love and education to this fight. Passage of the Equality Act in the Senate will indeed be a battle. Parents and other ally voices, especially people of faith who are parents of LGBTQ+ loved ones, will be critical in this fight. 

We all need to come together. Won’t you join us?

Free Mom Hugs with Freedom Oklahoma at the Oklahoma State Capital

The Equality Act and its updates are not only important for LGBTQ+ persons but also for women, people with disabilities, people of color and other marginalized groups. These updates, would strengthen other protections that have not been amended since the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. They are all connected for human rights, just as we are all connected. 

John Lewis refers to Ubuntu in his book, Across that Bridge which in Zulu means, “I am because you are. And you are, because I am.” It is a phrase filled with oneness and humanity and is why The Equality Act is crucial. Even those who don’t understand the journey of an LGBTQ+ person, we should all be able to agree that every human deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. And the rights to enjoy those freedoms given to all American citizens.

Discrimination is wrong in any form. It pits us against each other, which actually makes us enemies. But today, we still have discrimination in employment, housing, public places, education on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

We need to pass the Equality Act!

Join Sara and Free Mom Hugs in supporting the Equality Act.

Free Mom Hugs founder, Sara Cunningham has been working tirelessly (literally losing sleep) researching all she can about the Equality Act and what we can all do to prepare to speak, call or write in order to get this crucial, life saving act passed. She has seen the power of personal stories and the power of a relentless mama bear. Her hair “lit on fire” when she realized her straight son had more rights than her gay son. This was the beginning of her activism and her reason. And we know so many of you who also have a reason that lights your hair on fire too. Sara and our State Chapter Leaders will be getting educated on the Equality Act and using their voices to create long lasting change for our LGBTQ+ families. We will be keeping you updated on our social media channels, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on the latest developments, and what you can do. This is an amazing, historical moment we will all have the opportunity to participate in to help provide a kinder, safer world full of love and life for ALL.  

Sara’s midnight thoughts and talking points.

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

Transgender Valentine’s Banquet

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The Free Mom Hugs Transgender Valentine’s Banquet is held once a year in Oklahoma City, OK around Valentine’s Day. Founder of Free Mom Hugs, Sara Cunningham, created this event five years ago when she became aware of how often transgender persons miss out on those enjoyable, fancier events. In 2015, while seeking support and guidance at a PFLAG meeting, Sara accidentally found herself in a meeting for transgender folks. She realized she was in the wrong meeting and excused herself, but the members of the group insisted she stay. And so began a beautiful friendship.

Transgender Valentine’s Banquet 2017

As she says, ” I knew instantly, I was in a room of beautiful and misunderstood people. As I left, I sat in my jeep and considered all the stories I had heard, and cried hot tears. I wanted to invite my new friends over for a family style spaghetti dinner so we could just sit and commune together in a safe place. I also heard so many express a desire to be their full, authentic selves but had so many limitations on how they could express that. I asked if it would be OK for me to make little goodie bags of lipstick, nail polish and makeup? To which I heard a resounding, YES! Thus began the seeds of the first banquet.”

Sara’s goodie bag of makeup

Free Mom Hugs provides this event for our transgender community as a time to dress up, make special plans with friends and loved ones and to be free in their full authentic selves. Many did not have this opportunity while growing up or even as adults who came out late in life. This may be their only opportunity to be fully themselves.

Sara and her husband Rex dancing and celebrating at the 2020 Banquet

The banquet is one of our annual traditions that we always look forward to planning. The event is catered by an LGBTQIA+ business that is affirming or owned by people who are in the community. We have a local DJ for music and dancing and a photo booth for fun memories. It is important to us for the transgender community to see all the businesses who are safe and supportive to them. They can also be connections for job references, medical practitioners, and legal assistance. Sara typically opens the evening and we have a keynote speaker who is a transgender person from the community. We have table sponsors and private donors who support this event so we can offer it free for the transgender community. Because of the ignorance surrounding the transgender community, some struggle financially due to employment discrimination. The event is not open to the public but the transgender community attends for free. We want our friends to be surrounded by their peers and to feel completely safe and protected. The Free Mom Hugs board of directors is there for set up and tear down and to provide support. We are also blessed with volunteers from other organizations who helped make the event a success and enjoyable for all.

Photo Booth fun at the 2019 Banquet

We were so fortunate to have a banquet in February of 2020 before the pandemic hit. It was such an amazing evening and we look back often to enjoy those in-person memories. We had high hopes for 2021 and to get back to normal. But as we have done with other events this year, we are creating a “plan B” so we can continue celebrating the communities we love so much.

Sara’s signature selfie at the 2020 Banquet

This year, Parker Cunningham has spearheaded a virtual event to keep us all connected and the tradition going. Parker’s heart this year has been to focus on bringing attention to transgender artists and musicians who have been hit especially hard due to the pandemic. His desire to show the gifts and talents of this community has been the driving force to this year’s virtual event. With this season also being a time of awakening to racial injustice and discrimination, he also wants to showcase transgender persons of color. We see the value of representation and stories as we work to alleviate discrimination based on fear and ignorance. We hope this beautiful event will not only be an enjoyable evening of entertainment for our transgender family and friends, but also a moment when the rest of the world will see how amazing and valuable this community is to all of us.

Your 2021 Valentines Day invitation

Join us Sunday, February 14 at 7:00 pm CST for an hour long program of entertainment, messages of hope and inspiration, and loads of Valentine’s Day love. The show will be visible on our Free Mom Hugs Facebook page and on our website. We can’t wait to see you!