Feature

Proud Mama Bear

Free Mom Hugs founder, Sara Cunningham celebrates her birthday this month, and we at Free Mom Hugs can’t help but celebrate all she has done for the organization, but also for families, and the LGBTQIA+ communities as well. Sara works tirelessly being a supportive presence for those needing someone to talk to, come out to, she even has been known to talk to unsupportive parents when a heartbroken person needs some help communicating.

Her passion remains that parents and LGBTQIA+ kids have authentic relationships. She is honest and vulnerable in regards to her own regrets in her reactions when Parker tried to come out. And she spends her days, trying to be the mom now, that she needed to be back then. She has not only changed so many lives, but there is no doubt along the way she has saved lives.

Her passionate work with Free Mom Hugs is changing the social norm in how the world sees the LGBTQIA+ community. And how this same community sees themselves.

Now We Get To Celebrate Sara

As we celebrate Sara’s birthday, and how grateful we all are for her being on this planet with us, we are doing something a little special.

Sara will be 57 on Sept 9, and to honor her we want 57 new recurring donors to join the movement and be a supporting force to continue driving our mission.

We need monthly, recurring donors(click here) to help us plan for our education programs, advocacy work, and the support of Chapters across the country. For every $25/month or more commitment, we will send you our Special Edition, 2020 Pride T-shirt. We are so grateful for your contributions and want you to know, every amount matters a great deal to us.

We value your time, talent and treasure as we all work together to make the world a kinder, safer place for all.

Sara making birthday wishes

Making Changes One Hug At A Time

Sara has been keeping the mission of Free Mom Hugs going during this complicated time of Covid 19, social distancing and quarantines. She continues to educate and advocate for the LGBTQIA+ communities through podcasts, GSA’s, and doing corporate sensitivity trainings. Sara has had more opportunities to speak at colleges as well this year.

It’s been wonderful for her to be a part of the next generation getting educated on LGBTQ history, as she recaps the past Free Mom Hugs Tours. She has been able to explain Stonewall and Marsha P Johnson’s influence, the courage and tenacity of Harvey Milk, and the heart break of Matthew Shepards murder which led to the nation’s first hate crime legislation. She has been able to use this time to educate on how much progress has been made, but also empower everyone to continue pressing on for the work that still needs to be done.

Sara and Parker joining Norman North High School GSA

Standing In

Sara is also still able to officiate weddings and be a stand-in as well. Many have been virtual experiences, or safe and socially distanced. But the need for support has not gone away and Sara gladly steps up when others chose to step out. For her, these are bittersweet moments, as she takes the opportunity as an honor, but knows and feels the pain of couples when a parent should be there celebrating this special day as well.

Snail Mail

And we all have enjoyed a new way to connect with Sara: Snail Mail! With so many Pride events cancelled, Sara has been able to reach out to folks with phone calls and cards, to encourage, comfort and support so many of you. And she has received so much of the same in return as she receives your letters and is so inspired by your stories.

Sara’s weekly Snail Mail videos

Care Packages

This month, Sara was able to be a part of our Care Package campaign. What better way to to give a long distance hug, then through sending a care package. We have received so many wonderful messages from the recipients and how much it meant to them to feel thought of and remembered. One special instance came late one evening when Sara was home cooking her beef stroganoff for dinner. Someone received their care package and was cooking the very same recipe Sara included in the care package recipe book. They were able to share a phone call, share cooking tips and talk together. As Sara says, ” It was like having dinner with a friend.”

Better together

Because of all of our wonderful donors we have been able to accomplish this great work. And finding 57 new recurring donors to join the movement will help us continue to grow.

We can’t lie, this has been a trying year for all non-profits, but we want to fight to be here for the long haul. And we can’t do it without you.

Our 2020 Special Edition Pride Shirt is a little thank you from us to you for becoming a recurring donor at $25/month and more.

We are so grateful for your contributions and want you to know, every amount matters a great deal to us. We value your time, talent and treasure as we all work together to make the world a kinder, safer place for all.

Sara and Parker in our Special Edition 2020 shirts
Feature

We know so many parents, students and teachers are struggling right now with what to make of the 2020 school year. We want to send all of you virtual hugs for the challenges ahead. There is so much stress equated with the opening of schools, the decisions to be virtual or in person, health and safety, masks or no masks. The list goes on and on for the things that can be anxiety producing in this unique school year.

But anxiety is not unique to the LGBTQIA+ student. The first day of school, in normal circumstances is filled with insecurity, trepidation, sleepless nights and upset stomachs. For students who are “out”, they know already who they will have to battle when they return. Fellow students they have been bullied from in the past, or online, will be around every corner, or in every zoom. They also know which teachers are supportive and safe, and which ones are not. They may be having to figure out which bathrooms they are allowed to use, or if its easier and safer to just hold it until they get home.

Parker Cunningham Remembers

Parker Cunningham Photo: WithUInMind Photography

The public school system, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was a unique environment for an LGBTQIA+ kid like me. In some ways, the system was progressing. Some schools were allowing GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) groups to meet, where you could generally “exist” as a gay or lesbian student or teacher but the overall terrain was still very uncharted. Many of us experienced, and continue to experience, rejection, abuse and other forms of bullying from our families, our churches, our teachers and our peers. School was one of the few places I could just breathe. There were a few educators in my life who provided safe spaces for me to be me, to share my authentic self with the world, all sides of it. They accepted me when my own family was not yet ready to.


The terrain is still rocky for LGBTQIA+ students but I am hopeful because of the teachers I had who affirmed me, because of school staff that knows the power of a rainbow button or a sticker, because of my brother who is now an educator and an ally, because of my trans friend who keeps applying for teaching jobs so trans kids can see themselves in every facet of this world; We can teach each other to save each other. They have all taught me that. – Parker Cunningham

The Power of a Rainbow

LGBTQIA+ students are always looking for hints, clues, and pathways to safe spaces and safe people.  These hints are nuggets found on classroom doors, desks, and posters on walls. When a student sees a rainbow sticker on a classroom door as they enter, they breathe a little deeper when they walk in.

Rainbow pencils and pens in a coffee mug on a teacher’s desk will drop tense shoulders down an inch or so. Casual Fridays when staff can wear jeans and their favorite Pride, unicorn, or Free Mom Hug shirt will make a typically quiet student utter a few trembling words or may even deliver a crooked and reserved smile, but a smile nonetheless. The rainbow, for the LGBTQIA+ student can be a life-jacket, a security blanket, or the feeling of a hug without even receiving one.

Teachers are Superheroes

Jan Pezant and Parker Cunningham

Our very own board member, Jan Pezant is a superhero educator, and knows even in the youngest of students, the power of an understanding, non-judgmental adult.

Jan writes,

“Fifth grade can be a difficult time for a child to navigate changes in their bodies and feelings they are experiencing. Peer pressure and the desire to conform can be intense. I have had several students during my 19 years of teaching that I suspected would be in the LGBTQ+ community, but one particular student comes to mind. He was so confident in who he was at an early age. He was not afraid to be himself even if it was different than his fellow classmates. I told him often that he was awesome and I loved his fearless spirit.  I knew that it wouldn’t always be easy and he may be hurting and scared behind the brave face he put on for others. I would find ways to cheer him on without bringing attention to something he wasn’t r ready share with myself, others or maybe not even with himself yet. Giving him permission to be who he was, and to feel that me and my classroom were a safe place, was in my opinion, vital.”

Jan’s acceptance, love and even celebration was the example that other students and teachers followed. And we know not only changed that one student’s life, but the ripple effect of such love is immeasurable.

We Thank You

Sara Cunningham is grateful for affirming teachers.

Teachers, you are faced with what may likely be the most challenging year of your career. We, at Free Mom Hugs, value the role you play and the sacrifices you are making. We are aware that many of you may be the most affirming adult an LGBTQIA+ child may have in their life. Home may not be safe, affirming or remotely celebratory of their authentic selves. But you are.

So, in the midst of all that the world is asking of you right now, we thank you for your decisions to be aware of your students, and have that little rainbow flag next to the stapler on your desk. And the fact that you give a wink behind your rainbow face mask to that student that needs to know you know what they aren’t ready to tell anyone yet. We are grateful that you ask for and respect your students’ pronouns, and offer to share your own, or even wear a pronoun button with your name tag.

We thank you for talking about LGBTQIA+ icons and historical figures, and the impact they make on the world. Because you know, like we know, LGBTQIA+ kids need to know, they are loved, they belong, and that the world needs their contribution. We are striving to make the world a kinder, safer place for LGBTQIA+ kids. And we know you are in the fight with us. You are truly on the front lines. And we couldn’t do it without you.

Resources

Please let us know how we can support you better. Feel free to contact us if you need resources in your area for a student, or materials from our website to help understand and educate yourself or fellow educators. If your school has a GSA and you would like us to zoom in for a visit of support or sharing stories, we are ready and willing. We are in this together. Until we can hug again…

Feature
Stillwater, OK Pride 2019 with Sara and Parker

I am so excited to get to share my story, the behind the scenes look, of my involvement with Free Mom Hugs. This movement, and these people, have altered my life in more ways to count. And my experience over the past 4 years has been more life-changing than most people get to experience in a lifetime. Some of you may see my name more than my face as the person who has answered emails, ran our social media sites, and has had the honor of being Sara Cunningham’s right- hand person. But how I got here is a whole other story.

Married to Jesus

I spent the majority of my adult life in ministry. I was a Chaplain and counselor at a private Christian school, a youth pastor, worship leader, and a full-time, married to Jesus, ministry workaholic, while I battled the lie that my sexuality was not just a sin, but the worst of sins. My 20’s and 30’s were spent battling the storms of recurring temptation, whether by prayer and fasting, casting out of demons, countless books, seminars, and videos, and finally enlisting myself as a 25 year -old into the dangerous and deadly practice of Conversion Therapy.

For those of you who do not know, Conversion Therapy is premised on the false notion that your sexuality or gender identity is a mental illness that should be cured. Conversion therapists use a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic, or physically painful stimuli to make their patients associate negative responses to their identities and thus be revolted by themselves enough to change. The American Psychiatric determined in 1973 that homosexuality was not a mental illness, but a normal variant of human nature. If you want to hear my personal story you can listen to this interview.

My journals from years of Conversion Therapy

Praying the Gay Away

My experiences varied from the regular Sunday, after church, going to the front of the church for prayer, to regular special prayer sessions in church leaders homes where I would sit in a chair in the middle of a circle while members would lay hands on me and “cast out” all the things from my family history. The list was long likes/dislikes, personality, my parents sins, movies I watched, records I listened to, sports I played, to the clothes I wore, all the things these people saw that were to blame for me being gay. My favorite Eddie Bauer flannel shirts and hiking boots had to be burned. My Stevie Nicks albums had to be thrown in the dumpster.  I went to great lengths, including self-harm and induced vomiting to rid myself of this grossness inside of me that would keep me from ever being successful in ministry or pleasing to God.

I eventually was fired from ministry during a scandal in my church in which anyone who “dealt” with being gay was to be eradicated from the community. So, even though I was in Conversion Therapy to “fix” my same-sex attraction, I had shared with staff and counselors of this “thorn in my flesh” and when the time came to clean the church of a “spirit of perversion” that had taken hold, I had to go. I was devastated. I spent many years battling depression, suicide attempts, and reconciling whether I could be gay and a Christian or if I had to pick one, and only one. Since I had lost everything in my faith and ministry work, I came to the conclusion, that I couldn’t escape that I was gay anymore. In 2008, I officially came out of the closet. But I certainly wasn’t going to go to any Pride parades or gay bars. My internalized homophobia was still a strong force that kept me from doing any of the “gay things” I had been told for so long were evil.

Who is This Lady?

2017 Tour Kickoff Party

In 2016, I came across a book called How We Sleep at Night, written by Sara Cunningham. And heard that this woman was in Oklahoma City and known as the Hugging Lady. I was planning a fundraiser for a food pantry at a local, open and affirming church, Church of the Open Arms, and thought that a Hugging Lady might be a good addition to our big event. So, I contacted Sara and of course she agreed to have a table set up with books and buttons that said Free Mom Hugs on them. I watched in awe as people were drawn to her like a magnet, and she listened and interacted to each person as if they were the only one there.

I can assure you now, that is how Sara really is.

As the event got underway, I snuck out to have my own one on one time with Sara. Let me just say, if you haven’t had Sara hold your face in her hands, look into your eyes and tell you how wonderful you are, and that nothing is wrong with you, you need to, I would prescribe it to ever single LGBTQ+ person I know. It was in those moments that I knew, I had met her for a reason. It was also in those moments I offered something to her that would change my life forever.

Sara mentioned her group of moms, called Free Mom Hugs and how she was needing help with organizing and running the Facebook page. Well, I had been running my own social media business, but was also recovering from the grief after the death of a dear friend and soul mate. I jumped at the chance and offered to help her run her Facebook page and get her set up with Instagram and Twitter, too. We instantly connected and could read each other’s minds, finish each other’s sentences and knew something divine was going on here. I became Sara’s unofficial assistant, and we worked in tandem spreading the Free Mom Hugs message to those who needed it. Eventually we would make Free Mom Hugs an official 501c3 non-profit, create a board, mission statement and share resources to faith, business and civic leaders here in Oklahoma. Sara became the face of the movement, and a mother to many. She inspired a flood of other mothers, fathers, friends and family to do the same.

The Post Heard Around the World

July 2018 was the beginning of the Free Mom Hugs movement taking hold of a nation. Sara, known for officiating same sex weddings, had grown weary and frustrated for all the couples enduring the pain of rejection when parents and family refused to come to what is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives, their wedding. After seeing the pain on another Bride’s face when her mother didn’t show up to her special day, Sara made a post about being a Stand-In:

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

The post went viral, and Sara had to look up what viral meant. But I knew exactly what it meant, and we went into warp speed. Thousands of emails were pouring in. (Yes, at one point, I was getting 50 emails per hour). All from people saying, they wanted to offer to be a ‘Stand In’ in their area. People couldn’t believe parents could actually reject their children in this way. It was the most amazing outpouring of universal love, one after the other. As I stayed up, night after night, personally reading each message and responding to each story of personal connection, I began to realize how much I was being healed, and loved on at the same time. My internalized homophobia was getting washed away by this flood of not only acceptance, but celebration. The message was consistent, there’s nothing wrong with you. And thousands of strangers around the country and across the world agreed.

Can We Talk About Hugs?

Speaking at Church of the Open Arms

One of the messages I acquired in my experience with the church and my sexuality, was that I was dangerous. The “spirit” inside of me causing me to stumble, was also dangerous to those around me, like a spiritual virus I could spread. This left me on constant guard of any sensations on my body of being touched. I became someone overly cautious of who hugged me, and who I hugged back. Honestly, those feelings still linger today. That gay people are dangerous for your kids. My fear and obsession that someone would think I could be a pedophile led me to constantly exist in fear of myself and keep a distance with anyone I may accidentally hurt because of what existed inside of me.

For the Love of Mama Bears

Mama Bear Gathering Nashville 2019

Enter the mama bears, so many mama bears who began to show me that I deserved to be hugged, there was nothing wrong with someone hugging me, or me hugging someone else. I cannot describe the monumental emotional healing that has come from the countless hugs I have received over the past four years. I am convinced with each hug, a lie had to leave. And I became more and more free to be myself, and that was a good thing. And when you see a good thing, you have to share a good thing, right? As we were getting a flood of emails from moms asking to be a part of the movement, I was also able to refer and connect them to this amazing group of women in the private, online Facebook group, The Real Mama Bears. This group is where Sara found her safe place to process and grow, when there were 250 members. The group has grown to over 10,000 moms, and they continue to be the moms who step in when others step out. I often think of how my life would be different had I had a group of moms surround me and support me like this 30 years ago. But the good news is, they surround me with love all day, every day.

Free Mom Hugs Tour

2019 Tour of Hope

I have been so lucky to help plan and orchestrate all of the Free Mom Hugs Tours. I cannot explain the power these cross-country road trips have. The tours are typically 10 cities, with a Mother’s Day destination of an historical site for the LGBTQIA+ communities. They spread love to every LGBTQIA+ person who sees or hears about them and they educate and empower parents and allies to continue to fight for a kinder, safer world for their friends and family. In 2019, I was fortunate enough to join Sara on the Tour of Hope to San Francisco and the Castro in honor of Harvey Milk. I was with Sara for speaking engagements, sharing my experience with Conversion Therapy as we work to bring awareness and get this dangerous and deadly practice banned in the United States. After each speaking engagement, I was welcomed with so much love, and grief for what I had gone through. It made me realize even more how wrong it all was. And how I never deserved what I, and so many, have gone through.

2020 Vision

Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour 

I have been with Sara and Free Mom Hugs through some amazing moments. We all had high expectations for what the year 2020 was going to be. A Tour to Washington DC during an election year, Jamie Lee Curtis and the release of the movie based on Sara’s memoir, the Mama Bear Documentary was going to come out, and our amazing 50 Chapters were ready for a Pride Season like no other.

Well, as you know, 2020 surprised us all. And as Executive Director, the pressure was on me to figure out how we could adjust ourselves when our name and mission are all based on in-person events and physical touch. And then I realized our mission (…to empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation…)  didn’t have to change at all. Just our delivery had to be altered. We began making plans for our first Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour! It was such a challenge, but we had the most amazing team that made the weeklong event an incredible experience. And kept us all connected when we were are feeling the pain of social distance and quarantines. We are now busy scheduling zoom meetings, and keeping Sara busy with interviews, podcasts, zoom education and sensitivity trainings. And of course, still keeping us all connected and feeling the love on our social media channels. We are truly one big family and we are better together.

Change Is In The Air

Jamie Lee Curtis visits OKC

It has truly been the best season of my life to have been a part of Free Mom Hugs during the first, formative years. We have had some breathtaking highs, and some devastating lows, but we have survived them all because our foundation is LOVE. I have been so lucky to have seen and been a part of numerous Pride parades, building chapters in every state, getting to know these outstanding humans, meeting celebrities and seeing joy radiate from folks who meet Sara. I have been given the gift to sit next to Sara and hear her on numerous interviews, podcasts and Skype calls from India to Australia, Germany to Canada. I’ve been able to connect LGBTQ+ folks to the resources they need for help. And to direct moms and parents to the support groups that are literally saving families, and saving lives. I’ve seen the country from the passenger seat of Jeep, driven by a woman with her hair on fire. And I have found love.  

I know my heart was waiting to be healed so I was ready to be me and receive it. As Executive Director, I have grown so much, with the support of the most selfless board of directors. And with their continued support, I am handing the Executive Director reigns over to the wonderful, Karrie Fletcher, to take the organization to even greater heights, and farther reach. I will still be fully devoted to my Free Mom Hugs family as their Program Director and Social Media Manager. And of course, stay with my first love, being Sara’s assistant. I couldn’t feel prouder to be a part of an organization that has been on the forefront of social change and equality. And the healing of hearts, families and souls. I am an example of the power of Free Mom Hugs and will forever be grateful.

Okc Pride 2018

I’m Erin McKennah – Ritter, mom of 2 kids, 13 and 9, born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and I am still here. I am approaching the end of my graduate program and – fingers crossed – I will be a licensed clinical mental health counselor soon!

Becoming Fully Affirming

Someone being LGBTQIA+ was never something that was an issue while I was growing up. I had friends who were gay and that was that – not an issue. It wasn’t until I found faith that I began to judge and doubt my acceptance of the communities. I tried to justify my beliefs towards my LGBTQIA+ friends by comparing their sex before marriage to heterosexual sex before marriage, in that it was all a sin – I don’t believe that anymore.

A few years ago, when the evangelical church began to use bible verses to harm immigrants, I began to question my faith. I have since left the church and consider myself an evangelical, and now fully affirm my LGBTQIA+ friends and family and I am still questioning my faith. I started to become active and more outspoken about my support for the LGBTQIA+ communities when I started grad school about three years ago. I plan to serve the communities as a mental health therapist once I graduate.

Joining the Free Mom Hugs Family

I first heard about Free Mom Hugs when Jen Hatmaker posted about her experience at a pride event and how hugging people and coming home covered in glitter filled her with so much joy. I reached out to Free Mom Hugs national to inquire about volunteer opportunities in my state, but we didn’t have state chapters at that time. About 9 months later I discovered Free Mom Hugs – Georgia and got involved at the state level.

I was new to leadership when someone posted in our leader’s online group that they had an extra ticket and bed for the Wild Goose Festival. 2019 was my year of yeses so I jumped at the opportunity to go to North Carolina in July to meet some fellow Free Mom Huggers. Little did I know that I would be bunking up with Sara Cunningham, Liz Dyer, Robin Parker, and Heather Robinson!

Sara, Heather, me, Liz, and Robin

At the end of our weekend, Heather claimed out loud that we would be asked to join the board and when applications were being accepted that fall I applied – never imagining that I would be asked to join. Not only did I get asked to join the board, but I also have the pleasure of leading the Chapter Committee which means that I get to walk alongside all of our state leaders. We would love to have you join us and all of our amazing volunteers in our state chapters.

Secret Proposal

In October 2019, our state chapter had the privilege of helping plan a surprise engagement at Atlanta Pride. While being a part of Free Mom Hugs brings me joy daily, this was a mountain top experience.

A young woman reached out to us to ask if we could help her propose to her girlfriend. We said yes immediately and so began our plan. One of the coolest things about this is that I went to high school with the mom of the woman who proposed! You can watch the exciting proposal here.

Jennifer O’Rourke, Adrienne Levesque (mama of the bride), me, Kelli Blundell (Georgia Chapter Leader), Sara, Andenia Pressley. Photography by Katie Pitts at KP Photography. 
Becky Kanouff and Alicia Nicole – Tha Happy Couple
Adrienne Levesque(mom of the bride), Sara Cunningham, Erin Ritter

Tell us something unique about yourself:

When I was in my 20’s I went to court to legally change my last name to a name that I made up with the help of my maternal grandfather, McKennah is that name ☺.

Guest blogger Cristina Spencer is an author, activist and certified Life Coach. She is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and recently appeared on our Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour. Cristina joined Sara Cunningham and Kimberly Shappley on one of our most successful panels regarding parents of transgender children.

For years before she wrote to her employers to inform them that she was transgender, Aimee Stephens lived two separate lives. During the day, she dressed as a man and served grieving families as a funeral director. At home she dressed in alignment with her identity as a woman, a transgender woman. She wrote to her employers in July 2013 after surviving years of despair to inform them she could no longer endure the agony of appearing in the world as someone she was not. She had no idea this one simple action would be her first step toward transforming the rights of transgender Americans across the country.

I first became aware of Aimee Stephens in April of 2019 when my son had just turned thirteen and was one year away from taking his first testosterone shot.  As a transgender boy his life had been relatively easy. He had a family that loved and supported him. He had access to gender affirming medical care. He did well in school and had a wide circle of friends who piled into our basement to eat chips and watch the New England Patriots crush the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl the previous January. In a time when 75% of trans kids report feeling unsafe at school, our family understands that our son is lucky.

Transgender Rights are Human Rights

But by April of 2019, public life was feeling increasingly uncertain for us. The rapid and aggressive erosion of my son’s rights under the Trump administration was undeniable. In February 2017, one of the first actions his administration took was to revoke legal guidance that protected trans students’ right to use the appropriate bathroom at school. In March,  protections for trans, homeless people seeking refuge in emergency shelters was withdrawn. And in July, qualified transgender people were banned from serving in the American military. Shortly before the Supreme Court announced in April 2019 that they would hear Aimee Stephens’ case, Roger Severino, Director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Federal Health And Human Services Department, announced plans to roll back protections guaranteeing transgender individuals health care coverage in the ACA while also expanding the religious rights of healthcare organizations to deny care to transgender people.

A Visit to the Supreme Court

Our new reality forced me to contact my son’s school to insist that if he ever needed emergency medical attention he was not to be taken to the hospital closest to the school, which was affiliated with a Catholic healthcare company, but instead to a secular hospital 2 miles farther away. This was something I never imagined I’d need to do in my lifetime. So when I learned that the Supreme Court was going to hear Aimee Stephens case, I knew I had to go see for myself how the highest court in the land was going to shape my son’s future.

The Supreme Court of The United States of America

Fifty members of the general public are admitted to the Supreme Court everyday (when we are not in a pandemic!) to hear the day’s oral arguments. The line outside the court began to form two days before the case would be heard. The orange slip of paper I received from the court officer the morning of October 8th informed me that I would be the 40th member of the general public admitted to the court.

I was struck by how human the experience felt against the epic backdrop of the Supreme Court. My paper ticket, Justice Sotomayor’s travel coffee mug up on the bench, RBG’s chunky red necklace, Gorsuch’s huge yawn and oversized mug. The way all of us who cued our way through the courthouse’s security check points became a society of sorts.

October 8, 2019

The hearing was anxiety provoking. The progressive side of the argument for once has a very simple straightforward logic–if you fire someone for being gay, you are firing them for failing to meet a stereotypical expectation about who men or women should love (same logic applies to gender identity–if you fire someone for being trans, you are firing them for being the “wrong kind of man or woman”). On the conservative side, the argument was that sexual orientation and gender identity were never intended to be a part of the 1964 Civil rights act (but nor was sexual harassment or inter racial marriage…other topics that the court has already interpreted to be covered by the law). Overall, the morning did not seem hopeful. Even Aimee Stephen’s lead counsel, from the ACLU, when I had a brief chance to meet him, told me he did not expect to win.

There’s Always Hope

One ray of hope I did take away that day was that everyone there that day got along. I had a conversation with four homeschooled high school students who were attending court because they believed that “god made people male and female.” The facts they had about trans people were completely contrary to mine and they had never spent time with any trans people. And yet I felt oddly maternal toward them (when we were rushed for time to stash our stuff in lockers before going into the courtroom one of them ended up putting her stuff in my locker). She thanked me for my help. Her friends thanked me for being civil with them, which told me they expected liberals like me to behave otherwise. I imagined these kids meeting my own son. I could see them all getting along just fine. I could envision a future in which meeting my son actually changed how they felt about trans people. And so even though winning seemed like a long shot that day, I left with the idea that person-to-person communities tended to find a way to get along, and that if I focused on participating in a person-to-person network that supported the trans community, my son’s would be able to travel to different states, work where he wanted to work, and find doctors who would care for him. I set an intention leaving the court that day to join a person-to-person network that supported the trans community. I did not know what that meant exactly, but I made a request to the universe to connect me to such a group.

Finding Free Mom Hugs

Gender Sensitivity Training with Dr. Lindsey Churchill and Free Mom Hugs

Whether it was supernatural or just the algorithm at Facebook, I stumbled across Sara Cunningham and Free Mom Hugs in my social media feed the following week. Sara’s mission matched my prayer precisely. A few weeks later I made a donation online, and lo and behold, can you imagine, my phone rang. And it was Sara. Free Mom Hugs has been a part of my life since then. It is the person-to-person network I envisioned. I have since met incredible physicians who support trans kids, moms across the country raising trans kids, mom advocates who are fighting and winning legal battles at the state level. There is a sense that we are all in this together. And more important, since Free Mom Hugs has chapters in each of our fifty states, I know that my son has a safe network that he can rely on in the future.

Flying to OKC to meet Sara Cunningham

SCOTUS Victory June 15, 2020

As many of you probably know, Aimee Stephens won her case in the Supreme Court, but did not live to see her day of victory. Because of her authenticity, her bravery, and her willingness to let her story serve others, trans kids across the nation can grow up knowing they can’t be fired from a job for who they are. The fact that Aimee Stephens did not live to see this day is sad, of course, but is a lesson to all of us that justice for the LGBTQ+ community is a long, up and down road. It is right to work toward future victories, but more important than letting one victory or another change how we feel about the future, we can know there is power in joining a robust community of care and commitment like Free Mom Hugs. We can be there for each other and for each other’s families on the good days and the bad, we can encourage one another to continue the work, we can connect each other to the critical information we need to find work or healthcare or shelter. Together we can make sure Aimee Stephens’ victory in court becomes a victory in the day-to-day lives of the LGBTQ+ community.

I am Jan Pezant and I serve as secretary on the board of directors for Free Mom Hugs Inc. I met Sara Cunningham in June 2016 when a mutual friend asked me if I wanted to go to Oklahoma City Pride to hug with a group of moms of LGBTQIA+ kids. It was the first year that Free Mom Hugs had a booth and walked in the parade. That day changed my life!

Jan and David Pezant with Free Mom Hugs founder Sara Cunningham

Our son came out to my husband and I in 2009 at 16 years of age as gay. We were not surprised and had had many conversations about how we were going to respond once that day came. We had done some study, conversations with clergy we trusted, and lots of soul searching and prayer before his coming out, so we were completely affirming and supportive of him. We have always had a very close relationship with our son, always mindful of not just showing him, but also telling him often that we love him. Maybe it is because we had suspected since he was quite young that he was gay and we wanted to make sure he knew he was safe with us. The night he told us he was gay; those were not the hardest words to hear. The hardest to hear were; “I have a bag packed and a place to go if I’m not allowed to live here anymore.” As much as we had done to express our love and acceptance of him, he still felt he had to be prepared to be rejected and forced to leave his home. Too many kids grow up living or hearing the stories of others of rejection from family and friends that they either never come out, put off coming out, or prepare and expect to be discarded. Slowly he began to open himself up and share with family and friends. Overall, family was loving and accepting. His youth group at church along with youth ministers were wonderful. As he says, he is one of the lucky ones. People shouldn’t have to feel “lucky” to be loved and celebrated by their family and friends if they are LGBTQIA+. This has to stop!

I jumped in heart first, with the rest of me right there too, getting as involved in this new group of LGBTQIA+ moms as I could. My husband and son were very supportive and loved to see me so happy and fulfilled. Garrett, my son, was very proud and happy that I was giving my heart and time to the community and being a mom to others who didn’t have a bio mom to love and celebrate them as he did. My husband, David, also became involved always ready to give a hug.

Edmond Pride 2019

When a board of directors was being established, I was honored to be asked to join first serving as vice president and then as secretary. The organization was growing and then “the post” on Facebook about Sara offering to be a Stand-In mom at weddings happened and it catapulted the organization into a whole new level. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/01/04/this-woman-offered-be-mom-any-gay-wedding-her-post-went-viral/ People from all over the country and the world were asking how they could get involved. We took a big leap forward and decided we needed to do our best to start chapters around the country. I was asked to lead this initiative, but it was a whole board project with everyone helping to make it happen and be successful. It makes me so proud and warms my heart to see pictures and hear stories from people all over the country representing Free Mom Hugs and making a difference. Knowing that those huggers and those being hugged are changing, growing, and feeling unconditional love makes me so happy. And to know I have had a small part of that is truly wonderful.

As I have become more involved with Free Mom Hugs, met more people of the LGBTQIA+ community, and taken steps to become educated I realize how much I didn’t know and how small my life was. I know how important education is. Seeking out training through diversity centers, reading books, articles, and blogs from reputable sources, surrounding yourself with knowledgeable people, joining organizations that are doing good work to bring about good change, and using the education you are gaining to educate others is important. Maybe most importantly, voting at local, state, and national levels to bring about positive change for all.

The year 2020 has been difficult in many ways, but also eye opening for many, myself included. It has been hard to be active in an organization that gives hugs and not be able to go to events and give hugs. It has been hard to not socialize in person with family and friends. Worry and anxiety about the health of family, friends, and myself has been at the forefront of my thoughts. What I believe has been a positive is the opportunity to slow down and focus on what and who is important in my life. I readily admit I live a life filled with privilege. How I use that privilege to lift others and their voices is important. I am trying to educate myself in how to do that. A quote from Nelson Mandela has been in my thoughts, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” It is my call and the call of others that live in privilege to help this country move forward in respecting and enhancing the freedoms for people of color, LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups.

I look forward to seeing the changes and growth of Free Mom Hugs and how we can be a positive force in the change and growth of others. I look forward to the time when we can gather safely and hug again in person. I look forward to spreading love and acceptance to all and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

Caravan Pride Parade Oklahoma City 2020
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Guest Blogger Spencer Shoup

Chosen family. This is a common phrase inside the queer community that holds glowing hope and agonizing death in the same breath. It means that a queer person has somehow broken from their birth family because of their sexuality or gender, and are doing the work to build a new family that loves and accepts them as they are. Glowing hope and agonizing sadness.
This is the beauty and the magic of Free Mom Hugs. They offer belonging, and parental love and support for those who don’t have it. A little bit of chosen family.

The Journey to Find Myself

The journey into my sexual and gender identity turned out to be a search for community as much as a search for myself. If I could remove the discouraging experiences I had with religion, or parents, or the culture around me I can see that internally I was always settled about my sexuality and gender, even as a child. My young mind didn’t have the framework or the language to express how I was feeling, but internally I always knew who I was. I was in sixth grade when a girl in my class took my breath away when she dared to speak to me. I just stood there, paralyzed by her beauty, mouth hanging open like a hooked fish. Even though I couldn’t verbalize or define my crush back then, my feelings were clear.

And even though it was never said outright, I knew instinctively that I needed to keep my sexuality a secret. My fears were confirmed one summer at a christian music festival where Jennifer Knapp was supposed to play. Before her set, a man came on stage and awkwardly excused her absence even though everyone knew she was being suddenly and completely boycotted by the christian world for coming out as gay. I felt completely alone and scared in that crowd of people. Scared because deep down I knew I was like Jennifer. I knew I was gay, and in that moment I discovered I had to keep my sexuality a secret or risk being thrown out of community like Jennifer was. My church community and my family were my whole world, but Jennifer’s cancelled concert taught me that my belonging would be immediately revoked if I came out.

For years I stayed afraid and in the closet. I knew I was gay, and I also trusted my faith leaders and my parents spiritual authority in my life. How could I possibly know better than they did? They believed the bible did not allow for gay relationships, and I believed them. I was in a near constant state of guilt and confusion; constantly managing my ‘sinful desires for women’ in a devastating cycle of deeply recognizing myself as gay, and then plunging back into guilt when the conflicting doctrine of my church floated through my brain.

My People

I stayed in the closet from seventh grade until after I graduated college. I deeply understood my sexuality, and I also deeply believed that the bible said being gay is wrong. This conflict led me to seek out answers and comradery at the second to last Exodus Conference that existed in the summer of 2012. Exodus International was an ex-gay umbrella group that officially dissolved in 2013, understanding that they had been wrong about queer people and the bible, and that they had done damage to the queer community. I am thankful for their closing, and I am also strangely thankful that I attended Exodus. While the teachings of Exodus were erroneous and harmful to people, this was also the first time I was able to meet other gay christians and not hide either my christian or my gay side. When we were just hanging out together, talking or playing frisbee, I felt at peace and at home. These were my people.

Through my trip to Exodus, I met some people from another ex-gay ministry called Living Hope and decided to become part of their community. They were (and still are) online based, and created community through chat threads and a yearly retreat in Texas. The other gay christians at Living Hope were my first true gay friends, even though we all believed our sexuality was sinful and deeply flawed. When we were together, it was almost like we could let those terrible, conflicting thoughts sink to the bottom of our minds like sediment. For a few moments, the swirling clouds of doubt that consumed my mind were quiet and we could just exist together, fully as who we were. I was able to talk about my feelings and experiences with people who deeply understood me, without having to explain anything.

For a while, the people at Living Hope gave me some much needed community with other gay Christians like myself. Over time though, I began to see more and more things that troubled me. Gender was taught as a performative act which was somehow both rooted in our American culture, but also considered biblical and correct. For instance, the men in the group were encouraged to walk without moving their hips too much, and on one retreat, the men all learned to play football. While the men were learning sports, the women were given partner dancing lessons; taught and lead by men of course.

It was a strange experience because it was clear that very few of us actually wanted to do the assigned exercise. In a way, it was like we sympathized with each other, knowing how hard it was for some of us to participate in our assigned task. We went along with the activity, but I got the feeling that no one was really taking it seriously. Our love for one another ran deep; like underground streams of connection that even we couldn’t define or articulate. An unspoken kinship. Queer siblings trying to find our way out of the threatening and oppressive culture we’d grown up in.

As I passed my time with Living Hope, I began to learn more about their theological interpretation of scripture and I found that I didn’t agree with them. I gave about a year of my life to Living Hope and then was unceremoniously blocked from the group when I started posting about my theological disagreements with their interpretations of gender and sexuality. I was invited back only if I would apologize and recant my earlier statements.

Saying Goodbye

I never got to say goodbye to my first group of gay friends, and I haven’t spoken with them since the summer of 2014. I still miss them deeply, and grieve for the ones still part of that community. I hope every day for them to find peace within themselves.
My time with, and ultimately my removal from this strange ex-gay community experience taught me two things: I was ready to come out as gay without any qualifications, and I desperately needed community. I was willing to ignore and tolerate a weak, ex-gay theology that couldn’t even hold water within its own theories over my own intelligent, thinking brain. Even when we trust ourselves, risking relationships and community is terrifying.

Free Mom Hugs Welcomes You

This is where the beauty and the magic of Free Mom Hugs come in. They offer genuine love, belonging and celebration for queer people. Even though leaving a known community for the unknown world is terrifying, it is completely worth it. There are wonderful people out here waiting to welcome another queer sibling in to the family.

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Laron Chapman is a writer, producer and director from Free Mom Hugs home state of Oklahoma. His film, You People, won Best Oklahoma Film at the 2018 DeadCenter Film Festival. We are grateful for his story and to have him as a our guest blogger.

Two strikes. No, that is not a sports reference. Unless by sports you mean voguing and strutting in my 6-inch stilettos to Lady Gaga’s latest album “Chromatica.” No, I am referring to something more personal, more sobering than that. From the day I was able to form my own thoughts and words about the world around me (and by extension, my place in it), I have been taught that my life experience will come with a unique set of challenges. These challenges would be bestowed upon me through no fault of my own, merely an unfortunate byproduct of existence. My name is Laron Chapman and I am a double minority (black and gay). My pronouns are He/Him/His.

Two strikes. Those are the words proverbially branded on my forehead. This idea that before I am able to make any contribution to society, before I am able to prove the naysayers in my life wrong, I am already perceived as a threat, the source of a crude joke, or a sinful pervert. Walks into a convenient store, followed around by the cashier (CHECK!). Politely opens the door for an elderly White woman, she freezes, clutches her purse (CHECK! CHECK!). Walks hand-in-hand in public with my Caucasian boyfriend, passing looks of judgment and disgust by bystanders (CHECK! CHECK! CHECK!) Turns on the TV only to find there are seldom positive images of queer or POC persons (CHECK! CHECK! CHECK! CHECK!) Pulled over by a police officer, fears that my name will be the next hashtag (I could go on, but I don’t want to exhaust you).

Something Beautiful Happened

One can imagine how these experiences could erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Sometimes this negative messaging is so powerful that it convinces us that we only have two ways out of this nightmare: 1. To live an inauthentic life or 2. To live no life at all. I’m disheartened to admit that I have attempted both of these options. Then one day something beautiful happened.

For many years I made self-deprecating comments about myself and the respective communities I was a part of. It earned me a certain status around my cis-White male and female friends and offered me a false sense of security and self-importance. So long as it was me degrading my identities, nobody else would have a need or urge to. I saw it as taking away their power to harm me. I was severely misguided.

This illusion was broken one night when a friend of mine, visibly uncomfortable by my comments said to me: “Do you really think that low of yourself or do you think it makes you more appealing to others?” It was a sobering, “AHA!” moment. She explained that my comments were offensive not just to her but to myself and that I did not need to belittle myself to feel accepted by others. She said she loved me as I am and that I wasn’t cursed to be black or gay, but rather “gifted” to have a point of view tailored to my own experience.

The God Moment

For me, this was a God moment. A moment of transformation of mind, body, and spirit. I could literally feel years of pain and shame lifting off my shoulders. She was right. It was a gift to live life through the unique lens I was afforded. It gave me a voice, a perspective, a purpose. No longer would I view myself as inferior or impure. I was uniquely and deliberately designed and my life was to be used as a vessel of change, a beacon of love, and a person of value.

If you’ve turned on the news at all the last 4 years, you’ve probably been discouraged by the onslaught of hate, greed, and collective trauma our nation is facing on a sociopolitical level. It is a painful reminder of how fragile our hard fought freedoms are and why it is of paramount importance for us to remain diligent and pragmatic to secure them. This means voting for leaders who are on the right side of history, this means speaking out against injustice, and this means educating ourselves about (and supporting) marginalized communities to dismantle the systemic obstacles they are faced with.

It took me years to love myself and to realize what matters most in life, which is the love and compassion we share with everyone around us. And, of course, the love and grace we show ourselves. One of my biggest influences in my life, the late film critic Roger Ebert stated “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.” These are principles that have governed my life.

We Matter

Laron Chapman and Free Mom Hugs Founder, Sara Cunningham

So, as I attended my third “Black Lives Matter” protest last week, Pride Month crept up on me and I had to take a moment to reflect on the compounded burden I was carrying. This brings me to strike three; Even during our trials, we have to remember to celebrate one another, to lift each other up, to acknowledge our progress, and to never forget to live our lives authentically, with dignity, and pride—because WE MATTER! Living out loud is the best revenge.

Happy LGBTQ Pride to all my friends and allies. Now, back to Gaga.

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Special guest blogger: Spencer Shoup. You may recall Spencer’s story from one of Sara’s snail mail videos. She shared a letter and artwork from a young man sharing how important Sara’s videos have been as they have traveled the transiton journey with unsupportive parents. Spencer later joined us for our Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour giving us even more insight and understanding into the need for acceptance from family members. We are so grateful to be able to share Spencer’s voice with you all.

The first pride was a riot. How many of us have seen that phrase circulating facebook and had no idea what it actually meant? *Raises hand* I know I sure didn’t. I’ve heard the stories of the gays, and the queens and the dykes fighting back against the police at Stonewall, setting off the revolution that would bring more freedom and rights to Queer people. Still, I had no idea how brutal, messy, dangerous and controversial those riots really were until this week.

The Stonewall Inn

The actual, true events that sparked the Gay Liberation Movement on the night of June 28th, 1969  at the Stonewall Inn are shrouded in myth. According to Jim Fouratt, when police arrived that night for a routine raid based on the appropriate dress statute, the patrons there experienced “an ‘internal rebellion,’ one in which ‘internalized homophobia flew away.’” Martin Boyce, in an interview with the New York Times remembers being gay in New York like this: “The routine police stops, regular attempts at entrapment and raids of establishments frequented by gays all contributed to an atmosphere in which being gay meant feeling hunted. ‘We all had our lists in our heads of friends who were beaten, maimed, thrown out of their house, informed on by the cops — tragic stories,’ he said. ‘But there was nothing you could do about it.’”

Something inside the gays and the queens and the dykes present that night broke. They had been beaten, raped and harassed just for being themselves too many times. These actions against them were perpetrated by the police. It was lawful. Finally, inside them rose the question, why are we putting up with this?

Why are we putting up with this?

Sylvia Rivera recalls, “I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. Everything just clicked.” The police had arrived at the Stonewall, as usual, to collect their payoff for ignoring violations of the appropriate dress statute, among other unjust laws meant to burden queer people. Customers were moved out of the bar and across the street. The following is an account of what Ms. Rivera remembers:

“And everybody like, ‘All right, we got to do our thing. We’re gonna go for it.’ When they ushered us out, they very nicely put you out the door. Then you’re standing across the street in Sheridan Square park. But why? Everybody’s looking at each other. ‘But why do we have to keep on constantly putting up with this?’ And the nickels, the dimes, the pennies, and the quarters started flying.”

The customers of the Stonewall threw change to symbolize the payoff that the police were collecting. Until the night of June 28th, 1969 “the people hanging out outside the bar would scatter at the police’s arrival. ‘We always listened to them, we always broke up,’ Mr. Boyce said.

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Without a doubt, the freedoms we have today as Queer people would not exist without the brave patrons at the Stonewall Inn that night. The cultural status quo, enshrined into law by a powerful majority, kept queens and dykes and gays in secret, mob run bars. It allowed butch lesbians to be jailed for wearing men’s clothing. The status quo in America said that our people should not exist; were not allowed to exist. The customers at the Stonewall decided to finally disagree out loud.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

While I do not believe that protest is the only answer to injustice, I know that our entire country owes a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and rose up together against powerful forces. From the Boston Tea Party, to the Civil War; the Suffragette movement to the Stonewall Inn, our fore runners fought for every American’s right to be represented, free, counted and proud. I am deeply grateful for the sacrifices made for me by these brave citizens.

This pride month especially, in the midst of another bout of unrest in our America, I recognize the uneven ground our citizens stand on, and I work and hope for a better future for every person.

Sources:

https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-lgbtq-drag-three-article-rule

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/23/i-have-to-go-off-activist-sylvia-rivera-on-choosing-to-riot-at-stonewall

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/16/us/revisiting-stonewall-memories-history.html

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Memorial Day is a day we honor and remember those who have died serving our country. When I think of military service and the sacrifice members of our armed services make I can’t help but think of the members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have had to fight for the right to put their lives at risk for the rest of us. For these people they don’t simply walk into a recruiting office and enlist, but for many years they had to hide who they were inside in order to enlist. Military History cannot be fully told unless the stories of LGBTQIA+ members of the military also get to tell their stories.

It is hard to tell how many LGBTQIA+ service-people have died while in active service, many being forced to hide their true identities for fear of retribution or discharge. But there are some things we do know. LGBTQIA+ people have ALWAYS served in our military.

We know that members of our armed forces have always included LGBTQIA+, but it is difficult to find any articles that outline this service or their heroic deaths. There are stories of “closeted” men and women who joined the military for their desire to serve their country who were killed while on duty by fellow soldiers because of their sexuality. Like, Seaman Allen R. Schindler who was 22 at the time of his death and on the cusp of being discharged because he confirmed his homosexuality. Or the murder of Infantryman Barry Winchell by a fellow soldier.

In WWII recruiters were instructed to look for signs of homosexuality. This meant a “flip of the hand” or an “effeminate nature.” Even when they were “looking for signs” of homosexuality, hundreds of thousands of LGBT men and women served during this war and some gave their lives. There is a lot of evidence of how queer culture survived during active duty. Even if it is hard to find statistics of their deaths during service as so many lived their lives in the shadows.

December 21, 2015 was the day Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen was killed in action. Several headlines have her named as, “the first openly gay woman killed in combat.” And because Don’t ask don’t tell, had been repealed, Major Vorderbrugen’s wife and son were honored at the side of the war hero.

photo via advocate.com

There is something powerful that I can’t help but linger on during this Memorial Day. That there are so many people who fought for the right to fight for me. That there are people who want so badly to serve their country, to serve me, that they not only risk their life, but die for all of us. They have given their lives to protect us all. And ALL means even those who do not think they deserve a family, happiness or peace, and yet they chose to serve. For every single war this country has ever encountered there were LGBTQIA+ armed forces there. Their deaths may have mostly been silent and their honor not acknowledged, but today I will be taking time to remember them. I may not know their names, but I honor them all.