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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
We are so grateful to have Paula Sophia Schonauer contribute her story regarding the ban on transgender military members being lifted Jan 25, 2021. Paula, an author of Shadowboxer, activist and featured in the documentary Real Life Test has an amazing story to tell as a transgender person experiencing life in the military. We hope you will find greater understanding as to how powerful and important these actions are from President Biden, and how Paula’s story is full of courage and hope.
Celebrating Open Transgender Service, Again
Master Sergeant Woodard leaned close, a serious stare and a firm tone to his voice. “I have to ask you these questions. It’s required.”
Woodard continued staring at me like he was sizing me up. “Have you ever engaged in sexual activity with another man?” the tone of his voice low, almost furtive.
Though it was a question, it felt like an accusation, and though I had never had sex with a man, I felt guilty, almost transparent. I could feel heat on my face, and I was afraid I would be seen as a liar even though I was telling the truth.
“No,” I said, but then I thought I should say something else, maybe even act offended, maybe pissed off. Then, I thought I might seem to be protesting too much. My mouth went dry, but I managed to squeak, “No, I haven’t.”
Woodard did not back down, his gaze unrelenting. “Have you ever thought you should have been born a girl, or have you ever felt the compulsion to cross dress?
I froze, and I thought he had penetrated my mind, seeing my secrets. Had he been told something about me? But then, I wondered who could have revealed these secrets. After all, I hadn’t ever told anyone I had been uncomfortable being a boy and then a young, eighteen-year-old man.
As far as crossdressing?
Yeah, I had done it, secretly late at night in the dark attic of a house I had lived in most of my young life, the only light from a flashlight I had taken with me, the clothing an old dress I’d stolen from a bag of old clothes my mom had intended for Good Will, the underwear I had taken from a laundry basket in the basement, a wig I had used when I dressed as a pirate the Halloween before. While dressed, I stood in front of dark windows, trying to imagine myself as a girl, haunted by the opaque reflection in the glass, a ghost of myself that would haunt me for years to come.
It felt like I had been silent a long time, and self-consciousness compelled me to almost vomit an answer, “No, I don’t cross dress.”
Not exactly a lie, a truism. I was not currently crossdressing, hadn’t done so for years at that point.
Woodard smiled and side-punched my left arm, jerking me out of my self-imposed trance. “Good,” he said. “You had me wondering for a moment there.”
My feelings of guilt returned. I almost asked, “Really?”
Woodard laughed. “Relax. If I thought you were queer, I would have never let you get this far in the enlistment process. Too much work.”
“Oh…” I forced a laugh. “Yeah, who needs queers in the Army?’
Woodard frowned. “Nobody.”
I enlisted in the United States Army in 1984, nearly a decade before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. These questions were routine because homosexuality and gender nonconforming behavior were seen as psychiatric conditions indicating a perverse lack of morals and compromised integrity. Conventional wisdom asserted that LGBTQ people were a threat to good order, high standards of morale, discipline, and unit cohesion (tragically more than a decade after homosexuality had been removed from the Diagnostic Statistics Manual for mental health disorders).
When I was about to receive a commission as an officer four years later, the Professor of Military Science at my ROTC attachment asked me those questions again. I was more prepared this time, my pose fortified with a resolve to never breathe a word of truth about my sexuality and gender identity.
I remember feeling less than honorable, ashamed that my military career had begun with a lie, and this lie bothered me, creating a resolve that I would be a man of integrity in every other way, to be a stalwart example of manhood, a truthteller even in moments when telling the truth was inconvenient or consequential. And, for the most part, I was able to live that ideal, at least outwardly.
The lies I told made me feel like an imposter, not simply because I lied when asked direct questions, but because these lies laid a foundation for a fortress I would continue to build throughout my time in the military, a fortress that would keep me from accessing my true self, a fortress of isolation and painful loneliness. I rationalized that soldiers are often asked to sacrifice their lives in service to their country; I could at least sacrifice my gender identity.
By the time I served in Operation Desert Storm, I secretly hoped I would die in combat, and it didn’t have to be a heroic death (though it would have been better if it were), just an honorable death, one that would enshrine me among the sacred dead who had bled and died for their country.
Surviving the Gulf War left me wondering, what now?
Well, I was a husband, a young father, a first lieutenant, totally embedded in my life as a man. There was no way out, I thought, so I decided to become a police officer, similarly hoping I might die on duty, my name on a wall, and my secrets buried with me.
At times, I have wondered about the soldier I might have been had I been able to serve openly as my true self. Perhaps I would have been a Medical Service Corps officer practicing clinical social work in the Army, a vocation I had considered as a young man, but I was afraid to be seen as less than manly, thus accepting my appointment in the Field Artillery career branch, a combat arms officer. Perhaps, I would not have felt like an imposter, free from the psychological stress of hiding a secret, hiding desires I dared not express, always on guard. Perhaps I would have been more focused, more effective, less ambiguous about myself, and more decisive in my leadership.
I don’t think I failed as an officer in the Army. My records prove otherwise. One of my officer evaluation reports lauded my integrity, and when I signed my name on the paperwork, I remember thinking, “Well, if you only knew.”
The burden of lies.
My Experience of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
As far as the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era… let’s not pretend they never asked. Let’s not pretend they never investigated, spied upon, and outed soldiers who raised suspicions. Let’s not pretend they didn’t persecute such soldiers until they finally admitted the truth. Let’s not pretend soldiers weren’t murdered because they were seen as queer. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a failure, and when the Obama Administration finally succeeded in overturning such a horrible policy, I felt deeply gratified but woeful that my trans brothers and sisters had been left out, that there was still not the opportunity to serve openly.
I was lucky to be in Washington DC during the Summer of 2016 when Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that transgender service members could serve in the military open as their true selves. I remember attending a Pride event at the Pentagon days before the announcement, our expectations building at the pending news. We were hopeful and jubilant, and I was in awe to be at the center of the Pentagon, the enclosed court yard, as an out and open trans woman, celebrated as a veteran, and welcomed. That halcyon experience, a golden moment that allowed me to feel proud of my service without mitigation or ambiguity. Oh, to be an active service member during that time, to finally be acknowledged and allowed to serve.
As we all know, that wonderful victory turned sour only months later when Trump rescinded open service for trans people in a Tweet, reversing a significant civil rights advancement. I know, personally, service members whose careers ended during the last four years, hounded out of the military or disallowed reenlistment, training opportunities, and promotions.
During the last four years, we have seen corruption and compromised integrity in people like Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, General John Kelly, and other retired and/or currently serving military officials in the Trump Administration. To me, they have tarnished the honor of military leadership, compromised unit cohesion, broken discipline, and violated the morals expected from military officers. Their selfishness and cynicism have harmed the Department of Defense and the office of Commander in Chief.
In my opinion, President Biden’s restoration of open service for trans service members is a statement for transparency in the ranks, a statement that values truth ranging from personal to professional. It is my hope that trans service members, present and future, will have the opportunity to prove their merit and leave a positive mark on their units and cohorts. It is time to unburden ourselves of lies and to eradicate the systems that compel those lies.
We are so grateful for Paula’s story. And we know there are more amazing and heroic stories of transgender military members serving currently or in the past. We would love to hear from you! Just reach out to us at [email protected].
We invite you to hear from our amazing SoCal Chapter Leader, Valencia Foster. Her perspective as a woman of color and mother of an LGBTQ+ child is priceless to us at Free Mom Hugs.
We invite you to hear from our amazing SoCal Chapter Leader, Valencia Foster. Her perspective as a woman of color and mother of an LGBTQ+ child is priceless to us at Free Mom Hugs. We hope you will receive a deeper understanding that can only come from a personal story full of truth and heart. – Katrina
As Black Americans, we have a running joke about being given the shortest month on the calendar to celebrate our achievements. However, the designation of February was not given to us but chosen by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Black author, historian, graduate of the University of Chicago and Harvard University Doctor of Philosophy. The Genesis of Black History Month was born out of his desire to highlight the achievements and contributions of “Negros”. Dr. Carter G Woodson had the second week in February established as Negro History Week in 1926, the birth week of President Abraham Lincoln and the escaped slave, abolitionist/activist, Fredrick Douglas. The idea was first conceived in 1915 to educate Black people and others on our accomplishments and contributions to America.
According to the Library of Congress, “In 1976 the commemoration of black history in the United States was expanded to Black History Month, also known as African American History Month. President Gerald R. Ford issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month that year.” Subsequently, most succeeding presidents made proclamations for the celebration and education of Black History Month.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I witnessed the pride born out of the struggle of the civil rights movement. My childhood was full of expectation, promise and positivity despite the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medger Evers. I saw the celebration of Black culture and the embrace of our identity in all its forms. “Black is Beautiful” was not just a slogan but an affirmation of all that was great, noteworthy and beautiful about Black people and our culture. Black Power rang out with conviction. We were learning to love who we were in our own skins. We loved our skin, our hair, our bodies, our talent, our brilliance and each other. I marveled at the big bouncy “naturals” we later called “afros”, symbolic of self-acceptance and sometimes rebellion. James Brown’s song “I’m Black and I’m Proud” became an anthem that still brings me joy when I hear it today. Black History Month taught us about achievements and contributions in all areas of life. We learned about our heroes. We learned that we have an incredible legacy. I was glad that schools all over America were teaching all children about us and our rich history.
I have not taken lightly the honor, privilege and responsibility of raising two young Black men in America. My sons are twenty and twenty-two years old. I hope my husband, Rodney, our family and I have promoted self-love and pride in their blackness to our sons. I loved volunteering at our multicultural elementary school seeing all the kids, the innocents, loving what they were learning about our culture. Hearing our stories, eating our food, respecting our struggle. However, we are not naïve to the fact that there are haters who do not want us to succeed. How do we protect our children from the haters? I believe it starts with building their self-esteem and affirming them and helping them self-advocate.
They need to see people who look like them thrive. They need allies!
It is the same for our LGBTQIA+ children. We have to figure out ways to promote self-love and self-advocacy. This was never more apparent when our son “came out.” Or family struggled with institutional forms of oppression aimed at the LGBTQIA+ community. Now, the oppression and bigotry came from our own community. Too often being gay is treated as a sin or illness in the black community. We wanted our gay son to feel the same sense of pride and dignity about being a gay/black man. We also endeavored to change the minds of those in our community who continued to harbor anti-gay sentiments. Now is the time for us to demand the rights of all. This moment is a precious time for an army of allies and advocates to demand equal rights for all human beings. I want both of my sons, gay and straight, to have the same rights and opportunities.
The Black experience and fight for civil rights is the model and the example for the fight for all human rights.
As a mother of a gay Black man, I see the parallels of the Black community’s and the LGBTQIA community’s fight for equal rights, understanding, recognition, opportunity and access. As a Mama Bear, it is the same fight. We fight for their lives.
We love for their lives. We love them without conditions. We affirm them. We hug them!
I had no idea that when I donated to Sara and Laura Beth’s first Free Mom Hugs Tour in 2017, that I would be on the front lines 2 years later hugging and affirming LGBTQIA+ folks of all colors, shapes and ages. But I made that step to do something for the community that I was good at…hugging. I just wanted to do something. Hugging was an easy first step. I found myself organizing huggers for LA Pride 2019. In a short period of time, I became the Chapter Leader for Southern California. I was now an active ally. Allyship binds us for a greater purpose as human beings. We all need love and affirmation like we need air and water. WE ALL MUST HAVE THE SAME RIGHTS. Period! The voices and cries of the marginalized, brutalized and disenfranchised must be heard.
In SoCal, we use the hashtag #Pride365 because we know we must lift up the LGBTQIA+ community every day. And we must acknowledge “Black is Beautiful”, every day. Dedicating one month to learn about and celebrate a people is not enough. But we will take it even if it is the shortest month. In the meantime, #BlackisBeautifulEveryDay!
To find out more about Free Mom Hugs, or to join a Chapter in your state, just go to our website: Freemomhugs.org.
Wishes, dreams and love were delivered in early December thanks to our generous supporters and with help from our friends at UPS. After seeing the care packages we sent out over the summer on social media, UPS was so moved by the gesture they wanted to collaborate with us to send out more packages.
Our care packages have come to symbolize so much for us at Free Mom Hugs this year because of the impact COVID had on our ability to connect with people in person. Our main goal has always been to be a loving presence to the LGBTQIA+ community by showing up at Pride Parades and other events to give hugs. This year we couldn’t do that so sending care packages became our way of connecting to show our love and support. We needed a way to keep our message going even during an uncertain year.
Earlier this year, board member and mama bear, Jan Pezant was sending care packages to her son as a means to show her support and love when she couldn’t be with him. Our board president, Lindsey Miller also received a wonderful care package from her mother-in-law. The two acts of kindness planted the seed for us to send out our own care packages to the LGBTQIA+ community to show that we still love and support them during the pandemic.
We created an online application process for people to register themselves or a loved one to send a package. Names were randomly selected from almost 1200 applicants and we sent 30 care packages to our beautiful friends.
We had an amazing response to the care packages and our followers wanted to know how they could help. We started a matching gift campaign provided by one of our generous supporters which provided a way for us to plan to send 100 care packages. We were in the process of preparing to send the packages out when we heard from UPS.
UPS loved Sara and Parker’s story and they also loved what Free Mom Hugs was doing to impact the world. As a part of their annual Wishes Delivered project, they wanted to highlight their story and the care package program. UPS also wanted to keep this project a secret from Sara so it could be a surprise.
Behind the scenes we began to work frantically to do our part to get all the merchandise, boxes, and recipients names together without letting Sara know. We created a story about the project that led Sara to believe she was 1 of 5 finalists. What she didn’t know is that she WAS the finalist. A few weeks before the video shoot was to take place at Sara’s house, Oklahoma City was ravaged by an historic ice storm leaving most of the city without power for 14 days, including Sara’s home. But in true Free Mom Hugs fashion, electricity was restored the day before the crew was scheduled to arrive! The two day shoot included a crew of 15 and also a COVID representative who was in charge of monitoring everyone with safety precautions. It was an incredible experience!
As we began to pack the contents for the 100 boxes, Sara still had no idea what was in store for her that day. Behind the scenes, UPS had been ordering the care package items for an additional 300 care packages to be sent out. They had reserved a warehouse for the contents to be packaged and loaded by UPS volunteers to send to the LGBTQIA+ on our behalf.
On the second day of filming the video, Parker was taken to the warehouse with all the boxes and volunteers for a practice run and provided direction on how he surprise his mom. Once the plan was in place, Sara was brought to the warehouse under the guise that she was going to film additional b-roll footage around the city. When she arrived at the warehouse, she began to be suspicious about what was going on. That’s when Parker leaned in to tell her that UPS had chosen her story and the Free Mom Hugs organization for the 2020 Wishes Delivered project! The door to the warehouse was raised to reveal the UPS volunteers and the additional 300 packages being put together!
Sara was speechless and overcome with emotion at the sight of the additional care packages knowing she could reach even more people in the LGBTQIA+ community. The volunteers had worked a regular shift and then came to the warehouse to volunteer their time for this project. They cheered and held signs as the door was opened. Sara eventually made her way around to every volunteer thanking them for their time. After all the contents were packed in boxes, the UPS truck was filled from top to bottom with Free Mom Hugs care packages.
We soon began receiving pictures and messages on social media about how much the packages meant to people. Some of the comments we received:
“My baby girl got one today and cried while opening it.”
“One arrived for my kiddo today. They were surprised and thrilled. They said, ‘Now I have a gay bear and a gay mug and a gay face mask!’. Thank you for sending them love.”
“The cookbook was my favorite. I spent my teens in foster care so I don’t have recipes passed down. I love when people share theirs, makes me feel like family. Didn’t think one box would make me so happy.”
“I just recently came out to my family and was very worried about their reaction. I’m beyond thankful for the package. It was beautiful. Thank you for all you do.”
Our hearts were so touched by all of the responses. People were feeling loved and accepted all across the country! It was such a beautiful thing to witness. UPS released the Wishes Delivered video in early December and it took our breath away. They did such an amazing job with Sara and Parker’s story including showing the mission of Free Mom Hugs and also our home state of Oklahoma. We hope it encourages others to share their stories and have conversations that will create a safe space for those in the LGBTQ community. As Parker said in the video about coming out to his mom:
“We had to learn about each other or we were going to lose each other.”
Until we can be at events together and hug again, we will continue to provide programs like sending care packages to remind our LGBTQIA+ loved ones that they are not alone. This card was provided in each care package sent out through the Wishes Delivered program and we hope it will serve as a reminder for you today:
“You are Loved. We can’t be there to hug you in person so we’re doing the next best thing, sending you a box filled with love and care for body, mind and soul. Just know that we’re proud of you, we value you and we love you.”
In honor of Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance, we wanted to share Ethan’s story. Sara and I met Ethan’s moms on our Free Mom Hugs Tour of Hope in 2019. As always, the Tour had proven to be magical with our stops along the way to San Francisco. The Castro historical district was our Mother’s Day destination and we already knew something special was in store for us. As soon as we topped the hill in the Free Mom Hugs jeep, we saw all of the rainbow flags and iconic signs. The emotions and tears took over both of us. We knew we were on an important mission representing the movement of Free Mom Hugs. But just like every tour, there are personal elements as well that begin to bubble up in your skin. The gratefulness of the stories to hear and the stories to tell. The pain to carry for others and the healing to offer too. This is the one chance to speak your truth to people you may never see again. And then of course, we were also giddy, tourists from Oklahoma, too!
We had spoken of many things we wanted to do once we arrived in San Francisco. But two specifically… Sara HAD to take a picture of a street car… and we needed to memorialize the trip with a tattoo. We were in awe of the sights and sounds. The bells of the streetcars, the musicians, the laughter, and the freedom. Yes, freedom has a sound and it sounds like San Francisco. We spun around in circles often, trying to capture it all and take it all into our senses. I’m always grateful for being on this journey with Sara and seeing her experiences from my view. This particular view was the beginning of the most incredible day I will never forget.
As Sara put her phone down after taking pictures of the streetcars, we turned to see a sandwich board sign next to us which read Castro Tattoo. We both looked at each other like kids who just found the hidden Christmas presents. And with our eyebrows, we signaled to each other… let’s do it! Now, of course we became moms as well and we started saying all the right things to each other. “Let’s just get prices. We don’t have to do it. We will see if it feels right…and so on.”
We walked up the stairs to find the tiniest waiting room with two couches facing each other and art all over the walls. As we sat down, we noticed two women across from us who noticed our Free Mom Hugs hoodies. They made eye contact, tilted their heads and asked, “Are you with Free Mom Hugs? Are you Sara with Free Mom Hugs?” They told us how they follow us on Instagram and how much the movement means to them. They were there from Kansas and divine timing was already started to let us know she was very much a part of this moment. You see, our specific arrival time was due in part to a fire across from our hotel that morning as we were trying to leave. That, along with slow trains and missed exits, had completely thrown our travel schedule off that day. But within moments of meeting these two women, we were understanding why.
As we began to talk to the ladies, they shared with us that they were married and foster parents to some amazing humans. They had also adopted a special young man named Ethan and had provided a safe and loving home to him as he went through the process of transitioning. They told us that they had planned their trip to the Castro district a year ago and then the tears began to come. Only a few months earlier, their beloved Ethan had passed away by suicide. He had the most accepting moms and loving home. And yet, it was still too hard and too painful to be Ethan. As we all shared the heartbreak, and blended our tears, Ethan’s moms told us they made the decision to come on the trip anyway…that’s what Ethan would have wanted. So they began to tell us their plans to memorialize him with their tattoo designs. As they did, Sara and I knew there was no way we could walk out of this tattoo shop without memorializing him as well.
We knew beyond a doubt why the Tour led us to San Francisco on this specific day and in this particular moment. And we also knew the girls would forever be a part of our family. Just like all of those in the Free Mom Hugs movement with the mama bears and the LGBTQ+ community, there is a story that bonds us all. Ethan’s story changed my life that day. I knew as we continued our journey, speaking from city to city, state to state, that I could not share my own story and not share Ethan’s. I was given a new drive and urgency to protect our transgender youth. Because I saw first hand that even in the best, most loving homes, it can still be impossibly hard to be transgender in America. So the decision was clear to me that not only would Sara and I get tattoos of the word Hope, I wanted mine to be specific to Ethan so he would be with me always and even nudge people to ask questions. So I decided to capitalize the “E” in Hope on my arm.
We were joined that Mother’s Day by more San Francisco Mama Bears. One in particular named Denise sat next to me and held my hand while I was getting my tattoo. (Of course she did, right?). We invited Ethan’s moms to join us all that evening for an event and they accepted. They joined the Free Mom Hugs crew at Asia SF where all the staff and performers are in the transgender community. It was bittersweet to see these beautiful humans be free to be their authentic selves while also thinking about Ethan wishing he could have seen it and had hope. We loved our time with them so much and we left just wanting to hold them tight as they traveled this treacherous journey. In the midst of sadness, it was so good to know they would never have to walk this journey alone. They became family that day.
We were so grateful for our time with them. And it only added to how hard it was to leave San Francisco and go to our next stop. But we knew we had to see them one last time before we left. You see, we had the jeep full of blankets that had been hand made by the Mama Bears in the private online Facebook group for moms of LGBTQ+ kids. It was up to us to decide at each stop who received these meaningful tokens of love. Sara describes these blankets, just like she does our hugs… they won’t let go until you do. And we knew if anyone should have one of the blankets, it was Ethan’s moms.
We continued the tour with the next stop in Phoenix, Arizona where I started to altered my story to allow time for Ethan’s. It always surprised me how people would come up afterwards to thank me for bringing light to transgender youth and the world they face trying to be their authentic selves. This is where we can all make a difference and rise up, speak out, share these stories and bring humanity to an often misunderstood part of our population and culture. Too many transgender people are rejected, wounded, abused, fall into self harm and are victims of violence or taken from us in tragic ways. We must not be silent any longer. There are too many Ethan’s in the world that have so much to offer. It’s time we treasure them for the gifts they are.
Today, we are still close to Ethan’s moms. They even travel to Oklahoma City to see us. One visit in particular was star studded when we were able to get front row tickets to see Comedienne Cristela. She is a famous, Latinx performer who was actually one of Ethan’s favorites. I heard she was performing at our iconic Tower Theatre, so I tweeted about Ethan’s story and asked if we could meet her. She didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Consider it done.”
We have lost too many brilliant souls to fear and ignorance. Love and education are how we can change the world to make it safe for our transgender kids to experience the freedom to be their authentic selves. I believe it is our mission to speak for the Ethans of the world and make sure their voices are never quieted. Ethan is with me everyday. Not only on my arm and in my heart, but also in my hands. One day after returning from the tour, my partner and I ventured into a truck stop store and discovered a rack of novelty key chains with a selection of names. I always look and expect disappointment as I look at the K section for an off chance they have a “Katrina” key chain. To my surprise there was a sign that said Katrina with one key chain left hanging. I grabbed it to see if it really was my name. The air went out of my lungs as I held it in my hands to read the name “Ethan.”
A lot of you know me as Sara Cunningham’s son, the “Parker” from “the book”, or the LGBTQIA+ Advocate for Free Mom Hugs. You might NOT know that I’m an artist and a musician, that I’m a cancer (Gemini rising) or that I’ve got a chiweenie named Oprah with no front teeth. But on this special day, I’d like to share a little more about my coming out experience and my journey to becoming a professional hugger.
After all, it’s National Coming Out Day and I’ve got a confession to make…
My name is Parker Cunningham and I am your brother now!
Burying the Truth
In elementary school, I wrote a poem in my Bugs Bunny journal. It was short and sweet. “The tiles are gray / and I am gay”. I remember becoming overwrought with anxiety and trying to bury the entire journal in the trash so that no eyes would ever see that one page and know my secret. My mom intercepted the mission. I remember her being quite upset as I explained myself to the best of my understanding. We had recently joined a church. We were “plugged in” and building relationships with people there. She told me to not think about such things, to focus on school, and it seemed like a reasonable request.
It was my first attempt at coming out, the first ripple of so many waves. This was the same year of the Matthew Shepard murder. I was aware, even at 9 years old, that it was not safe for me to be my authentic self.
Flash forward to high school. My family saw me changing. I was grounded more often than I wasn’t. I left my skin at the door. My church saw me changing, becoming the things we’d prayed away, embracing the things about myself that I couldn’t seem to change. Every single person I knew seemed to be embarking on this harrowing journey of “what to do about Parker.”
I wish I would have had the words, then, “You stand BY me.”
I am so grateful to the unknowingly affirming parents of my friends and the educators who accepted me and extended a safe place for me; to all the adults who made me feel appreciated, unquestionably deserving of happiness and who showed me that the “me” I couldn’t be at home was so special and so valuable.
No More Secrets
One evening, it came over me like an illness. If I didn’t get it out, I would surely die. I hopped into my dad’s van when he was on his way out and blurted, “I’m gay.” There was a moment of silence before he replied, “Well, I love you…but let’s not tell your mom til after the holidays?”. He was calm and collected, probably more prepared for the conversation than I was.
Because I’m no good with time or secrets, I lasted until just before Thanksgiving. I found myself shuffling into the side room where my mom was up late working on stuff. This was me facing my biggest fear, my best friend, the closest woman to God “himself”, the person who was watching out for the same bolt of holy lightning to strike me as I was. I broke down, overflowed and told her everything. The next couple hours were like the ringing after a bomb, full of sound but inaudible at the same time. We pleaded with each other for understanding. I packed a bag. We went to bed angry and lost.
We barely spoke in the following months. Every surface in our home felt like sharp glass and we were getting used to the sensation.
By 22, I had I formed the kind of “two lives” one creates out of survival. I needed to be myself but I also needed my family to make it in this world. Someone eventually walked into the life I had outside of my home, we loved each other and I saw a life with someone who would never ask me to check myself at the door. That gave me the courage to claim my own truth. I gave my mother an ultimatum to either support me and walk with me or to watch me live my life at a distance.
That affirmation of my own truth began the repaving of a path I thought was beyond repair.
We got educated together.
We learned about each other, even the things we had to unteach ourselves.
We began to dismantle our closets and build our own special table where we could support one another.
That table kept getting larger and larger.
My mom began to meet people from my community, people who loved me as their own when even my church and my family wasn’t ready to. They were beautiful and colorful and their arms were wide open. I wasn’t sure what to think the first time my mom brought up “giving free hugs” at a Pride parade but the outcome, as you all know, is history.
You Gotta Give Them Hope
For every night of sleep we both lost, for every prayer we said for me to be “healed”, for every time I came tumbling out of the closet, there are THOUSANDS of kids like me who’s lives could be changed by something like a hug, a kind word or simply knowing there’s a person out there who wants them to thrive.
The creation of, the growth and the ongoing work of Free Mom Hugs gives me hope for the people in my community as well as the allies that support them. As the LGBTQIA+ Advocate for Free Mom Hugs, I have been able to share with school groups and different church fellowships, tell my story on the road, hug across the country, make some funny videos, meet some incredible people and watch this movement flourish.
Doing it all alongside my mom is something I’ll never take for granted.
Whether you came out of the closet years ago, whether you’re just now getting used to the view from the outside or whether remaining inside the closet is the safest choice for you at this time, know that the table we are continuously assembling will always have a seat for you, whenever you are ready.
October is LBGTQ History month, and it also holds a life-changing holiday, National Coming Out Day. This holiday was first celebrated in the US in 1988, and was created as a form of activism. The belief that the more people see LGBTQ+ people in their families and in society, the less likely they will discriminate against them. It has also become a landmark day to commemorate courage and bravery, and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and let them know, they no longer need to keep their authentic selves a secret.
If there were ever two women who celebrated the LGBTQ+ community, it is Free Mom Hugs founder, Sara Cunningham and creator of Serendipity, Home of the Real Mama Bears private, online Facebook group, Liz Dyer. They have created some simple steps on how to be a safe parent or ally to come out to. They also created a video where they share advice from their own experience and from the experiences of so many others, all with hopes of helping you be better prepared when you are trusted with your child’s truth.
It’s Not a Phase
Liz – Don’t ignore it or express doubt or say it’s probably just a phase – No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you are about the news, show interest and encourage your child to share with you. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they have come out to others and how it went, and who else they would like to come out to. Don’t express doubt or say it’s probably just a phase. It’s true that over time people may gain new understandings of themselves, but even if in the future your kid identifies in a different way, that doesn’t diminish or negate how they identified previously.
Instead, it indicates that your child is continuing to work at understanding themselves and that they have a desire to live authentically, and that is something for parents to celebrate and be proud of.
Living Your Truth
Sara – Don’t ask them to stay in the closet –It’s true that it can take a minute for many parents to adjust to their new reality. Parents may initially feel afraid about what others will say or do when our kids come out, but we need to help our kids speak their truth and live authentically. Living in the closet and hiding who they are is damaging to their health and well- being. Our kids should never have to check themselves at the door and hide who they are to make other people feel comfortable. That’s a heavy burden we don’t want our kids to carry.
No More Shame
Liz – Don’t use religion to shame them – If your family is religious, chances are your LGBTQ+ kid is already carrying some shame about being LGBTQ+. We can’t forget, shame is what causes so many LGBTQ+ people to experience depression, anxiety, self- loathing and suicidal ideation. Emphasize to your child that they can be a person of faith and LGBTQ+. With a little bit of research and study, most religious families are discovering that non -affirming theology is based on a mis-interpretations of an ancient language.
The Power of Love and Education
Our friend and author, Kathy Baldock has done all the research historically, biblically, and scientifically to explain how certain passages and terms need to be reexamined and have been mis used to create the belief that homosexuality is a sin. Her book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, has enlightened countless folks from parents and clergy, to teachers and physicians. As Sara Cunningham has said many times, “There’s too much information available now to stay in fear and ignorance.”
Sara – Do tell them you love them unconditionally and thank them for trusting you. – Our kids are coming to us in a very vulnerable state when they come out to us. Go overboard and let them know that you love them just as they are and maybe a little bit more because they have been so brave. Let them know that you are honored they trusted you to come to with this important and personal information.
Even When You Think You Are Ready…
Our very own National Board member, Jan Pezant, has been a devoted mama bear for years thanks to her beautiful son Garrett. She and her husband, David have been pilars of support in the Oklahoma LGBTQ+ community and have a unique story to tell about their experience.
We thought we were prepared for our son to come out, but we were wrong.
David and I had many conversations late at night, lying in bed, discussing how we would handle it if or when our son would come out. We spoke to clergy and friends of faith, we prayed, we read what we could find on the subject, and we were in a good place of affirming and unconditional love. We actively worked to make sure our home was safe and he felt safe and open to discussion.
When he was sixteen years old, he asked to speak with us. When he told us he was gay, we were ready to show acceptance and love as his parents. What we weren’t prepared for was what he said next. “If I can’t stay, I have a bag packed and a place to stay. I don’t want to leave, but I am prepared if I have to.” WOW! We didn’t see that coming. We asked him why he thought we would make him leave our home. He said, “I thought you would probably let me stay, but I know people who were kicked out of their homes and I needed to be ready if the same thing happened to me.”
The take away from this is, until it is safe for everyone to come out it is not really safe for anyone to come out. We must work as humans, as an organization, as a community and as a world to make coming out safe for ALL..
Next step: Resources, Resources and Resources
We have seen and heard many times how important having authentic relationships between parents and their LGBTQ+ children is and how it can literally be life-saving. A report from The Trevor Project shows that LGBTQ+ youth who report having at least one supportive adult were 40% less likely to have a suicide attempt. As we approach National Coming Out Day, October 11, we encourage you to remember to be that safe place your child needs, as they are on their own journey of discovery, fear and bravery. This is when they need you most of all.
We at Free Mom Hugs have deliberately made the shift in our language to talk about CELEBRATING the LGBTQ+ community. We realized that affirming their identity wasn’t enough, and it didn’t express how wonderful it is to have an LGBTQ+ child. We see our childrens’ sexuality and gender expression as a gift, and as such, deserves excitement and joy at the news. We also realize, that with all of our different cultures, that may not come as naturally for others. And that’s where we hope we can help the most. “We have seen the power of love and education.”
We Are Better Together
Here are some final thoughts from Liz and Sara as you begin this new, life-long journey of discovery into the amazing gift of being the parent of an LGBTQ+ child. Liz – Do tell them you want to support them and ask them what they need – Let them know that you want to do what you can to make sure they have the resources they need to be free to live their truth. Ask them what they think they need to be the best, most healthy and whole version of themselves.
Sara – Do seek out resources and support for yourself – This is a new reality and at first, a lot of parents are afraid and feel very alone. It’s important that parents get support and resources for themselves. Today there are many organizations that offer good resources and ways to connect with other families who have LGBTQ+ kids. The Mama Bears Facebook groups and Free Mom Hugs Chapters are great places to find support and resources.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away Sept 18, 2020 and the news sent many within our LGBTQIA+ circles into a deep state of loss.
Justice Ginsburg has been a mighty force for justice and equality, and has been especially dear to the LGBTQIA+ community and to those who fight for their rights and freedoms. She has spent her career being the voice of the marginalized, having the courage, tenacity, and strength to continue on when so many become tired in their activism or their voices of the oppressed become quieted.
She was tiny but mighty. One of many allies that we will continue to stand on the shoulders of as we move forward to creating a world that is kinder and safer for all.
The Free Mom Hugs organization feels the loss of Justice Ginsburg deeply. Board President, Lindsey Miller said, “Justice Ginsburg wasn’t just a champion of equality, she truly was a champion of justice. She lived and breathed the tenets of The Supreme Court of our nation. Just as we hope all of those who serve our highest court should. All Americans are better because of her service. And we, at Free Mom Hugs will forever be aspiring to walk in her footsteps.”
When There are Nine
Justice Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class from the Columbia School of Law, founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and argued cases of women’s rights and gender justice before the Supreme Court. She has empowered and encouraged so many women to strive for no less than equality in their careers and families.
She was known to say, “Women belong in all the places decisions are being made.” She was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, becoming only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. When asked when she thought there would be enough women on the Supreme Court she responded, “When there are nine.”
“The 300 gender discrimination cases which she fought as a lawyer, as well as the landmark opinions on gender and sexual orientation which she made as a Supreme Court Justice, are the cornerstones of her lifelong career. From her proudly worn ‘dissent collar’ to her quite literal and fiery dissent in 2013 on the Court majority’s ruling of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Ginsburg has been a pillar of civil liberties and human rights. Her presence on the bench, in the movement and in this world will be sorely missed. Rest in Peace, RBG. Today, we-and the world-lost a true giant.” – Los Angeles LGBT Center CEO Lorri L. Jean
Equality for All
The latest Supreme Court ruling, June 15, 2020, Bostock v. Clayton County, which found LGBTQ discrimination was a form of sex discrimination, and thus illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Was a historic ruling for the LGBTQIA+ community and for those who invest in advocating on their behalf. The ruling granted protection to LGBTQIA+ people wherever there are laws against sex discrimination, including employment, education, health care and housing. Shannon Minter, legal director for the national Center for Lesbian Rights, said, ”Although the former U.S. Associate Anthony Kennedy and U.S. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch were the authors of major LGBTQ rights from the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was the most important voice for LGBT people.” (Washington Blade)
“Today, we lost an unqualified, undisputed hero. She wasn’t just an iconic jurist, Justice Ginsburg was a force for good —a force for bringing this country closer to delivering on its promise of equality for all. Her decades of work helped create many of the foundational arguments for gender equality in the United States, and her decisions from the bench demonstrated her commitment to LGBTQ equality. She was and will remain an inspiration to young people everywhere, a pop culture icon as the Notorious RBG and a giant in the firth for a more just nation for all. We extend our deepest condolence to her family and loved ones. What she represented – fairness, justice and equality for all – we must all continue to fight for. Those principles are not transactional, they fundamental to our democracy.”
Love is Love is Love
On a subject near and dear to our hearts, Justice Ginsburg was a champion for same-sex marriage. In fact, she was the first Supreme Court justice to ever perform a same-sex wedding, shortly after she helped bring the landmark, 2013 decision to make same-sex marriage legal in the United States. She officiated for Ralph Pellecchio and Dr. James Carter Wernz. Pellechio had actually been a former student of Justice Ginsburg’s at Columbia Law School. The couple had been together more than 30 years before they asked Justice Ginsburg if she would be interested in officiating for them. Both men honestly didn’t expect her to reply to their request but she did right away, asking to help pick the date. She even offered to help the couple write their wedding vows.
Justice Ginsburg and her steadfast belief in equality have made it possible for LGBTQ couples to create their own families, and start their own traditions.
Founder Sara Cunningham , no stranger to same-sex weddings, was heartbroken at the news of her passing. She knows full well the rights that the LGBTQ community has not always had, beginning when she realized that her straight son had more rights than her gay son.
In response to the sad news, Sara said, “Though I did not know Ruth Bader Ginsburg personally, she knew me. She knew my family, and the community we serve through Free Mom Hugs. It was evident with everything she did. She showed up like her hair was on FIRE. I like that!”
Justice Ginsburg has been on the frontlines of change and equality for all marginalized people, but we certainly see her hands within the freedoms the LGBTQ community currently embrace and enjoy.
She has fought tirelessly for the rights of all people to live, and love and experience happiness in their home country of the United States of America. Her tenacity reminded Americans to value the LGBTQ community as valuable citizens. And in doing so, she encouraged the LGBTQ community to believe that they actually deserved those rights, and that those rights were worth fighting for. We hope, here at Free Mom Hugs, that we can continue in her place to be bold and brave, and use our voice for those who have been quieted. The time is now to press harder in our mission to educate and advocate on behalf of our LGBTQ family and friends. And to work together to make this world a kinder, safer place for all.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.