Parker Cunningham: Coming Out Story

Getting to Know You

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!

Parker performing at Norman Pride

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.

Young Parker

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.

Growing Up and Coming Out

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.

The Ultimatum

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.

Parker is joined by his parents at their first Pride Parade

Better Together

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.

Parker Cunningham and his mom, Sara

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.

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