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.
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?
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.