This Mom Is Creating a Loving Space for the LGBTQIA+ Community: 'I Turned My Shame Into Activism'

When her son came out as gay, Sara Cunningham had a hard time accepting him. But that all changed after she learned more from supportive organizations. The Oklahoma City mom then launched Free Mom Hugs to advocate for her son and everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Looking back, Sara Cunningham always knew her son was gay. "Parker spent most of his life trying to come out to me," says the mother of two and the founder of the non-profit organization Free Mom Hugs.

The Cunninghams live in Oklahoma City—somewhere Parker describes as "a largely conservative, evangelical place to grow up." He recounts having heard about homosexuality adjacently in popular media but didn't realize the term was describing him until it was talked about in church. "A big awakening for an 8- or 9-year-old," says Parker. For years, shame and fear kept Parker from coming out. "I believed I was going to be struck down by this holy bolt of lightning."

When Parker finally did finally come out as gay in his 20s, it nearly devastated his family. "I didn't react well at all," Sara says, her voice thick with emotion. "I thought something bad had to happen to a person to make them gay. That they were in need of fixing in some way…I shamed him with the very best of intentions. I said some things that were really hurtful. Even now, they're hard to think about." She spent months in self-isolation, "afraid that he was going to burn in hell," says Sara's husband, Rex. Travis, Parker's older brother and a local school teacher, remembers that "she spent months stuck in her room, just wouldn't talk to anybody, barely came out for dinner."

Parker explains, "We both were kind of going through this grief journey and we didn't have the vocabulary to even have the conversation."

He says his mother softened when she found access to resources and supportive organizations that helped her realize her family wasn't alone in their plight. "Seeing Parker live authentically and be happy—and seeing other people celebrating him—I came to the conclusion that being homosexual is not wrong, it's not a sin, nothing's broken," Sara says. "It's a gift. And it's to be celebrated."

In 2014, Parker invited his parents to the Oklahoma City Pride festival, an event Sara calls "a pivotal moment in the life of my family" as it inspired her to get to know and volunteer for the local LGBTQIA+ community organizations. At the following year's festival, she wore a homemade button that read "Free Mom Hugs" and offered hugs to everyone who made eye contact. "That night I went home covered head to toe with glitter and with real horror stories ringing in my ear," says Sara. "It was haunting."

That experience inspired her to start the non-profit, Free Mom Hugs, an advocacy group that works to heal the rift between folks who identify as LGBTQIA+ and their wider communities. "We try to do whatever we can to be that loving presence," Sara says. They collaborate with the Human Rights Campaign to protest against what she calls "dangerous" bills trying to limit LGBTQIA+ rights. They educate through presentations, panel discussions, and conversations, even speaking at churches in an effort to confront misunderstandings about the LGBTQIA+ community through dialogue. On an individual level, they send care packages to queer folks who might feel alienated and they have a card-writing campaign to encourage members of the queer community to be proud of who they are. There are Free Mom Hug chapters in every U.S. state and even in other countries, "Building a better world, one hug at a time."

Becoming a family of LGBTQIA+ advocates has brought the Cunninghams closer together. "There's no one having to check themselves at the door," Sara says. "No false expectations…We just see each other for who we are." Rex describes it as "a little bit of a rebirth. Travis says that the whole family is "more open about everything." Some of his students have come out to him, something in which Parker takes great solace. "I just think about what that would have been like while I was in high school and I'm thankful for it."

Sara is proof that people can be inspired to change through education, visibility, and dialogue. "I turned my shame into activism and that was because I was accountable to what I was learning and hearing. We need to allow our children at any age to show us who they are. If every home was affirming, the ripple effect of that would change the world."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles