Interview: Meet Sara Cunningham the Mom Fighting for LGBTQ+ Youth One Hug at a Time

Nothing beats a hug. And no hug is greater than the one you get from a loving parent. But for some LGBTQ+ youth, coming out can lead to those hugs stopping.

For Sara Cunningham of Oklahoma City, her journey from an evangelical conservative to fierce LGBTQ+ advocate after her son came out as gay led her to launching a non-profit, Free Mom Hugs, for parents who not only affirm the community, but celebrate it.

She sat down with the podcast A Good Good Thing to discuss the journey that took her from conservative church pew to pride parade.

Speaking about her son, Cunningham told A Good Good Thing, “He spent his whole life coming out to us, but when he turned 21 he said ‘Mom, I’ve met someone and I really need you to be OK with that.’ It was a conversation I tried to manipulate, I thought it was a phase throughout his life. We raised our children in a very conservative, evangelical church and we both spent a lot of time praying that gay away. So, when he took a stand as a gay man, I had to face the reality that my son is gay, and he faced his biggest fear, which was me at that time. I didn’t take the news very well. I said and did some things that I regret. I felt like I had to choose between my child and my faith because I had absorbed this idea that homosexuality and suicide, for example, were the ultimate offences, unforgivable acts by God.”

For Sara, her biggest hurdle was reconciling her desire to support her son with everything she had been taught growing up in the church.

Sara Cunningham

“I thought I was the only woman in the world wrestling between my faith and accepting my son’s sexual identity. So, I started writing about it and I wrote a book, How We Sleep at Night: A Mother’s Memoir, and about the same time that the book came out, I founded a private online Facebook group for moms with children on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. At that time there were 250 moms and we all had the same story of feeling alone, feeling like we didn’t know where to look for resources. We were alienated from our churches, from our homes, from many parts of society as we were trying to navigate to our acceptance and celebrating our children. Now there’s over 5,000 moms. We all have the same story, but now we have resources, faith-based resources.”

“We find out that we’re not alone,” Cunningham continues. “We got educated on the history of human sexuality, evidence, science, testimonies from LGBTQ+ Christians. I have to say, in my opinion, I believe as an evangelical conservative woman of faith, that I had been duped, duped to believe that my son chose this life. I don’t believe that it’s a choice. I don’t believe it’s a sin. But it took some research. It took re-examining everything that I believe.”

“I do believe that we have been duped as evangelical, mainstream conservatives. I’m a woman of faith. I now experience God to a much greater degree than I ever thought possible. On this side of the story, I experience humanity, for example, I can go to a drag show and I cry hot tears, this beautiful expression of human sexuality. Whereas before it, you know, I might have considered it to be perverted or offensive, but now I appreciate it and just celebrate it as a beautiful part of a dynamic of human sexuality that has just been oppressed for so long.”

Sara Cunningham’s Free Mom Hugs

The idea for Sara Cunningham’s non-profit Free Mom Hugs began at a pride parade in 2014, the first one she and her husband attended, where they listened to the stories of the community. The next year, she returned with a homemade badge saying ‘FREE MOM HUGS’ and the movement was born.

But the non-profit is not just about hugs, they also offer wide-reaching support for the community from financial assistance for medical and living expenses to helping trans youth with legal name changes. “We also educate,” Cunningham told A Good Good Thing, “we travel, we speak at churches, colleges, major corporations, just anything that will bring about awareness of what’s been happening.”

There’s also been some surprising requests…

“Through my advocacy, I started hearing from couples who had asked me to officiate their wedding. So, I got ordained and I started officiating weddings and that’s something that I had to search myself on, too. You know, I take it very seriously. I consider same gender marriage as holy. I started hearing from the community, parents who won’t acknowledge relationships or refuse to go to the weddings. So out of frustration, late at night, I went on a rant and I said, look, if your biological mom won’t come to your same-sex wedding, then you’ll call me. I’ll be there. I’ll even bring the bubbles.”

Sara Cunningham and Free Mom Hugs have been making headlines worldwide this past pride month, from a feature in Oprah’s O Magazine to an appearance on Rupaul Charles’ new chat show, plus Jamie Lee Curtis has bought the rights to Sara’s memoirs and plans are afoot to turn it into a movie titled How We Sleep at Night.

You can listen to this A Good Good Thing podcast episode in its entirely on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to listen your podcasts. You can find out more about Free Mom Hugs at the official website.

By Neil Thornton (A Good Good Thing podcast co-host)

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