Pride, support and free mom hugs
Sara Cunningham’s journey from conflicted mom of a gay son to passionate advocate for the LGBTQ community wasn’t exactly a cake walk.
When her son Parker came out to her in 2011, she wanted to know how to accept him while still holding on to her relationship with her church. In the end, she not only left her church and accepted her son, she became an ally for the community he called his own.
That first public embrace, a trip to the 2015 OKC Pride wearing a button that said “Free Mom Hugs,” felt right.
“If someone wanted a hug, I gave them one,” she says. “What I found was there were so many who hadn’t had a hug from their own mom or parents in years.”
By 2018, Cunningham had heard enough of those stories – so she decided to try to do something more. She posted this message to Facebook: “If you need a mom to attend your same-sex wedding your biological mom won’t. Call me. I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles.”
It quickly went viral. Moms in other states began to make the same offer.
“That’s what surprised me the most,” she says, “the reaction from people all over the world saying they were willing to stand in, too.”
Cunningham also started officiating weddings because so many LGBTQ couples have trouble finding clergy willing to do so. She’s performed more than a dozen marriage ceremonies, including Fernando Barron’s. He met Cunningham not long after he came out to his own family, who quickly rejected him. Sharing his story over pizza with Sara and her husband lifted his spirits.
“It meant everything to me,” Barron says. “In the church I grew up in, I wasn’t allowed to have friends with people outside the church. I was taught those were bad associations. But she started telling me her story, and she mentioned her son. It meant the world to me. I felt like I didn’t have a foundation or parental figure in my life.”
The simple idea of wearing a homemade button to an OKC Pride Day parade offering hugs has blossomed into a nonprofit with chapters in 50 states. Her story, captured in her book How We Sleep at Night: A Mother’s Memoir, caught the attention of actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who purchased the film rights. The script is currently in development.
Cunningham remembers the first time she heard from Curtis via Facebook, and didn’t believe it was the actress. Cunningham thought someone was catfishing her. But Curtis took a picture of herself, that clearly showed her in the present, and they were soon on the phone together.
“We had a wonderful visit and she immediately put me at ease,” Cunningham says. “She’s a very generous person who is committed to social change.”
Since that call, Curtis visited Cunningham in Oklahoma City, and Cunningham has visited the actress’ home in California.
“When she came here to Oklahoma, she spent time with my family, and I took her to where I work and showed her the schools where we went and our old church,” Cunningham says. “She loves architecture and was interested in that. We had a wonderful visit.”
Cunningham’s story has been told online and in numerous media outlets including People Magazine, The Washington Post and The New York Times, NBC News and “The Today Show.”
These days, Cunningham is grateful for the experience.
“There was a time when I thought I was the only mom in Oklahoma with a gay kid,” she says. “I realized I wasn’t alone – and I’m thankful for that.”