A parent’s love is in a class of its own — strong, unconditional, and the subject of countless books, poems, and films. Unfortunately, many people within the LGBTQ+ community struggle to find acceptance from their parents or immediate family members, which is exactly where Free Mom Hugs comes in. 

“It’s not Free Mom Hugs’ intention or mission to replace anyone’s mother. … We are always hopeful that the parent will come around,” founder Sara Cunningham told Nice News. “But until they do, we want to be that loving presence in the lives of those who need it the most.” 

Cunningham, 60, is uniquely familiar with this concept, as she was once an unaccepting parent to a gay child. Her son Parker spent much of his life trying to come out to his mom, but Cunningham (pictured below), embedded in a conservative Christian community, had a difficult time coming to terms with his sexuality. 

Courtesy of Free Mom Hugs

Finally, when Parker was 21 and in a serious relationship, the Oklahoma City resident began her journey toward not only acceptance, but celebration of her son. “I had to deconstruct my faith and then reconstruct it, I didn’t know where to look for resources. I was frozen in this fear and ignorance,” she admitted. 

Cunningham started small — she cited Oklahoma City’s 2014 Pride parade as her “first intentional interaction with the gay community.” She attended the event again the following year and wore a homemade button reading “Free Mom Hugs,” sowing the seeds of what would become a wide-reaching organization of the same name. 


Harmony Gerber/Getty Images

Her first hug went to a young woman who said it had been four years since she had gotten a hug from her own mother because she’s a lesbian. “I just pulled her in tight and I said, ‘Well, I’m a mom, and here’s a hug, and I’m not letting go until you do,’” Cunningham recalled. “And from that experience, we started the nonprofit.” 

It wouldn’t be for another three years, though, that Free Mom Hugs entered into the national conversation. Cunningham became an “accidental activist” when a Facebook post of hers went viral. “PSA. If you need a mom to attend your same sex wedding because your biological mom won’t. Call me. I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles,” the post read. 

Thousands of likes, shares, and comments later, Cunningham had people from around the country asking how they could replicate what she and a few other parents were doing in Oklahoma with Free Mom Hugs. “I didn’t even know what going viral meant, like, I Googled it,” she said. 

Today, the nonprofit has chapters in all 50 states and even some affiliated organizations overseas. Giving out hugs at pride parades is still their bread and butter, but the chapters also support their local LGBTQ+ communities in any way they can, from sending out cards and care packages to hosting second chance proms. Free Mom Hugs also organizes a National Pride Ride around Harvey Milk’s birthday in May and held its first conference in Oklahoma City in September, with Chasten Buttigieg (the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg) serving as a special guest and speaker.  


Meera Fox/Getty Images

As for Cunningham, she is still working on her relationship with Parker and still considers herself a woman of faith — in fact, she’s found that her belief system is even stronger now. “On this side of the story, my spiritual walk or my faith walk has just blossomed to where I see people as just people to be celebrated, and I don’t assume anything.” 

She also looks forward to giving and facilitating more mom hugs in the future. “We call that very first hug that a volunteer might give at the very first pride festival they attend ‘the spark.’ I think that’s the essence of humanity — when we acknowledge each other, it’s not only good for the hugger, but it’s good for the hug-ee.”

Help support Free Mom Hugs this Pride Month by donating to Nice News’ June Cause of the Month fundraiser. You can also click here to find a chapter near you and access the nonprofit’s resources.